Sunday, July 31, 2011

Review: Plum Gorgeous

Summary: Inside Plum Gorgeous, Romney "Nani" Steele follows her successful cookbook-memoir My Nepenthe with 60 seasonally inspired recipes that celebrate the "romance of fruit." Capturing the essence, beauty, and deliciousness of cooking with seasonal fruits, Steele offers simple and seductive recipes that intertwine with the seasons in which each fruit is harvested.

Savory recipes like Coriander Steak with Blackberry Vinaigrette and Kumquat Couscous Salad with Fried Haloumi Cheese are presented alongside sweet treats like Passionfruit Chocolate Truffles and Plum Soup with Basil Ice Cream. Interspersed throughout Plum Gorgeous are beautiful, full-color photographs by Sara Remington and reminiscences from the year that Steele spent living in an orchard in Big Sur, along with fruit lore and select notes on handling and preserving fruit.

In an accessible but imaginative way, Plum Gorgeous beautifully reveals the many layers and flavor profiles of fruit while celebrating the memories inspired by each season's beauty and bounty. -- Andrews McMeel

When I first opened the package containing the cookbook PLUM GORGEOUS: RECIPES AND MEMORIES FROM THE ORCHARD by Romney Steele, I was a bit confused. I initially thought it was an entire cookbook of plum recipes. I was surprised that there could be a cookbook this thick (about one inch) of just food made with plums. However, as soon as I started skimming through the book, I realized that this cookbook is full of recipes from orchard-grown fruits. I guess I missed that subtitle on the front cover!

The most immediate thing I noticed about PLUM GORGEOUS is that it is an absolutely beautiful cookbook. There are so many wonderful photographs scattered throughout this book, and everything looks so bright and fresh... and healthy. I love that most of the recipes had corresponding pictures, and even if there weren't photos of the finished recipe, there were usually artful photos of the ingredients. PLUM GORGEOUS is so darn pretty that you could keep it out as a coffee table book.

As far as the recipes go, the cookbook is divided into the following chapters: Oranges of Memory and Other Citrus, Still Life with Berries, Plum Gorgeous, and Beauty & Windfall. As you can see, there are a wide variety of recipes and some for each growing season. I found many of the recipes to be very interesting, but they also had some hard-to-find/unusual ingredients. I guess I'm just a simple girl at heart. However, there were quite a few that I'd love to try including the Meyer Lemon Curd, the Rhubarb Sorbet with Strawberries in Syrup, Cherry Clafoutis, and the Heirloom Tomatoes and Peaches with Burrata. I have a feeling that I would enjoy most of the recipes in this cookbook. The issue is that I want someone else to prepare the food for me!

In addition to all of the amazing photographs and recipes, this cookbook also includes a lot of the author's personal recollections. She mentions that she just couldn't write a traditional cookbook. She wanted to capture "the memories, dreams, places, and poetry that come with the journey." I think her personal touches to the cookbook made it extra-special for me.

I admit that there weren't a ton of recipes that I was dying to try. Not because they didn't look good, but rather they had some unusual ingredients or they were just a little more difficult than I normally attempt. So, I decided to make the Blackberry Polenta Muffins. I was drawn to this recipe because I love blackberries, but also because the ingredients were ones that I normally have on hand. In addition, the Blackberry Polenta Muffins seemed pretty healthy.

The recipes called for a combination of all-purpose and whole-wheat flour along with some cornmeal which gave it a nice little crunch. It also seemed like there wasn't too much sugar for twelve muffins -- only 2/3 cup of brown sugar. The recipe was extremely simple and in less than a half hour, I had some beautiful (and very yummy) muffins. And I loved that they were chock-ful of huge blackberries!

PLUM GORGEOUS is just that... a plum gorgeous cookbook. I recommend this cookbook for individuals who love cooking with fresh and unique ingredients.

Thanks to the publisher for sending a copy of this beautiful 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, July 30, 2011

Kid Konnection: DK Books

Every Saturday, I host a feature called Kid Konnection -- a regular weekend feature about anything related to children's books. This week, I'm going to share with you a few fun, yet educational books by DK Publishing.

Summary: The most trusted nonfiction series on the market, Eyewitness Books provide an in depth, comprehensive look at their subjects with a unique integration of words and pictures. *Now reissued with a CD and wall chart! 

Eyewitness: Medieval Life gives the reader an in-depth look at life from the end of the Dark Ages to the Renaissance in the 15th century, in both the town and the country, and for the peasants as well as the aristocracy. Featuring artifacts, costumes, furniture, and historical illustrations, Medieval Life is a unique and compelling introduction to the people and culture of the Middle Ages. -- DK Publishing

Summary: The most trusted nonfiction series on the market, Eyewitness Books provide an in depth, comprehensive look at their subjects with a unique integration of words and pictures. *Now reissued with a CD and wall chart! 

Previously published as Eyewitness: Flying Machine, Eyewitness: Flight is a spectacular and informative guide to the fascinating world of aircraft. Superb color photographs offer a unique "eyewitness" exploration of the history of flight, and provide a close-up view of the many different types of aircraft in use today, how to keep an airplane flying straight and level, and more. -- DK Publishing

MEDIEVAL LIFE and FLIGHT are two wonderful books in the Eyewitness Books series. If you aren't familiar with the Eyewitness Books series, you definitely need to check them out. They are fantastic for kids who want to learn (and probably for those who aren't quite as excited!) As far as I'm concerned, Eyewitness Books are the go-to children's books for education and school research projects. They are filled with tons of illustrations and photographs, and they have loads of facts and figures which are guaranteed to keep kids' attention. I really can't rave enough about these books.

MEDIEVAL LIFE features life in medieval Europe from a country manor to the streets of a town, while FLIGHT focuses on all of the different machines that man has created to soar through the skies. Both books are interesting in their own right. I'm not entirely sure that most kids can sit down and read the entire way through these books although I know a few that might do just that. Rather, since these books are almost like mini-encyclopedias about specific subjects, I think they are best appreciated in bits and pieces.

Booking Son is a little young for these books since they are aimed at ages eight and up; however, he did enjoy looking at the various pictures and photographs. He isn't quite ready to read this many words per page yet, so we decided to read just some of the captions for the pictures. He seemed to love all the interesting trivia. As a mom, I appreciate that the Eyewitness Books appeal to kids of all ages (even adults!); and I like that they grow with the reader. I have a feeling that every time a child picks up one of these books, he or she will learn something new.

I was excited to see an added bonus to MEDIEVAL LIFE and FLIGHT. Both books have clip-art CDs encased in the front cover as well as a removable poster in the back of the book. I know I would have loved these features as a kid (of course, I didn't even know what clip-art or computers even were!)

I think DK Eyewitness Books are sure to be a hit with kids and parents alike! Highly recommended!

Summary: The 3D series combines DK's classic reference approach with cutting edge augmented reality technology to create an incredible interactive experience! 

Lighthearted, enticing, and fun, the text in each book is packed with information to give a comprehensive overview of the subject. But there's more! Spread throughout the book are special activating boxes that indicate the presence of digital pop outs that when held up to a webcam attached to your PC, feature amazing 3D digital animation on the screen! Using the magic of augmented reality, these animations are superimposed on a live image of the book and its actual surroundings, making it appear as if they're really in the room with you-a miracle of modern technology that has to be seen to be believed.

3D Dinosaur is filled with incredible 3D dinosaur animations that literally leap right off the page!

The text is packed with information to give a comprehensive overview of the fiercest creatures that ever lived and the world they inhabited, while the digital pop outs that emerge onscreen illustrate and expand on the ideas presented. As the reader marvels at the fearsome jaws and snarling reconstructions, they'll learn about the anatomy, diet, and behavior of dinosaurs and how paleontologists piece together the past. -- DK Publishing

Summary: The 3D series combines DK's classic reference approach with cutting edge augmented reality technology to create an incredible interactive experience!

