Sunday, September 30, 2012

Review: Bake it in a Cupcake

Summary: Bake It in a Cupcake takes the cupcake craze to the next level with 50 recipes for all kinds of sweet and savory treats baked inside cupcakes. These whimsical creations are presented in a bright, colorful format that looks as good as the cupcakes taste. All of Bake It in a Cupcake's creations are mouthwatering and fairly simple to make, even for those without baking experience. 

The fabulous recipes are accompanied by easy-to-follow, step-by-step instructions, with beautiful color photographs. While traditional cupcakes are still wildly popular, Bake It in a Cupcake takes the classic treat beyond complicated decorating techniques. As the saying goes, it's what's on the inside that counts. The recipes are organized by chapter by what is inside, whether that's another baked good like a mini pie or lemon square, or different kinds of your favorite candy. Recipes include Lemon Bar Vanilla Cupcakes with Fresh Raspberry Frosting, Cherry Pie Dark Chocolate Cupcakes with Vanilla Bean Frosting, Pumpkin Pie Cupcakes with Cinnamon Cream Cheese Frosting, Chocolate-Covered Pretzel Brownie Bites with Salted Caramel Frosting, and Egg-Filled Croissant Cups with Swiss Cheese and Chives. There is something in this cookbook for everyone's taste, kid and adult alike. -- Andrews McMeel

There is absolutely no doubt about it. BAKE IT IN A CUPCAKE: 50 TREATS WITH A SURPRISE INSIDE by Megan Seling is a very unique cookbook. The basic idea behind BAKE IT IN A CUPCAKE is that everyone can create cupcakes filled with fun surprises. And I don't just mean cream or fruit filled centers. These recipes include such interesting fillings as macaroons, pies, candy bars, cheesecakes, breakfast cereal, and even baklava!

I couldn't get over how cute BAKE IT IN A CUPCAKE was -- so many great ideas. Of course, the cover alone basically guarantees that this cookbook is full of gorgeous color photographs; and I can assure you that all of the creations are positively beautiful, both inside and out. One of the recipes that I thought was the prettiest was for the "tie-dyed" cupcakes filled with pixie sticks.

Believe it or not, BAKE IT IN A CUPCAKE was inspired by a discounted aisle of Easter candy. The author decided to try baking a Cadbury Creme Egg in the center of a cupcake. She even used a cake mix and container of frosting. Not only did her recipe work, but her friends were raving about it! She has been blogging about her recipes at so make sure you check out some of her latest treats. (Hint: Toblerone Cupcakes!)

BAKE IT IN A CUPCAKE begins with some general baking tips and recommended tools for your kitchen. And then the fun begins! The recipe sections of the book are divided into the following chapters: Baked Goods in a Cupcake; Strawberries, Pineapple, Figs, Oh Yum!; Breakfast of Champions; I Want Candy!; Savory Treats; and Seasonal and Holiday Favorites. The author also includes some advice about building your own "bake it in a cupcake" creations.

I admit my first reaction to this cookbook was just how original it was; and then came my reality check. Some of these recipes are kind of labor intensive. For example, I loved the idea of baking cupcakes filled with pies and even baklava; however, I quickly realized that I would have to actually bake the mini pies and baklava first! All kidding aside, the author does give some shortcut options like using pre-packaged pie crust and even buying ready-made small fruit pies. I guess my overall reaction is that many of these cupcake recipes aren't for kids (or at least my kids) because they wouldn't appreciate the time I spent making them. However, I do think they are the perfect dessert to serve to my book club friends. No doubt they are a conversation starter!

I did find myself marking quite a few recipes to try. As much as I love desserts, I ended up buying ingredients for a cupcake that wasn't sweet. The first recipe I tried was part of the savory chapter, and it's called Brie-Stuffed Apricot Cornmeal Muffins. This recipe screamed out to me for two main reasons -- brie and dried apricots (yes, please!) and it was extremely simple. These cupcakes only took a few minutes to prepare, and I thought they were delicious! I enjoyed one hot from the oven and I also thought they made a good breakfast the next morning with a cup of hot coffee.

I already have plans to make another recipe from the savory chapter -- Egg-Filled Croissant Cups with Swiss Cheese and Chives. This recipe allows you to cheat with premade crescent roll dough, so right off the bat, it's a little easier. There are only a few ingredients and I think they look adorable, not to mention delicious. I'm thinking of serving them for breakfast or at a brunch!

I would be remiss if I didn't mention how many adorable dessert cupcakes are in this book too. Some of the ones that made my shortlist include: Snickerdoodle Chocolate Cupcakes with Hot Chocolate Frosting, Cheesecake-Filled Spiced Pumpkin Cupcakes with Nutella Frosting, Cinnamon Roll Vanilla Cupcakes with Vanilla Bea Glaze, and The Elvis: Peanut Butter-Banana Cupcakes! Is your mouth watering yet?

Overall, I loved BAKE IT IN A CUPCAKE for its originality as well as the delicious recipes. It's definitely a cookbook worth checking out!

Thanks to the publisher for providing a review 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, September 29, 2012

Kid Konnection: The Time-Traveling Fashionista at the Palace of Marie Antoinette

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 the second book in a series that I've come to adore!

Summary: What if a beautiful dress could take you back in time?

Louise Lambert's best friend's thirteenth birthday party is fast approaching, so of course the most important question on her mind is, "What am I going to wear?!" Slipping on an exquisite robin's egg blue gown during another visit to the mysterious Traveling Fashionista Vintage Sale, Louise finds herself back in time once again, swept up in the glory of palace life, fancy parties, and enormous hair as a member of the court of France's most infamous queen, Marie Antoinette.

But between cute commoner boys and glamorous trips to Paris, life in the palace isn't all cake and couture. Can Louise keep her cool-and her head!-as she races against the clock to get home? -- Poppy Books

Last year, I reviewed THE TIME-TRAVELING FASHIONISTA (later titled THE TIME-TRAVELING FASHIONISTA ON BOARD THE TITANIC by Bianca Turetsky, and I absolutely loved it. This novel is geared towards tween girls and is part historical fiction, part time travel, and part fashion notebook. It is exactly the type of book I would have loved as a young girl.

Needless to say, I was extremely happy to see that the second book in this series THE TIME-TRAVELING FASHIONISTA AT THE PALACE OF MARIE ANTOINETTE (from now on to be known as TTTFATPOMA) was released earlier this month. Although my expectations were high based on how much I loved the first novel, I was not disappointed. In fact, in many ways, I enjoyed this book even more than the first one.

In TTTFATPOMA, Louise learns that the law firm her father works for is downsizing, and her dad is without his high-paying job. As if that's not bad enough, Louise's parents inform her that she can no longer go on the class trip with her French class to Paris. While Louise is feeling a little sorry for herself, she still manages to find some happiness in her love of vintage clothes. When she is once again invited to a Traveling Fashionista Vintage Sale, she hopes discover the perfect dress for her best friend's 13th birthday party. She finds a gorgeous blue gown (note the cover!), and when she tries it on, she is once again transported to another world. She awakes to find that she does indeed get to visit France -- only it's a gorgeous palace and she's part of Marie Antoinette's royal court in eighteen century France!

There are just so many things about TTTFATPOMA that make is a fun book for tween girls. First and foremost, I think the character of Louise is terrific. Girls (and especially Booking Daughter) can relate to Louise -- she is younger than her friends, less developed physically, has frizzy hair, dresses differently from everyone else, and still keeps her Barbie collection hidden in her closet! She is also worried about fitting in at school and she has to deal with crushes on boys. However, Louise also has the opportunity to live out her dreams in many ways. She gets to travel to exotic locations like the Titanic and Versailles, learn about the fashions of different time periods, and maybe even have the opportunity to change history!

