Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Review: Between You and Me by Mary Norris

I am a complete grammar nerd; I just love grammar. My children don't want to let me read their papers because they know that they won't just get corrections, they will get explanations for the corrections. They are not grammar nerds, and they do not appreciate my teachable moments. This drives me nuts (although my dad contends that it's not a drive; it's a short putt). If I can't influence their writing, at least I seem to have had an impact on their speaking. Maybe someday they'll let me look at their papers too. I doubt it, but in the meantime, I can at least feed my inner grammar nerd by reading books like Mary Norris' Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen to get my fix.

Norris is a copy editor at The New Yorker. She's been there for more than three decades, copyediting amazing authors, meeting famous literati, and being surrounded by some of the best and brightest in the publishing and magazine industries. As she addresses some of the most common grammatical problems normal people encounter, she weaves in her experiences at work on the same subject. She tackles all sorts of punctuation (commas, hyphens, dashes, parentheses, etc.), spelling, word order, profanity in print, pronouns, and more. Each self-contained essay is fairly short and her stance on the topic is easily understood. Her examples from her years at the magazine are not only real world examples, they are completely engaging. Norris explains prescriptive grammarians versus descriptive grammarians, where she falls on the spectrum, and why. Her writing is accessible and the anecdotes are fun. Those looking for a handbook of grammar will not find it here, even though most readers will still learn several things from these highly entertaining and intelligent essays.

Waiting on Wednesday

This meme is hosted by Breaking the Spine and is meant to highlight some great pre-publication books we all can't wait to get our grubby little mitts on.

The Sweetheart Deal by Polly Dugan. The book is being released by Little, Brown and Company on May 19, 2015.

Amazon says this about the book: The poignant story of what happens when a woman who thinks she's lost everything has the chance to love again.

Leo has long joked that, in the event of his death, he wants his best friend Garrett, a lifelong bachelor, to marry his wife, Audrey. One drunken night, he goes so far as to make Garrett promise to do so. Then, twelve years later, Leo, a veteran firefighter, dies in a skiing accident.

As Audrey navigates her new role as widow and single parent, Garrett quits his job in Boston and buys a one-way ticket out west. Before long, Audrey's feelings for Garrett become more than platonic, and Garrett finds himself falling for Audrey, her boys, and their life together in Portland. When Audrey finds out about the drunken pact from years ago, though, the harmless promise that brought Garrett into her world becomes the obstacle to his remaining in it.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Review: Married to a Perfect Stranger by Jane Ashford

People change. They change in small ways and in large ways. When you haven't seen someone for a long time, you might find them just the same as you remember or you might find them very changed. The longer the absence though, the more likely the changes will be great. In Jane Ashford's latest historical romance, the hero and heroine, separated for two years, find themselves married to very different people than they expected.

Mary and John were two tentative and compliant people whose respective families decided that they would be a good match. Mary was sweetly timid and quiet. John was hapless and a bit bumbling. At the urging of their families, they marry. Only one month into their marriage, John receives a posting on a diplomatic mission to China with the Foreign Office. With John off in China, Mary is sent to help oversee an elderly, failing aunt's large estate until such time as her husband returns. Both of their experiences change them greatly from the meek people who married each other at their families' behest, so when John returns home after two years of being gone, both he and Mary will have to adjust to more than they expected.

John's sojourn in China has made him opinionated and confident. He's looking forward to coming home to his compliant little wife. But Mary's tenure with her aunt has taught her that she is very capable as well. John sees Mary's new persona as bossy and managing while he comes off as controlling and dismissive. While these new personalities are irritating to the other, in the extreme, they are also, inexplicably, attracted to these more confident manifestations of each other as well. As their domestic drama and readjustment to each other progresses in fits and starts, there are also two other developments that come to play a large role in the story. On his return to London, John has taken to frequenting the slums and dangerous areas near the docks in disguise in order to keep tabs on the ongoing situation in China, relying on tavern owners and Chinese sailors for his information. Meanwhile, Mary meets an aristocratic elderly neighbor thanks to her drawing. Mary's likenesses of the people she draws are uncanny, highlighting characteristics that the subjects might not know about themselves or that they might want to remain hidden. As information about the political situation with China goes ominously silent, Mary makes some grievous social missteps, and John's family tries to step in to remedy things for their supposed inept son just as they always have. Both John and Mary have to come to an appreciation of themselves, stepping back from the long perceived view of them that family has held, and then they must come to an appreciation of the more confident person that is their spouse in order to find their happiness.

The story's pacing is rather slow and their chemistry as a couple is a bit iffy.  John as a character is unappealing and domineering and Mary still retains some of her timidity, especially with her husband, making her a little frustrating for the reader.  The element of intrigue helps the story line but pieces of the resolution come from out in left field, with John suddenly remembering things that were never introduced before the climax. The idea of spouses who change almost beyond all recognition and must learn to live with and love each other is a good one and the story is ultimately sweet as a result but it wasn't altogether satisfying.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Grief: Small Ambushes


Daisy in the center, posed like a rock star on her page from the book The Dogs of Les Cheneaux


Grief is sneaky. It waits patiently for you around corners, biding its time. It can overwhelm you at any point, both in the expected moments and in the small ambushes that reach out and snag your aching heart. We lost our beloved Daisy dog on Wednesday and my days since then have been unimaginably teary. Daisy had health problems her entire life. As a tiny puppy, we took her to get her second set of shots and she had an acute idiosyncratic allergic reaction. As scary as any allergic reaction is, this variety is not only incredibly rare but it is terrifying. She came out of that hospitalization with one ear standing straight up and one ear flopped over, exactly the way our late, lovely Spenser's ears were. We always said that Spenser was her guardian angel through the whole ordeal because Spen knew we needed another furry friend to help us through her own loss. Then, at just under a year, Daisy started having cluster seizures, landing her on a lifetime of anti-seizure meds. So every morning I coaxed her to take her pills, because that is what you do when you love your dog. Throughout her life, she would randomly throw up (usually on the bed or Oriental rug). She was never bothered by it; she was what vets call a happy vomiter and she could often go months without an incident. So I just cleaned it up and enjoyed her sweet, loving presence in our lives.  But eventually her kidneys started to fail. And that was where we were with her two weeks ago; she got dehydrated and went into acute kidney failure. Two days at the vet getting fluids didn't really improve her numbers so we brought her home to love her for as long as we had left, which turned out to be only a handful of days before we had to make the decision that it was kinder to let her go than to keep her with us. If you have a loved animal in your life, you know that, while the right thing to do, this tears your heart out. But we do it because we love them. And so we let her go