Lighthearted, enticing, and fun, the text in each book is packed with information to give a comprehensive overview of the subject. But there's more! Spread throughout the book are special activating boxes that indicate the presence of digital pop outs that when held up to a webcam attached to your PC, feature amazing 3D digital animation on the screen! Using the magic of augmented reality, these animations are superimposed on a live image of the book and its actual surroundings, making it appear as if they're really in the room with you-a miracle of modern technology that has to be seen to be believed.

Discover the world of the human body, recreated with incredible augmented reality animations!

3D Human is filled with incredible 3D body animations that literally leap right off the page! Through the magic of augmented reality technology, you can see jumping skeletons, beating hearts, and other body systems come to life on the screen of your PC, appearing to be right in the room with you. -- DK Publishing

I also received another fantastic set of DK books called 3-D DINOSAUR and 3-D HUMAN BODY. Booking Son as immediately drawn to the dinosaur book, while Booking Daughter and I grabbed the human body one. Like the Eyewitness Book series, these 3-D books are also filled with amazing photography and loads of facts; and the benefits that I mentioned above also hold true for these books. However, instead of including a CD and poster, 3-D DINOSAUR and 3-D HUMAN BODY have 3-D animations incorporated into a few pages of the book!

To view the animations, you must download software from your computer. When you find the Augmented Reality (AR) spreads, you hold the book up to your computer's webcam. The AR animation will come to life and appear on the computer screen. You can also manipulate the animation by holding you hand over the numbered "trigger boxes." For example, you can see how the heart works in 3-D animation. Isn't that incredible?

I love how these Eyewitness and 3-D books make learning so much fun! Fortunately, there are many other books in both of these series. I can't wait to check them out with my kids!

Thanks to Media Masters Publicity for sending 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, July 29, 2011

Review: Don't Kill the Birthday Girl

Summary:  A beautifully written and darkly funny journey through the world of the allergic.

Like twelve million other Americans, Sandra Beasley suffers from food allergies. Her allergies—severe and lifelong—include dairy, egg, soy, beef, shrimp, pine nuts, cucumbers, cantaloupe, honeydew, mango, macadamias, pistachios, cashews, swordfish, and mustard. Add to that mold, dust, grass and tree pollen, cigarette smoke, dogs, rabbits, horses, and wool, and it’s no wonder Sandra felt she had to live her life as “Allergy Girl.” When butter is deadly and eggs can make your throat swell shut, cupcakes and other treats of childhood are out of the question—and so Sandra’s mother used to warn guests against a toxic, frosting-tinged kiss with “Don’t kill the birthday girl!”

It may seem that such a person is “not really designed to survive,” as one blunt nutritionist declared while visiting Sandra’s fourth-grade class. But Sandra has not only survived, she’s thrived—now an essayist, editor, and award-winning poet, she has learned to navigate a world in which danger can lurk in an unassuming corn chip. Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl is her story.

With candor, wit, and a journalist’s curiosity, Sandra draws on her own experiences while covering the scientific, cultural, and sociological terrain of allergies. She explains exactly what an allergy is, describes surviving a family reunion in heart-of-Texas beef country with her vegetarian sister, delves into how being allergic has affected her romantic relationships, exposes the dark side of Benadryl, explains how parents can work with schools to protect their allergic children, and details how people with allergies should advocate for themselves in a restaurant.

A compelling mix of memoir, cultural history, and science, Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl is mandatory reading for the millions of families navigating the world of allergies—and a not-to-be-missed literary treat for the rest of us. -- Crown

If you follow my blog much over the past few years, you probably already know that my almost seven year-old son has life-threatening food allergies. He's allergic to eggs, dairy, peanuts, tree nuts, and shellfish; and needless to say, it's a pretty major part of my family's life. So many of the things we used to take for granted like eating in restaurants, attending (or hosting) birthday parties, traveling away from home, going to school, soccer, karate, etc. take on an entirely new meaning when you have to think about food and potential contact with allergens.

But before I go any further, I want to stress that I hope this post doesn't come across as me complaining about my son's condition because that couldn't be further from the truth. Every single day, I thank God that all of the members of my family are healthy. While food allergies can be extremely serious, I do feel as if we have some control over my son's health. We just do what we have to do to keep him safe. Not all families have that option or are that lucky.

Now, back to my review....

When I learned that there was a new book out called DON'T KILL THE BIRTHDAY GIRL: TALES FROM AN ALLERGIC LIFE by Sandra Beasley, of course I wanted to read it. Ms. Beasley is a woman who has been living with horrific, life-threatening food allergies for her entire life. Needless to say, I was very anxious to read it for a number of reasons. First of all, I had heard that her memoir was a very insightful (yet funny!) look into what it is like living with food allergies. Secondly, I was hoping to learn a thing or two about food allergies and potential treatments/cures. In addition, I thought I might learn a few things about how to help my son navigate a world filled potential life-threatening foods. And finally, I was excited that a book like this might educate some people about the severity of food allergies and allow an open discussion about food allergies in our society. So, I guess you could say I had pretty high expectations for this little book!

In many ways, DON'T KILL THE BIRTHDAY GIRL accomplished those things. I loved the first few chapters where Ms. Beasley described her allergies and how they affected her life. I could relate to so much of what she said, and I totally got how hard it is to explain the severity of food allergies to a "normal" person. Lord knows, we have our share of close calls at parties when people hand him food not understanding that even a small taste could mean a trip to the Emergency Room. In addition, I appreciated her quick and dirty lesson about the history of food allergies -- some of the possible reasons why food allergies are growing at an ever-increasing rate. I even learned a thing or two about the ongoing studies that a few universities are conducting. So I would definitely say that this book was worth reading, both for people who are dealing with food allergies on a regular basis and for those who might just come across someone with food allergies whether it be through their job, as they travel, or when they have over a guest to their house.

While I hesitate to say that I enjoyed this novel (because of the subject matter), I do commend Ms. Beasley for writing such an honest and heartfelt account of her situation. I am thrilled that this book has generated so much press and discussion about food allergies, and I will be forever grateful to Ms. Beasley for getting this information "out there." I appreciated that she tried to maintain a sense of humor (or maybe I should say perspective?) about her condition, and I did see that there are other ways to handle food allergies than the philosophy that I currently adhere to.

I was surprised to learn that there is a reading guide for DON'T KILL THE BIRTHDAY GIRL; however, I'd love to think that people will be talking about this book. The questions are pretty interesting and I admit that I'd love to hear what people think, not only about this book, but about food allergies in general. Some of the topics you might want to explore include how (or if) food allergies affect your life and whether restaurants or other places have an obligation to accommodate people with special dietary needs.

I definitely found DON'T KILL THE BIRTHDAY GIRL interesting and I do recommend it. While I did have a few issues with some of the author's messages, I think Ms. Beasley wrote a very honest and eye-opening book and I'm very grateful to her for bringing the issues of food allergies to light.

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

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Agatha Christie Contest

As many of you already know, I participating in the Cool Down with Agatha Christie readalong that's running all summer long. I love that I've had the chance to read and discuss some terrific Agatha Christie mysteries, and I can't believe how much I'm enjoying them. I hope you'll find the time to join us in the final month of our readalong.

In the meantime, I wanted to share with you a new contest that is going on over at the Agatha Christie official website where you can win a set of Agatha Christie books.

Here's the scoop:

To celebrate HarperCollins reissuing of Christie’s complete title list in the US, we’re offering TEN Christie fans the chance to win the first TEN novels to be released.  

These new trade paperback editions are completely repackaged with beautiful new covers and series information noted on the front, spine, and back of the books so readers always know what to read next. All of the books are the authentic editions from the UK texts, with Christie’s novels and stories as she originally wrote them. The first set of books is available in bookstores now and many more will be released throughout 2011.