Another great thing about TTTFATPOMA is that it has the most gorgeous drawings and descriptions of clothes. Sandra Suy is a fashion illustrator whose illustrations appear throughout the novel. I love her artwork -- it's just stunning! She has created the most beautiful dresses -- both present-day as well as during Marie Antoinette's time! The colorful pictures combined with all of the fashion terminology and names of designers is sure to capture any young fashionista's heart!

I also love that TTTFATPOMA is entertaining but also very educational. It's like historical fiction for the pre-teen crowd. Because Louise is studying Marie Antoinette and the French Revolution at school, the author manages to incorporate just enough history into the story to get readers intrigued. I also appreciate the Ms. Turetsky tied Louise's family's situation to the plight of the common people because it gave Louise some sympathy and compassion for them.

As a mom, I was so glad to see that the author included some educational resources in the back of the book for those readers who want to learn more. There is a timeline of Marie Antoinette's brief life as well as a list of books, movies and websites that will provide additional material about eighteenth-century France. On a personal note, Booking Daughter started asking me questions about Marie Antoinette and France when she was reading this novel; and she became very interested in the events surrounding the French Revolution!

And last but not least, I was impressed by how the author has left things open for future books. I don't want to give away any spoilers, but I can say that there were some unexpected turns as well as some major twists that will be sure to make the next book very interesting. I can't wait to see where Louise goes next and whom she will meet.

Overall, I am a huge fan of THE TIME-TRAVELING FASHIONISTA series and I highly recommend it to tween girls... and their moms!

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

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, September 28, 2012

Guest Review: The Good Son

Summary: FRANK SINATRA FAWNED OVER HIM. WARREN ZEVON WROTE A TRIBUTE SONG. Sylvester Stallone produced his life story as a movie of the week. In the 1980s, Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini wasn’t merely the lightweight champ. An adoring public considered him a national hero, the real Rocky.

From the mobbed-up steel city of Youngstown, Ohio, Mancini was cast as the savior of a sport: a righteous kid in a corrupt game, symbolically potent and demographically perfect, the last white ethnic. He fought for those left behind in busted-out mill towns across America. But most of all, he fought for his father. Lenny Mancini—the original Boom Boom, as he was called—had been a lightweight contender himself. But the elder Mancini’s dream ended on a battlefield in November 1944, when fragments from a German mortar shell nearly killed him. Almost four decades later, Ray promised to win the title his father could not. What came of that vow was a feel-good fable for network television.

But it all came apart November 13, 1982, in a brutal battle at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. Mancini’s obscure Korean challenger, Duk Koo Kim, went down in the 14th round and never regained consciousness. Three months later, Kim’s despondent mother took her own life. The deaths would haunt Ray and ruin his carefully crafted image, suddenly transforming boxing’s All-American Boy into a pariah.

Now, thirty years after that nationally televised bout, Mark Kriegel finally uncovers the story’s full dimensions. In tracking the Mancini and Kim families across generations, Kriegel exacts confessions and excavates mysteries—from the killing of Mancini’s brother to the fate of Kim’s son. In scenes both brutal and tender, the narrative moves from Youngstown to New York, Vegas to Seoul, Reno to Hollywood, where the inevitably romantic idea of a fighter comes up against reality.

With the vivid style and deep reporting that have earned him renown as a biographer, Kriegel has written a fast-paced epic. The Good Son is an intimate history, a saga of fathers and fighters, loss and redemption. -- Free Press

I actually spotted THE GOOD SON: THE LIFE OF RAY "BOOM BOOM " MANCINI by Mark Kriegel in a discard pile in the shipping room at this year's BEA. I immediately grabbed it because I knew that either my dad or I would want to read this book. As a child, I have vivid memories of watching Mancini with my father, and I considered him one of my favorite boxers. I even recall being devastated from the tragedy that took Duk Koo Kim's life.

Needless to say, I knew Booking Pap Pap would get to this book before I could so I decided to give it to him to read first. Thankfully, he also agreed to review it! Here are his thoughts:

I’ve always enjoyed reading a good book about sports and THE GOOD SON, THE LIFE OF “BOOM BOOM” MANCINI by Mark Kriegel didn’t disappoint. It’s a story about the life of a good kid from an economically depressed town who wants to win a boxing championship for his father.

Ray Mancini was born in Youngstown, Ohio, a depressed rust belt town run by the mob.  Ray’s father, Lenny “Boom Boom” Mancini was a boxer who lost his opportunity for a title fight when he was seriously wounded in World War II.  Ray, a good student and outstanding athlete, assumed his father’s nickname “Boom Boom” and entered the corrupt world of professional boxing in 1979 at age 18.  Three years later he became the World Boxing Association lightweight champion of the world.

Mancini not only was a hero in his home town but became a favorite throughout the country.  Because of his background, popularity and his fighting style, he was seen as the savior of boxing.  He made the cover of Sports Illustrated, was friends with movie stars, had a tribute song written about him and had a movie produced about his life. 

The dream came crashing down on November 13, 1982 in a brutal title defense against Korean contender, Duk Koo Kim.  Kim was knocked unconscious in the fourteenth round and died a few days later.  The death haunted Mancini the rest of his career, tarnished his image and changed boxing forever.  In 1984 he lost the WBA title and at the age of 24 retired from boxing. 

No longer an American hero, Mancini’s life now followed the story line of so many other defeated boxers – failed comeback attempts, a failed marriage, Hollywood dreams and a constant search for the lost  adulation. 

THE GOOD SON is more than a book about boxing.  Author Mark Kriegel gives the reader a detailed picture of the environment Mancini grew up in, tells about the corrupt side of boxing and shares stories about the family lives of Mancini and Kim that make them very real people to the reader.  Kriegel also does an excellent job of describing the action before, during and after the fights, but the strength of his book is in telling the father-son story. 

THE GOOD SON is an excellent book for sports fans but would also be of interest to anyone who enjoys a good story about a father-son relationship. 

Thank to Booking Pap Pap for his review of THE GOOD SON. I received a copy of this book at the 2012 BEA.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Review: The Lighthouse Road

Summary: Against the wilds of sea and wood, a young immigrant woman settles into life outside Duluth in the 1890s, still shocked at finding herself alone in a new country, abandoned and adrift. In the early 1920s, her son, now grown, falls in love with the one woman he shouldn’t and uses his best skills to build them their own small ark to escape. But their pasts travel with them, threatening to capsize even their fragile hope. In this triumphant new novel, Peter Geye has crafted another deeply moving tale of a misbegotten family shaped by the rough landscape where they live at the mercy of wildlife and weather—and by the rough edges of their own breaking hearts. -- Unbridled Books

A few years ago, I reviewed SAFE FROM THE SEA by Peter Geye and was extremely impressed with the novel, especially Mr. Geye's prose. The book received a lot of great press and Mr Geye established himself as a serious writer. Needless to say, I was looking forward to reading more of his novels and I was excited to discover that his latest book THE LIGHTHOUSE ROAD is now available. It didn't come as any surprise to me that critics are once again raving about about Mr. Geye's writing.

THE LIGHTHOUSE ROAD begins in Minnesota in the late 1890s when a young woman who has immigrated from Norway finds that she's basically all alone and pregnant. The novel then moves ahead about twenty years or so, when this woman's son Odd is now an adult and trying to create his own way in life. He falls for an older woman, one with a complicated past; and Odd decides that it's best if they can escape this small town. He builds a boat and they set out on a difficult journey to begin their new lives. Unfortunately, that's easier said than done; and Odd discovers this the hard way.

I read  THE LIGHTHOUSE ROAD last month while I was at the beach, and I can tell you that I'm not sure it's the ideal beach book. While I am always drawn to books about dysfunctional families, THE LIGHTHOUSE ROAD is more literary than most of the books that I packed for my vacation. I regret not saving it until the kids went back to school, and I could curl up on my couch and just revel in Mr. Geye's prose. In addition, as you can probably tell from the description, THE LIGHTHOUSE ROAD is rather dark and depressing, and it's set in Minnesota which has brutally cold winters. (Again, not exactly a beach book!)

