Friday, July 31, 2015

Guest Book Review: Kitchens of the Great Midwest

By Jacqueline B. Friedland

So often, we are told that we shouldn’t let food define us. We hear constantly from health professionals, media outlets, friends and family that we cannot be slaves to our appetites, that we must try to find non-food-centered means of celebrating, of communing, of commiserating. Conventional wisdom complains that we have become a culture too obsessed with food, that it’s time to back up and regroup. In his new book, Kitchens of the Great Midwest, J. Ryan Stradal asserts a different view, bucking this trend of shame and deprivation. Instead, with persuasive wit and grace, he exalts food, and the foodies too.

In this delightfully absorbing debut novel, Stradal has created a meandering saga about one girl’s inauspicious arrival as an infant, and her slow but consistent rise from orphaned baby to world-renowned, supreme, mysterious, celebrity chef. With a deft hand, Stradal employs multiple players to tell the story of a central captivating character, Eva Thorvald. Through vignette-style chapters, each of which seems to focus on a different person, Stradal manages to paint a thorough picture of Eva. Each section highlights not only a person who has somehow been relevant to Eva’s journey through life, but also a specific dish that has had great significance for her at a pivotal moment in her personal development.

In the first chapter, which focuses on her father, Lars, the reader learns that Eva’s mother abandoned her, as well as Lars, shortly after Eva’s birth. Feeling she simply was not cut out to raise a child, Eva’s mother left her family in Minnesota and relocated to California wine country. Eva’s father immediately dedicated himself to raising his daughter, but sadly, he collapsed from a fatal heart attack while she was still an infant. Eva is instead raised by her Aunt Finoa and Uncle Jarl, who decide to pose as her birth parents. The reader learns fairly early in the story that Eva is unusually astute, with an exceptionally large vocabulary for a child her age, a highly discerning palate and penchant for very spicy peppers. It’s not long before she’s onto her aunt and uncle’s ruse.

As Eva ages, we see her as a tormented middle schooler. Notably, this is the only chapter where she is the ostensible “main character”. After Eva gets in trouble at school for exacting revenge on a few bullies, the narrator moves on and begins to follow the storyline of other characters. Only after considering these subsequent chapters together will readers realize that they’ve been reading Eva’s story all along. On this seemingly desultory journey, Stradal depicts Eva’s cousin Braque at college, but then Eva comes for a visit. Next is a chapter about the tormented teenage boy who is suffering from unrequited love. It turns out that the object of his affection is Eva. As the book progresses, the characters’ connections to Eva become increasingly attenuated, ranging from a wannabe yuppie who happens to be in a cooking club that Eva joins to a struggling youth whose brother’s girlfriend makes a cameo appearance: Eva. Each time it seems that Eva couldn’t possibly be connected to the character at a chapter’s center, Stradal uses skillful sleight of hand to reveal the relationship he has concocted.

As Stradal depicts Eva’s rise to culinary fame, he also manages to tell an additional story. The dishes that Eva cooks and eats throughout the novel do their own work towards the story’s development. They paint a picture of Eva as an unparalleled cook and also a complex but much loved character. Moreover, the foods Stradal describes provide surprisingly insightful socio-economic commentary. He uses food and recipes as shorthand to reveal moral character and social status. When he introduces characters who have created a raw organic no-bake chocolate torte, readers will know exactly what type of people they are dealing with. For Eva in particular, food becomes a way of anchoring herself and keeping a clear head when other parts of the world cease to make sense.

In addition to these food-related story elements, Stradal also peppers full-length recipes throughout the book. At times, the plotline of the novel is simply too engrossing for one to stop and consider the ratios of butter to sugar that have been laid out in painstaking detail, but surely each recipe is worth returning to and sampling after finishing the story. It becomes increasingly apparent that for Eva Thorvald, food is thoroughly tied up with emotion, and that the ingredients in a dish can become the most effective manner of expressing herself. Stradel shows Eva using food as such an effective interpersonal tool that the reader can’t help but wonder if we’ve been wrong about food all along. In Stradal’s world, where characters use food to overcome obstacles, to communicate, to relate to each other, food is the great connector, a universal language, and especially, a way of defining oneself.