To enter this incredible giveaway just register to receive the US Christie newsletter, or if you're already registered with the site, select to receive the US newsletter in your profile settings, it’s that simple! Not only do you get the chance to win TEN beautiful books, you’ll also get the latest Christie news and insights delivered straight to your inbox every month - it’s what’s known as a WIN-WIN!

Existing US newsletter subscribers will receive automatic entry to the giveaway. Full details and entry information can be found here:

So why don't you Cool Down with Agatha Christie this summer and enter this fantastic giveaway?

Review: State of Wonder

Summary: Ann Patchett has dazzled readers with her award-winning books, including The Magician's Assistant and the New York Times bestselling Bel Canto. Now she raises the bar with State of Wonder, a provocative and ambitious novel set deep in the Amazon jungle. 

Dr. Marina Singh, a research scientist with a Minnesota pharmaceutical company, is sent to Brazil to track down her former mentor, Dr. Annick Swenson, who seems to have all but disappeared in the Amazon while working on what is destined to be an extremely valuable new drug, the development of which has already cost the company a fortune. Nothing about Marina's assignment is easy: not only does no one know where Dr. Swenson is, but the last person who was sent to find her, Marina's research partner Anders Eckman, died before he could complete his mission. Plagued by trepidation, Marina embarks on an odyssey into the insect-infested jungle in hopes of finding her former mentor as well as answers to several troubling questions about her friend's death, the state of her company's future, and her own past. 

Once found, Dr. Swenson, now in her seventies, is as ruthless and uncompromising as she ever was back in the days of Grand Rounds at Johns Hopkins. With a combination of science and subterfuge, she dominates her research team and the natives she is studying with the force of an imperial ruler. But while she is as threatening as anything the jungle has to offer, the greatest sacrifices to be made are the ones Dr. Swenson asks of herself, and will ultimately ask of Marina, who finds she may still be unable to live up to her teacher's expectations. 

In a narrative replete with poison arrows, devouring snakes, and a neighboring tribe of cannibals, State of Wonder is a world unto itself, where unlikely beauty stands beside unimaginable loss. It is a tale that leads the reader into the very heart of darkness, and then shows us what lies on the other side. -- Harper

After seeing such amazing reviews for STATE OF WONDER by Ann Patchett, there was little doubt in my mind that I would be reading it. I've read a few of Ms. Patchett's novels and I've always been blown away by her writing; and it certainly seems like her latest novel lives up to expectations. So I decided to curl up on very hot afternoon and escape to the Amazon!

Unfortunately (or fortunately depending on how you look at it!), STATE OF WONDER was not an afternoon read for me. Despite being familiar with Ms. Patchett's writing, it was a bit heavier (and longer) than I was expecting and it took me quite a few days to finish it. I found that I jumped right in and read the first third (or so) pretty quickly; and the last third, I absolutely devoured. But the middle of the story just seemed to drag a little bit for me. I'm not entirely sure that it wasn't my issue with the book, but I have talked to a few other bloggers who had a similar reaction.

Despite my slight criticism of this novel (and honestly, who am I to criticize anything that Ms. Patchett writes?), I thought STATE OF WONDER was a pretty amazing novel. It definitely had a little something for everyone because it included action, adventure, romance and mystery. And added to all of that was Ms. Patchett's gorgeous prose and incredible character development. For the most part, I was riveted to the story; and I was even on the edge of my seat for a few scenes. Of course, all of the surprises and story twists didn't hurt either.

While STATE OF WONDER was a very entertaining read, I actually found that I appreciated how much this novel made me think. (Maybe it's just me, but right now, I'm loving every book that causes me to think outside of the story.) I enjoyed how this book explored the complexity of relationships and especially love. In addition, I was wowed by how interesting the cast of characters was in this story -- namely Dr. Swenson and Marina's characters. However, I think the ethical and moral questions in this story are what really gave me the most food for thought. As I read this novel, I couldn't help put consider the ethics of scientists and drug companies as well as the sacrifices they make in the name of science. And this idea of sacrifices (both good and bad) as well as the characters' behavior in the jungle further highlighted some basic components of human nature.

You can probably assume by now that I'd think that STATE OF WONDER would make an amazing book club discussion, and you'd be right. There is a reading guide available with sixteen very thought-provoking questions. Some of the topics you might want to explore include the effects of the past on the present, relationships, friendships, sacrifice, ethics, civilization, culture, and science. In addition, there are many symbols woven into this story which are ripe for discussion. As much as I did enjoy reading STATE OF WONDER, I do believe that my reading experience would be enhanced with a discussion amongst friends. I have a feeling that I'd end up appreciating this novel even more over a glass of wine and some good analysis!

I have to agree with most every review that I've read for STATE OF WONDER that it's a gripping and fascinating story. I highly recommend this novel!

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

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Review: Best Kept Secret

Summary: Cadence didn't sit down one night and decide that downing two bottles of wine was a brilliant idea.

Her drinking snuck up on her - as a way to sleep, to help her relax after a long day, to relieve some of the stress of the painful divorce that's left her struggling to make ends meet with her five-year old son, Charlie.

It wasn't always like this. Just a few years ago, Cadence seemed to have it all—a successful husband, an adorable son, and a promising career as a freelance journalist. But with the demise of her marriage, her carefully constructed life begins to spiral out of control. Suddenly she is all alone trying to juggle the demands of work and motherhood.

Logically, Cadence knows that she is drinking too much, and every day begins with renewed promises to herself that she will stop. But within a few hours, driven by something she doesn't understand, she is reaching for the bottle - even when it means not playing with her son because she is too tired, or dropping him off at preschool late, again. And even when one calamitous night it means leaving him alone to pick up more wine at the grocery store. It's only when her ex-husband shows up at her door to take Charlie away that Cadence realizes her best kept secret has been discovered….

Heartbreaking, haunting, and ultimately life-affirming,
Best Kept Secret is more than just the story of Cadence—it's a story of how the secrets we hold closest are the ones that can most tear us apart. -- Washington Square Press

There is no doubt that I received some wonderful books at this year's BEA, but my absolutely favorite so far just might be BEST KEPT SECRET by Amy Hatvany. I briefly read the description when I was handed the book and thought it looked good, but I admit that it went into my huge pile of books... until, I read S. Krishna's Books' tweets about how wonderful the book was. Since we have pretty similar taste in most books, I decided to drop everything and pick up BEST KEPT SECRET. And I just have to say "WOW!"  This is one book that definitely blew me away!

Does this ever happen to you? You love a book so much and you're just bubbling over with excitement for it, but you have a hard time telling your friends the reasons why. That's pretty much the case for BEST KEPT SECRET; and as a result, I'm afraid my review is going to fall short. Obviously, I loved this book -- from the character development, to the writing, to how it made me see alcohol addiction --  but I'm having a difficult time articulating why. Honestly, I just want to say "Read this novel" and "Pick it for your book club." But I feel as if I should at least try to highlight some of the reasons that this book impressed me so much.

First of all, I found the writing in this novel to be so good! It affected me like few novels do. In fact, I cried a number of times while reading this story, and I don't often cry when reading books that don't involve animals. My heart just broke over and over again for both Cadence and her son. And I think one of the reasons for my emotions was that Cadence was so real to me. While she was most definitely flawed, I could see parts of her in myself and my friends; and as a result, I think this book hit close to home for me. That's not to say that either myself or any of my friends have addiction issues! But what I am trying to say is that BEST KEPT SECRET made me realize that addiction could happen to someone I know; and it doesn't make them some horrible person.

I think that Ms. Hatvany's choice to tell this story in Cadence's voice really was very effective. Because I had the chance to really get to know Cadence and therefore realize how much she loved her child, I know I was more compassionate to her plight. As I read this novel, I felt that she really would fight to stay sober for her child. Had the book been written in Cadence's husband's voice or even third person, I'm sure I would have been more critical of Cadence and her ability to properly care for her son. But the author chose to write this story through the eye's of an alcoholic who also happens to be a mother, and her voice was so incredibly authentic. In fact, the entire time that I read this novel that Ms. Hatvany had, at the very least, experienced some of what Cadence went through. (And if you read Ms. Hatvany's story, you'll see why so much of this book rang true.)