So I take full blame for reading THE LIGHTHOUSE ROAD in a less than ideal place; however, I still managed to appreciate this novel. Once again, I was blown away by Mr. Geye's writing ability -- he truly is a gifted storyteller! And while I'm not sure I enjoyed this novel quite as much as SAFE FROM THE SEA, I still recognize a beautiful novel when I read one. Mr. Geye's managed to create extremely authentic characters; and his incredible descriptions of the barren Minnesota landscape and the dangers of the lake water managed to make this book very special.

What's difficult for me to articulate is just how powerful this novel actually is. The book begins with Odd's mother's story, and then alternates with Odd's story. Both stories are most definitely sad ones, and my heart broke for both of these characters. I couldn't imagine how terrifying it must have been to be a young woman at the mercy of so many men. And then to make things even worse, she couldn't speak any language but her native Norwegian. Her life was not an easy one and she must have been so scared and lonely. But then Odd's story was also a difficult one. His childhood is far from easy. Then, he falls for the wrong woman and sacrifices everything to give her a fresh start. I don't want to give too much away, but what Odd had to go through in his young life was so painful; and it made me want to cry for him.

I think what I most appreciated about THE LIGHTHOUSE ROAD was how it delved into so many universal truths about human nature. Each character is this novel was obviously struggling, but they were also trying to discover who they really were, especially Odd. I think that's one of the main reasons that THE LIGHTHOUSE ROAD would make such a good book club selection. In addition to the characters' quests for self-discovery, the novel also explores love, loss, friendship, communication, and sacrifice. There is a reading guide available with twelve interesting questions that would definitely help generate discussion. However, I also think many intuitive readers will want to talk about the many symbols and metaphors that appear in the story.

Overall, I think THE LIGHTHOUSE ROAD is another stellar novel by Mr. Geye. I definitely recommend it to fans of literary fiction and especially readers who enjoy being taken to another place and time.

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

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Giveaway: Pitch Perfect Prize Package & Review

Summary: A musical tale of collegiate a cappella filled of high notes, high drama, and high jinks is now a major motion picture.

Get ready to be pitch slapped.

The roots of unaccompanied vocal music stretch all the way back to Gregorian chants of the Middle Ages, and collegiate a cappella is over a century old. But what was once largely an Ivy League phenomenon has, in the past twenty years, exploded. And it’s not what you think. Though the blue blazers and khakis may remain, a cappella groups at colleges across the country have become downright funky.

In Pitch Perfect, journalist Mickey Rapkin follows a season in a cappella through all its twists and turns, covering the breathtaking displays of vocal talent, the groupies (yes, there are a cappella groupies), the rock-star partying, and all the bitter rivalries. Rapkin brings you into the world of collegiate a cappella characters—from movie-star looks and celebrity-size egos to a troubled new singer with the megawatt voice. Including encounters with a cappella alums like John Legend and Diane Sawyer and fans from Prince to presidents, Rapkin shows that a cappella isn’t for the faint of heart—or lungs.

Sure to strike a chord with fans of Glee and The Sing-Off, this raucous story of a cappella rock stars shows that sometimes, to get that perfect harmony, you have to embrace a little discord.

On Monday evening, I was fortunate enough to attend an advance screening of the new (and what's sure to be big!) movie Pitch Perfect with one of my best friends! I admit that I was pretty excited to attend my first movie premiere, and I didn't know what to expect. The only instructions I had were to check in at the main table and give them my name -- simple enough. What I found to be rather interesting, though, was the security surrounding the event! Not only were our purses searched, but two security guards waved wands over our bodies. I guess they were checking for weapons?

Anyway... after I gave my name, we were escorted into the movie theater and shown to our seats. I was still joking with my friend about the security check when I saw that we had two "reserved" signs on the back of our seats. I should mention that my friend was beyond impressed and immediately forgot about the entire search... not! The theater wasn't quite full; however, there was a nice crowd consisting of all age groups -- there were even a few children who were definitely younger than 13 (Pitch Perfect has a PG-13 rating!) I think most of the attendees had won tickets from a few local radio stations, because they became very excited when the on-air radio personalities made guest appearances. There were even random giveaways for tee-shirts and sunglasses, but none was thrown anywhere near us.

Pitch Perfect gives viewers an inside (albeit irreverent) look inside the world of college a cappella groups. (The movie is based on the book PITCH PERFECT: THE QUEST FOR COLLEGIATE A CAPPELLA GLORY by Mickey Rapkin.) The main character is Beca, a misunderstood goth-girl who just wants to go to Los Angeles and make music. However, her father wants her to try a year at college first. And he means really try. He asks Beca to join one activity on campus and give it her all. After much reluctance, she decides to join the a capella group the Barden Bellas.

The Barden Bellas is a traditional a cappella group whose bossy leader is reluctant to try anything new. After a fiasco at last year's Nationals, no one on campus even wants to be part of this musical group; and they are forced to accept a bunch of "misfits"... including Beca. Naturally, there is much drama between the girls, tons of competition with the successful all-guy a cappella group on campus, and even a little romance between the musicians. It's up to Beca to convince all of the girls that they need to "change their tune" if they want to win Nationals!

I am the first to admit that I don't attend a lot of movies, and that I rarely like comedies. I have to say that I found Pitch Perfect to be a lot of fun, and I thought the music was terrific! In fact, I have to say that Pitch Perfect exceeded my expectations. I was honestly surprised by how much I laughed. Granted, most of my guffaws were as result of shocking scenes and even some crude humor; but overall, I found this movie to be highly entertaining. I'm normally a watch-checker during movies; however, I didn't once glance at the time. I just sat back and enjoyed the show.

I loved the casting and I thought many of the voices were outstanding (especially Anna Kendrick's character Beca) I recognized some familiar faces in Brittany Snow and Anna Camp, and I also liked "discovering" some new-to-me talent. However, it was Rebel Wilson (aka Fat Amy) that stole the show! My friend and I both agreed that she was by far our favorite character; and I think I laughed at every time she opened her mouth... or gyrated... or made a weird facial expression.... or pretty much anything!

I wasn't exactly sure that Pitch Perfect would appeal to me since it does take place on a college campus, and with that setting, I knew to expect some raunchy and/or juvenile humor. Since I know that my 13 year old daughter is very interested in this movie, I considered it a bonus that I could see it first. I know for a fact that I'm more conservative than most when it comes to what I want my kids to watch; however, I also know that my daughter is thirteen and technically able to see PG-13 movies. AGH!

I admit that there were quite a few things in Pitch Perfect that might be considered inappropriate (that doesn't mean that they weren't very funny though!), and I guess I'm still reeling from the idea of what's considered "okay" for young teens to see. I'm about 95% sure right now that I would take my daughter to see this movie, but I know I would want to be there with her -- if that makes sense. I am only say this as a heads up to other moms who are reading this, but Pitch Perfect has scenes that reference/feature drug use, homosexuality, underage drinking, and sex. There is also a lot of groping, rubbing, and crotch-grabbing which I know makes me sound like a prude, but I just wanted to put it all out there! 

What I found a little strange about Pitch Perfect is that I'm not sure who the target audience is -- not that it really matters. The movie kind of sent some mixed messages. The story takes place on a college campus, but I'm not sure it would appeal to most college-age kids. There is definitely adult humor, but there are also some very sweet moments that older teens and adults might find a little too saccharine. (Note: Not this adult because I'm a sucker for a love story in a movie!) There are also some references to The Breakfast Club movie which definitely appeals to women my age; however, I didn't feel like it was targeted directly towards me. I've come to the conclusion that I'd have to say it's aimed at young teen girls. I know my daughter and her friends are buzzing about the movie and I do think most young teen and tween girls would love it! But then I go back to some of the humor and adult situations, and I have to wonder if they were all necessary...