Just like the dishes that Eva enjoys, Stradal presents multiple stories throughout this book that enhance the flavor of the novel as a whole, like a single grand feast. With ample helpings of family drama, teenage angst, enduring friendship and confusing romance, this book will satisfy a wide array of appetites and should not be missed.

Thanks to Penguin Random House for the book in exchange for an honest review. They have an online book club kit you can use if your club is reading this novel.

Jacqueline Berkell Friedland is currently an MFA candidate at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York, where she is studying fiction. She is a former attorney and law school professor. When she is not writing, Jacqueline can be found plowing through novels or chasing after her four young children.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Spotlight and Giveaway: If I Could Turn Back Time

DC darling Beth Harbison recently celebrated the publication of her ninth novel, If I Could Turn Back Time. (Yes, we know you have that Cher song in your head now!) Melissa A is especially excited because she LOVES time travel novels (and that the story takes place in Maryland). And we're all excited that St. Martin's Press has THREE copies to share with some lucky readers in the US and/or Canada!

This summer, from New York Times bestselling author Beth Harbison, comes an extraordinary story of self-discovery. In IF I COULD TURN BACK TIME. Beth Harbison employs her signature wit and warmth to tell the story of every woman who has ever thought, “if I could go back in time, knowing what I know now, I’d do things so differently…”

Thirty-six year old Ramie Phillips has led a very successful life. She made her fortune and now she hob nobs with the very rich, and occasionally semi-famous, and enjoys luxuries she only dreamed of as a middle-class kid growing up in Maryland. But lately Ramie has begun to feel a bit…empty.

While partying on a boat with friends off the Florida coast, no one notices as Ramie gets up to go to the diving board. So no one notices when she hits her head on the board on her way down…

She wakes some time later with a throbbing headache and something beeping next to her. She strains to understand a voice calling in the distance: “Wake up!” It’s her mother. “You’re going to be late for school again. I’m not writing a note this time…”

An exploration of what life teaches us, and what we can learn from the past, IF I COULD TURN BACK TIME is the next hilarious and heartwarming novel from the beloved Beth Harbison.

See more information and excerpts here.

BETH HARBISON is The New York Times bestselling author of Chose the Wrong Guy, Gave Him the Wrong Finger; When In Doubt, Add Butter; Always Something There To Remind Me; Thin, Rich, Pretty; Hope In A Jar; Secrets of a Shoe Addict; and Shoe Addicts Anonymous. She grew up in Potomac, Maryland, outside Washington, D.C., and now shares her time between that suburb, New York City, and a quiet home on the eastern shore.

Visit Beth at her website, Facebook, and Twitter.

How to win: Use Rafflecopter to enter the giveaway. If you have any questions, feel free to contact us. If you have trouble using Rafflecopter on our blog, enter the giveaway here.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

US/Canada only. Giveaway ends August 4th at midnight EST.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Jami and Melissa A dish up some soup

Since authors and guests are sharing their good things and heartwarming stories, Jami and Melissa A felt moved to do the same! Enjoy your "soup."

Melissa A:

Birthday gift from Marlene at
Book Mama
Something good that happened to you recently: CLC hit 3500 likes on Facebook! And all the online and in-person love I got on my birthday.

Something good that happened to someone you know recently: My first cousin graduated from medical school. She also got married to a great guy in May. She's so kind and remarkable and I'm happy to see all these good things happen for her at once.

Something good you witnessed: My daughter hugging her friends at school. I just love that she's making friends and that she knows how to be one, as well.

Something good you heard on the news: Free book vending machines from Jet Blue for children. Yay for literacy promotion!  I also just saw a picture and story on Facebook about a man in Italy who gives out free children's books. There's also the mail carrier who helped a young boy get books, as he had access to none.