Another reason that this book affected me so much is because I learned a few things while reading it -- and I totally wasn't expecting to have the reaction I did. When I picked up BEST KEPT SECRET, I was assuming that I would hate Cadence for allowing herself to drink too much and put her son at risk. I mean, how could a mom do that to someone she claims to love? And while I was angry at Cadence for some of her actions, I still found that I liked her and I was totally rooting for her to battle her addiction. And, here's the big one, I kind of wanted her to get custody of her son after she went through rehab! Now that was a huge surprise for me because I'm not usually the most compassionate and forgiving person.

BEST KEPT SECRET actually changed the way I see alcohol addiction, and Cadence's story brought so many complex issues to the forefront. Nothing in this novel is cut and dry -- that's for sure, especially Cadence's addiction and her parenting skills. It goes without saying that I never want to see a child at risk because of the parent's actions; however, I also believe that people can change and that we need to forgive. But if I'm being totally honest, would I want my children to live with a recovering alcoholic? I just don't know. What made BEST KEPT SECRET so very special to me is that it made me think and feel so much. And even though some time has passed since I read this novel, Cadence and her story are still in my thoughts.

BEST KEPT SECRET is one of the best discussion books that I've read in recent memory. Maybe it's just me, but I think Cadence is incredibly fascinating and I'd love to talk about her with some friends. She's so complex and, of course, she's majorly flawed as a woman and a mother because of her alcohol addiction. Personally, I was surprised by my feelings toward Cadence; and I have a feeling that many of my friends might feel differently. And as you know, whenever this is a chance for differing opinions, it always has the potential to make for a more interesting discussion! There is a fantastic reading guide available with some thought-provoking questions. Some of the topics you might want to explore include parent/child relationships, divorce, custody arrangements, choices, forgiveness, redemption, and the big one -- addiction.

I wish I could give each and every one of you a copy of this book because I found it to be an extremely powerful read. It's one of those books that I just can't get out of my mind. And to me, that's a sign of an excellent book!

Thanks to the publisher for providing a copy of this novel.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Review: Love Story & Giveaway

Summary: For Erin Blackwell, majoring in creative writing at the New York City college of her dreams is more than a chance to fulfill her ambitions—it's her ticket away from the tragic memories that shadow her family's racehorse farm in Kentucky. But when she refuses to major in business and take over the farm herself someday, her grandmother gives Erin's college tuition and promised inheritance to their maddeningly handsome stable boy, Hunter Allen. Now Erin has to win an internship and work late nights at a local coffee shop to make her own dreams a reality. She should despise Hunter . . . so why does he sneak into her thoughts as the hero of her latest writing assignment? 

Then, on the day she's sharing that assignment with her class, Hunter walks in. He's joining her class. And after he reads about himself in her story, her private fantasies about him must be painfully clear. She only hopes to persuade him not to reveal her secret to everyone else. But Hunter devises his own creative revenge, writing sexy stories that drive the whole class wild with curiosity and fill Erin's heart with longing. Now she's not just imagining what might have been. She's writing a whole new ending for her romance with Hunter . . . except this story could come true. -- MTV Books

I'm not usually attracted to romance novels or love stories, but I was drawn to LOVE STORY by Jennifer Echols because the premise sounded so unique. I loved the idea that the characters were using their college writing assignments to share their innermost thoughts rather than just saying them to each other; and I figured that this setup would probably provide a lot of entertainment as well as some good old fashioned sexual tension.

And to a certain extent, LOVE STORY did all of that. It was a well-written, entertaining story and the characters did have their fair share of chemistry. However, I have to admit that I didn't love this book -- it was just okay. I can't put my finger on the exact reason (or reasons) why, but I just wasn't able to connect to this book like I had hoped. Of course, it is aimed at young adults and I'm definitely not one of those anymore. It's possible that I'm just too far removed from college and young love to appreciate this story.

And while I recognize that I don't have to be able to relate to the characters or the story to appreciate a book, I definitely think it affected my ability to enjoy this novel. I just didn't "get" the main characters Erin and Hunter. Neither one was despicable or anything as obvious as that, but I didn't find myself caring that much about either one of them. And because this was a "love story," I wanted to love the characters and I wanted to find myself rooting for them to end up together. Unfortunately, that just didn't happen for me while reading this novel.

Another slight issue I had with LOVE STORY was the ending. It was kind of abrupt and I was left wanting for more. I just felt as if the ending was a bit of a let down for me and it even felt a bit rushed as compared to the pace of the novel. I'm not sure that all of the issues in the novel were resolved, but I guess you could say that real life is like that. Things aren't necessarily always tied up neatly with a big bow on top!

Having said all of this, I want to stress that I do think many young readers will enjoy this book and possibly connect with the characters. I also want to give credit to Ms. Echols for her writing style. I think she has some major talent and I wouldn't hesitate to give another one of her books a try. There is no doubt that the premise behind LOVE STORY is wonderful and incredibly unique... and I definitely appreciated that. In addition, I loved all of the humor and emotion that she placed in the story.

While LOVE STORY wasn't my favorite read of the year, I do believe many teens will absolutely adore this novel and its characters. I especially think teens who appreciate love stories and romance will find this book to be a treat.

Thanks to Big Honcho Media and the publisher for sending me a copy of this book.

Giveaway alert: I have two copies of LOVE STORY to share with two Booking Mama readers. To enter, just fill out the form below before August 8th at 11:59 p.m. ET. I will randomly select and notify the winners the following day. This contest is open to those of you with U.S. addresses only. Good luck!

Monday, July 25, 2011

Review: The Darling Dahlias and the Naked Ladies

Summary: Rumors are sprouting in Depression-era Darling, Alabama. The town's newest visitors, Nona Jean Jamison and Miss Lake, may be the Naughty and Nice Sisters from the Ziegfeld Frolic, who specialize in dancing nearly naked.

The Dahlias suspect more than modesty when Nona denies her association. They'll have to dig through clues to get to the root of the mystery... -- Berkley Prime Crime

For quite a few years now, I've been a fan of the China Bayles mystery series by Susan Wittig Albert. So when I heard that she had a new series that takes place in Alabama during the Depression era, I was immediately interested in checking out these books. Since I was a bit late to the game, I started with the second book THE DARLING DAHLIAS AND THE NAKED LADIES. Let me just tell you that I will definitely be going back and reading the first novel in the series THE DARLING DAHLIAS AND THE CUCUMBER TREE and I will be anxiously awaiting each new release in this charming series.

THE DARLING DAHLIAS AND THE NAKED LADIES features a terrific mix of ladies who have one thing in common -- they all belong to the garden club in their hometown of Darling, Alabama. Unfortunately for them (or fortunately for the reader), Darling happens to have its fair share of crime. In NAKED LADIES, the small town finds itself in a tizzy when two strange women come to take care of an aging lady. When one of the Dahlias recognizes the women as being naked dancers from the Ziegfeld Frolic, rumors start flying. It's up to the women of the Darling Dahlias to figure out the truth behind these women's secrets!

I just found THE DARLING DAHLIAS AND THE NAKED LADIES to be so much fun. While I would definitely classify this book as a cozy, it had a very different feel to it. First of all, the mysteries in this story weren't necessarily about a specific murder or group of murders. Rather the main mystery in the book was about the identity of these two women and why they were in Darling. There were also some great side stories that I really enjoyed -- one was another mystery of sorts from the past and the other had to do with a character's issues with her mother. I found myself reading this book in just two sittings and I thought it was just delightful!

Fans of China Bayles' mysteries will like that the Darling Dahlias books still have a great deal of references to plants and gardening. Since I have whatever-the-opposite of a green thumb is, I probably don't appreciate all of the flower references as much as some readers do; however, I did love all of the references to Southern food and cooking. In addition, I enjoyed reading the helpful house cleaning tips that the women came up with for a newspaper article. As an extra bonus, Ms. Albert included quite a few recipes and household tips in the back of the book!

