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2021 Literary Escapes Challenge

- Alabama
- Alaska
- Arizona (1)
- Arkansas
- California (4)
- Colorado (1)
- Connecticut (1)
- Delaware
- Florida
- Georgia
- Hawaii (1)
- Idaho
- Illinois (4)
- Indiana
- Iowa
- Kansas
- Kentucky (1)
- Louisiana (1)
- Maine
- Maryland (1)
- Massachusetts (1)
- Michigan (1)
- Minnesota (1)
- Mississippi
- Missouri
- Montana
- Nebraska (1)
- Nevada (1)
- New Hampshire (1)
- New Jersey (1)
- New Mexico
- New York (3)
- North Carolina (1)
- North Dakota
- Ohio (6)
- Oklahoma
- Oregon
- Pennsylvania (1)
- Rhode Island (1)
- South Carolina (1)
- South Dakota
- Tennessee
- Texas (1)
- Utah (1)
- Vermont (2)
- Virginia (3)
- Washington (2)
- West Virginia
- Wisconsin
- Wyoming (1)
- *Washington, D.C.

Australia (2)
Canada (3)
England (6)
France (1)
Ireland (1)
Switzerland (1)
The Philippines (1)
Wales (1)

My Progress:

28 / 51 states. 55% done!

2021 Fall Into Reading Challenge

My Progress:

0 / 24 books. 0% done!

2021 Children's Historical Fiction Reading Challenge

2021 Children's Historical Fiction Reading Challenge
(Hosted by Yours Truly!)

My Progress:

6 / 25 books. 24% done!

2021 Popsugar Reading Challenge

My Progress:

32 / 50 books. 64% done!

Booklist Queen's 2021 Reading Challenge

My Progress:

35 / 52 books. 67% done!

2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge

2021 Craving for Cozies Reading Challenge

The 52 Club's 2021 Reading Challenge

My Progress:

39 / 52 books. 75% done!
Thursday, June 25, 2009

This, That and The Everything Austen Reading Challenge

I've been posting like mad lately so that you won't miss me too much while I'm gone on vacation. The fam and I are headed to Utah tomorrow - it's our favorite place to spend the 4th of July. I'll be reading books and email, but I won't be posting until I return in a couple of weeks. In the meantime, here are a few things to keep you busy (including 2 new giveaways!):

- You may have noticed on my review of If I Have A Wicked Stepmother, Where's My Prince? by Melissa Kantor that I launched a new feature called If this were a movie, it would be rated ... I know a lot of readers wish books came with a rating system similar to that used on movies. This is my completely subjective version. If you disagree with my evaluation, feel free to let me know. Hopefully, this will be a valuable tool.

- If you're an adoptee, an adoptive parent, someone considering adoption, or if you are just interested in the topic, you might want to check out Adoptive Famiiles magazine's list of the best books about adoption. You can find the list here, or check out the magazine's bookstore here. They have some great recommendations.

- If you haven't read the Sookie Stackhouse books by Charlaine Harris (and I haven't), here's your chance. Melissa at Melissa's Bookshelf is giving away a set of the first 7 books. Go here to enter. Contest ends July 5 at 8 p.m. EST.

- Lisa at Online Publicist is doing a series of BEA (Book Expo America) giveaways. Currently, she has 2 children's books up for grabs. For more info, click here. Contest ends June 26, so hurry on over and check it out.

- Nymeth has a fun contest going on over at Things Mean A Lot. The winner gets a copy of any YA sci fi/fantasy book he/she chooses. Woo hoo. Contest ends Sunday, so get on over there and enter.

- Stephanie at Stephanie's Written Word is hosting a reading challenge. You may remember how I got myself in waaaay over my head with challenges last year - so much so that I unentered all of them and swore off challenges. Well, this one is just a little too tantalizing. So, I'm going to enter her Everything Austen Challenge. You have to choose 6 Austen-themed things to do between July 1 and January 1, 2010. The challenge includes prizes (woo hoo!). Here's my list:

1. Read Sense & Sensibility by Jane Austen

2. Read Jane Austen Ruined My Life by Beth Pattilo

3. Read Austenland by Shannon Hale

4. Read Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen

5. Watch Pride & Prejudice (BBC version)

6. Re-watch Pride & Prejudice (2005)

I'm really excited about this one. Emphasis on one, as in this is the one and only challenge I'm doing this year (not counting My Light & Fluffy Fluke-A-Thon, of course).

Okay, about the giveaway ... I have two books up for grabs. I described each contest in the following posts. Hopefully, it all makes sense. Both contests end on July 10 and are open worldwide. Good luck

Have a wonderful 4th, everybody! I'll catch you all when I get back.

Gone On Vacation Giveaway #1

Hachette Book Group sent me several non-fiction books, one of which does not appeal to me at all. Since I'm not a Garth Brooks fan (although I used to know all the words to "I've Got Friends in Low Places"), and I don't have any interest in country music, The Garth Factor by Patsi Bale Cox just isn't for me. If you're a Garth fan, I'd love to pass this brand new hardcover on to you. All you have to do is make a comment on this post, and you'll be entered into the giveaway. Blog about it for an extra entry. I'll choose a winner on July 10. Good luck!

Here's the blurb from the front jacket cover:

Since his debut in 1990, country music icon Garth Brooks has sold over 128 million albums and has been certified by the RIAA as the #1 selling artist in U.S. history. But Garth had more than his share of controversy. Throughout his unprecedented rise he has been denounced as a media and market manipulator, a country music poseur, and a megalomaniac. Others claim he is simply a brilliant businessman and marketing strategist. Either way, his record-breaking success has had a revolutionary effect on the music industry.

Examining his career within the context of music history, author and industry insider Patsi Bale Cox goes behind closed doors at the labels and delves into the inner sanctum of the Nashville music community.
The Garth Factor paints a portrait of how Brooks broke into the tight-knit country music community, his dealings with songwriters and label heads, and his relationships with fellow country stars, including how his friendship with Trisha Yearwood developed into love and marriage. The choices behind the making of each album, from songwriting through recording and marketing, will be shared by those who know him best. Garth's controversial and groundbreaking videos will also be examined as well as the true story behind his "alter ego" Chris Gaines. Finally, the book will cover the reasons behind Garth's retirement, and what he has been up to since.

A portrait of not just a hugely successful artist, but also a key period in American music history,
The Garth Factor reveals an in-depth look at the industry that earned Nashville the nickname "Music City."

(Book image from Barnes & Noble)

Gone On Vacation Giveaway #2

Occasionally, I can be a bit of an airhead. Occasionally, this works in my favor. Like now. I received an extra copy of A Sweet Disorder by Jacqueline Kolosov from Disney Publishing. Turns out, I requested it twice. Duh. The good news is I'm going to pass this beautiful hardcover on to one of my readers.

I haven't read this book yet (although I plan to take it on vacation with me), but here's the blurb from the front cover flap:

After her father's death abroad, sixteen-year-old Miranda faces a broken engagement and a paltry dowry. Worse yet, she finds herself the ward of distant family relations, the Earl and Countess of Turbury, who are determined to bring her to court to marry her to the boorish Lord Seagrave for their own profit.

At Queen Elizabeth's court, Miranda soon learns that her survival is largely dependent upon knowing whom to trust. Once her exquisite sewing and embroidery skills distinguish her from the other maidens, Miranda discovers her chance to escape marriage to Lord Seagrave and establish an independent life as the queen's semastress. The smoothness of her course, however, is jeopardized by the jealousy and anger of other ladies-in-waiting and even a trusted "friend," as well as the queen's embattled history with Miranda's beautiful mother. Complicatin gher situation further is the arrival at court of Henry Raleigh,the man to whim Miranda was once promised - the man she has always loved.

Jacqueline Kolosov brings to life the intrigue and deception as well as the pageantry and high fashion of Elizabethan society in this lush second novel.