But the letting go isn't the end. You have to come home to a house without a piece of your family in it. When I opened the refrigerator the next morning, the first thing I saw was the half eaten can of prescription kidney food with her name on it that came home from her last trip to the vet. Her food dish, which I can't bear to put away, remains shiny and empty. When I take a shower now, there's no small furry, grey body curled up on my towel just outside the shower door, just wanting to be close to me. There's no slender, sweet body pressed against my back under the covers in bed or a furry bearded head sharing my pillow by morning after she inched up from under the covers while I slept. Her favorite stuffed squirrel spent days lying unmoving on the dog bed in the family room until I finally mustered up the strength to put it back in the dog toy bin. When I come in from being gone, there is no stubby wagging tail greeting me at the door (her sister is not much of a tail wagger). Her sunbeam, the one that comes in the back windows every afternoon, stays empty. When the doorbell rang the day after she died, there was only one bark. And no matter how much we used to yell at her to quit barking, the absence of this bark guts me. When my oldest son texted me for the computer password, I wept as I typed in her name. I find myself having to catch myself and swallow hard when I'm calling Gatsby to come in from outside because for so long, it's been Daisy and Gatsby. And now it's not. It is these little things that swamp me. My sweet girl spent her last days on my lap and I wouldn't have traded those final days with her for the world but I so wish we had had longer. The tragedy of giving your heart to an animal is the wrenching loss you must endure when their short time with you is up. I know though, that my Daisy, and the nine years and one month we had with her, was worth every tear I have already cried and those I have yet to cry.  I just have to work hard to remember that whenever the waves hit me and double me over.  RIP sweet girl.

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

It's been a tough week here. We lost our sweet Daisy dog on Wednesday and I just haven't been terribly motivated to read or review anything since. It just doesn't feel right not to have my fur baby in my lap while I'm curled up with a book. :-( This meme is hosted by Sheila at Book Journey.

Books I completed this past week are:

My Chinese-American by Allen Gee
My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She's Sorry by Fredrick Backman
Find the Good by Heather Lende

Bookmarks are still living in the middle of:

The Fortune Hunter by Daisy Goodwin

Reviews posted this week:

The Mapmaker's Children by Sarah McCoy
Children of the Jacaranda Tree by Sahar Delijani

Books still needing to have reviews written (as opposed to the ones that are simply awaiting posting):

The Year My Mother Came Back by Alice Eve Cohen
Married to a Perfect Stranger by Jane Ashford
Between You and Me by Mary Norris
The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown
My Chinese-American by Allen Gee
My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She's Sorry by Fredrick Backman
Find the Good by Heather Lende

Monday Mailbox

This past week's mailbox arrivals:

Katherine Carlyle by Rupert Thomson came from Other Press.

A story about who you are that weaves in IVF and absence and family and loss, this sounds really interesting.

The Nurses Alexandra Robbins came from Workman.

I have a lot of friends who are or have been nurses and I'm fascinated by the culture they face at work so this book plays right into that for me.

Find the Good by Heather Lende came from Algonquin.

An obituary writer from small town Alaska giving advice on how to live? Sign me right up!

Love and Miss Communication by Elyssa Friedland came from William Morrow and TLC Book Tours for a blog tour.

How could you not want to read a book where a woman puts down her smart phone and starts living life offline?

The Surfacing by Cormac James came from Bellevue Literary Press.

Searching for Franklin's lost expedition, a crew trapped in Arctic ice, and a stowaway who will give birth to the Captain's baby in this forbidding landscape, this one really appeals to me.

If you'd like to see the marvelous goodies in other people's mailboxes, make sure to visit Mailbox Monday and have fun seeing how we are all doing our part to keep the USPS and delivery services viable.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Review: Children of the Jacaranda Tree by Sahar Delijani

Many years ago when I finished Reading Lolita in Tehran, I wanted to find someone to talk to about the book and about Iran. Aside from what we have heard on the news about the conflicts in the Middle East for so long, there weren't many people who had any knowledge of what had gone on there. Luckily (or unluckily for her), there was a mom whose little guy was on my little guy's soccer team who told me she and her husband were Persian and had come to this country in the 80s. Voila! Someone to talk to about Iran and the events that so fascinated me. Except she wasn't so interested in talking to me about it. And I didn't understand her reluctance. But after reading more, including Sahar Delijani's debut novel Children of the Jacaranda Tree, I can begin to understand why she was so polite but vague to one enthusiastic but ignorant person interested in hearing about an event that changed the lives of so many people, destroying families, making certain beliefs punishable by sharia law, driving people into exile, and altering the landscape of the region forever.

Azar is in labor and about to give birth. She is also a political prisoner in Evin Prison in Tehran in 1983, as is her husband, of whom she has had no news for months. Although it is clear that Azar has been tortured and abused in prison, she cannot focus on anything but the imperative of her body as she strains to bring her baby into the world, not even on the relentless questioning she is forced to endure before she is taken to delivery in hopes that the combination of natural physical pain and ruthless disregard for her situation will cause her to break. Baby Neda is born into the prison, a small ray of light in the cell where Azar and many fellow female dissidents are being held, until the day a guard takes the baby away to live with her grandparents. Azar is just one of the many political dissidents jailed in Evin Prison for their activism inspired by the failure of the promise of the Islamic Revolution and her story is just one of many here.

Ordinary people wanting the best for Iran are arrested and detained, changing not only their lives but the lives of their families. Grandparents and aunts are suddenly raising grandchildren, sacrificing plans and dreams for their loved ones. Wives are widowed with no warning, left with fatherless children. Unexplained executions shatter the lives of the citizenry as religious conservatives offer no quarter to those who do not believe in the exact same Allah that they do. There's a large cast of characters here, prisoners, their estranged families, and their children and each and every one of them suffers as a result of the Revolution. Ranging from 1983 through 2011, the novel examines the shame, the fear, the brutality, and the torture that are the lasting effects of the stringent and unyielding ruling party even for those who become part of the diaspora.