One thing that really stood out to me about NAKED LADIES was the book's setting. While Darling is a fictional town in Alabama, Ms. Albert definitely brings it to life. I could picture Darling perfectly and I loved the cast of characters which seemed to fit this small town. I also appreciated how the author provided so many specifics about the 1930s. There were some wonderful details about the food, the fashion, the "technology", etc.; and I liked how showed how individuals were affected by the stock market crash. I absolutely loved the feel of this novel and I can't remember reading any other mysteries that took place during this time period!

There is an adorable website devoted to the series. It complements the books perfectly! There is a section for Southern Cookin' filled with loads of traditional southern recipes. In addition, there are sections with Historical Tidbits (coming soon), Maps, How-To Tips, and even a section where Elizabeth's Garden Gate columns are republished. Too cute -- just like the book!

I'm not sure THE DARLING DAHLIAS AND THE NAKED LADIES would be my first choice for a book club pick, but I do think many clubs would enjoy discussing it. I was able to locate a reading guide for the first book THE DARLING DAHLIAS AND THE CUCUMBER TREE so I'm assuming that there will be one available for NAKED LADIES on the series' website in the very near future. Some of the topics you might want to explore include the setting of the story, the Great Depression, friendships, gossip/rumors, secrets, and character development. Plus, the recipes in the back of the book would certainly provide some great ideas for a themed meeting!

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

Mystery Mondays is a "somewhat" regular feature where I review all types of mystery books -- traditional mysteries, suspense/thrillers, and even cozies! Please feel free to share your thoughts on any recent mystery books that you've read.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Review: The Food Allergy Cookbook

Summary: More than 11 million Americans are currently living with food allergies. The Food Allergy Cookbook is for those millions who like to have fun with food, enjoy cooking and playing in the kitchen, and want relief from the limited cuisine offered by most allergy–free cookbooks. Here is a user–friendly book that contains 101 tried and true recipes for those suffering from food allergies, including appetizers, breads, soups, entrees, desserts, and a selection of delicious holiday meals. Each recipe is easy to prepare, with readily available ingredients, and full of flavor.

In addition to tasty, every–day recipes—from white bean artichoke dip, cinnamon rolls, and cream of mushroom soup to chicken pot pie, cranberry apple sauce, and amaretto fudge brownies—Carmel Nelson and Amra Ibrisimovic provide full–course meal plans for family holidays and social gatherings, including the perfect allergy–free turkey dinner! With personal anecdotes, tips for the kitchen, shopping lists, guidance on reading food labels, and helpful resources, The Food Allergy Cookbook is the essential book for anyone living with or cooking for someone with food allergies. -- Skyhorse Publishing

When I was contacted about reviewing THE FOOD ALLERGY COOKBOOK: A GUIDE TO LIVING WITH ALLERGIES AND ENTERTAINING WITH HEALTHY, DELICIOUS MEALS by Carmel Nelson and Amra Ibrisimovic, I jumped at the chance! Many of you already know that Booking Son has quite a few food allergies, some of which are life-threatening; and finding foods that he enjoys and that are safe can be a bit of a challenge. So I am always on the lookout for cookbooks written especially for families with food allergies.

THE FOOD ALLERGY COOKBOOK is a fantastic resource for those of you looking for recipes that fit an allergy-friendly lifestyle. Both of the authors of the cookbook share their personal stories at the beginning of the book, and I think many readers will relate. In addition, there is a section on Kitchen Tips which explains food labels as well as common allergens. One of the most helpful things in this section is the listing of alternative names for each allergen. For example, dairy can also be identified in foods as casein, lactose, lactoglobulin, and many more. Needless to say, you have to be on your toes when reading ingredient lists.

There is also a chapter titled "Traveling with Food Allergies" which I found helpful. I try to keep things as normal as possible for our family, but I've found that, outside of Disney World, traveling is a very difficult thing for us to do. The authors provide a list of chain restaurants that have begun catering to special/alternative diets including Olive Garden, Wendy's, and Boston Market. And they also offer some travel options including Disney World (which I can vouch for!) as well as cruises.

While there is some great information in the first few chapters, I was definitely ready to check out the recipes. There are over 100 recipes in this cookbook and I found many of them to look delicious. And, most of them weren't any more complex than "normal" recipes! The recipes are for appetizers, breads, soups, entrees, and desserts and exclude many common allergens including dairy, gluten, soy, corn, shellfish, and nuts.

Although quite a few of the recipes were perfect for Booking Son's food restrictions, I did find that many recipes included eggs as an ingredient. I just had to skim right past these recipes since Booking Son is allergic to eggs. In addition, the recipes leave out gluten, soy and corn which he can tolerate. However, I did like that the authors provided some alternative options where I could use ingredients such as any "flour mixture."

The recipes in THE FOOD ALLERGY COOKBOOK are divided into the following chapters: Holiday Menus -- Winter Holiday, Thanksgiving, Spring Holiday; Soups; Appetizers; Salads and Side Dishes; Entrees; and Pastries and Desserts. I especially appreciated some of the alternative recipes for traditional foods such as Pumpkin Pie (it uses coconut milk for the dairy -- yum!) I think the Entrees Section is probably the most useful for our family since that's what I find myself cooking the most.

Despite not having to worry about gluten (thank goodness), I do think the recipes in this cookbook are ideal for those people on a gluten-free diet. I found many of the options to be fantastic. There were recipes for flat bread, pies, cinnamon rolls, stuffing, muffins, and crepes.

If you are one of (or know one of) the 11 million Americans who have food allergies, then I highly recommend taking a look at this very useful cookbook. THE FOOD ALLERGY COOKBOOK is a wonderful resource for those of us looking for allergy-free recipes or additional information on food allergies.

Thanks to the publisher for sending 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, July 23, 2011

Kid Konnection: Middle School - The Worst Years of My Life

Every Saturday, I host a feature called Kid Konnection -- a regular weekend feature about anything related to children's books. This week, I'm going to share with you a very fun middle grade book about... what else? The horrors of middle school!

Summary: Rafe Khatchadorian has enough problems at home without throwing his first year of middle school into the mix. Luckily, he's got an ace plan for the best year ever, if only he can pull it off: With his best friend Leonardo the Silent awarding him points, Rafe tries to break every rule in his school's oppressive Code of Conduct. Chewing gum in class-5,000 points! Running in the hallway-10,000 points! Pulling the fire alarm-50,000 points! But when Rafe's game starts to catch up with him, he'll have to decide if winning is all that matters, or if he's finally ready to face the rules, bullies, and truths he's been avoiding.

Blockbuster author James Patterson delivers a genuinely hilarious-and surprisingly poignant-story of a wildly imaginative, one-of-kind kid that you won't soon forget. -- Little Brown

When I heard that the very successful author James Patterson had written the first book in a new middle grade graphic novel series called MIDDLE SCHOOL: THE WORST YEARS OF MY LIFE, I admit that my curiosity was piqued. (In all fairness, the book cannot be entirely credited to Mr. Patterson. It's also written by Chris Tebbetts and illustrated by Laura Park.) First of all, Booking Daughter just completed her first year of middle school and I thought she might relate to the book. But most importantly, I wanted to read MIDDLE SCHOOL because I believe that graphic novels are a great way to get kids reading and I wanted to see what Mr. Patterson had to offer.

Many of you probably know this already, but Mr. Patterson is is a huge proponent on the importance of getting kids to read. So much so that he created, a website devoted to helping parents, teachers, and kids find books that kids are guaranteed to "gobble up!" I absolutely adore this website and have found it to be a valuable resource for finding books for kids of all ages.