Overall, I definitely recommend going to see Pitch Perfect! It's a highly entertaining movie that has a lot to offer -- music, dancing, comedy, and romance!

Soundtrack Track Listing
1. Don't Stop The Music (The Treblemakers)
2. Let It Whip (The Treblemakers)
3. Since U Been Gone (Ester Dean, Skylar Astin)
4. Cups (Anna Kendrick)
5. Riff Off: Mickey/Like A Virgin/Hit Me With Your Best Shot/S&M/Let's Talk About Sex/I'll Make Love To You/Feels Like The First Time/No Diggity (The Barden Bellas, The Treblemakers, The BU Harmonics)
6. Bellas Regionals: The Sign/Eternal Flame/Turn The Beat Around (The Barden Bellas)
7. Right Round (The Treblemakers featuring My Name Is Kay)
8. Pool Mashup: Just The Way You Are/Just A Dream (The Barden Bellas)
9. Party In The U.S.A. (The Barden Bellas)
10. Trebles Finals: Bright Lights Bigger City/Magic (The Treblemakers)
11. Bellas Finals: Price Tag/Don t You (Forget About Me)/Give Me Everything/Just The Way You Are/Party In The U.S.A./Turn The Beat Around (The Barden Bellas)
12. Toner (Instrumental Suite) (Christopher Beck, Mark Kilian)

Universal Pictures
In Theaters September 28, Everywhere October 5!

Genre:                                     Comedy           
Cast:                                       Anna Kendrick, Skylar Astin, Rebel Wilson, Adam DeVine, Anna Camp, Brittany Snow with  John Michael Higgins and Elizabeth Banks 
Directed by:                            Jason Moore 
Screenplay by:                       Kay Cannon 
Based on the Book by:           Mickey Rapkin  
Produced by:                          Paul Brooks, Elizabeth Banks, Max Handelman 
Executive Producer:              Scott Niemeyer

Beca (Anna Kendrick) is that girl who’d rather listen to what’s coming out of her headphones than what’s coming out of you.  Arriving at her new college, she finds herself not right for any clique but somehow is muscled into one that she never would have picked on her own: alongside mean girls, sweet girls and weird girls whose only thing in common is how good they sound when they sing together, in the new out-loud comedy Pitch Perfect.

When Beca takes this acoustic singing group out of their world of traditional arrangements and perfect harmonies into all-new mash-ups, they fight to climb their way to the top of the cutthroat world of college a cappella.  This could wind up either the coolest thing they’ll ever do or the most insane, and it will probably be a little of both.

Loaded with new takes on old favorites to hits of right now that are seamlessly mixed together, mashed-up and arranged like you’ve never heard before, Pitch Perfect is directed by Jason Moore, who opened our eyes to the very misbehaved life of puppets in the surprise Broadway sensation Avenue Q.  

Giveaway alert: Thanks to the wonderful folks at Universal Pictures, I have two amazing Pitch Perfect Prize packs available to two lucky Booking Mama readers! Here's what you can win:

·         Copy of the book Pitch Perfect: The Quest for Collegiate A Cappella Glory (movie tie-in edition)
·         Pitch Perfect T-shirt
·         Aca-Awesome Magnetic Poetry
·         Plus ear buds, sunglasses, pen & post-it notes

To enter, just fill out the form below before Friday, October 5th 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!

Want more about Pitch Perfect?

Like Pitch Perfect on Facebook
Visit the official site to meet the characters, watch clips and get downloads.
Follow @PitchPerfect on Twitter #PitchPerfect
Follow I'll Tumblr For Ya to check out custom gifs and memes as they roll out.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Review: Love Anthony

Summary: I’m always hearing about how my brain doesn’t work right. . . . But it doesn’t feel broken to me.

Olivia Donatelli’s dream of a “normal” life shattered when her son, Anthony, was diagnosed with autism at age three. Understanding the world from his perspective felt bewildering, nearly impossible. He didn’t speak. He hated to be touched. He almost never made eye contact. And just as Olivia was starting to realize that happiness and autism could coexist, Anthony died.

Now she’s alone in a cottage on Nantucket, separated from her husband, desperate to understand the meaning of her son’s short life, when a chance encounter with another woman facing her own loss brings Anthony alive again for Olivia in a most unexpected way.

Beth Ellis’s entire life changed with a simple note: “I’m sleeping with Jimmy.” Fourteen years of marriage. Three beautiful daughters. Yet even before her husband’s affair, she had never felt so alone. Heartbroken, she finds the pieces of the vivacious, creative person she used to be packed away in a box in her attic. For the first time in years, she uncaps her pen, takes a deep breath, and begins to write. The young but exuberant voice that emerges onto the page is a balm to the turmoil within her, a new beginning, and an astonishing bridge back to herself.

In a piercing story about motherhood, autism, and love, New York Times bestselling author Lisa Genova offers us two unforgettable women on the verge of change and the irrepressible young boy whose unique wisdom helps them both find the courage to move on. -- Gallery

At this year's BEA, I was fortunate enough to attend a special panel hosted by Carol Fitzgerald of fame. I had the opportunity to hear what various publishers were suggesting for fall/winter book club picks. They had just a few minutes to make their "sale" before the bell rang and they had to move on to a different table, and I thought it was loads of fun! I was like a kid in a candy store, only I was drooling over calorie-free options. So many of the books truly appealed to me, but perhaps none more so than LOVE ANTHONY by Lisa Genova.

I am positively ashamed to admit this, but LOVE ANTHONY was the first novel that I've read by Ms. Genova. My book club read STILL ALICE a few years ago, but I knew I was going to miss the meeting and just skipped the book. Of course, I know that many readers rave about her books, but sadly, I hadn't experience the power of her writing until these past few days. On one hand I'm thrilled to finally "discover" her, but on the other hand, I'm kicking myself for waiting so long.

LOVE ANTHONY is a deeply moving novel about two women, Olivia and Beth, whose lives are brought together by a young boy who had autism. Olivia seemingly had it all -- a great husband, a successful career, and a beautiful baby boy named Anthony. That is, until she began realizing that something wasn't quite right with Anthony. He didn't speak or make eye contact, and he never really wanted to be touched; so it wasn't really a surprise when her son was diagnosed with autism. Olivia and her husband tried everything to make Anthony "normal," and eventually their actions began to break apart their marriage. Just as Olivia was coming to terms with Anthony and accept him for who he truly was rather than change him, he unexpectedly died. Recently separated from her husband, Olivia moved to Nantucket and tries to begin the process of healing. Unfortunately, she is unable to move on until she comes to terms with the meaning of Anthony's brief life.

Beth, on the other hand, lives on Nantucket with her husband and three children. She has amazing friends who are a great support system, but she still feels as if she is alone and missing out on something. When she receives a letter telling her that her husband has been having an affair, Beth's world quickly comes crashing down. However, this pain gives Beth an opportunity to rediscover herself -- namely her creativity and writing. She begins to write again and is inspired by the voice of an autistic young boy -- eerily similar to Anthony. This writing allows Beth to find herself again and gain the confidence she needs to move forward with her life. It's because of Anthony's words that Olivia and Beth are brought together and eventually begin their healing.

LOVE ANTHONY is an extremely touching novel which explores many difficult issues including broken marriages, motherhood, and autism. However, it also offers a fresh look at unconditional love, healing, friendship, self-discovery, second chances, and forgiveness. I thought it was a beautiful story that both broke my heart and, at the same time, made me grateful for my life.