The stories come across as vignettes rather than a unified novel with an overarching and unifying plot because the connections between the characters are sometimes a bit tenuous, requiring the reader to flip back to the front of the book to consult the list of characters again in order to place them. The jumping back and forth in time, often from character to character, can be disconcerting and feels a little choppy but Delijani manages to keep the tension high over the ultimate fates of her characters, emphasizing the arbitrariness of life in Tehran, post-Revolution. The language is poetic and often times beautiful in this tale of three generations forever impacted by prison and the aftermath of dissidence. Delijani's novel, culled from her parents' experiences and her own birth in Evin prison, bears telling as a means of bearing witness to the long reaching wrongs done in the name of extremism.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Review: The Mapmaker's Children by Sarah McCoy



School children learn about John Brown and the raid on Harper's Ferry in history class. Who he was, who his family was, and the whole of the life that he sacrificed for a cause greater than himself is rarely covered. And yet he left behind family, including his daughter Sarah, who loved him and believed in the abolitionist movement too. In The Mapmaker's Children, Sarah McCoy imagines the life and purpose of Sarah Brown, beginning just before her father's capture and on into her adult life, weaving this historical story with a modern day tale of a woman facing her own personal fight and living in a historic house in New Charlestown, WV.

After Sarah Brown overhears the devastating news that she will never be able to bear children, she devotes herself to the cause that is so dear to her father: abolition and the Underground Railroad. Sarah is an artist and she finds her purpose in drawing maps to aid escaped slaves on their flight to freedom. She is wholeheartedly invested in her role when her father is captured. Traveling to New Charlestown with her mother and sister to be near her father when he is executed, the small family stays with Brown's friends, the Hills. Although the Hills might believe in different methods of fighting slavery, they are kind and congenial people with whom Sarah forms a close bond that will last forever, through her father's hanging, her continued schooling, the Civil War, and beyond.

In present day New Charlestown, Eden and her husband Jack have moved into an historic home, hoping that moving from the bustle of the city to a small community will help them finally overcome the infertility that is destroying them. Their marriage is collapsing under the strain of disappointment, anger, and helplessness. When Eden finds the strangely painted porcelain head of a doll in the root cellar of their home, she hopes that either the doll or getting the house placed on the registry of historic homes so she can sell it will bring in enough money for her to flee her marriage and all of the unhappiness tied up in their lack of a baby. What she doesn't expect is to become invested in the people and the community and to uncover long lost information about her house and a friend.

Each of the story lines is interesting and well drawn. Initially, the ties between Sarah and Eden seem to be primarily based on their infertility and the way each, in turn, comes to an acceptance of her life but those ties broaden and expand as the women's stories move forward. Each of the main characters is realistic and flawed, clinging to her notion of the future and how to get there, but in the end, each of them learns to let go allowing them to grow in far different ways than they ever expected. The connection between the past (in Sarah) and the present (in Eden) is not a hard one to figure out but McCoy does a good job making those connections actually come together. In the beginning, the stories seem so very disparate that the reader does wonder how the story lines can ever come to compliment each other beyond the most tenuous of associations, that they do is to McCoy's credit. The historical detail is beautifully done and although not much is known about the real Sarah Brown, this story easily feels like it could be true and faithful to what little we do know about her. This is an enjoyable read that not only fleshes out American history, but connects it to the present and reminds us that the past very much underlays everything. It reminds us that the paths we travel might not be the ones we would have chosen but that we can never go wrong by investing in our hearts, our friends, and our communities.

For more information about Sarah McCoy and the book, take a look at her website, like her Facebook page, follow her on Twitter, or check out the book's Goodreads page. Follow the rest of the blog tour or look at the amazon reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book.

Thanks to Trish from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Waiting on Wednesday

This meme is hosted by Breaking the Spine and is meant to highlight some great pre-publication books we all can't wait to get our grubby little mitts on.

The Year of the Dunk by Asher Price. The book is being released by Crown on May 12, 2015.

Amazon says this about the book: By embarking on a quest to dunk a basketball at the age of 34, journalist Asher Price investigates the limits of human potential—starting with his own.

We all like to think that (with a little practice) we could run faster, learn another language, or whip up a perfect soufflĂ©. But few of us ever put those hopes to the test. In Year of the Dunk, Asher Price does, and he seizes on basketball’s slam dunk--a feat richly freighted with distinctly American themes of culture, race, and upward mobility--as a gauge to determine his own hidden potential. The showmanship of the dunk mesmerized Asher as a child, but even with his height (six foot plus) and impressive wingspan, he never pushed himself to try it. Now, approaching middle age, Asher decides to spend a year remaking his body and testing his mind as he wonders, like most adults, what untapped talent he still possesses.

In this humorous and often poignant journey into the pleasures and perils of exertion, Asher introduces us to a memorable cast of characters who help him understand the complexity of the human body and the individual drama at the heart of sports. Along the way he dives into the history and science of one of sports' most exuberant acts, examining everything from our genetic predisposition towards jumping to the cultural role of the slam dunk. The year-long effort forces him to ask some fundamental questions about human ability and the degree to which we can actually improve ourselves, even with great determination.

Monday, April 20, 2015

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

This meme is hosted by Sheila at Book Journey.

Books I completed this past week are:

Between You and Me by Mary Norris
The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown
The Mapmaker's Children by Sarah McCoy

Bookmarks are still living in the middle of:

My Chinese-American by Allen Gee

Reviews posted this week:

Read Bottom Up by Neel Shah and Skye Chatham
About a Girl by Lindsey Kelk

Books still needing to have reviews written (as opposed to the ones that are simply awaiting posting):

Children of the Jacaranda Tree by Sahar Delijani
The Year My Mother Came Back by Alice Eve Cohen
Married to a Perfect Stranger by Jane Ashford
Between You and Me by Mary Norris
The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown
The Mapmaker's Children by Sarah McCoy

Monday Mailbox

This past week's mailbox arrivals:

The Mapmaker's Children by Sarah McCoy came from Crown and TLC Book Tours for a blog tour.

An historical tale of John Brown's artist, mapmaker daughter is interwoven with the story of a woman from the present day who uncovers a porcelain doll head dating back to the days of the Underground Railroad in her root cellar and I am intensely curious to see how these two tales will come together.

Washing the Dead by Michelle Brafman came from Prospect Park Books and LibraryThing Early Reviewers.