Anyway, back to my thoughts about the book... I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed MIDDLE SCHOOL: THE WORSE YEARS OF MY LIFE. It had all of the elements which will make it a great book for early middle grade readers. It was very, very funny and had great illustrations, but it also touched upon some very relevant issues that middle school kids face. I think middle school is a complicated time with loads of life changes; and I think MIDDLE SCHOOL will help many kids realize that they aren't alone.

Rafe is just a fantastic character and I absolutely loved him; however, I also found that my heart just broke for him over and over again. Rafe is not only starting a new middle school (and if you remember middle school at all, I'm sure you remember how scary it was!), but he also feels like he's doing it all alone. He doesn't have any real friends and he immediately experiences some bullying. Rafe's also not the best student and he's bored by all of the school rules. In addition, his home life isn't exactly optimal. He has a mom who works two jobs to support the family; and as a result, doesn't have a lot of time to spend with Rafe and his sister. And he has a future step-dad who is a mean, lazy bum.

So to make things interesting, Rafe and his only "friend" Leo decide to create a game to make school more interesting. The problem is that Rafe earns points in the game by breaking all of the rules and ultimately getting punished. When Rafe realizes that his fun and games might lead to more serious consequences, he is forced to evaluate his behavior along with some other major issues that he's been avoiding.

MIDDLE SCHOOL is just a treat with all of it's adorable sketches. It's cute and funny and I have no doubt that kids will relate (at least in part) to Rafe. While most kids aren't in the same situation as Rafe, they will find that they do have many things in common with him. For example, Rafe shows kids that it's normal to have insecure feelings about girls, school, and friends. And he also shows that kids aren't alone with having parent, teacher, and step-parent problems. While Rafe turned his insecurities into negative behavior, he ultimately learned some very important messages. And that's what I hope kids will take away from this story -- that there are positive ways to deal with things and life is never hopeless.

There is a fun interactive website devoted to MIDDLE SCHOOL that I think kids (and parents) will appreciate. You can get an idea of the creative illustrations that appear in the book as well as some information on the characters. You can also download the first 20 chapters for free! There are also lots of activities including a comic creator, a sound effects board, and a place to share your worst middle grade story. And when you are there, make sure you check out the Bully Button because Little Brown Young Readers is making a donation to Stomp Out Bullying for every click. I just love how this website complements the book and I have a feeling that even the most reluctant readers will be drawn to this story and the supplemental material.

One of my favorite things about this book is that it has a fantastic educator's guide. The guide includes curriculum connections for English/language arts, math, art and social studies. In addition, there is also a section for thematic connections which covers topics including family relationships, making choices, motivation, adversity, and bullying. In addition to these questions, there is a ten question discussion guide. Some of the questions that most stood out to me deal with ethical considerations such as lying, teacher/student relations, and Rafe's confrontations. Not only is the book excellent for use in the classroom, but it is also a great pick for tween book clubs.

I thoroughly enjoyed MIDDLE SCHOOL: THE WORST YEARS OF MY LIFE. I highly recommend it to young middle-grade readers and especially those reluctant ones!

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

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, July 22, 2011

Book Club Exchange: Eileen Clymer Schwab & Giveaway

I'd like to welcome author Eileen Clymer Schwab to Book Club Exchange, a feature on Booking Mama which highlights anything and everything book club-related! I have been a fan of Eileen's every since I read her debut novel PROMISE BRIDGE -- you can read my review here.  In addition, I was fortunate enough to meet Eileen at my favorite bookstore Aaron's Books last fall. It was evident to everyone there that she is passionate about her subject matter and a very special person.

Eileen's second book SHADOW OF A QUARTER MOON is now available. I haven't had a chance to finish it yet (summer vacation plans got in the way), but I hope to have my review posted within the next week or so. If it's anything like PROMISE BRIDGE, then I know I'm in for a treat.

Since Eileen's first novel definitely lends itself to discussion (and I'm sure her second one will too), I specifically asked her to write a guest post for Book Club Exchange. There is no doubt that Eileen is one author who truly appreciates book clubs.

Say the words “book club” around any author, and I guarantee the author will smile. We share a passion for books and a love of literary adventure. The life force of every novel begins with the author and is graciously carried on by its readers. This means that once a book is released into the world, we are forever joined by its journey and I wonder if you truly understand the power you have in shifting its course.

One of the great perks of a book club (besides the good company and good wine!) is that reading tastes vary from member to member. This allows for a varied selection of books and often leads readers to discover authors in genres outside their norm. My current novel, SHADOW OF A QUARTER MOON, is set in the pre-Civil War South, therefore it is categorized as historical fiction. Does this mean that someone who prefers mystery and suspense, or romance, or chick lit will not enjoy the book? My answer is… a reader can love a book of any genre, because when all is said and done… it’s all about the story.

In truth, it’s about the characters too. I love writing about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, and though the premise and setting of my novel makes it “historical”, there are elements of suspense, intrigue, and romance in the layered plot and characters. I think any good novel balances these elements to some degree, regardless of the genre, and while we as readers get comfortable in the feel and style of certain categories, we shouldn’t lose our sense of adventure. That’s the magic of book clubs. We spread our wings and are swept away to places we’ve never been. Sharing the experience with other book club members adds to the depth and dimension of the journey.

Whenever possible, I love attending book club events. After countless solitary hours in front of a keyboard, the thrill of talking with readers is energizing. I love being a part of the conversation. During discussions, I frequently hear the comment, “This isn’t the kind of book I usually buy, but once I started reading it, I couldn’t put it down.” These are very kind and gratefully received words that exhilarate me as an author, but even more so are the words, “I recommended it to my friend in another club.”

And so the journey continues. In the precarious world of publishing, new and mid-list authors are given very little push. Word of mouth is our best friend. Believe me, having a reader tell another reader that they stayed up past midnight or were late getting to work because they were so engrossed in a novel is the greatest recommendation an author can receive. Positive posts and blogs add to the momentum. This is why I say that we are forever joined in the book’s journey. There is no greater vehicle for a good novel than the praise of a happy book club.

So when I get a note of thanks from a book club, I am quick to say that it is we, the authors, who are thankful. Thank you for reading… thank you for sharing… thank you for being our advocates. And above all, thank you for sharing our journey.


Long intrigued by the transitional period just before the Civil War, Eileen Clymer Schwab found inspiration in the courage of those who fought for freedom, and in the spirit of joined purpose among those who provided aid during their journey. She resides with her family in northeastern Pennsylvania.

A huge thanks to Eileen for writing this wonderful guest post.

Giveaway  alert: Eileen has graciously offered to provide an autographed copy of SHADOW OF A QUARTER MOON for one lucky reader. To enter, just fill out the form below before Friday, August 4th at 11:59 p.m. ET. I will randomly select and notify the winner the following day. Contest is open to those of you with U.S. addresses only. Good luck!

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Cool Down with AC - Murder on the Orient Express Discussion

Summary: Just after midnight, the famous Orient Express is stopped in its tracks by a snowdrift. By morning, the millionaire Samuel Edward Ratchett lies dead in his compartment, stabbed a dozen times, his door locked from the inside. One of his fellow passengers must be the murderer. 

Isolated by the storm, detective Hercule Poirot must find the killer among a dozen of the dead man's enemies, before the murderer decides to strike again. -- Harper

It's time again for another Cool Down with Agatha Christie readalong! This week, I am hosting a discussion of MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS by Agatha Christie. I first read this book when I was just a tween (and I don't even think that term was coined yet!) While I remembered that I enjoyed the novel, I didn't remember much about it. In fact, I didn't even remember who was responsible for the murder! So when I picked up MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS a few days ago, it was kind of like reading it for the first time.

It goes without saying that MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS is one of the most well-known mysteries of all time. It has been made into a radio show, a graphic novel, and a PC game; and there were also many film versions of the story  -- most recently on PBS starring David Suchet. There is definitely a reason for this popularity. MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS is just an outstanding mystery. I know I enjoyed the story the first time I read it, but I'm not sure I appreciated just how good this book (and Agatha Christie) was until now.