Something good someone did for you: A friend from work bought me lunch for my birthday (we went the day after, but still). It was a nice treat and a fun excuse for some work friends and I to do a lunch gathering again. Also, a close friend drove my husband home last week after his car got stuck in a garage. I know it was convenient since she was in the same area at the time, but it really helped a lot. It happened around the time our kids go to bed, so that's just insanity in my house!

Something good you did for someone else: A few years ago, my friend was taking her son to see The Laurie Berkner Band in concert. Her son is a huge fan, but didn't win this one contest Laurie was having. Since I had won a Skype interview with Laurie (for my younger son), I was connected with her publicist and got my friend and her son in to meet Laurie after the concert. My friend later posted a video of the experience. Her son made these cards for everyone in the band and was so excited to hand them out in person. :)


Although most people on this site know me as a reviewer and writer, I wear another hat when it comes to vocation – Realtor. After spending three years trying to sell my house in Maryland, find a house to rent in Florida, then a house to buy in Florida, it seemed silly not to apply everything I’d learned to help others who wanted to move to the Sunshine State. I joined Century 21 Beggins on St. Pete Beach last year.

I had a couple who was desperate to sell their condo and move to a more laid-back neighborhood. Problem was, there were a lot of two-bedroom condos in their development that were similar to theirs, and priced for less. We were getting a lot of lookers, but no buyers. When the listing approached its expiration date, they told me they wanted to list with a local brokerage that specialized in condos in the development. I did some research and gave them names of Realtors in that company who had actually sold some. I also utilized a Realtor old wives’ tale – that burying a statue of St. Joseph in the front yard would help sell the unit. (Since it was a condo, the seller placed it in a flower pot outside.)

Two weeks before expiration, I got a call from a buyers’ agent. Her buyers were in a hurry. Could they see the condo today? And how soon would my sellers be able to move out? That was on a Tuesday. We had a fully executed contract on Friday. The sale closed the last day in June.
Was it St. Joseph performing his magic again? Or had I put good karma into the universe by helping my sellers find another agent? I don’t know… but now I have to find them a place to buy!

Book Review: Pretty Baby

By Melissa Amster

I had been hearing good things about Pretty Baby, Mary Kubica's sophomore novel. Needless to say, I was intrigued. When I found out she was going to be signing copies at BEA, I made sure to schedule that into my day. And yes, it was worth waiting in line for!

She sees the teenage girl on the train platform, standing in the pouring rain, clutching an infant in her arms. She boards a train and is whisked away. But she can't get the girl out of her head…

Heidi Wood has always been a charitable woman: she works for a nonprofit, takes in stray cats. Still, her husband and daughter are horrified when Heidi returns home one day with a young woman named Willow and her four-month-old baby in tow. Disheveled and apparently homeless, this girl could be a criminal—or worse. But despite her family's objections, Heidi invites Willow and the baby to take refuge in their home.

Heidi spends the next few days helping Willow get back on her feet, but as clues into Willow's past begin to surface, Heidi is forced to decide how far she's willing to go to help a stranger. What starts as an act of kindness quickly spirals into a story far more twisted than anyone could have anticipated.
(Synopsis courtesy of Amazon.)

Similar to what those memes say, "I don't always read psychological thrillers, but when I do, I make sure they are related to women's fiction." Pretty Baby definitely fits into this category. It's not just about the act of kindness Heidi exhibits, but also about Heidi's past and what drives her to help Willow and her baby. And then we get to Willow's story, which is just crazy and horrifying, but also impossible to break away from. I almost wish Willow told the entire story because I really liked her "voice." If this is another sign I should be more open to YA novels, then so be it! (She's a teenager more than a "young woman.")

Mary Kubica writes in a way that compounds a heartbreaking situation, making it feel so real. She also makes her villains more evil and hateful than I've seen in a while from a book. I felt equally sympathetic toward Willow and Heidi, as both their situations were really sad. I don't want to give away too much though. I was able to figure out a few things on my own as the story came together, but there were still other surprises in store. Some things I would have liked to see are an epilogue for Heidi and Chris and chapters from their daughter Zoe's point of view.