If this sounds like something you would enjoy, leave a comment on this post. Blog about it and you get an extra entry. I will draw the name of one winner on July 10. Good luck!

(Book image from GoodReads; Book courtesy of Disney/Hyperion.)
Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Sitting Swing: Transcending the Need to Blame

Oh, the blame game. I loathe it. One of my big pet peeves is people who can't accept responsibility for their own actions, people who always have someone (or something) else to blame for their misfortunes. So, I guess it's not surprising that I spent the first half of Irene Watson's The Sitting Swing despising the author. I mean, I felt for little Irene who grew up with parents so cold and overprotective that they damaged their daughter emotionally, socially and (on occasion) physically. However, I wanted to strangle her when she made excuses like:

"This situation developed because I was a second child without a sibling to look to for example, without a parent to look to for example either, because Mom was my clear and present enemy, and Dad was around for meals and bedtime and that was about it. He wasn't any protection from the enemy, so he was, in this scenario, in the bad camp" (104-105).

Used to the stoic example of my mother, who grew up with an emotionally abusive, alcoholic father, but went on to become one of the most caring, content adults I know, I just don't buy the idea that a traumatic childhood automatically begets a miserable adulthood. Luckily, I missed Irene Watson's point completely. Her book isn't about blaming; it's about transcending the need to blame.

The Sitting Swing is Watson's story of coming to terms with her childhood, a period that left her broken-hearted and bitter. The first half of the book describes her early years in rural Canada. Living on an isolated farm in Alberta, Irene spent the majority of her time with her mother, a hard woman made even more so by the loss of her first child. Under her tutelage, Irene learned that everything she said, did or thought was wrong. Although her mother claimed to want only the best for Irene, she routinely ignored, rationalized or waved away problems Irene brought to her attention, even when they involved outright abuse. Not surprisingly, young Irene turned into an angry, rebellious young woman. Even after she married, she couldn't shake her mother's constant criticism. Years later, Irene was still so crippled by the hurts she suffered in childhood that she checked herself into a treatment center.

The second half of the book describes Avalon, and the 12-step program Irene went through there. Through the process, she learns to accept responsibility for her own reactions, stop blaming the past for her current problems, and start fulfilling her life's true purpose. Although her time at the treatment center was difficult and humiliating, it was also cathartic and illuminating. The experience allowed her to move past her childhood and become a successful author and businesswoman.
Although I found the author's story inspirational, it was told in such an odd way that I had trouble sticking with it. Her tone is conversational, making the book very readable. However, it's so casual that she tends to meander, losing focus and straying from the points she's attempting to get across. The first part of the book, in which Watson paints a portrait of her early years, is almost compulsively readable. However, once Watson comes to her marriage, the narrative stops. Before we even get a chance to know her as a newlywed, we're given a grown up Irene who's now a mother, a therapist, and a woman on the brink of divorce. She's also a woman whose turned herself in for intensive counseling because of vague childhood trauma. We see her go through Avalon and emerge as a whole, healed human being. We never really learn about her marriage, her children or her adult relationships with her parents. It's like she gives us the beginning and ending of her life story, but no middle. Without it, I felt lost, like I was missing some vital information.

My other big beef with this book is that once Watson started talking about her 12-step program, I started to lose interest. This section included very long paragraphs of dialogue from her counselors; I admit I started skimming, since all I really wanted to know was what Watson got out of the program and if it helped her patch up her life. In the end, she learns to forgive and forget, but she seems to receive no insight into what made her mother tick. Although she goes back to her childhood home and tries to get information out of an uncle, she never confronts her mother, which made the whole book seem unresolved to me. I really wanted to know what happened between her and her mother, how they related (or didn't relate) as adults and if she ever talked to her mother about the injustices she suffered as a child. Without all this, Watson's story just didn't seem complete.

All in all, I didn't love or hate this one. Some of it was engrossing, some of it wasn't. Some of it was illuminating, some of it wasn't. So, I'm ambivalent. I didn't love it, I didn't hate it.

Grade: C

If this was a movie, it would be rated: R (for language and references to sexual/adult situations, although more implied than graphic)

What's Cinderella To Do When Her Fairy Tale's Looking More Brothers Grimm Than Disney Princess?

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

For some girls, moving to New York, starting over at a posh high school, and buzzing to the city to visit trendy boutiques and galleries would be a dream come true. Not so much for sophomore Lucy Morgan. Her little fairy tale seems to be coming straight from The Brothers Grimm. She's got the absent dad, the wicked stepmother, even the evil stepsisters - if she resembles any of the Disney princesses, it's Cinderella. Pre-prince.

When Melissa Kantor's If I Have A Wicked Stepmother, Where's My Prince? opens, Lucy is the invisible new girl at Glen Lake High School. At home, it's more of the same - when her dad's not traveling for work, he's busy nuzzling his new wife; when her 12-year-old stepsisters (whom she dubs Princess One and Princess Two) deign to speak to her, it's usually to criticize her fashion sense (or lack thereof); and Mara, her new stepmother, blames Lucy for anything and everything that goes wrong. The only place she can find solace is in the school art room, where she can forget reality and lose herself in painting.

Then, one day, everything changes. Her offhand comment about basketball grabs the attention of Connor Pearson, the hottest guy at Glen Lake High. Suddenly, the cute senior not only knows she's alive, but actually wants to go out with her. Having been acknowledged by the prince, Lucy's popularity skyrockets. Just like that, she's going out with the coolest guy around, she has girlfriends to giggle with, and rumor has it she's in the running for prom queen. So what if things are a little rocky at home? She's finally living out her princess fantasy.

The funny thing is, the more Lucy gets to know Connor, the more she realizes they have nothing in common. She's much more natural around Sam Wolff, an annoying, but incredibly talented artist. Still, Connor's the hottest thing around. Besides, she reasons, "What did Prince Charming know about Cinderella besides her shoe size?" (54). With everything else going on, being with Connor just makes her feel good. Nothing else - not her dad, who always sides with Mara; not the Princesses who can't be bothered to lift a finger; and certainly not Mara, who cares more about finding antiques than getting to know her new stepdaughter - can give her that kind of satisfaction. She's Cinderella - so why isn't she dancing and singing with mice to celebrate her bliss? Where, exactly, is her happily ever after?

If I Have A Wicked Stepmother, Where's My Prince? is a lighthearted Cinderella story with lots of modern twists. Unlike Disney's bubbleheaded blonde, our heroine is smart, diverse, and not always sweet as honey. She's an EveryGirl, with whom teens will immediately identify. Her story's predictable, but still manages to be interesting and fun. Although Lucy does ask herself some big questions, there's not tons of depth to this novel. It's also not quite as innocent as it sounds - there's some language and while not explicit, there are references to underrage drinking, drug use and partying (see my note below). Overall, though, it's a fast, enjoyable read that will appeal to any girl who's stuck in reality but determined to make her own happily ever after.

Grade: B

If this was a movie, it would be rated: PG (for mild language, some suggestive content, and scenes involving drinking, drugs, and partying)

Cookin' the Books: Chocolate Highlander Cookie Bars

Chocolate Highlander Bar Cookies (from Strawberry Shortcake Murder by Joanne Fluke)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees, rack in middle position

1 c. softened butter (2 sticks, 1/2 lbs.)

1/2 c. powdered sugar (make sure there's no big lumps)

1/4 t. salt

2 c. flour (no need to sift)

4 beaten eggs (just whip them up with a fork)

1 c. melted butter, cooled to room temp. (2 sticks, 1/2 lbs.)

1 c. white sugar

1 t. baking powder

1/4 t. salt

1/2 c. flour (don't bother to sift)

2 1/2 c. chocolate chips (measure BEFORE they're melted)

1/3 c. powdered (confectioner's) sugar to sprinkle on top of pan.