I'm curious to hear what you all think of MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS, but first, I'd like to share a few of my thoughts. I think what personally amazed me the most about this novel was how caught up I became in the story. (I'm having a hard time articulating my thoughts about this, though!) I think the draw of these books is Ms. Christie's storytelling abilities. Often times when I read a mystery, I don't even try to figure out the whodunit or the why behind the murder -- I just sit back and read to enjoy. However, when I read a book by Ms. Christie (and especially MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS), I am constantly trying to solve the mystery -- and of course, I never do! I have thought about this quite a bit, and I think what I've discovered is that Ms. Christie does an amazing job of pulling me in with her detective characters. I find that I hang on Mr. Poirot's every word! Is is just me?

Another thing that I was impressed by in MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS was the character development. I think much thought and discussion could be generated around the various characters and their actions. All of them were certainly suspects, and they were also very complex and very interesting -- and much deeper than they first appeared. I was especially impressed with how all of the characters were tied to the crime. I'm guessing that Ms. Christie must have had some very detailed background notes about each of her characters!

Finally, I was surprised by the amount of social commentary in the novel. I definitely wasn't expecting that! I found many interesting (and discussion worthy) topics within the pages of MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS -- and they went way beyond just murder. Some of the deeper issues that I found interesting were the differences in social classes and how they were portrayed in the story, the preconceived notions about certain ethnicities (aka prejudices), the definition of justice, and certain ethical and moral implications. I admit that I was blown away by the many serious (and still relevant) issues this book brought to light.

Prior to writing this review and coming up with some discussion questions, I learned a few things about MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS which I found interesting. First of all, it was published in 1934 -- that's 77 years ago! Based on how much I enjoyed the story, I'd have to say that it definitely stands the test of time. And while I did find some of the characters' comments to be very stereotypical (and even a bit prejudiced), I still thought this story and the presentation of the mystery to be rather relevant. Secondly, Ms. Christie was inspired by her own trips on the Orient Express. On one trip in 1931, Ms. Christie was actually stranded by bad weather conditions. And lastly, Ms. Christie wrote this story shortly after the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby. I think it's pretty apparent to any reader even somewhat familiar with this story that the plight of the Lindbergh family inspired Ms. Christie's character development.

Now it's your turn. You can answer as many or as few of these questions as you like. Or, you can bring up some ideas of your own!

1) Once again, Agatha Christie managed to shock me with all of the twists and turns in this novel. Not only was I surprised by whodunit, but I was also shocked with how the story ended. Were you surprised by the outcome? What did you think about the "choice" that was made at the book's end?

2) A friend of mine mentioned that she didn't think this novel was exactly "politically correct" by today's standards. Did you have a similar reaction to some of the characters' statements about their train companions? Do you think an author could "get away" with comments like that today?

3) I was happy to find that MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS still had some humor despite being a bit dark in places. Were there any characters that you found to be comedic?

4) What, if anything, do you think MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS said about society's morals? Were there any ideas about the concept of law and justice?

Five participants in today's discussion have the opportunity to win a "cool" Agatha Christie prize pack including a copy of my next readalong book THE A.B.C. MURDERS and a surprise AC gift! So remember, when you leave your comment, please leave an email address!

In addition, I will be giving away three additional copies of THE A.B.C MURDERS for those of you who are interested in participating in the discussion on August 18th. Just fill out the form below before July 28th. I will randomly select and notify the winners the following day. You don't have to have a blog to participate in the readalong!

Thanks to the publisher for providing a copy of this novel.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Guest Review: The Whites of Their Eyes

Summary: Paul Lockhart combines military and political history to offer a major reassessment of one of the most famous battles in American history. 

One hot June afternoon in 1775, on the gentle slopes of a hill near Boston, Massachusetts, a small band of ordinary Americans—frightened but fiercely determined—dared to stand up to a superior British force. The clash would be immortalized as the Battle of Bunker Hill: the first real engagement of the American Revolution and one of the most famous battles in our history. But Bunker Hill was not the battle that we have been taught to believe it was. 

Revisiting old evidence and drawing on new research, historian Paul Lockhart, author of The Drillmaster of Valley Forge, shows that Bunker Hill was a clumsy engagement pitting one inexperienced army against another. Lockhart tells the rest of the story, too: how a mob of armed civilians became America's first army; how George Washington set aside his comfortable patrician life to take command of the veterans of Bunker Hill; and how the forgotten heroes of 1775—though overshadowed by the more famous Founding Fathers—kept the notion of American liberty alive, and thus made independence possible. -- Harper

My father truly enjoys books about history. Me... not so much. Much to my father's (and husband's) dismay, I tend to get my history lessons from historical fiction! So I just knew when I saw THE WHITES OF THEIR EYES: BUNKER HILL, THE FIRST AMERICAN ARMY, AND THE EMERGENCY OF GEORGE WASHINGTON by Paul Lockhart that Booking Pap Pap would want to read it. Here are his thoughts:

The only thing I remember from my grade school days about the Battle of Bunker Hill is that it was the first serious engagement of the Revolutionary War. I couldn’t even remember who won the battle! Author Paul Lockhart certainly clarifies those issues and many others in his historical account THE WHITES OF THEIR EYES. Actually the battle occurred at Breed’s Hill, not Bunker Hill, as a result of the American militia setting up for battle on the wrong hill. The British did finally win the battle but at a tremendous human cost. The June 1775 battle decided nothing and the British abandoned Boston just nine months later.

Lockhart debunks the myth that the British army was an experienced, well trained but incompetent army and the American militia was made up of free-thinking sharpshooting frontiersman. He shows that the British were trained and aware of American military abilities but short of actual battle experience. The Americans on the other hand were a mob of armed civilians, mainly inexperienced New England farmers. It is also interesting that a significant number of African-Americans and Native Americans were represented in the American ranks.  Lockhart utilizes vivid detail in describing the battle of these two inexperienced forces and shows that the confrontation was not a gentlemanly encounter but a brutal bloody battle.

Crowds of people larger than the forces doing battle observed the affair as if they were watching a play. Many of the officers on each side were very familiar with one another. British general Gage and the American general Ward fought side by side in the French and Indian War.

However, Bunker Hill was not the site of the first bloodshed of the American-British conflict. That actually occurred in April, 1775 when the British marched on Lexington and Concord to disrupt the center of colonial malcontents and arrest agitators like John Hancock and Samuel Adams. These confrontations led to the Battle of Bunker Hill.

Lockhart brings the novel to life with his detailed descriptions of the American and British military leaders, the political climate at the time in England and America and the awful conditions that the American and British forces lived in. He also lays out for the reader the actions of the Continental Congress, the naming of George Washington as the first commander of the Continental Army and the transition of the army from mainly the New England one that fought at Bunker Hill to one that represented all thirteen colonies.

THE WHITES OF THEIR EYES is a very interesting, well written historical account of the events and people at the beginning of the Revolutionary War. It’s a must read for anyone who has interest in American history.

Thanks to my dad for a great review and thanks to the publisher for sending a review copy of this book.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Review: Silver Girl

Summary: Meredith Martin Delinn just lost everything: her friends, her homes, her social standing - because her husband Freddy cheated rich investors out of billions of dollars.

Desperate and facing homelessness, Meredith receives a call from her old best friend, Constance Flute. Connie's had recent worries of her own, and the two depart for a summer on Nantucket in an attempt to heal. But the island can't offer complete escape, and they're plagued by new and old troubles alike. When Connie's brother Toby - Meredith's high school boyfriend - arrives, Meredith must reconcile the differences between the life she is leading and the life she could have had.

Set against the backdrop of a Nantucket summer, Elin Hilderbrand delivers a suspenseful story of the power of friendship, the pull of love, and the beauty of forgiveness. -- Reagan Arthur

It's now becoming a summer tradition for me to read an Elin Hilderbrand novel. Her books just scream summer beach/pool reading. The latest one of hers that I devoured while sitting with the kids at the swimming pool was SILVER GIRL. This novel definitely encompassed everything I've come to know and love about Ms. Hilderbrand's novels.