The story of a woman who is exiled from her childhood Chasidic community examining her family history which ultimately leads her to the Jewish tradition of washing the dead, this sounds fascinating to me.

Famous Baby by Karen Rizzo came from Prospect Park Books.

The adult daughter of a woman who blogged about her daughter's entire life growing up worries that her mother has a new target for her blog: grandma. So the granddaughter kidnaps her grandmother to save her from this fate. This sounds hilarious.

If you'd like to see the marvelous goodies in other people's mailboxes, make sure to visit Mailbox Monday and have fun seeing how we are all doing our part to keep the USPS and delivery services viable.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Sunday Salon: When life fights back

It's been a week of real highs and lows for me. The week started off really well. A while ago I agreed to be on a panel about Blogging in the Literary World for Central Piedmont Community College's Sensoria Literary Festival. I agreed to participate without knowing much about what was going to be expected of me and then I blithely forgot about it. Fast forward to last weekend and I was a little freaked out about what I needed to do for it. Plus, as those of you who know me personally and saw my Facebook post know, my daughter reminded me that I am "iffy around others." I am a complete introvert to boot. I mean, I am the woman who didn't want to have everyone looking at me at my wedding. Far from wanting to be the center of attention, I would prefer to fade into the wallpaper. And yet, I agreed to park myself at a table facing a whole bunch of people who expected me to be at least quasi-intelligent, reasonably literate, and entertaining to boot. So you can see why I was a little nervous about all of it. But it went off beautifully, if I do say so myself.
Amy Burns, from the CPCC library, was the moderator and Susan at Pages Turned, Carin at Caroline Bookbinder, Emily at Reading While Female, and Amy at Sadie Belle Reads were my fellow panelists. The conversation ranged from discussing review copies and how we each read to diversity in the blogging world and publishing. We touched on why blogs are important publicity tools in the reading world, various ways to use blogs in the classroom, how other forms of social media compare to blogs, the way that many book blogs are getting away from strict reviews and asking larger questions, whether authors should blog, and so much more. We fielded questions from the audience and just generally had a good time. It's funny how so much of blogging can occur in a vacuum and yet when we all met at this panel, how much of a community we were immediately. When I got home from my day, D. asked me how it all went. I think I summed it up by saying, "There were 25 people there and only three of them were brought by fellow panelists." Pretty darn successful!

Later that same night, I had the chance to extend my bookish day by going to dinner with some fantastic authors before attending the Charlotte chapter of the WNBA's Spring Meet the Authors Event at Park Road Books. Dinner with Susan M. Boyer, author of Lowcountry Boneyard; Marianne Gingher, author of Amazing Places: What North Carolina Means to Writers; Leigh Ann Henion, author of Phenomenal: A Hestitant Adventurer's Search for Wonder in the Natural World; and Karen White, author of A Long Time Gone, was fantastic. Every last one of these women was a delight to chat with. David Joy, author of Where All the Light Tends to Go, joined us after dinner for the meeting and he was wonderful as well. The event was casual, with there being some reading from the books but more of the authors just sharing stories about their writing, their inspiration, other things that have happened to them on tour, in their publisher's offices and so on. There was a lot of laughter during the evening and I would love to get all of them around a dinner table again, just to soak in the fun. They signed books for people after the event (oddball that I am, I don't like to get books signed but I do assure you that I went home with a full compliment of them, unsigned) and chatted with everyone there. Most enjoyable.

The following day was W.'s last high school tennis match ever. I arrived early with the chicken nuggets the boys always want for Senior Night. I set them and the grapes and bananas down and backed away as fast as I could so I didn't lose an a body part as 18 teenaged boys inhaled everything within arm's reach. Just after they finished smacking their lips and moved out onto the courts to warm-up, the heavens opened up and poured just long enough to make the match an iffy proposition. Luckily the small breeze, warm sun, coaches rolling the courts, and a dad armed with a leaf blower managed to clear the courts well enough for the match to happen. The three seniors on the team were recognized and D. and I got to go out on the court with W. for pictures and the coach's comments. I still remember the senior night from his freshman year like it was yesterday and am having trouble believing that he's the one getting ready to be done with high school now.  Makes a girl feel old.  We won the match and clinched the Conference title so it was the best possible day.

But after the beginning of the week, life fought back to balance out the good. I just want to say here that there's no reason to have a balance in life; life's not a darn seesaw and I'd be more than happy to have a plethora of good and a lot less bad. But that was not to be. On Friday, the gas cap broke off in the kids' car, making it impossible to remove to get the gas they so desperately needed so D. drove the older kids to school and then took the car to have it fixed. It should have been a 10 minute fix and a new $40 gas cap but when the guy at the garage backed it out of the bay, he crashed it into another car parked back there. The bumper is badly cracked and the tail light cover shattered. Luckily it's still driveable and they will be fixing all of it but it's an aggravation we didn't need. Oh, and we didn't have to pay for the gas cap. But that was really the least of our worries.

On Thursday, I had to take my beloved Daisy dog to the vet, where they kept her overnight to try and rehydrate her and bring her kidney values down. Her kidneys have been failing for a while now and it seems we're in an acute situation. She came home from the vet on Friday in the late afternoon but her numbers are still not good, she's still having trouble keeping any food down, and she's sleeping a lot. When she is awake, she has bursts of being her old self but in general, it is clear that we are saying goodbye to her (and I'm typing this through tears, of course).

W. is still deciding where he wants to go to college and we had arranged for him to go and spend the night with one of my parents' friend's grandson at one of his top options. This was for Friday night, after I'd found out how bad Daisy was. I debated keeping W. home to love the dog but ultimately decided he should go. And I'm glad I did. He had a great time, went to his first frat party, and came back full of enthusiasm for college. Then R. had a scheduled lock-in (sleepover) with her dance team on Saturday night.  I picked her up from that this morning. Daisy is not any better but she doesn't seem worse so I guess we just go on with life as it is until she lets us know it is time to let go. I don't imagine there will be much reading or reviewing going on in the meantime as all I really want to do is love my fur baby as best I can.

For the above mentioned reason, my reading was a little light this week but my reading travels did take me a few places. I learned about the vagaries of grammar from the comma queen of the New Yorker, sculled in an eight man boat in Washington on the way to an Olympic Gold Medal in Hitler's 1936 Berlin Games, and headed to West Virginia for John Brown's hanging where I witnessed his daughter Sarah's determination to continue to aid the abolition movement through her painting at the same time as a modern day woman starts to uncover the amazing history behind her historic home while she works through her feelings about her marriage. Now I am immersed in a collection of essays about being Chinese-American, and specifically a Chinese-American male, in today's world. Where did your reading take you this week?