FIRST STEP: Cream butter with 1/2 cup powdered sugar and salt. Add flour and mix well. Pat it out in a greased 9-inch by-13-inch pan with your fingers. (That's a standard cake pan.)

Bake at 350 degrees F. for 15 minutes. That makes the shortbread crust. Remove from oven. (Don't turn off oven!)

SECOND STEP: Mix eggs with melted butter and white sugar. Add baking powder, salt, and flour, and mix thoroughly. (A hand mixer will do the job if you're tired of stirring.)

Melt the chocolate chips in a small double boiler, a pan over hot water on the stove, or nuke them for 3 minutes in the microwave on high. (Be sure to stir -- chips may maintain their shape even after they're melted.)

Add the melted chocolate chips to your bowl and mix thoroughly.

Pour this mixture on top of the pan you just baked and tip the pan so it covers all of the shortbread crust. Stick it back into the oven and bake it for another 25 minutes. Then remove if from the oven and sprinkle on additional powdered sugar.

Let it cool thoroughly and cut into brownie-sized bars. You can refrigerate these, but cut them before you do. (They're pretty solid when they're cold.)

Hannah's note: Andrea said these were so rich, no one could eat more than one. (I watched her eat three at the wrap party.)

My thoughts on the recipe: Divine. I love these. The recipe was super easy to follow, and the cookie bars turned out perfectly. Halfway through making these (I'm a little slow), it occurred to me that this is basically a chocolate version of the Lovely Lemon Bars I made from Chocolate Chip Cookie Murder. Like those, the Chocolate Highlander Cookie Bars have a yummy, flaky crust; they're also sweet, but not sickenly so. I tried to take a side view of these bars so you could see what they actually look like, but the pictures were blurry (you wouldn't think it would be so difficult to snap a photo of a stationary object!) - basically, it's like eating a super-moist brownie pie. Does that make sense? Anyway, these are delicious. Love, love, love them.

Note: This recipe was used by permission.

Fluke Bakes Up More Murder and Mayhem in Second Swensen Mystery

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Tiny Lake Eden's quickly becoming murder central, and much to her mother's chagrin, Hannah Swensen seems to be finding all the bodies. In Strawberry Shortcake Murder, it's Boyd Watson, the high school basketball coach, who's taken the bullet (actually the hammer). He's no one's favorite person - in fact, his snide comments during last night's stint as a cooking contest judge earned him even more enemies. No one blames Danielle for offing her unpleasant husband, especially since he'd used her as a punching bag on more than one occasion, but the battered wife claims innocence. She says she took a large dose of cold medicine, went to bed, and woke up to find Boyd laying in a pool of blood in their garage. As to who else would have motive to kill him - well, really, who wouldn't?

Although the town cops - Mike (one of Hannah's steady dates) and Bill (her brother-in-law) -warn her to let the professionals handle this one, the cookie chef's not about to back down. While she's pondering how to clear Danielle's name, another mystery saunters right into her cookie shop: Lucy Richards, Lake Eden's sad excuse for a cub reporter, decked out in expensive clothes and driving a new Grand Am. The newspaper hardly pays enough to keep her in steno notepads, let alone her pricey new wheels and wardrobe. She hints at an upcoming book deal, but Hannah knows Lucy can barely write her own name. What kind of publisher pays big bucks for an expose by an unknown, and not very talented writer? Hannah smells a lie. But, if Lucy's not collecting a big advance, where did she get the money?

With her sister playing Watson to her Sherlock Holmes, Hannah uncovers some disturbing truths about Lucy. The more she investigates, the more she realizes that Lucy's windfall and Boyd Watson's murder might be connected. But, just when she's about to confront the reporter, she finds that Lucy's up and skipped town. Desperate to free Danielle from suspicion, Hannah chases down clues until she knows exacty what happened to Boyd Watson. The trouble is she needs to confront an absent Lucy (the reporter's nowhere to be found), share her evidence with the police (which would mean admitting she broke into Lucy's apartment), and keep her own neck out of harm's way (which is getting increasingly difficult since she knows who the killer is and the killer knows she knows). Can Hannah expose Boyd's murderer in time? Or will hers be the next body to make an appearance at the town morgue? With Hannah on the case, one thing's for sure - it's bound to be one interesting (and delicious) investigation.
Everything I said about the first book in this series is basically true for Strawberry Shortcake Murder - it's light, fun, and pretty predictable. Ah well, Hannah's a likeable character, who keeps me coming back for more. Plus, these "light & fluffy" provide a nice counterpoint to my more serious reading. And did I mention how delish the recipes look? Stay tuned as I try out Chocolate Highlander Cookie Bars - chocolate, shortbread crust, two kinds of sugar - what's not to love?
Grade: B

Remember to comment on this post to be entered into my first Light & Fluffy Fluke-A-Thon giveaway. If you've already commented on my review of Chocolate Chip Cookie Murder, then you're already entered. Only one comment counts per giveaway, but don't let that stop you from speaking your mind about Joanne Fluke, Hannah Swensen, culinary mysteries, etc. I always love to hear from my readers.

Want more entries? Just blog about the Fluke-A-Thon, and send me the link. Presto! An extra entry.
Saturday, June 20, 2009

6 Teens + 1 Night in An Abandoned Insane Asylum = YA Horror At Its Spookiest

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

If you think a crumbling Victorian provides the perfect background for a horror novel, try this one on for size: A sprawling insane asylum, abandoned, but littered with debris that screams of desperation, cruelty and madness. Kind of trumps the haunted house, don't you think? The setting alone makes Project 17 by Laurie Faria Stolarz a sinister little creepfest. Add in a ghost, a freaky talking doll, the whispers of a madwoman, and you've got a recipe for YA horror at its spookiest.

When Derik "LaPlaya" LaPointe discovers that his town's infamous psychiatric hospital is about to be bulldozed, he sees a perfect opportunity. If he can figure out a way to break in, stay the night in the haunted institution, and get it all on videotape, he might just have a shot at winning an internship with Reality TV. That could lead to a real career, one that doesn't involve flipping hamburgers at his family's diner. Now all he needs is some equipment (luckily, he has an uncle in the photography biz), a cast (other than his goof off buddies who would never take his project seriously), and a way to get into Danvers State Hospital without landing himself in jail (a minor issue). Finding stars for his production turns out to be more difficult than planned, but Derik ends up with a motley group of 5, each with his/her own reasons for being there: there's Chet, the redheaded prankster who's in it for laughs; Tony and Greta, the lovey dovey drama rats, trying to be "seen"; beautiful Liza, who needs an extracurricular to convince Harvard to accept her application; and Goth girl Mimi, who has her own agenda. Together, they sneak into the hospital, prepared to brave the night.

It's not long before the creepy setting starts getting to them. Even though the place hasn't been used in ages, the cries of the insane seem to reverberate off the walls. Macabre artifacts like nooses, twisted paintings, and bizarre graffiti send shivers up their spines. But when they encounter Patient #17, it's as if they've opened Pandora's Box. They sense a presence, a presence that wants something from them and won't stop until it gets what it wants. Derik's movie be darned, the teens just want to get out alive.

Although Project 17 isn't all that original, it's still pretty freaky. The story's intense from beginning to end, with a few truly horrifying scenes (I'm not going to give anything away, but the two scariest incidents have to do with a doll and a chair, respectively). Goofball Chet provides some needed comic relief, as do the sweet as sugar drama couple. All of the characters struck me as well-rounded and believable. The relationships that develop between them provide some escape from the horror show, but pretty much, the book's a taut, spine-tingling tale of terror.