One thing I have to commend Ms. Genova for is her ability to handle a difficult subject, like Alzheimer's or autism, in a fair and honest way. For those of you who don't know, Ms. Genova is a neuroscientist with a Harvard degree who worked as a research scientist before becoming a writer. (I'm very jealous of both her intelligence and her creativity!) In LOVE ANTHONY, she tackles autism which affects about one out of ever 88 children -- unbelievable, right? I thought she did an amazing job of making Anthony real and giving a voice to a child who is unable to communicate in a way that we expect. There is so much about autism that we still don't know; however, I loved that reading this novel gave me a new way to think about it.

Another wonderful thing about LOVE ANTHONY was that it delved into themes that are basic to every human being (whether we admit it or not) -- the need to feel wanted, the need to feel happy, the need to feel safe, and the need to feel loved. Both Beth and her husband addresses these needs with the help of their therapist as they attempted to reconcile, and I couldn't help but think if they had been able to communicate their needs to each other, that their marriage never would have suffered. I think we could all take advice in assessing our own needs as well as our loved ones' needs. However, I also appreciated that Ms. Genova defined these same needs for Anthony; and it made me see him in an entirely new light. I guess people aren't as different as we first might think!

I also really liked how the story (or should I say stories?) in LOVE ANTHONY was told. The majority of this novel alternated between Olivia and Beth; and since they didn't really become involved with each other until almost the end of the book, their lives were pretty separate... except that the author kept weaving similar themes into their lives. I loved that! In addition, I liked that Olivia was revisiting her journals from the times when she was trying to come to terms with Anthony and his autism, and I thought these snippets were so honest and so touching. Furthermore, I liked that I was given the chance to actually "hear" Anthony in his own words through Beth's writing. It was almost as if there were three separate storytellers given that the book was written in third person and then there were Olivia's journal entries and Anthony's voice by way of Beth's writing!

As I'm writing this review, I've come to realize that I could write about ten more paragraphs about things I enjoyed in LOVE ANTHONY. That should probably tell you that this novel would make an excellent discussion book. The folks at Simon & Schuster were right for featuring LOVE ANTHONY as an ideal fall book club pick! There is a reading guide available with fourteen thought-provoking questions. I actually found most of them to be excellent; however, this book is so ripe for discussion that I'm not even sure you need a formal guide. Some of the themes you might want to explore include motherhood, marriage, love (and unconditional love), friendship, divorce, grief, self-discovery, loneliness, the process of healing, second chances, happiness, forgiveness, and faith.

Overall, I thought LOVE ANTHONY was a powerful story and one that most definitely touched my heart. Highly recommended!

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

Monday, September 24, 2012

Review: Spy Mom

Summary: Meet Sally Sin. Wife. Mother. Retired Spy. Or so she thinks. After nine years with the USAWMD (United States Agency for Weapons of Mass Destruction)—where she desperately tried to stay one step ahead of her dashing nemesis, Ian Blackford—Sally has become Lucy Hamilton, stay-at-home mom to Theo and wife to adoring husband, Will, who knows nothing of her covert past. But now, instead of chasing bad guys through perilous jungles, she builds giant Lego towers, reads Green Eggs and Ham, and crafts exceptional forts from couch cushions and blankets.

Just when she’s starting to settle into retirement, Sally’s old Agency boss, Simon Still, shows up to recruit her for one more job, involving the illegal arms dealer, Blackford, who is on the move again. Original Sin features Sally’s great chase to thwart Blackford, who, conveniently, no one besides her seems to be able to stop. But can she make it to preschool pickup, get dinner on the table, and foil Blackford’s nefarious plot?

And just when you think the thrills are over, you’ll be ready To Sin Again.

When the Agency Director is taken hostage, Sally is once again called into action. A rescue operation? Easy. That is, until Sally learns of a connection between the kidnapping and her own mysterious childhood, which complicates everything, even Theo’s kindergarten applications. Being a mom is hard enough, without having to save the world.

Funny, fast-paced, and compulsively readable, Spy Mom offers two action-packed adventures for mothers and spies, and anyone who has ever dreamed about being either. -- Hyperion

Recently, I've been reviewing some pretty "heavy" mysteries for Mystery Mondays, but not this week! In fact, SPY MOM: THE ADVENTURES OF SALLY SIN by Beth McMullen is a  fast-paced, but very fun, spy thriller that features a stay-at-home mom who is an ex-spy for a secret government agency. Unfortunately, she learns that she can't really leave behind her past career; and she becomes involved once again in the high stakes world of international spies and weapons of mass destruction.

I totally had a blast reading SPY MOM and I adored Lucy Hamilton (aka Sally Sin!) What makes this book even more special is that it's actually two books in one! That's right -- SPY MOM contains two full-length mysteries, ORIGINAL SIN and TO SIN AGAIN. So it's double the fun and intrigue for the price of one trade paperback.

In ORIGINAL SIN, Lucy is living a relatively normal life in San Francisco with her husband Will and young son Theo. She is devoted to both of them, yet has never revealed anything about her secret past. (I'm thinking that this could prove to bite her in the behind in later books.) Lucy assumes that her dangerous past is behind her; however, when her secretive boss shows up and informs her that she can never totally walk away from the Agency, Lucy/Sally finds herself chasing down the elusive Blackford, an illegal arms dealer.

Lucy/Sally's story picks up a few years later in TO SIN AGAIN. Lucy is grateful that her last mission is behind her but she fears that her son Theo might spill the beans about what happened. Still, she tries to keep her past from her husband Will. When the Agency Director is kidnapped by a long-time bad guy, Lucy/Sally is once again brought back into the Agency dealings. As Lucy/Sally tries to save the Director, she also begins to realize some hidden truths about her mysterious childhood as well as some new surprises for her current family.

As I mentioned earlier, I thought SPY MOM was a hoot! I read the first book when I was at the beach and was very impressed with both the premise of the story as well as the tongue-in-cheek humor. I waited a few weeks to read the second book, and I was happy to find that I had the exact same reaction. Both of these books were extremely entertaining (for so many reasons), and I can't wait for the next installment of Sally Sin's adventures.

One of my favorite things about SPY MOM was that it took a very fun (and also honest) look at being a stay-at-home mom. Granted, I never had the intrigue and danger that Lucy/Sally faced prior to having a kid, but I could relate to Lucy's frustrations and sometimes boredom with the tediousness of being a full-time mom. Lucy/Sally's personal rants were hilarious and I loved her social commentary about being a wife and mother. I found myself laughing quite a bit about her paranoia over the safety of her child's preschool (she spent the entire time in a coffee shop watching the single door to the school) as well as her jokes at the expense of her Prius and her husband's desire to live "green." And I thought much of Lucy/Sally's ideas about the pressures of keeping up with the neighbors was spot on.

Another thing I really liked about SPY MOM was how the stories were told. While both books took place in the present day when Lucy/Sally is "just" a mom, there were numerous flashbacks to Lucy/Sally's past as a spy. As Lucy/Sally became more involved (albeit reluctantly) in the latest undercover operations, she would reminisce about her past and all of the dangers she faced. I thought it was a unique way to give information about not only Lucy/Sally, but also the secondary characters that were involved in the missions. I especially appreciated all of the history and "tension" she shared with Blackford!

As far as mysteries go, I don't read a lot of spy novels and I don't really think it's fair to compare SPY MOM to other books out there that handle international espionage. What I can definitely say is that SPY MOM is much more fun and has a great main character that women will be able to relate to! I did think that the mysteries and secrets in both of these books were quite interesting, and I appreciated the many twists and turns. I also loved that I wasn't sure which of the characters were good or bad (and even after finishing the books, I still don't know!)

If you are looking for a hilarious and action-packed series (which also borders on chick/mom lit), then I definitely recommend SPY MOM!

Thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy of this book.

Mystery Mondays is a 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, September 23, 2012

Review: The Mom 100 Cookbook

Summary: Introducing the lifesaving cookbook for every mother with kids at home—the book that solves the 20 most common cooking dilemmas. What’s your predicament: breakfast on a harried school morning? The Mom 100’s got it—Personalized Pizzas are not only fast but are nutritious, and hey, it doesn’t get any better than pizza for breakfast. Kids making noise about the same old lunch? The Mom 100’s got it—three different Turkey Wraps, plus a Wrap Blueprint delivers enough variety to last for years.