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Review: About a Girl by Lindsey Kelk

Haven't we all wanted to be someone else sometimes, especially when life isn't going our way? Surely someone else's problems aren't of the magnitude ours are. Or perhaps their life is just more satisfying all the way around and we'd like to climb into their skin for a day, a week, a month. In Lindsey Kelk's newest novel to be published in the US, About a Girl, main character Tess does just that; she assumes her roommate's identity, taking a job not meant for her but one her roommate wouldn't have taken regardless. What can be the harm in that?

Tess is edging toward 30 and she has her life all planned out. She is an advertising and marketing whiz and is expecting a big promotion at work for all the years she's made her job her priority. Instead of the promised promotion, she's let go. Then she subsequently goes home for a christening and has a justified fight with her mother. Her relationship with her half sisters isn't outstanding either. Then, one of her two best friends, on whom she's had an unrequited crush for ten years, comforts her and when things get too close and personal, he runs for the hills. As if that isn't enough, she lives with a completely horrid, bitchy flatmate named Vanessa who once took Tess' good camera in lieu of a rent payment and has since refused to sell it back to Tess.  Completely shattered with her long range plan down the tubes, Tess wallows in the ruins of her life, but when she answers a phone call offering the unpleasant Vanessa a photography gig in Hawaii, Tess, posing as Vanessa, inexplicably seizes the moment and accepts the job for herself. With Vanessa out of town, Tess grabs some of her designer clothing, re-appropriates her camera, and hops on a plane to Hawaii to take a fashion shoot centered around a legendary department store mogul.

Once in Hawaii, Tess rediscovers her love for photography; finds herself alternately attracted to and aggravated by the incredibly good looking, arrogant ass of a journalist assigned to write the story to accompany her photos; learns a little about herself and about love from an old guy on the beach; and faces up to the identity crisis she's having and the reasons behind it. Tess starts off the book as a perfectionist defined by her job. She's been straight and narrow her entire life but suddenly she's grabbing at spontaneity and damning the consequences. She can come across as immature and whiny at times, especially when she's moaning about her long time love for Charlie. Mostly though, she's pretty sympathetic, even when she's up to her eyeballs in lies and mistakes of her own devising. The secondary characters are a little bit stereotypical: the fun gay major domo, the ballsy and supportive best friend, the wise man on the beach, and of course, her nasty and talentless roommate Vanessa and Nick, the sizzling, broody love interest. But this is really Tess' fantasy life wrapped up in a completely over the top situation so their being a bit stock is forgivable.

Everything about this book is frothy and escapist, both for Tess and for the reader. The tone of the book is generally lighthearted despite the dire beginning and the book as a whole sparkles with entertainment. It is predictable but also fast-paced and humorous. The ending is frustratingly unresolved; you have to read the sequel to find out how Tess comes out in the end. But this fun and flirty caper that looks at learning to have confidence in yourself and your skills and at facing life's bumps, big and little, head-on is a delightful beach read of a tale and will make you want to grab the sequel in any case.

For more information about Lindsey Kelk and the book, take a look at her website, like her Facebook page, follow her on Twitter, connect with her on Instagram, or check out the book's Goodreads page. Follow the rest of the blog tour or look at the amazon reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book.

Thanks to Trish from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Waiting on Wednesday

This meme is hosted by Breaking the Spine and is meant to highlight some great pre-publication books we all can't wait to get our grubby little mitts on.

Wishful Thinking by Kamy Wicoff. The book is being released by She Writes Press on April 21, 2015.

Amazon says this about the book: Jennifer Sharpe is a divorced mother of two with a problem just about any working parent can relate to: her boss expects her to work as though she doesn’t have children, and her children want her to care for them as though she doesn’t have a boss. But when, through a fateful coincidence, a brilliant physicist comes into possession of Jennifer’s phone and decides to play fairy godmother, installing a miraculous time-travel app called Wishful Thinking, Jennifer suddenly finds herself in possession of what seems like the answer to the impossible dream of having it all: an app that lets her be in more than one place at the same time. With the app, Jennifer goes quickly from zero to hero in every part of her life: she is super-worker, the last to leave her office every night; she is super-mom, the first to arrive at pickup every afternoon; and she even becomes super-girlfriend, dating a musician who thinks she has unlimited childcare and a flexible job. But Jennifer soon finds herself facing questions that adding more hours to her day can’t answer. Why does she feel busier and more harried than ever? Is she aging faster than everyone around her? How can she be a good worker, mother, and partner when she can’t be honest with anybody in her life? And most important, when choosing to be with your children, at work, or with your partner doesn’t involve sacrifice, do those choices lose their meaning? Wishful Thinking is a modern-day fairy tale in which one woman learns to overcome the challenges—and appreciate the joys—of living life in real time.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Review: Read Bottom Up by Neel Shah and Skye Chatham

Life is different for every generation. My generation has come to the computer as adults and while digital media has assumed a huge part of our lives, we didn't have it for many of the most pivotal times of our lives. But young adults today have it in every aspect of life. They have it for the big things and the little ones too. They have it to make major announcements or to scrutinize the tiniest detail. This utter pervasiveness means that almost everything is documented in their lives in ways that they never have been before. In Neel Shah and Sky Chatham's quirky modern epistolary novel inspired by and updated to fit with the digital media of our age, Read Bottom Up, the entire life cycle of a two twenty-something's relationship is laid out in email and text, not only from their perspectives but from those of their closest friends as well.

Elliott is a chef. Madeline works for a cookbook publisher. The two of them meet at the soft opening for a new restaurant and after Elliott gets Madeline's email, they start an email flirtation that blooms into a full scale relationship. The tale of their relationship plays out in their emails and texts to each other and in the side emails and texts they share with David and Emily, their respective best friends. Each phase of their relationship is played out on screens, from first date to the intoxication of early relationship to misunderstandings to fights to conflicted feelings. And that's just between Elliott and Madeline. David and Emily are also present in the relationship, there to offer advice, to help tease out the hidden meaning or intentions behind seemingly innocuous comments, and just generally to prop up their respective friends when things don't seem to be going quite like the fairy tales.