While Project 17 had me biting my nails and startling at every noise, I don't know if I truly liked it. It meanders quite a bit, branching out into subplots that never quite develop properly. This is distracting, as is all the swearing and locker talk; there's no sex in the book, but that doesn't stop the characters from talking about it. A lot. The ending is also weird for me - it feels vague and unresolved. So, all in all, the read was just okay for me. It's spooky enough, but its other issues left me feeling unsatisfied. Maybe books like The Forest of Hands and Teeth and The Hunger Games have ruined this genre for me, making me crave horror stories with a little more depth. Who knows? Whatever the reason, this one just didn't quite work for me.

Grade: B-

A Sleepy Announcement

My eyes are seriously droopy this morning. I stayed up late waiting for my son to get home from cub scout camp; to keep myself awake, I read a freaky little book called Project 17. I managed a nightmare-less snooze, but I'm still really tired. Her Highness wanted her bottle at 7:30 (the nerve!), so I had to get up. As soon as I can, I'm heading right back to bed. Before I do, though, I wanted to announce the winners of The Lost Hours by Karen White. They are:

Chantele and Sarah

Thanks to everyone who entered, and to Karen for donating books for the giveaway. Chantele and Sarah, if you'll email me (blogginboutbooks[AT]gmail[DOT][COM]) your addresses, I'll get the books to you as soon as I can. If you didn't win, don't despair - I have lots more books to give away. If you're interested in this book and you live near me (Tara), feel free to come borrow it.

Friday, June 19, 2009

It's My Husband's Birthday, and You Know What That Means

So, it's my husband's 33rd birthday today - he's finally caught up to me! It makes me feel better about robbing the cradle (he's only 6 months younger than me). Anyway, what that means for you is this: It's the last day to enter the giveaway for The Lost Hours by Karen White. I have 2 copies up for grabs. The contest is open to readers everywhere, so if you want to enter, do it today by commenting on this post. I'll announce the winners tomorrow morning.

I've been trying to keep up with all my book blogs, but it's becoming an impossible task. I clicked on a feed the other day that showed 100 new posts! Yikes. I feel badly that I'm missing so many of your posts, but I've got so much time during the day. Anyway, here are a few fun contests that I've noticed:

Karlene over at Inksplasher has been running an event she calles Come SNORT With Me. SNORT = Summer Not Road Trip. She's doing lots of fun stuff - you can win a CD and other prizes. Check it out here.

Um, okay, I guess that's all. Heh heh. I really am behind!

Don't forget to comment on this post if you want an entry into my first Fluke-a-Thon contest. If you're wondering what in the heck a Fluke-A-Thon is, get the 411 here.

Cookin' the Books: Lovely Lemon Bar Cookies

Lovely Lemon Bar Cookies (from Chocolate Chip Cookie Murder by Joanne Fluke)

Preheat oven to 350. Rack in middle position.

2 c. flour (no need to sift)
1 c. cold butter (2 sticks; 1/2 lbs.)
1/2 c. powdered (confectioner's) sugar (no need to sift, unless it's got big lumps)

4 beaten eggs (just whip them up with a fork)
2 c. white (granulated) sugar
8 T. lemon juice (1/2 c.)
1 t. or so of zest (opt.) (zest is finely grated lemon peel)
1/2 t. salt
1 t. baking powder
4 T. flour (that's 1/4 c. - don't bother to sift)

Cut each stick of butter into 8 pieces. Zoop it up with the flour and the powdered sugar in a food processor until it looks like coarse cornmeal (just like the first step in making a piecrust). Spread it out in a greased 9 x 13" pan (that's a standard sheet cake pan) and pat it down with your hands.

Bake at 350 for 15-20 minutes, or until golden around the edges. Remove from oven (Don't turn off the oven!).

Mix eggs with white sugar. Add lemon juice (and zest, if you want to use it). Add salt and baking powder and mix. Then add flour and mix thoroughly (This will be runny - it's supposed to be).

Pour this mixture on top of the pan you just baked and stick it back in the oven. Bake at 350 degrees F. for another 30 to 35 minutes. Then remove from the oven and sprinkle on additional powdered sugar.

Let cool thoroughly and cut into brownie-sized bars.

Susan's note: All of the recipes in Fluke's books include a note from Hannah Swensen. I omitted it in this case as it contains spoilers.

My thoughts on the recipe: Well, I'm not the world's greatest baker, so it's not surprising that I had a few problems when making these. Nothing big, though. I don't have a food processor, so I tried blending up the crust ingredients in my 12-year-old blender. It wasn't exactly up to the task, so I ended up just mashing it together with a fork. A bit of a pain since the butter was cold, but not a big deal. I also ended up baking it about 5 minutes too long, which resulted in burnt edges. That was my fault - I didn't check it when I should have.

The good news is, the lemon bars still turned out wonderfully. They have a nice, flaky crust, and the filling has just the right consistency - not too runny, not too firm. I also liked that these aren't sickenly sweet or too sour. They're perfect. Just delish.

A funny - As I was sampling these lemon bars, I kept thinking they were a lot less sweet than the bars I usually make. Curious, I pulled out my recipe (which comes from an old LDS cookbook), and guess what? The recipes are exactly the same! I guess that means it's a winner.

Another note: This recipe was used with permission from Joanne Fluke (actually, from her husband "for Herself"). I copied it directly from the book, then returned the book to the library, so any errors are my own. Oh, and I have no idea why these are identified as "cookies" - they're definitely bars. Bar cookies, I guess? Who cares? They're yummy.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Food for Thought: Will The Great Mormon Novel Ever Be Written?

Why, yes, I am having a posting fest today. My 2 oldest are at summer school (fun classes like ceramics and children's literature), my baby's napping, and my 4-year-old is absorbed in the green army men battling it out on the kitchen table. Without anyone whining, "Mommy, Mommy," I hardly know what to do with myself. Of course, there's laundry, ironing, vacuuming, dusting, etc., etc., but what fun would that be?

Actually, it was while clearing off the table (since war has broken out on one end, I figured I better make sure the other end is useable) that I came across an interesting article in Mormon Times. If you haven't heard of this publication, it comes in the mail along with Church News. Started in January 2008, it's published by Deseret News, but is not an official publication of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Anyway, it has some interesting articles and columns, several of which are written by well-known Mormons (Orson Scott Card) or at least those with familiar last names (Don Osmond). The article I'm referring to is by a columnist named Jerry Johnston. Now, I'll be honest, I usually just skim Mormon Times, but occasionally a headline will catch my eye, as did this one: "Great LDS novel can't be written because our religion allows few gray areas." Click on over and read it. It definitely provides some food for thought.

I know I often lament the quality (or lack thereof) of LDS novels, especially because many are so annoyingly unrealistic. However, I've definitely seen an improvement - novels like Kay Lynn Mangum's When the Bough Breaks and Angela Morrison's Taken By Storm show LDS life in a more honest way. Many talented Mormon writers are making names for themselves in the mainstream market - Stephenie Meyer, Brandon Sanderson, Shannon Hale, Jessica Day George, etc. - but seem to shy away from the LDS market. Several Mormon authors have expressed to me the same concern Johnston has - they can't write a truly honest LDS novel without landing themselves in trouble. In light of all this, I, too, wonder - will we ever see the publication of The Great Mormon Novel, which Johnston defines as "a grand and glorious literary novel that is heralded by both the LDS faithful and the literary world?" Fascinating question. What do you think?

It's No Fluke - Culinary Mystery Writer Cooks Up A Delicious Tale

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

It's bad enough that Hannah Swensen can't get her mother off her back, can't find a decent man in a town with a population of 3,000, and can't compete with her beautiful sister - but now, she may have actually killed someone with her cooking. As owner of The Cookie Jar, a popular hangout in tiny Lake Eden, Minnesota, she's used to baking up "killer" recipes. It's just that none of them have ever had quite such literal results. So, when well-liked delivery man Ron LaSalle turns up dead, with Hannah's Chocolate Chip Crunches scattered around his corpse, it just doesn't look good. Not good at all.