I have to tell you that I wasn't exactly expecting to love SILVER GIRL. I had recently read a just "okay" review in one of my go-to sources for book recommendations so I was a bit concerned that it wouldn't be as enjoyable as some of her other books. Had I not already been a big fan of Ms Hilderbrand's, then I might not have picked it up; however, that would have been a big mistake on my part. I enjoyed SILVER GIRL a great deal and it might even be one of my favorite Elin Hilderbrand books. (Of course, it is a Reagan Arthur book... and you know how I love that imprint!)

SILVER GIRL tells the story of two long-time friends, Meredith and Connie, who have been estranged for the past few years. When Meredith's husband goes to jail for cheating his investors out of billions of dollars (think Bernie Madoff), Meredith doesn't know where to turn -- she's broke, homeless, and hated by the public. Fortunately for her, Connie offers for Meredith to join her for the summer at her Nantucket beach house. Both women are reeling from events in their lives -- both present and past ones -- and they find that their friendship is certainly put to the test.

I was actually surprised by how much I liked SILVER GIRL, and I know I was in the mood for this type of book so you could say that I read it at the perfect time. I love how Ms. Hilderbrand sets her books at the beach and she always does a fantastic job of describing the beauty and tranquility of the small beach towns. SILVER GIRL was no exception -- I am dying to head to the beach for a relaxing vacation!

In addition to the gorgeous setting, I also really liked the characters of Meredith and Connie. Neither woman was perfect and totally likable, but rather, they were very human -- and with that comes a lot of flaws. I think I loved them, though, because they were so genuine to me; and I know it helped that these two women grew so much through the course of the story. Both women had experienced so much pain and loss in their lives and I guess since it didn't kill them, it made them stronger. I loved how they eventually were able to heal -- both personally as well as with their friendship, and it was so rewarding when the each realized what was important in their lives.

While many people tend to think of Elin Hilderbrand's books as beach reads (myself included), SILVER GIRLS actually dealt with some pretty heavy issues. Of course, the events in Meredith's life weren't exactly realistic for most of us -- she was beyond wealthy and then lost it all, she did experience some things that many women will understand. For example, her husband kept secrets from her, she didn't have contact with her sons, she had a falling out with her best friend, she was still hurting from a lost love, she felt as if everyone hated her, etc. In addition, I found Connie's issues to be very serious. She has lost her husband to cancer at a fairly young age, she was estranged from her daughter, and she had a bad relationship with alcohol. As I read this novel, I could actually relate to both of these women and feel their pain.

Like all of Elin Hilderbrand's novels, SILVER GIRL primarily deals with female relationships. I especially enjoyed how this book explored friendship and marriage. However, SILVER GIRL was also entertaining because it had a little intrigue too. There were a few different mini-mysteries in the novel (like where all of the money went and who was vandalizing Connie's beach house) that kept things interesting. In addition, there was definitely some sexiness and humor in the story to help even out all of the pain that Meredith and Connie were experiencing!

SILVER GIRL is absolutely ideal for a summer book club read. There is a reading guide available with nine thought-provoking questions. Some of the topics that you might explore include loss, grief, guilt, lost love, embarrassment, addiction, friendship, marriage, new beginnings, parent/child relationships, and forgiveness. SILVER GIRL also lends itself to a very fun meeting with beach-themed decorations as well as drinks and food!

If you are looking for a great beach book, but one that also deals with some serious issues, then I highly recommend SILVER GIRL.

Thanks to the publisher for providing a copy of this novel.

Note: SILVER GIRL counts toward the Reagan Arthur Books Challenge that I am co-hosting with Kathy/Bermudaonion. It's a very fun stress-free challenge and it's not too late to join!

Monday, July 18, 2011

Review: Crunch Time

Summary: Caterer and sleuth extraordinaire Goldy Schulz returns in another tasty and suspenseful adventure from New York Times bestselling author Diane Mott Davidson

Colorado caterer Goldy Schulz cooks up big trouble as she tries to help her longtime friend and fellow chef Yolanda Garcia. When the rental house shared by Yolanda and her irrepressible aunt Ferdinanda is destroyed by arson, the pair move in with cop-turned-PI Ernest McLeod. But then Ernest is shot dead and his house is set on fire, nearly killing Goldy, Yolanda, Ferdinanda, and nine beagle puppies that Ernest had recently rescued from a puppy mill.

Concerned for her friends, Goldy invites them to stay with her while the sheriff’s department investigates. Yet even Goldy’s house isn’t safe, and after a failed break-in by an unknown intruder a cop is sent to keep an eye on things. Then a second body is found.

Swapping her chef’s hat for a sleuthing cap, the intrepid Goldy steps up the investigation. But she’s got to move fast. It’s crunch time to close in on a killer, before he can close in on her.

Filled with danger as well as laughs, wonderful food, and scrumptious recipes, Crunch Time is a delicious indulgence sure to satisfy all of Goldy’s fans. -- William Morrow

Way back when, I was a huge fan of Diane Mott Davidson's Goldy Schulz mystery series. I loved the characters and the mystery, and the descriptions of the food and recipes didn't hurt either. It's been a few years since I've picked up a book in this series, but I thought with my Mystery Monday feature, I should revisit these books. The latest Goldy novel is CRUNCH TIME: A NOVEL OF SUSPENSE, and I'm happy to say that this novel encompassed everything good that I remember about this series.

This might sound strange but I was shocked when I first picked up CRUNCH TIME -- it was pretty heavy for a mystery. In fact, it came in at over 470 pages. It's not that I minded the book's length because I do love Goldy (and there were quite a few recipes included!) It's just that I wasn't expecting for this type of mystery to be quite so long. I won't go so far as to say that it was too long for me, but I did find myself losing interest a little bit in the middle. I think I've just gotten used to reading mysteries like this in one or two sittings, and that wasn't the case for CRUNCH TIME.

In CRUNCH TIME, Goldy once again finds herself helping a friend. This time, it's her employee Yolanda who ends up homeless after her last two residences go up in flames. Yolanda and her aunt (who happens to be a piece of work) move in with Goldy, and Goldy's family finds that they are now at risk because of their visitors. Goldy, with the help of her friends and police investigator husband, set out to solve the murder mysteries and bring some semblance of normalcy back to their lives.

I found CRUNCH TIME to be a very enjoyable mystery. Of course, I love Goldy and her family and friends, but I also appreciated that this novel had a little bit of something for everyone. There was murder and mystery, some complicated twists, and lots of suspects. And I admit that I had no idea whodunnit or why. In addition, there was enough about Goldy's personal life (and her especially her relationship with her husband) to make things interesting. In fact, I was quite surprised with how this book ended and I can't wait to see where the next book picks up as far as Goldy's marriage goes. Lastly, there were lots of references to food and drink; and I challenge any food lover not to drool over some of Goldy's (and Ferdinanda's) concoctions.

And it wouldn't be a Goldy book without some awesome recipes. I swear I was hungry the entire time I read this book (except for the yucky murder parts!) CRUNCH TIME included ten recipes and some looked terrific. I especially liked the ones for Crunch Time Cookies (an oatmeal, chocolate chip, Heath bar cookie), Tex-Mex Ham and Cheese Casserole, and Ferdinanda's Florentine Quiche. I have never tried any of Diane Mott Davidson's recipes, but I'm sure they would be delicious.

I think fans of the Goldy Schulz series, as well as anyone who loves a good foodie mystery, will enjoy CRUNCH TIME. I definitely recommend this novel... and the rest of the series!

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

Mystery Mondays is a "somewhat" regular feature where I review all types of mystery books -- traditional mysteries, suspense/thrillers, and even cozies! Please feel free to share your thoughts on any recent mystery books that you've read.