The way this novel was written, with the authors writing emails to each other but being completely in the dark about the side emails written between the friends, gives this a real ring of truth about relationships now. It definitely has the feel of twenty-something dating life for sure. The emails and texts range from funny to terse, casual to intense. While this method of communication highlights the insecurities of the characters, it does make it hard to fully flesh out the characters since they are on their best behavior, guarding their emotions, and projecting their best presence to their partner. Only in the side conversations with their friends do their individual histories and personalities occasionally shine through which makes it hard for the reader to get to know the characters very well or to feel invested in their relationship together. But it definitely accurately captures eight or so months of twenty-first century love and relationship, the drama, the cyber stalking, the apathy, and the uncertainty of it all in its pages. In general, the novel was a quick, short read without too much meat on its bones but fun and light entertainment for all that.

For more information about Neel Shah and Skye Chatham and the book, check out the book's Goodreads page. Follow the rest of the blog tour or look at the amazon reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book.


Thanks to Trish from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.

Monday, April 13, 2015

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

This meme is hosted by Sheila at Book Journey.

Books I completed this past week are:

The Fiery Cross by Diana Gabaldon
Married to a Perfect Stranger by Jane Ashford

Bookmarks are still living in the middle of:

The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown
Between You and Me by Mary Norris

Reviews posted this week:

A Reunion of Ghosts by Judith Claire Mitchell
Wide-Open World by John Marshall
The Penderwicks in Spring by Jeanne Birdsall
The Fiery Cross by Diana Gabaldon

Books still needing to have reviews written (as opposed to the ones that are simply awaiting posting):

Children of the Jacaranda Tree by Sahar Delijani
The Year My Mother Came Back by Alice Eve Cohen
About a Girl by Lindsey Kelk
Married to a Perfect Stranger by Jane Ashford

Monday Mailbox

One lone book in the post this past week but when there's only one book, it is wonderful to have it be such a good looking one! This past week's mailbox arrival:

The House of Hawthorne by Erika Robuck came from New American Library for a blog tour.

A fictionalization of the life and marriage of Nathaniel and Sophia Hawthorne, I love seeing into literary lives and the way in which modern authors imagine and flesh out these complex and real historical people.

If you'd like to see the marvelous goodies in other people's mailboxes, make sure to visit Mailbox Monday and have fun seeing how we are all doing our part to keep the USPS and delivery services viable.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Review: The Fiery Cross by Diana Gabaldon

I read the first four Outlander books eighteen years ago. That's all there were then, and it's probably a good thing since I completely devoured them in the space of three solid days of reading.  (Yes, I really do mean three days, not three weeks.)  I ignored my infant son and my husband to utterly lose myself in the eighteenth century world that Diana Gabaldon had created. I bought myself a copy of the Outlandish Companion. I was obsessed. And when new books in the series started being released, I bought them too. But I never read them, afraid to have them tarnish the magic of the first four. (And in the interest of full disclosure, the first book is still my favorite--thanks in no small part to the fact that it was my introduction to this world.) But now with Outlander finally making it to the small screen, I decided I should not only revisit the first books again but also pick up where I left off and read the fifth book (and maybe even the sixth, seventh, and eighth eventually too). So I have spent the past week immersed in the world of Jamie and Claire once again and while it was generally enjoyable, The Fiery Cross, did not quite grab me and consume me like the previous four did.

This fifth installment opens with Jamie and Claire and all of the folks from Fraser's Ridge, including Brianna, Roger, and baby Jem, at the largest Gathering of Scots in North Carolina. Brianna and Roger are finally to marry but the cold, foggy, and wet weather on the day of the wedding presages the uncomfortable events that will drive the narrative of the novel forward. First, a regiment of British soldiers arrives with the unwelcome news that a militia will have to be raised to put the agitating Regulators in their place. Jamie, a land holder by grant of the governor, is required to raise men to commit to this cause. As if this wasn't enough to dampen the day, the Catholic priest who was to perform Brianna and Roger's wedding and the wedding of Jamie's aunt Jocasta is arrested for practicing his faith, illegal as it is in North Carolina, and not allowed to perform the ceremonies. Both of these seemingly small incidents, combined with Jamie's continued search for Stephen Bonnet so that he may exact justice for Bonnet's treachery, are the driving forces behind the plot. But they are often overshadowed by the recitation of daily life in the back country of the North Carolina mountains.

Gabaldon has done a prodigious amount of research into anything and everything pre-Revolutionary North Carolina and it shows in the attention to detail in every scene. There's accurate information on everything from primitive eighteenth century medicine, the politics of the time, how daily tasks were accomplished without modern inventions, the clothing worn, animal husbandry, native ceremonies and life, to the local flora and fauna not only in the mountains but along the coast as well. And as Jamie and Claire, and Roger and Brianna go about their daily life, they are also caught up in the stirring currents that will lead to the war that they know must come. They will face the common dangers that faced all settlers of the time but they will face extraordinary dangers as well.  This is nothing different from previous books but unlike in the previous books in the series, this one drags a bit with the main plot threads disappearing for long stretches of pages. The shifting narrative, from Claire's first person narration to a third person limited narration centered mostly on Roger, is disconcerting and often times abrupt. There is a sameness to the story that makes the reader wonder if so much of the monotony of everyday life needed to be recorded when it was no longer novel or curious to the time travelling characters or to the reader either. The book presents a much more settled relationship between Jamie and Claire, one no longer fraught with the constant fear of loss but substitutes for this tension with the shifting uncertainty and unanswered and unanswerable questions between Roger and Brianna. And perhaps that's a part of the difference in this book. Roger and Brianna are not the compelling characters, burning together, that Jamie and Claire have always been so to make their story carry equal weight with Jamie and Claire, makes the novel less engaging over all. Despite the slow moving story and the sometimes over long repetition, this is still a ticket back to Jamie and Claire's world so diehard fans will not want to skip it even as the hope is that the following books will recapture the addictive and completely enthralling feel of the first books.