Hannah's brother-in-law Bill, who also happens to be Lake Eden's deputy sheriff, soon clears her of any wrongdoing. It's clear that Ron's death has nothing to do with cookies and everything to do with the bullet hole in his chest. Still, Hannah's got a reputation to uphold - the fact that Ron's body was found in the alley behind her shop doesn't bode well for business. There's only one solution to the problem - she's got to figure out who offed everyone's favorite deliveryman. If she can help Bill achieve detective rank in the process, so much the better.

While Hannah bakes up goodies in The Cookie Jar's kitchen, she keeps an ear to the gossip circulating in the dining room. It's not long before she has herself a whole list of suspects. Bill's warned her not to get too involved, but he's also made her his unofficial assistant on the case, so it's full-speed ahead for the intrepid baker. Armed with bags of cookies, she plies the townsfolk for information, and ends up with a whole lot more than she bargained for - including a second corpse. With a calendar full of catering jobs, a meddling mother, and an intriguing new friendship with the local dentist, Hannah really doesn't have time to be running all over town trying to solve a murder. And she certainly doesn't have time for the stalker parked outside her condo, or the mounting danger barrelling toward her. But, if you think that will stop her, think again. The cookie-baking super sleuth is about to risk life and limb to find a killer.

Chocolate Chip Cookie Murder by Joanne Fluke boasts a fun plotline - if a tad bit far-fetched - made even more scrumptious by the inclusion of Hannah's recipes. In the tradtion of cozies,this one's not all that realistic - after all, Hannah turns up clues right and left, while Bill stumbles around in the dark - but it's enjoyable nonetheless. Don't expect a lot of character development, really surprising plot twists or Pulitzer Prize-winning writing here. It's light, fluffy, unsophisticated fun.

That said, I have to whine a little about my one big beef with Hannah Swensen. I swear, if Fluke hadn't mentioned her age (30, I believe), I would have believed her to be a grey-haired retirement home candidate. She just doesn't think, act or speak like someone of my generation. I mean, c'mon, her possible love interests are guys named Norman and Herb. This is probably a minor complaint next to the fact that her extreme involvement in a murder case is completely unbelievable, but still ...

It has been suggested that I need to lighten up a little in order to really enjoy cozies. So, that's what I'm doing here. Forget the fact that Hannah talks like a 60-year-old, forget her unrealistic involvement in her brother-in-law's murder case, forget her ability to find clues where no one else can - and just enjoy this delicious caper. Oh yeah, your tummy's going to get a little rumbly with this one, so make sure there's a cookie (or two) close at hand.

Grade: B
Note: Remember to comment on this post if you want to be entered into the drawing for a copy of this book. Contest is open to international readers. Click the button above for more info.

My Light & Fluffy Fluke-A-Thon

I feel like I've been reading some "heavy" stuff lately, what with After Etan, The Forest of Hands and Teeth, The Hunger Games, etc. Then, because After Etan didn't freak me out quite enough, I watched Changeling (which is actually very similar to After Etan). What I'm trying to say is that I felt like I needed something a little lighter to even out my "heavier" reading. I immediately thought of Joanne Fluke's culinary mysteries starring Hannah Swensen.

Now, this series is not completely new to me. A few years ago, a copy of Sugar Cookie Murder was circulating through my family. I read it, thought, "silly, predictable, and why does the 30ish main character talk and act like a 60-year-old?" I set the book aside, vowing not to bother with the rest of the series. Fast forward a few years. A few months ago, my friend called asking if I wanted to go with her to The Poisoned Pen (a cozy little indie bookshop, which specializes in mysteries) in nearby Scottsdale to meet one of her favorite authors. Guess who? Joanne Fluke. I told my friend about my experience with Sugar Cookie Murder; she replied, "Oh, I know they're the cheesiest mysteries ever, but they're fun, clean and the recipes are sooo good." Duly convinced, I accepted the invite. And had a great time. Joanne was interesting, gracious and very personable (Don't believe me? You can check out the video of her interview at The Poisoned Pen's blog. Click on the video player on the right sidebar, then click "On Demand" and scroll down until you see Joanne's name. BTW: My friend is the one who asks Joanne why she decided to write "clean" mysteries.) Because I'm all about supporting indie stores, I bought a copy of the newest book - The Creampuff Murder - and had the author sign it.

You know me and series' - I can't start with the last book, or even one in the middle, I have to begin at the beginning. So, I decided why not make this into a reading challenge? It's going to be a personal reading challenge, although you can join me if you'd like. The best part about it is this - you can win prizes just for following along. This is how it's going to work: I'm going to read each book; write a review; then do a "Cookin' the Books" feature, where I make one recipe from each story. Here's where you come in: If you comment on the posts, you will receive one entry (even if you comment on one book review multiple times, you will only receive one entry/review) into my giveaways, of which there will be two. I will draw one name when I reach the halfway point (Book 7) in my Hannah Swenson adventure, and one when I complete the challenge. The first prize will be a new (unsigned) copy of Chocolate Chip Cookie Murder; the second will be my signed, hardcover, brand-spankin'-new copy of Cream Puff Murder. I can't give you a deadline for the challenge's end, because it will depend on the availability of the books at my local library as well as how fast I can read. Here's a rundown of the books in the Hannah Swensen series (which I will post on my sidebar, so you can follow my progress):

1. Chocolate Chip Cookie Murder

2. Candy for Christmas (a novella that appears inside special editions of Chocolate Chip Cookie Murder.)

3. Strawberry Shortcake Murder

4. Blueberry Muffin Murder

5. Lemon Meringue Pie Murder

6. Fudge Cupcake Murder

7. Sugar Cookie Murder (this will be a re-read)

8. Peach Cobbler Murder

9. Sugar and Spice (novella/short story - part of a collection)

10. Key Lime Pie Murder

11. Carrot Cake Murder

12. Candy Cane Murder

13. Cream Puff Murder

14. Plum Pudding Murder (to be released October 2009)

Easy Cheesy, as my 7-year-old likes to say. I call it "Light & Fluffy." Any way you describe it, it should be fun. And who couldn't use a little lightheartedness these days, eh?/
Monday, June 15, 2009

House of Ghosts Just Isn't For Me

I like reading mysteries and I like reading stories set in the WWII era, so I really shouldn't have had such a hard time getting into House of Ghosts by Lawrence Kaplan. Maybe it's because I couldn't stand the main character, or maybe because the plot didn't kick in until 3/4s of the way through the story (Page 196, to be exact). Whatever it was, I had a really hard time staying interested. By the time I hit 196, I actually gasped. Finally, the story grabbed my attention; I stopped yawning and started flipping through pages to find out what happened. If that kind of momentum appeared in the beginning and middle, this would have been a much more enjoyable read.
The story concerns Joe Henderson, a retired cop whose life is slowly going down the toilet. He's injured; on the brink of divorce; addicted to drugs of all sorts; and carrying on an affair with a married woman. When his neighbor across the street winds up dead, Joe drums up enough interest to ask some questions. While roaming through the deceased's home, wondering about the ornery old man's life, Joe comes across some interesting items - a few faded photographs, WWII paraphenelia, including an old U.S. Air Force map of Auschwitz, an official government ID, and a couple of diaries. From these, the cop begins to piece together the lives of several men - his dead neighbor, Preston Swedge, and a Jewish kid from New York named Paul Rothstein.
At this point, the story veers away from Joe in 2000 back to September of 1938, when Preston enters Princeton as a freshman. It's there that he meets Clark Johnson, his outspoken, prankster roommate. Paul Rothstein's story is also revealed. The stories are not written in journal form; in fact, they're written from several different viewpoints, making me wonder exactly how Joe gets such detailed information on ALL the men's lives. Anyway, the middle chapters of House of Ghosts trace their lives from students, to political activists, to soldiers. It reveals their individual reactions to the onset of WWII, the news about discrimination against Jews and the Japanese, and the United States' entrance into the war. I know that's a dull description, and that's because the middle of the book meanders in all kinds of directions. It reads more like a history lesson than a story. Finally, when the men are at war, a plot emerges. We come back to the mystery that piqued Joe Henderson's interest - why did Preston Swedge have a map of Auschwitz? The answer, which Joe is determined to find, will chill him to the bone.
House of Ghosts has a fascinating premise, one I don't think I've ever seen explored in fiction. I just wish it had tighter plotting, faster pacing and much, much better editing. A handful of historical figures appear in the story, but it's the made-up ones I'm concerned about - they were so generic and stereotypical that I had a hard time keeping track of who was who. In addition, I didn't really care about any of them. They didn't become real to me. Poor characterization coupled with a dull, lagging middle made reading this book a chore. If I had known better, I would have flipped straight to Page 196 and read from there. It's obvious that Kaplan did his homework - the historic detail was overwhelming - but I prefer my history weaved into a great story. With a bit of re-organization, I think it could have been a compelling story, but as is, it failed to capture my attention. If I hadn't agreed to review this book for Mystery Book Promotions, I wouldn't have continued past the first couple of chapters. Sorry Mr. Kaplan, but this one just wasn't for me.
Grade: C
(To read more about Lawrence Kaplan, find out where the next stop on his virtual tour will be, get more opinions on his book, and even enter to win a copy, visit his tour page. To enter, you need to use BBB's unique PIN - 2025. Entries from this site will be accepted until 12 noon [PST] tomorrow.)
Friday, June 12, 2009