I recommend Pretty Baby to anyone who wants a good edge-of-your-seat nail-biter. I'm excited to read The Good Girl soon, as I recently couldn't resist buying it!

Some casting ideas:
Heidi: Amy Adams
Chris: Jeremy Sisto
Willow: Mae Whitman (If she could play a teenager in The DUFF earlier this year, then why not? I kept picturing her in this role.)
Cassidy: Jena Sims

Thanks to MIRA (care of Book Expo America) for the book in exchange for an honest review.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Nicola Kraus shares the a book giveaway

L to R: Nicola and Emma
Today we are celebrating the publication of Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus' ninth novel, How to Be a Grown-up, about a forty-something wife and mother thrust back into the workforce, where she finds herself at the mercy of a boss half her age. Fans of the TV show (and book) Younger might appreciate this premise, even though the main character in this story isn't disguising her age.

In honor of this special day, Nicola is here to share a heartwarming story with us. 
She also has THREE copies of How to Be a Grown-up for some lucky US readers!

Visit Emma and Nicola at their website, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

A Hug in the Mail

My mother died recently and it gave me time to spend with her girlfriends. It’s always interesting when you get to see your parent in another context, as a person who moved through the world long before you were ever in it. My sister and I got to hear wonderful stories, some of which we’d heard before, like the time my mom and her college buddies borrowed a hearse and drove from Buffalo to Florida. That made the papers.

But at her service a friend of hers I had never met in person came up to me, wanting to be sure we spoke before she left. Her name was Maria and she wanted to tell me that twenty years ago she had been diagnosed with Lyme disease. It was severe and she was very ill and living alone at the time. Apparently my mother had stepped beside her at an art opening and softly said, “I’m worried about your head. I think your head is cold.” Maria said a few days later a hat arrived for her in the mail. It was a lilac wool hat, lined with velvet. She wore it through her whole treatment and then for years afterward whenever she needed comfort. She said, “That was so like your mother. To see that I was in need in a way I hadn’t even been able to articulate for myself. But more than that, to make me feel loved.”

It was hard to say good bye to my mother, but to be in a room with hundreds of people whose lives had been similarly touched made me feel like a pebble surrounded by ripples of love in an invisible ocean that my mother is now a part of. And I will think of that story every time I see someone who could use a hug in the mail.

Thanks to Nicola for sharing her mother with us in this way and for sharing her book with our readers.

How to win: Use Rafflecopter to enter the giveaway. If you have any questions, feel free to contact us. If you have trouble using Rafflecopter on our blog, enter the giveaway here.

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US only. Giveaway ends August 3rd at midnight EST.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Jenny O'Regan is "positively" a special giveaway

Introduction by Melissa Amster

We are honored to have the delightful Jennifer Tropea O'Regan here today. I met Jennifer via Facebook last year, when Stephanie Elliot of SE Reviews and Reads shared one of her giveaways. I then saw that she liked the same books as I did and that she lives not too far from me. I connected with her and we instantly became friends. 

"Chick Lit Soup for the Soul" month is a perfect time to have Jennifer here, as she is full of kindness, generosity, and positive energy. If I'm having a bad day, I just need to message with her and I instantly feel better. (Keep in mind, I don't run to her with my problems, I just bask in her warm glow of happiness.)

In addition to fostering a love of literacy within her unprivileged high school students, Jennifer has many noteworthy philanthropic accolades. During her husband’s plight with cancer, she single-handedly raised over 3,000 books for the Johns Hopkins Hospital Oncology Patient Library. Jennifer is now sharing her unbridled passion for reading via Confessions of a Bookaholic —a page dedicated to celebrating female authors. She's also hanging out on Twitter and Instagram, just waiting to celebrate authors and books with her followers over there. Jennifer lives in the DC area with her husband and two of the cutest dogs ever. And she sometimes gets mistaken for Elsa from Frozen.