Sunday Salon: YA Musing and Reading Omnivorously

This past week has been Spring Break for my kids. Aside from a quick long weekend to visit family, we have mostly stayed at home. But a vacation for me is not complete without a visit (or three) to a bookstore (or three) and my children usually jump at the chance to come with me. Not only do they like books, but they like browsing in bookstores much more than the average bear. This is generally a good thing but can also be an expensive thing since each of them can amass quite a stack of "must haves" almost as fast as I can. So it was a bit of a surprise when my 16 year old daughter came away from the first bookstore (I wasn't kidding about three of them, by the way) with only one book that she needed for school. She had browsed through all of the likely YA offerings and come up empty.  (Knowing our family, she already owns everything that was even half appealing.)  I suggested that at 16 she was more than welcome to look in the regular fiction section as well. She didn't want to. And that led me to thinking about YA as versus "adult" fiction.

When I was growing up, there wasn't nearly the YA market there is now. Or at the least, there wasn't a dedicated section of fiction marketed specifically to kids on the verge of adulthood so I was reading what would now be considered "adult" fiction from a very early age. I'm sure there were books coming out in the 80s that would be designated YA if they were being released today but I'm having trouble thinking of too many of them. Are there really more books being released today that fit this demographic than there used to be? Or does it just seem that way because some marketing genius somewhere decided to segregate the books into these subsets and go directly for their target audience? Are books without teenaged main characters less appealing to these readers? If yes, is that because they have so many choices, conveniently shelved together for ease of discovery, that offer main characters of an age with them or is it something else entirely? I don't really have any answers and I'm not suggesting that my daughter needs to or should "age out" of the YA books but I have to admit that it made me sad that she didn't even want to consider looking in the general fiction shelves when she didn't find anything in the YA section. After all, I occasionally browse through the YA myself to see if there's anything of interest (for me as well as for her). I guess I want her (and her brothers) to be omnivorous readers, not restricting themselves to one area just because it is marketed to them. After all, there are joys to be found in every section of a bookstore, although to be honest, I've not yet found any for myself in the business section. ;-)  Do you browse in many sections of the bookstore or do you restrict yourself to one tried and true spot?

This week's reading adventures were not many, it being spring break and all. The weather has been beautiful and has drawn me outside to work on my flower beds (I'm not a very green thumb though) and play some tennis among other things but I did still get in a little reading. First, I spent the better part of the week in the back country of eighteenth century North Carolina with a Highland Scot and his time travelling wife. Then I jumped into the very end of the Regency period in Britain with a married couple getting to know one another after a two year period apart in which they both changed into different, much more confident people. And now I am in Seattle with a crew of freshman rowers as they come together on their road to the 1936 Olympics. Where have your reading travels taken you this past week?

Friday, April 10, 2015

Review: The Penderwicks in Spring by Jeanne Birdsall

If you haven't already met the Penderwicks, you are missing out. Jeanne Birdsall has managed to write a children's middle grade book series that is both current and sweetly harks back to the gentle and lovely books of a half a century or more ago. Her latest book, The Penderwicks in Spring, is the fourth and penultimate in the series and has a slightly different focus than the first three. The central characters are no longer the older Penderwick girls: Rosalind is off at college, and Skye and Jane are teenagers in their final years of high school. Batty, the youngest Penderwick, the one who used to tag along after her older sisters wearing butterfly wings and accompanied by her faithful dog Hound, is now the oldest of the younger Penderwicks what with her father having remarried, bringing brother Ben into the family and then adding yet another Penderwick girl, toddler extraordinaire, the engaging Lydia.

Batty is very conscious of her place as the oldest of the younger set and now that she's in fifth grade, she understands and internalizes the worries of the adults. Money is as tight as ever and rather than add to that concern, when Batty, who is quite musical and has developed a very pretty voice, wants voice lessons she decides to find a job to pay for them herself, creating Penderwick Willing to Work. But the work that comes her way is work she does not want; it's dog walking. When the novel opens, Hound has been gone for six months and Batty is certain that it is her fault he died. So dog walking makes her nervous for her charges' welfare and makes her desperately miss the wonderful Hound. This would be enough for any sensitive child but added to that is the fact that Jeffrey, the friend the girls made in the first book and Batty's dear friend in particular and musical mentor, is not coming around much because of complications in his Penderwick relationship.  Then Batty overhears a terrible secret not meant for her ears that utterly devastates her and this once happy go lucky little girl is not so happy go lucky anymore.

The Penderwick family is as delightful as ever. The problems that beset them are universal and yet grounded firmly in the here and now. The entire feel of the book is charming and Birdsall manages to capture the innocence and worries of childhood without minimizing them at all. The book is brimming with emotion and reading about Hound's death and how Batty handles it will make even the hardest hearted reader sob. Each of the characters, even those who are only one the page for a brief time, are well drawn and complete characters.  As always, I wanted to just crawl into the pages and live with the Penderwicks myself.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Review: Wide-Open World by John Marshall

Traveling around the world. It's one of those things that lots of people think about but very few of them actually ever do. Even fewer contemplate it with their entire family in tow. For one thing, it's expensive. It's time consuming. And the logistics of it all can be overwhelming. But what if there was a way to make it happen that not only made it possible for you and your family to have this once in a lifetime experience but also benefitted people and organizations that need a helping hand as you went? There's a newish movement called voluntourism that does just this. John Marshall's new memoir chronicles how he, his wife Traca, and their two teenagers, Logan and Jackson, spent six months volunteering around the world.

Marshall and his wife, Traca, had always wanted to travel but it just didn't seem feasible until they went away on a yoga retreat that inspired John to consider a "year of service" for the whole family. As hard as they tried to make this year happen, they just couldn't pull it off and shelved the idea. But then the opportunity came up again, this time for six months instead of a year, and the Marshalls scrambled to make it happen this time, quitting jobs, figuring out school, renting out their house, nailing down the first volunteer opportunity, and buying their tickets to Costa Rica. During their six months abroad, they volunteered at the Osa Wildlife Sanctuary in Costa Rica, they worked on organic farms in New Zealand, they taught English in Thailand, they worked with orphans in India, they did odd jobs in another school in India, and finally they decompressed with a week as tourists in Portugal. Each experience was different from the last and gave them the opportunity to experience these places and the people who live there not as tourists, except for the Portugal stint, but in the course of average, everyday life.