Katie Workman, founding editor in chief of and mother of two school-age kids, offers recipes, tips, techniques, attitude, and wisdom for staying happy in the kitchen while proudly keeping it homemade—because homemade not only tastes best, but is also better (and most economical) for you. The Mom 100 is 20 dilemmas every mom faces, with 5 solutions for each: including terrific recipes for the vegetable-averse, the salad-rejector, for the fish-o-phobe, or the overnight vegetarian convert. “Fork-in-the-Road” variations make it easy to adjust a recipe to appeal to different eaters (i.e., the kids who want bland and the adults who don’t). “What the Kids Can Do” sidebars suggest ways for kids to help make each dish. -- Workman

I can't believe it took me this long to actually start using THE MOM 100 COOKBOOK: 100 RECIPES EVERY MOM NEEDS IN HER BACK POCKET by Katie Workman. I received a copy of this wonderful cookbook at this year's BEA Workman Party, and I even spent some time talking to the author about cooking for a family and just being a mom. (She's delightful and gorgeous in case you're wondering!) I had a feeling that I'd like some of these recipes, but what I didn't realize just how great this entire cookbook is. I could just kick myself that I didn't get around to sampling some of these recipes!

As a book blogger, I am so incredibly fortunate that I get a wide variety of cookbook to review. It's rare that I don't "like" a cookbook, but it's even more rare to find one that I can actually incorporate into my day-to-day cooking. However, THE MOM 100 COOKBOOK is just that! I feel like it's totally geared towards me with quick and healthy recipes, options for picky eaters, lots of ideas for substitutions or add-ins, and much more. It's just so handy and easy-to-use especially given that Ms. Workman includes little "hand-written" notes on the recipes. Seriously, the cookbook uses a handwriting font with Ms. Workman's words of wisdom. It's just like a friend gave you the recipes.

THE MOM 100 COOKBOOK has (wait for it!) 100 recipes that families are guaranteed to love! But in addition to all of these recipes, Ms. Workman offers some advice for mothers. The introduction of the cookbook is titled, "How to Pick Your Battles and Find Happiness in the Kitchen." I don't know about you, but I needed to read this years ago! This section also includes some helpful tidbits like "17 Amazing Ingredients" as well as some handy kitchen tricks and cooking tips. She even has a sidebar on food allergies which you already know is near and dear to my heart!

The rest of the cookbook has loads of great recipes and is organized like a typical cookbook (albeit with cute chapter titles!) The chapters are as follows: Quick and Easy Breakfasts, Lunch to Stay or to Go, A Handful of Snacks, Appetizers? Really? Really, Souped Up, 4 Salads and a Couple of Vinaigrettes, 4 Chickens and a Turkey (Sort of), Main Dish Meat, Fish and Seafood, Hearty Comfort Foods, Pasta and Pizza -- the Magic Words, Vegetarian Mains, Potluck, Mixed Company Dinners, Let's Call a Carb a Carb!, Best-Shot Vegetables, Weekend Brunches, Simple Weeknight Desserts, Special Occasion Desserts, and Bake Sale. I don't think there was a chapter where I didn't find at least one recipe that I wanted to try.

The page format of THE MOM 100 COOKBOOK is really special. The recipes begins with a general summary/history of the recipe, and many have ideas for how to get your kids participating in the preparation. In addition she offers lots of advice! There are helpful hints in the sidebars as well as her own "personal" notes about each recipe. In addition, there are loads of gorgeous color photographs which always take a cookbook to the next level for me.

What I think I like the most, though, about THE MOM 100 COOKBOOK is just how flexible it is. And really, isn't that what busy moms need -- flexibility? Ms. Workman does a great job of giving options for each recipe. Not only does that help me with using the ingredients I have on hand, but it also gives more of a chance that even the pickiest of eaters will be happy with the dish. She also lets you know what recipes can be made ahead as well as freezer directions if applicable. I truly believe Ms. Workman has done moms a favor with all of her "extras."

There is no doubt that I will be cooking from THE MOM 100 COOKBOOK many times over the next few weeks, but the first recipe that I tried was for the Crunchy Chewy Granola. It was extremely easy to prepare although it did take awhile to cook (but I'm pretty sure all granola recipes are like that.) I appreciated that the recipe was very healthy, if not necessarily low-fat (although it wasn't high fat either); and it did turn out to be delicious. The recipe used a little honey and maple syrup to sweeten it (no refined sugar) as well as the dried fruits. I added the optional fresh orange peel to give it a different flavor, but decided to leave out the optional unsalted nuts to keep the calories down. I ate it with a little skim milk, but I can't wait to eat it with some Greek yogurt.

In addition to the granola recipe, I also want to try many of the main dishes. There is a chicken finger recipe that even Booking Son can eat with his food allergies that I will be making later this week. I am also anxious to make the Honey Ginger Soy Chicken, the Simplest Beef Stew, the Soy Ginger Flank Steak, and the Flaky Fish with Balsamic Glaze. Some of the more decadent dishes that look good include Aaron E.'s Favorite Apple Coffee Cake, the Caramel Sauce, the Chocolate Peanut Butter Squares, and the Best Streusel Apple Pie Ever.

Ms. Workman has a website for her cookbook which is just fantastic. Not only can you learn more about this cookbook, but you can also check out The Mom 100 Blog. This blog has plenty of delicious recipes as well as ideas for making family cooking easy and fun!

Overall, I highly recommend THE MOM 100 COOKBOOK! I absolutely adored it and consider it a must for any busy mom!

Thanks to the publisher for providing a review 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, September 22, 2012

Kid Konnection: Drama

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 fun, new graphic novel aimed at middle graders.

Summary: Callie loves theater. And while she would totally try out for her middle school’s production of Moon Over Mississippi, she’s a terrible singer. Instead she’s the set designer for the stage crew, and this year she’s determined to create a set worthy of Broadway on a middle-school budget. But how can she, when she doesn’t know much about carpentry, ticket sales are down, and the crew members are having trouble working together? Not to mention the onstage AND offstage drama that occurs once the actors are chosen, and when two cute brothers enter the picture, things get even crazier! Following the success of SMILE, Raina Telgemeier brings us another graphic novel featuring a diverse set of characters that humorously explores friendship, crushes, and all-around drama! -- Scholastic/Graphix

At this year's BEA, I was fortunate enough to attend a unique party at Scholastic! Like many publisher parties, there were plenty of authors there to meet; however, Scholastic put a new spin on "getting to know" the authors. They had some fantastic authors actually acting out scenes from some of Scholastic's hottest fall releases. One of the books I was most excited to read was the graphic novel DRAMA by Raina Telgemeier.

Earlier this year, I just happened to pick up a copy of SMILE that I had purchased for my daughter at the Scholastic warehouse sale. You can read my review here. I was blown away by the story and the illustrations; and I honestly couldn't wait to see what Ms. Telgemeier had in store for her next book. In SMILE, she managed to write a very touching story with many important messages, but she also made it extremely entertaining!

While SMILE was based on the author's real-life tween experiences after a major accident left her with no front teeth, DRAMA is a fictional account of Callie, a girl who loves theater and wants to be part of her middle school's production of Moon Over Mississippi. (I should probably add that Ms. Telgemeier also loved theater as a girl but this story is not autobiographical!) Unfortunately, this play is a musical and Callie can't carry a tune, so Callie becomes part of the crew as the set designer. Callie takes her role in the play very seriously and is determined to have an eye-popping set (with a cannon!) despite her budgetary constraints. Like many productions, this one has its fair share of problems including Callie's inexperience, declining ticket sales, and (get ready for it!) issues between the actors and crew. As anyone who lives with a tween (or probably even knows one), you just knew that everyone wasn't going to just get along. Life is full of "drama" when you're in middle school!