The Village Meets Dawn of the Dead in Pitch-Perfect Forest

Once upon a time there was a village. A quaint little village nestled in the forest, far away from
city lights and noise. The residents lived simple lives - school, work, marriage, children, death. From the Cathedral in the middle of town, The Sisterhood ruled uncontested. Everyone followed their edicts without question. Well, except for the Unconsecrated. The undead just wouldn't listen.

In The Forest of Hands and Teeth, Carrie Ryan's constructed a creepy postapocalyptic world in the form of an idyllic little community surrounded by strong, metal fences. On one side, people go about their daily business; on the other, flesh-hungry zombies clamber to get inside. A bite from one of the creatures means infection, death, and returning to "life" as a mindless zombie. This is the way it is. This is the way it's always been. At least that's what The Sisterhood teaches; thus, that is what everyone believes.

Everyone except Mary, that is. She's heard her mother's stories about the ocean, about buildings that touch the sky - despite what The Sisterhood tells her, she believes there is a world beyond her own. A world that's safe, unmarred by the Unconsecrated. She longs to find the ocean, but there's so much standing in the way - her family; her betrothed; the zombies; the danger; the uncertainty. More and more though, she's questioning what she's been taught and The Sisterhood is not happy about it. When Mary stumbles upon their secrets, her world begins to tilt. When the unthinkable happens, it threatens to fall apart completely. Suddenly, she's on the run, blindly chasing her dreams, dragging loved ones along with her in her desperate search. Relentlessly pursued by the undead, Mary must keep herself alive - somehow. But, what if this really is the end? What if she is the last person on Earth? What if there is no ocean? What if the stories she's been told are only that - fairy tales spun from her mother's imagination? How long can she survive before the Unconsecrated take her, too?

If the story sounds bleak, that's because it is. From its haunting cover to its last sentence, The Forest of Hands and Teeth is a dark, intense ride. It's provocative, compelling and just downright shivery. The chilling tone doesn't let up for one second. It's a pitch-perfect, brilliantly executed, absolutely unputtdownable little horror novel. Yes, it's dark; yes, it's intense; yes, it's bleak; yes, you should run out and get it right now.

Grade: A

(Book image from Barnes & Noble)

Something I Never Thought I'd Hear Myself Say: Skip the Book and Watch the Movie

(Image from Amazon)

It's rare, but occasionally, I'll come across a movie I like better than the book on which it is based. This is the case with Carl Hiassen's YA novel, Hoot. I know the book earned a Newbery Honor Medal and all that, but I found it choppy, a little crass and zany to the point of silliness. The movie version softened a lot of the book's rough edges, giving the story an appealing innocence.

The book concerns one Roy Eberhardt, a Montana transplant who's having trouble getting used to life in Coconut Cove, Florida. Roy spends his days at Trace Middle School trying not to get beat up by tough guy Dana Matherson, who pounces on him every chance he gets. One day, as Dana's smashing his face up against the bus window, Roy spies something odd - a kid about his age running pell mell down the street, barefoot. Curious, he asks around, but no one seems to know anything about the boy. Except Beatrice Leep. Strong, angry Beatrice Leep, who warns him - in no uncertain terms - to mind his own business.

In the meantime, Coconut Crove's got a small crisis on its hands - the site on which a new Mother Paula's pancake house seems to be the target of some kind of prankster. Alligators in the toilet, poisonous snakes slithering across the property, spray-painted patrol cars - the bumbling cops can't figure out who's responsible or what they've got against pancakes. Roy, on the other hand, is putting two-and-two together - he suspects the running boy's responsible for the assaults on the construction site. But why? And who is the barefoot kid, anyway? What Roy discovers will both surprise and enrage him. In fact, it might just lead to the biggest adventure of his life.

Hoot is the kind of book that will appeal to tween boys (my 10-year-old keeps asking if I'm ever going to be done with it) - it boasts a likeable, underdog hero; police who can't get anything right; a daring prankster; and kids standing up for what they believe in. Plus, it's got a rude/crude edge that boys will eat right up. For an adult woman (me), it's a little too over-the-top. Although I haven't read any of Hiassen's other books, I know he's known for his zany sense of humor; for me, it was a little too zany. Of course, I'm not a tween boy living in the Diary of a Wimpy Kid era, to whom zany equals most hilarious thing ever.

The reason I like the movie so much better is that it tones down a lot of the book's silliness. It's still funny, but not ridiculous. Now, I'm a little partial to the Wilson boys (something about those nasally drawls ...), which is another reason I liked the movie: Luke Wilson played Officer Delinko to perfection. Despite some serious preachy parts, it's a fun, family-friendly flick. I'd almost go so far as to say skip the book and just rent the movie, but I think that's against some reader code of ethics. Let's just say that for me the book wasn't really worth the read. The movie smoothed things out and made the story much more palatable for me. And did I mention Luke Wilson? That might not persuade a tween boy to watch the movie, but I have a hunch it will convince a few moms ...

Grade: C

Thursday, June 11, 2009

My New Summer Look

You may have noticed that things look a little different around here. Remember how I was hunting for a designer to spruce up my blog? Well, I found one - the fabulous Jeri Lyn. She hooked me up with a new header, a coordinating background and the cutest button ever. If you want to freshen up your blog, I highly recommend her. She posted instructions on how to grab my button - so please do! It's too adorable to keep to myself.

Now that I've got my fun summer look, I've got some other surprises coming up. Remember the reading challenge I mentioned? Yep, I'll be announcing that soon. I also have giveaways, interviews and, of course, reviews. So, definitely stay tuned!

Summer's been in full swing around here for a few weeks. The kids are bored out of their minds, and I'm feeling tired and lazy - something about having all my children home all day just makes me want to nap all day! Anyway, I hope you all are having a great summer filled with lots of great books. Happy reading!
Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Story of Child Prodigy Turned Holocaust Survivor Absolutely Unforgettable

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Few children stand out more than musical prodigies. Today, all it takes is a nod from Simon Cowell, a little help from YouTube and voila! Overnight stardom. Back before the Internet, before Simon became a household name, even before televisions invaded every home, people were fascinated by child prodigies. Hiding in the Spotlight by journalist Greg Dawson tells the story of one such child, a small girl whose popularity nearly cost her her life.