As amazing as these opportunities sound, the book chronicles more than that. Marshall examines the fraying connection between his wife and himself, looking at the state of their marriage. He watches his children learn about life in other countries and as they are tested far beyond their comfort levels. Despite his waxing lyrical about his family and saying that they were changed by their experiences doing all of this though, it is hard to see how exactly they were changed. The reader gets little sense of who his wife is other than a woman obsessed with yoga who prefers to let life take her whichever way and his children, his daughter in particular, come across as rather unpleasant and spoiled. The latter perception makes it all the stranger when Marshall continually mentions how much everyone, adult and child alike, throughout their journey loved these amazing and wonderful kids. The first volunteering experience at the wildlife sanctuary is the only one that is discussed in any sort of depth and the only one that admitted there were negatives and a sometimes steep learning curve. The details of their experiences really diminished as the book went on, taking away the more interesting aspect of the memoir. In fact, in the end, I was left with the question of how much they could really offer to the organizations since they didn't commit much time to any of them and needed time and explanations to understand their duties in each place. Certainly small organizations without adequate resources need volunteers; they got volunteers in the Marshall family but how much was help and how much hindrance from short term workers like them is probably debatable. Marshall does include information on how they pulled off their six months which might inspire others who want to do something similar but find the idea of it overwhelming and obviously the groups who hosted the family are getting good publicity but there was just something not quite satisfying and just a little disappointing about this book.

Thanks to LibraryThing Early Reviewers and the publisher for sending me a copy of this book for review.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Review: A Reunion of Ghosts by Judith Claire Mitchell

We are often told that children become the people you tell them that they are. So if you consistently tell a child she is bad or dumb, she will believe this no matter how untrue it may be. Conversely, a child told she is smart or good will also believe these things to be true about herself. But what if a child is told that she is cursed, drinking in this knowledge with mother's milk, and that she cannot escape the family legacy except through that other dark familial predilection for suicide? Will children believe this as much as children believe these other things? In Judith Claire Mitchell's new novel, A Reunion of Ghosts, they certainly do.

Lady, Vee, and Delph Alter are cursed. They are the last of the Alters, the fourth generation of a family plagued by history and suicide. The three sisters are in their forties as the end of the twentieth century approaches and they have decided that they will go out with the millennium. Yes, all three of them intend to commit suicide and finally end the curse that has followed their family since their great-grandfather's scientific discoveries were perverted to evil uses. Their mother told all three of her girls that "the sins of the father are visited upon the children to the third and fourth generations" offering them a grim biblical truth as their enduring life philosophy. But they don't just have a life philosophy, they have a death philosophy as well, that of suicide. And if that must be pithily defined, it would surely sound something like: pick your poison and choose your time.

The Alter family tree is chock full of suicides (the sisters know because they have a chart posted on the back of one of the bedroom doors detailing each one) but not a one of these long dead souls has ever left a suicide note. This is where the sisters are going off of the family script. This novel is their suicide note, and what a note it is. Before they make their final exit, drinking smoothies no less, Lady, Vee, and Delph want to record their family history all the way back to their great-grandfather and the genesis of everything. Because the novel is a collective suicide note, it is told in the first person plural "we" which lends it an interesting and unusual communal voice. The sisters are all very different and well defined and yet this group telling works wonderfully. The narrative jumps back and forth from the family history, where the Alters are intimately connected to important world history and some of the big names in it, to the sisters' lives both past and present.

If a novel about three women intending to commit suicide with the novel itself purporting to be the suicide note sounds incredibly depressing, readers should know that this couldn't be further from the truth. The sisters are witty, quick with a snappy comeback, fond of word play, smart, and entertaining. Certainly they embrace death, but casually and unafraid. There's a fair bit of truly funny gallows humor as they recount the defining tragedies in their own lives and those of their ancestors. And there's been quite a lot of tragedy, some greater and some smaller. Great-grandfather Lenz Alter, the originator of the family curse, is based in part on the real life Fritz Haber, a German Jewish scientist who converted to Christianity and won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for his discovery synthesizing ammonia from nitrogen and hydrogen, a process that in turn led to the development of fertilizers and explosives. Considered the father of chemical warfare for his weaponizing of chlorine gas in WWI, another of his discoveries led to Zyklon B, the gas used in the Nazi gas chambers in WWII, and he might or might not have been the first to synthesize the drug Ecstasy. It is with the legacy of Haber's real life accomplishments that the fictional Lenz Alter dooms his family, at least according to the sisters. But the novel is not just the record of one dysfunctional family as its last surviving members troop inexorably towards their own carefully planned deaths in their apartment's Death and Dying Room. There are twists and turns, surprises and shocks too, that ask the question of whether there can ever be redemption or if we are definitively trapped by fate or long-held belief. There are no actual ghosts here but the telling of the tale is indeed a reunion, the collective noun for a group of ghosts, of the ghosts who have haunted the sisters forever. The novel is quirky and rich, literary and accessible. There are a few bits that drag but in general, the sisters and their history are engaging enough to keep the reader engrossed in the story, wondering how it can, and indeed must, end.

For more information about Judith Claire Mitchell and the book, take a look at her website, like her Facebook page, or check out the book's Goodreads page. Follow the rest of the blog tour or look at the amazon reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book.

Thanks to Trish from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.

Waiting on Wednesday

This meme is hosted by Breaking the Spine and is meant to highlight some great pre-publication books we all can't wait to get our grubby little mitts on.

The Art of Baking Blind by Sarah Vaughn. The book is being released by St. Martin's Press on May 5, 2015.

Amazon says this about the book: There are many reasons to bake: to feed; to create; to impress; to nourish; to define ourselves; and, sometimes, it has to be said, to perfect. But often we bake to fill a hunger that would be better filled by a simple gesture from a dear one. We bake to love and be loved.

In 1966, Kathleen Eaden, cookbook writer and wife of a supermarket magnate, published The Art of Baking, her guide to nurturing a family by creating the most exquisite pastries, biscuits and cakes. Now, five amateur bakers are competing to become the New Mrs. Eaden. There's Jenny, facing an empty nest now that her family has flown; Claire, who has sacrificed her dreams for her daughter; Mike, trying to parent his two kids after his wife's death; Vicki, who has dropped everything to be at home with her baby boy; and Karen, perfect Karen, who knows what it's like to have nothing and is determined her facade shouldn't slip.

As unlikely alliances are forged and secrets rise to the surface, making the choicest pastry seems the least of the contestants' problems. For they will learn--as as Mrs. Eaden did before them--that while perfection is possible in the kitchen, it's very much harder in life.

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