I actually found DRAMA to be delightful! I don't know if I loved it quite as much as SMILE, but it's pretty darn close. I absolutely loved speech and drama when I was in middle school and I even performed in a few plays, so I was able to relate to many of the issues despite being thirty years past the target age for this book. However, I think it's because I'm a parent of an eighth grader that this novel resonated with me. Ms. Telgemeier has an uncanny ability to write entertaining and relevant books that tweens should not miss. I especially appreciate that she tackles some of the more complicated issues in a tween's life including friendship, competition, jealousy, crushes, peer pressure, parent problems, and even homosexuality, but that she also provides lots of humor to lighten up these serious situations.

It's only recently that I've even started reading graphic novels, but I have to admit that I do enjoy them. I guess I was kind of a snob (or maybe just ignorant) and didn't really consider them to be to be equal to "real" books. Boy, have I been proven wrong! The more I read this genre, the more I'm impressed. Not only are Ms. Telgemeier's illustrations adorable, but she is able to fully capture a story as well as the characters' emotions in her drawings. SMILE explores as many themes as any middle grade book, and it's actually in a format that tweens might appreciate -- even the ones who are most reluctant to the idea of reading!

DRAMA would make a fantastic tween book club selection or even a great choice for mother/daughter book clubs. Some of the themes in this book that are definitely worthy of more discussion include anything surrounding the drama of the play like jealousy, competition, backstabbing, disappointments, and even eventually working together. However, there are also some other relevant relationships issues pertaining to crushes and discovering one's true sexuality. Because this graphic novel is so perfect for tweens, I'm certain they won't have problems relating to one or more of the characters; and they will find plenty to discuss.

Overall, I think DRAMA is a fantastic book and a must-read for tweens... especially those interested in theater.

Thanks to the publisher for providing a 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, September 21, 2012

Review: The Guest Book

Summary: Twenty-five years after she began exchanging drawings with a mysterious boy in the guest book of a Carolina beach house, Macy Dillon is back at Sunset Beach---this time toting a hurting heart and a broken family. Will she be able find the man whose drawings moved her so deeply when she was a child? Questions of childhood, loss, and longing for love are explored in author Marybeth Whalen’s touching and thought-provoking, The Guest Book. -- Zondervan

I haven't been reading a lot of Christian fiction lately, but I thought I'd make an exception for Marybeth Whalen's latest novel THE GUEST BOOK. First of all, I think the book sounded like an ideal summer read since it takes place at the beach. And secondly, Ms. Whalen just seems like the nicest person. If you don't believe me, then just ask any of those fortunate bloggers who met her at SIBA.

THE GUEST BOOK tells the story of Macy, a young single mother who has always dreamed of being an artist but works at a grocery store instead. (Granted, her boss occasionally "allows" her to do painted murals but it's a grocery story all the same!) Macy is just trying to do her best for her daughter, but life hasn't been easy for her. Macy had to give up her dreams of being an artist when she got pregnant, and the father of her child wasn't committed to Macy or their daughter. Although he deserted them a few years ago, he's back and seems to want Macy and his daughter to be part of his life. In addition, her family hasn't recovered from the death of her father many years ago -- her mother is still actively mourning him and her brother tends to be a bad boy with a drinking problem.

Maybe it's because of all these reasons that Macy has been clinging to some happier times from her childhood. Each summer, Macy's family would head to Sunset Beach for their family vacation. One year, about 25 years ago, Macy began exchanging drawings with an unknown boy. She never learned his identity and has spent all of these years wondering who he was and if they were possibly meant to be together. However, when Macy's father died, these vacations ended... until now. Macy's mother decides that the family needs to return to the Carolina beach house for some healing and closure. Macy is thrilled to be returning to the place of so many happy memories, but she also realizes how much the family will miss their father.

Macy hopes to take this time and truly heal from the loss of her father. However, she also hopes to track down the identity of the boy (now man!) who left her those drawings so many years ago. During these few weeks of vacation, Macy discovers that she has an abundance of men interested in dating her; and the irony is that all of them could be her mysterious artist. As Macy begins to narrow down her search and hopefully discover her soul-mate, she also begins to learn some valuable things about herself and her family.

I enjoyed THE GUEST BOOK quite a bit. It was a touching story about love, loss and second chances; and it definitely touched my heart. My only regret was that I didn't take this along with me on my beach vacation last month because it is a terrific "beach read." I thought Ms. Whalen did a great job of describing the beauty of the beach as well as the quaintness of the small Carolina town. Plus, this book kind of served as calorie-free comfort food ( if that makes sense!) It just satisfied some cravings for a sweet story and made me feel good.

I am somewhat hesitant to read Christian fiction because I fear that the books will be preachy. It might sound awful to say that, but I know I'm not alone with that concern. And that's one of the things that I really have to commend Ms. Whalen for in writing THE GUEST BOOK. The references to faith and the characters' relationships with God were very crucial to the story, and I thought they were extremely well done. In fact, I actually appreciated how Ms. Whalen used the symbol of "an artist" throughout the story, and some of her prose even made me take a breath and reflect. That's truly saying something! 

Another strong aspect of this novel was the character development. For the most part, this novel was Macy's story; and I loved how much she grew, both mentally and spiritually, by the end of the book. I especially liked how she was able to remember her father and his strong faith. However, I also appreciated how much Macy's mother and brother evolved throughout the story. This entire family was unable to move on after the death of the father, and both of them were very damaged souls. I loved how their visit to Sunset Beach not only brought back pleasant memories of their happier times, but it also allowed them to finally let go of the pain and move forward.

THE GUEST BOOK would make an interesting book club pick especially for groups made up of women. I wasn't able to find a link to the discussion guide, but there is one in the back of the novel with eight thought-provoking questions. Some of the themes you might want to explore include family dynamics, sacrifice, loss, grief, love, second chances, and faith. In addition, I was happy to see that there was a recipe for Brenda's Cranberry-Cherry Spritzer that you could serve at the meeting.

Overall, I recommend THE GUEST BOOK to fans of Christian fiction or anyone who enjoys a sweet story about love, loss and redemption.

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

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Review: January First

Summary: Michael Schofield’s daughter January is at the mercy of her imaginary friends, except they aren’t the imaginary friends that most young children have; they are hallucinations. And January is caught in the conflict between our world and their world, a place she calls Calalini.  Some of these hallucinations, like “24 Hours,” are friendly and some, like “400 the Cat” and “Wednesday the Rat,” bite and scratch her until she does what they want.  They often tell her to scream at strangers, jump out of buildings, and attack her baby brother. 

At six years old, January Schofield, “Janni,” to her family, was diagnosed with schizophrenia, one of the worst mental illnesses known to man.  What’s more, schizophrenia is 20 to 30 times more severe in children than in adults and in January’s case, doctors say, she is hallucinating 95 percent of the time that she is awake. Potent psychiatric drugs that would level most adults barely faze her.

A New York Times bestseller, January First captures Michael and his family's remarkable story in a narrative that forges new territory within books about mental illness. In the beginning, readers see Janni’s incredible early potential: her brilliance, and savant-like ability to learn extremely abstract concepts. Next, they witnesses early warning signs that something is not right, Michael’s attempts to rationalize what’s happening, and his descent alongside his daughter into the abyss of schizophrenia.  Their battle has included a two-year search for answers, countless medications and hospitalizations, allegations of abuse, despair that almost broke their family apart and, finally, victories against the illness and a new faith that they can create a life for Janni filled with moments of happiness. 