Dawson's book chronicles the life of his mother, Zhanna Arshanskaya Dawson. A precocious child, full of curiosity and wanderlust, Zhanna delighted in exploring her hometown of Berdyansk, Ukraine. She would often set out in just her underwear, bound for the market or the apothecary shop or any other destination that captured her fancy. Hoping to "rein in his little truant" (27), Zhanna's father forced her to take piano lessons. Although she loved music, the young wanderer had no desire to sit still and learn to play. After all, her father and his musician friends would play for her whenever she wanted. Besides, hours spent practicing scales were hours she couldn't spend roaming freely around the city.
In spite of herself, Zhanna proved to be an enormously talented pianist. She mastered difficult pieces with the ease of a much more experienced student. The music came naturally - and beautifully. Everyone was impressed. Zhanna's younger sister, a much more serious student, also played well. Together, Zhanna and Frina attracted the attention of the area's musical elite. They were performing often, winning competitions, and becoming quite well known. They even won scholarships to the elite Moscow State Conservatory. If things had been different, if the family had had more money, both girls would have been safely ensconced at Moscow State Conservatory when Hitler invaded Ukraine. But things were as they always had been - the Arshanskayas had little money; even with the girls' scholarships, they could not afford to move to Moscow. So, they were still in Kharkov on June 22, 1941, when Hitler attacked the Soviet Union. Nothing would ever be the same - the Arshanskys were Jews.
On a cold December day, the Arshanskys were forced to leave Kharkov, along with the rest of the Jewish population. Although the people believed they were heading for a labor camp, they were really trudging toward a much crueler fate - death and mass burial at Drobitsky Yar. Narrowly escaping that end, Zhanna slipped back into the city, determined to survive. Passing herself off as a Gentile, she hid with sympathetic families, found food where she could and kept her fingers far from piano keys, lest her skill betray her. When her talents could no longer be masked, she was forced into the riskiest performances of her life - concerts for crowds of Nazi soldiers. If just one person recognized her, if just one person betrayed her as a Jew, she could be shot on sight. Hiding in the Spotlight is the story of a young girl, the determination that guided her and the music that saved her.
Dawson's passion for his subject shines through this excellent memoir. He brings to life the beautiful, courageous woman who is his mother and tells her story with honesty, even humor. In many ways, her story is unique - even atypical - from those of other Holocaust survivors, but it is no less harrowing, no less horrible. Hers is a tale of narrow misses, of near deaths, and of meager survival. What makes it most haunting is the juxtaposition of the ugliness of Zhanna's experience - the fear, the sorrow, the loss - against the beauty of her music. It's a beauty even the Nazis recognized, prizing the loveliness of Bach and Beethoven even as they exacted the most gruesome genocide in recent history. As in all survival stories, what lingers here, what truly inspires is the triumph of the human spirit over the worst kind of atrocities. From the first chapters of Hiding in the Spotlight when Zhanna steps out into the world in just her underpants, we know she's special. The rest of her story only confirms that fact. It also confirms another fact: Zhanna's story is powerful, compelling and absolutely unforgettable.
Grade: A
(Note: If you want to read more about Zhanna, check out this article from The Atlanta Journal Constitution and the Hiding in the Spotlight website.)
Thursday, June 04, 2009

Obama Fair, Balanced, Easy-to-Read

(Image from Amazon)

"If there's anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of democracy, tonight is your answer."

- Barack Obama; November 4, 2008

There's a reason you don't see many political books reviewed on this site: Talk of checks and balances, electoral votes, Senate subcommittees and such just makes my eyes glaze over. I've tried to make myself less apathetic, less ignorant, but ... politics just isn't my thing. Even the recent presidential election failed to excite me. My inner cynic said the American public would never elect a Mormon (Romney), a woman (Clinton) or a non-white (Obama). Thus, I figured McCain was a shoo-in. Imagine my shock when Barack Obama emerged victorious. Although I don't agree with many of the president's views, his election seems to signal change, progress and hopefully, a step forward in the fight against racism. Whatever else he is, Obama is a fascinating man. So, when the ladies at MotherTalk offered me a chance to review Obama: The Historic Journey (Text is by Jill Abramson, managing editor of The New York Times), I eagerly accepted. I was especially thrilled to find that it's a Young Reader's Edition, perfect for a political ignoramus like me.

The book gives a quick overview of Obama's life, with several chapters on his unconventional childhood and his student years at Harvard Law School, but focuses mostly on his road to the presidency. Obama was born in Hawaii on August 4, 1961. His father was a black man from Kenya, his mother a free-spirited white woman. Their marriage was unusual, especially in the early 1960s, and didn't last long. After their divorce, Obama's mother married an Indonesian man, prompting a move to Jakarta, where the family lived until 1971. Back in Hawaii, he attended school while his mother returned to Indonesia to pursue her own studies. With his father and stepfather absent, and his mother abroad, Obama was raised by his beloved grandmother. After high school, he attended Harvard, worked as a lawyer, professor, and became a senator. He met and married Michelle, had two daughters, and began campaigning for president. In November of 2008, he became the 44th President of The United States, the first bi-racial person ever to hold that office.

Barack Obama's journey is documented in this book with glossy photographs, timelines, even a FAQs type page that lists his favorite foods, movies, music, etc. His favorite books are listed as Moby Dick by Herman Melville, Self-Reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison. The writing is a bit choppy, especially when describing Obama's early years, but it's also straightforward and readable. There are a few editing issues - my copy had 2 pages transposed - but overall, it offers a fair, balanced look at a fascinating man in an easy-to-read format. It even offers quick sidebars to explain terms like "caucus," "primary," and "delegate" - just in case politics isn't your thing, either.

Grade: B-

The Lost Hours Perfect for Gentle Summer Days (With a Giveaway!)

Piper Mills barely remembers burying a tin box in the backyard of her grandparents' home. She knew it belonged to her grandmother - that was enough to prevent her from caring. Now, a decade later, she holds the box in her hands. Now, she cares. Now, when Ahlzheimer's has claimed her grandmother's mind, Piper wants answers. Once she thought her grandmother had no stories - now, she knows better. But is it too late to finally understand the enigma who is her grandmother?

This is the conundrum Piper faces in Karen White's new novel, The Lost Hours. The protagonist, a woman haunted by a serious equestrian accident, eagerly ignores her own rehabilitation to focus on the mysteries of her family's past. She knows the answers lie somewhere in her grandmother's childhood, but attempts to question the elderly woman only agitate her. So, Piper turns to her grandmother's old friend, Lillian Harrington-Ross, who shows no desire to re-visit the past. Clearly, the family mystery goes even deeper than Piper first believed. Determined to shake out Lillian's secrets - and thus her grandmother's - Piper infiltrates the old woman's ranch, posing as a renter. Although the idea of being anywhere near a horse scares Piper to death, she knows she can't leave Asphodel Meadows without the answers for which she has come.

As Piper attempts to draw Lillian out, she becomes enmeshed in the household, lured by the matriarch's wise granddaughter; her lively great-grandchildren; and their grief-stricken father. Each, including Piper herself, hides his/her own secrets. But it's Lillian's secrets in which Piper is most interested. Lillian, herself, prefers the past to remain where it belongs - in the past - but something about her mysterious boarder stirs up old memories, memories that refuse to leave her be. The truth about what happened all those years ago will be found, but at what cost? Will Piper's search destroy not one, but two elderly women? Will it bring her closer to the grandmother whom she never really knew? Will her tenacious search for truth finally allow her to heal - or will knowledge of past horrors rip her heart wide open? Piper's journey into her family's past will change her indelibly - will it be worth it?