A compelling, unsparing and passionate account, January First vividly details Schofield’s commitment to bring his daughter back from the edge of insanity.  It is a father’s soul-baring memoir of the daily struggles and challenges he and his wife face as they do everything they can to help Janni while trying to keep their family together.  -- Crown

JANUARY FIRST: A  CHILD'S DESCENT INTO MADNESS AND HER FATHER'S STRUGGLE TO SAVE HER by Michael Schofield is not a book that I'd typically read. While I do enjoy the occasional memoir, books about mental illness and children aren't ones that I usually seek out. However, I was definitely intrigued by the description of JANUARY FIRST. In addition, I've seen some marvelous reviews for this book popping up around the book blogosphere.

JANUARY FIRST is a father's story of bringing up a young daughter with schizophrenia. Michale Schofield and his wife always knew that their daughter Janni was a difficult child. She was restless, prone to tantrums, and seemed to live in her own little world. As a parent, I realize that those descriptions can describe many, if not most, children (mine included!); however, these conditions in Janni were extreme. So extreme, that she would even try to seriously harm her baby brother when he cried.

For two years, her parents tried to get Janni some help, but doctors were hesitant to give her "disease" a name. In addition, their insurance company's rules were such that it was hard to have Janni kept under observation for more than a few days. Janni was finally diagnosed with schizophrenia and doctors began trying to find a combination of drugs that would help Janni have some relief from her pain and suffering. Ultimately, the Schofields had to find ways (some rather drastic and unconventional) to deal with Janni and keep their family together.

Naturally, JANUARY FIRST is a tragic story about a family on the edge and it broke my heart. That's not to say that there are moments of hope, but overall I found it very difficult to read about Janni's behavior. My heart went out to the entire Schofield family because no one is equipped to handle a situation like this; and I felt frustrated that they had to battle their insurance company time and time again just to get Janni the help she needed. I just kept thinking the entire time I read this book that something this tragic could happen to any of us... any time; and I quite honestly don't know how I'd handle it.

However, I have a feeling that I'm going to be in the minority when I say this, but I am very torn about whether I "liked" the book. Of course, the subject matter is horrific so "like" is an odd choice of words to use, but I just found that I thought the book was just "okay." That's not to say that I didn't devour the story because I read it very quickly -- it was almost like a car wreck in that I didn't want to look at it, but I couldn't help myself. Rather, I just had some general issues about the writing and how the story was told. For example, there were a few occasions when major incidents would just seemingly come out of nowhere -- with little, if any, explanation. It's possible that I missed an earlier reference, but I just thought something was off with the pacing and/or flow of the book.

In addition, I had a very hard time relating to how the Schofields handled Janni's behavior; and there were even a few times when I registered disbelief over Mr. Schofield's story. I feel horrible for saying that considering what the Schofield family has been through; and I know I couldn't have handled things any better if I had had a child like Janni -- who am I to even question what they tried to do to save their daughter? It's just that I felt as if I were missing some aspects of their total story.

JANUARY FIRST would make for a very interesting book club pick. There is no doubt that this book generated a lot of different reactions from me (including rage, disbelief, disapproval, and sympathy), and I'm sure my friends would feel similarly. I can only imagine the discussions we could have about parenting, mental illness, and health care -- all very controversial subjects!

Overall, JANUARY FIRST was a fascinating read, albeit a disturbing one. I recommended to fans of memoirs and readers who enjoy books about mental illness. If you'd like to learn more about Michael Schofield's story, you can check out his blog Jani's Journey.

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

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Review: This is How You Lose Her

Summary: Pulitzer Prize-winner Junot Díaz’s first book, Drown, established him as a major new writer with “the dispassionate eye of a journalist and the tongue of a poet” (Newsweek). His first novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, was named #1 Fiction Book of the Year” by Time magazine and spent more than 100 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, establishing itself – with more than a million copies in print – as a modern classic. In addition to the Pulitzer, Díaz has won a host of major awards and prizes, including the National Book Critic’s Circle Award, the PEN/Malamud Award, the PEN/O. Henry Prize, the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, and the Anisfield-Wolf Award.

Now Díaz turns his remarkable talent to the haunting, impossible power of love – obsessive love, illicit love, fading love, maternal love. On a beach in the Dominican Republic, a doomed relationship flounders. In the heat of a hospital laundry room in New Jersey, a woman does her lover’s washing and thinks about his wife. In Boston, a man buys his love child, his only son, a first baseball bat and glove. At the heart of these stories is the irrepressible, irresistible Yunior, a young hardhead whose longing for love is equaled only by his recklessness--and by the extraordinary women he loves and loses: artistic Alma; the aging Miss Lora; Magdalena, who thinks all Dominican men are cheaters; and the love of his life, whose heartbreak ultimately becomes his own. In prose that is endlessly energetic, inventive, tender, and funny, the stories in This Is How You Lose Her lay bare the infinite longing and inevitable weakness of the human heart. They remind us that passion always triumphs over experience, and that “the half-life of love is forever.” -- Riverhead

After hearing Junot Diaz speak at one of this year's BEA adult breakfasts, plus all of the pre pub talk from the folks at Penguin, I knew I wanted to read THIS IS HOW YOU LOSE HER. THIS IS HOW YOU LOSE HER is a collection of stories that primarily focus on Yunior, a Dominican immigrant who can't help but cheat on the various women in his life despite his best intentions. (I say "primarily" because all of the stories except one have Yunior as one of the main characters.) These stories aren't in chronological order -- rather, they jump all over major and minor events in Yunior's life; however, they all delve into the complexities of love and loss.

When I first picked up THIS IS HOW YOU LOSE HER, I was afraid that I might not be able to relate to these stories. Frankly, I wasn't sure that I was all that interested in reading about a young Dominican man who was a serial cheater. I tend to want to like the main character in a book. In addition, I was concerned when I started finding the occasional Spanish phrase because I was afraid that I might be missing out on something important. I found that these phrases weren't really an issue for me, but I was worried all the same. What I did find, however, was that I was quickly drawn into these stories, especially the ones about Yunior's early years; and I actually discovered (much to my surprise) that I really liked Yunior. Despite his tendency to cheat, I didn't think Yunior was a terrible guy; and I'd even go so far as to say that he was just damaged and misunderstood... and very self-destructive!

I'd be remiss in my review if I didn't mention just how amazing Mr. Diaz is as a writer and storyteller. I was truly blown away by how good he really is. Yes, the book was entertaining; and yes, Junior was a fascinating and well-developed character. However, what impressed me the most is just how astute Mr. Diaz was about universal emotions like love and loss. And how he managed to tackle these serious issues with snippets of humor. THIS IS HOW YOU LOSE HER was extremely complex and emotional, and I loved how much my assumptions about the story and the characters changed as I read more and more of this book. It takes a very powerful writer to be able to change my initial impressions/biases in such a way as this book did.

As is the case when I read short story collections (not that I've read many!), I tend to appreciate some stories more than others. In THIS IS HOW YOU LOSE HER, my favorite story was the one called "The Pura Principle" which detailed Yunior's older brother's battle and eventual loss with cancer. It was a beautiful and extremely touching story, and I think it's one of the main reasons that I began to feel more compassion towards Junior. I also enjoyed the story called "Miss Lora" which takes place during Yunior's teen years when he falls for an older woman as well as "Invierno" which gives a glimpse into Yunior's early years in the United States.

Unfortunately, I haven't gotten around to reading Mr. Diaz's last book THE BRIEF WONDROUS LIFE OF OSCAR WAO (you know, the one that won the Pulitzer!) yet, but I have certainly added that novel to my must-read list after finishing THIS IS HOW YOU LOSE HER. There is absolutely no doubt that Mr. Diaz is an extremely skilled writer and I am looking forward to reading more of his exquisite prose.

THIS IS HOW YOU LOSE HER is most definitely a book worth reading... even if you shy away from short story collections. It's a beautifully written book that also manages to address some common themes like love, loss, guilt, and self-destruction.

I check out a copy of this book from my local library.