Books about family secrets always appeal to the voyeur in me. This one tends toward the predictable. It's also a bit far-fetched - I kept wondering how a horse family like Lillian's could not figure out Piper's real identity - but I still found it compelling. The characters are believable, the setting seductive, the mystery intriguing. Although Lillian's truths won't surprise you, White's writing just might - it's poignant, atmospheric and appropriately moody. Her prose gets clunky in places, but overall, it's lovely. Despite some predictable plotting, The Lost Hours provides a very decent read. Although it's a little dark, it ends on a hopeful note, making it a perfect book to enjoy during the gentle days of summer.

Grade: B

P.S. Karen has generously supplied me with 2 copies of The Lost Hours to give away. If you're interested in entering, please leave a comment on this post. The names of two winners will be drawn on June 19 (hubby's birthday). Good luck!

Author Chat: An Interview with Karen White

Hi Karen. Welcome to Bloggin' 'bout Books!

Me: You wrote your first novel when your children "were just babies." How did you juggle the roles of mother and author? How did you find the momentum - not to mention the energy - to complete that book?

KW: I get asked this question a lot and the answer is really simple: writing is my passion. If I didn't feel driven to do it, I wouldn't. It's too hard, and I've made too many sacrifices to simply call it a 'hobby'. Ask any NBA start or concert violinist why they practice so long and it's the same answer--because it's they're passion and they make it a priority. Despite crying/whining children, a bad day, rain, a sick pet--whatever. I write because it's what I do. Nobody else will make it happen if I don't. As for juggling--I think it's good for my children to see their mother working hard to pursue her dreams. I think that makes up for the frozen dinners. :-)

Me: I've read (and loved) two of your novels, both of which were set in the South. Both were so atmospheric - obviously, you have a great affection for this region of the U.S. I know you've lived all over - tell me a little bit about your relationship with the South and why you find it such a compelling setting for your novels.

KW: Both of my parents were born and raised in Mississippi, and I've had family living in the south since before the Revolution. No matter where we lived, I always demanded a trip to my grandmother's house in Indianola, Mississippi each summer. It's where I hung out on Main Street with my cousins and ran into people who'd known my mother and called me 'Catherine Anne's daughter.' It was a connection to my roots that I felt I missed out on because we moved around so much. The sights, smells, and accents of the South became for me what I identified with as home.

Me: Several of your books deal with mother/daughter relationships. What made you start exploring this subject? And do you think mothers and daughters will ever find common ground?

KW: I'm a granddaughter, a daughter, and a mother--so I think I'm well-versed on the subject of mothers and daughters. Growing up watching my mother's relationship with my grandmother, and then experiencing the growing pains of my relationship with my own mother gave me plenty of fodder to explore in my novels. My own daughter is 17 now, and wow! I think that alone gives me enough material for a whole new series! I've seen how my relationship with my mother has mellowed over the years as we find common ground with raising children and experiencing loss. I look forward to experiencing the same shifts in the relationship with my own daughter. If I survive her teenage years...

Me: Speaking of daughters, I noticed that Meghan is a book lover. What has it been like to share a love of reading with your daughter?

KW: It truly is one of my greatest joys! We talk books and share books all the time. She also reads mine and has been known to say nice things about them. My mother wasn't a reader so this has been such a treat for me--which is why I never say no when she wants to head to the bookstore. I'm a real pushover!

Me: I've heard it said that you had to confront a personal fear of deep water in order to write THE MEMORY OF WATER. THE LOST HOURS deals with horses - Is this another fear you had to overcome? Or are you an accomplished equestrian? What kind of research - if any - did you do in order to write about a horse ranch, horse-related injuries, and riding in general?

KW: Because I had to do so much sailing research for THE MEMORY OF WATER, I was determined to go easier on myself this go round for THE LOST HOURS. I live in the middle of horse-country and my daughter rides so it wasn't so difficult to come up with an equestrian setting for the book. Meghan was a huge help with the research as was my good friend, Andi Winkle, who owns her own horses and was so helpful with all of my questions that I stuck her in the book as the stable manager at Asphodel Meadows.

Me: THE LOST HOURS is really about healing - from wounds both physical and emotional. How were you able to write about grief and recovery with such authenticity? Did it require research or just imagination?

KW: I've been very blessed and have never lost a close family member or friend. But I've always been one of those people who cry reading obituaries or Hallmark commercials or news stories. It might be part of my artistic makeup to be able to empathize with another's grief, and I borrow those feelings to create realistic emotions in my novels.

Me: You've mentioned Margaret Mitchell and Diana Gabaldon as favorite authors. Who else do you enjoy reading? How do these authors influence your own writing?

KW: I love Jodi Picoult, Khaled Hosseini, Nelson deMille, Pat Conroy and a host of others. They inspire me by 'feeding the well.' When I read their words, it truly is oiling the writing cogs in my head.

Me: Besides writing, what else do you enjoy doing?

KW: Sleeping! I'm a dedicated napper. ;-) I also enjoy reading, scrapbooking, and playing piano.

Me: I ask this question of every author I interview, just because I love the variety of answers I get: What is your writing process like? Do you write for a certain amount of time each day or do you write only when you feel like it? Where do you write? Do you outline your novels or just let the ideas flow? Is there anything you absolutely have to have by your side when you write? From where do you get the ideas for your stories?

KW: I live with two teenagers, a demanding dog, two guinea pigs and a husband who travels. There is no such thing as a 'process.' My laptop goes with me everywhere and I write when and where I can. I don't have the luxury for waiting for my muse--I have to go out and find her! I actually wrote most of THE MEMORY OF WATER in my car while waiting at my daughter's horse barn for her riding lessons, or in carpool line, or at football practice with my son. As for outlining--no. I'm a horrible example to writers because I do it the 'wrong' way. I'm a very organic writer and just let the characters take me where they want. I don't recommend writing a book this way because it will drive you crazy! The only thing I must have by my side when writing is my Havanese dog, Quincy. :-)

Me: Lastly, I'd love to know what you're working on now and what else you have in the works.

KW: I have five more contracted books: three more books for THE HOUSE ON TRADD STREET series and two more 'grit lit' southern women's fiction novels. The one I'm currently working on is set in Folly Beach, SC. I've rented a house there for a week this summer to research. Hey, it's a tough job, but somebody's got to do it!

Me: Thanks so much, Karen! To find out more about Karen and her books, visit her official website.
Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Second Gen Dead Novel A Little Too Ho Hum

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

After the excitement of Generation Dead, the first novel in Daniel Waters' YA zombie series, its sequel starts off pretty tame. When Kiss of Life opens, Oakvale is still swamped with the undead, but the town's living residents have become a little more used to the idea. Even seeing a living/zombie couple (Phoebe and Adam) doesn't seem to phase people too much. With Pete Martinsburg gone, the high school's zombie population goes relatively unmolested. Phoebe spends her days helping Adam adjust to his new "life," pursuing Undead Studies at the Hunter Foundation, hanging out with friends - alive and not so much so - and trying to forget Tommy, who's headed to Washington, D.C., to lobby for zombie rights. Pretty ho-hum. Compared to the first book, anyway.

Things don't stay quiet for long, of course. Tak, an outspoken zombie who refuses to assimilate back into living culture, has been making mischief around town. When harmless pranks segue into something more sinister, it puts everyone on edge. Zombie/trad relations take a nosedive; even the most sedate of the undead are in danger. The living who fraternize with the dead aren't safe either. Phoebe doesn't know where to turn. Should she stand by her zombie friends, even though they may be responsible for unspeakable acts? Torn between two boys and two worlds, Phoebe has to take a stand - before it's too late.
So, Kiss of Life didn't captivate me nearly as much as its predecessor. The plot meanders in the beginning, picks up in the middle, then kind of fizzles in the end. There are a couple surprises between the covers, but nothing really, really good. I still like the characters, although neither Adam nor Tommy were all that interesting in this volume. I'm hoping the next installation will kick up the action, kick up the romance, and find the momentum that made Generation Dead so entertaining. I mean, we're talking zombies - they've got to be more exciting than this!
Grade: C
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