Since Jennifer is well-known for her incredible book giveaways, she has a special treat for our readers: a $50 Barnes and Noble gift card for readers anywhere in the world to try and win! (Note: if the winner is outside of the US, they will receive a different prize of equal value.)

Something good that happened to you recently.
I received an email from a former student detailing his profound gratitude for my guidance during a tumultuous time in his life. He wrote, quite candidly, that he would not have graduated from high school or gone on to college were it not for my encouragement. (Blinking back tears as I recount the details!) His words, forever resonant, are a strong reminder that we should never underestimate the power of kindness.

Something good that happened to someone you know recently.
My handsome hubby, Mike, was selected for promotion to Commander in the Navy Reserves!

Something good you witnessed.
I observed a young man, presumably 18-19 years old, escort an elderly woman through a busy DC intersection. It warmed my heart. His mama taught him well!

Something good you heard on the news.
University of Cincinnati President Santa Ono rejected a $200,000 bonus, asking for the money to instead be donated to charities and scholarships. Talk about a shining example of selflessness. Bravo, President Ono!

Something good someone did for you.
A kind man insisted on paying for my coffee at Starbucks recently. His only contingency—pay it forward! Consider it done, sir!

Something good you did for someone else.
I aspire to do good each and every day, without exception--whether in a grander sense (running an 8K for The Wounded Warriors Project) or via simple everyday benevolences (bringing a sick neighbor chicken soup).

Thanks to Jennifer for making us smile and for sharing such a special prize with our readers!

How to win: Use Rafflecopter to enter the giveaway. If you have any questions, feel free to contact us. If you have trouble using Rafflecopter on our blog, enter the giveaway here.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Worldwide. Giveaway ends August 2nd at midnight EST.

Friday, July 24, 2015

What's in the a giveaway

Melissa A:

Safekeeping by Jessamyn Hope (won from Great Thoughts' Great Readers)

The Mapmaker's Children by Sarah McCoy from Penguin Random House

Losing Me by Sue Margolis from
Penguin Random House
(Don't miss out on our giveaway!)

I'm Not Her by Cara Sue Achterberg

The Secrets of Lake Road by Karen Katchur from Thomas Dunne Books

Come Rain or Come Shine by Jan Karon from Putnam

The Woman in the Photograph
by Dana Gynther from Gallery Books

Hello? by/from Liza Wiemer

The Silver Cord by/from Alison Caiola

Starting from Lost by/from S.K. Wills (e-book)


The Invisibles by Cecilia Galante
from William Morrow

Becoming Ellen by Shari Shattuck from Putnam

Along the Infinite Sea by Beatriz Williams from Putnam

A Remarkable Kindness by Diana Bletter from William Morrow


Family Trees by Kerstin March from Kensington (e-book)


Pippa's Cornish Dream by Debbie Johnson from Harper Impulse

The Great Village Show by Alexandra Brown from Harper Collins

What could be in YOUR mail:

The Someday Jar by Allison Morgan
Berkley has TWO copies to give away!

Real-estate broker Lanie Howard figures she has the perfect man, the perfect job, and the perfect life. Then she stumbles across her old Someday Jar, the forgotten glass relic where she stashed all the childhood wishes—no matter how crazy—that her father encouraged her to write down on the backs of Chinese restaurant fortunes. She used to be fun once! What happened to her?

Although Lanie is wary of uncorking her past, when an attractive stranger saves her from a life-or-death encounter with a lemon peel at the bottom of a martini glass, she realizes that life is way too short for regrets. Now, jar in hand, Lanie decides to throw caution to the wind, and carry out everything she had once hoped to do, even if it means leaving her perfectly “perfect” life behind…

Fans of Sophie Kinsella and the Shopaholic series will fall in love with Lanie Howard—young, fabulous, and desperate to transform her life—in this funny, quirky, and endearing story about finding perfect happiness in life’s most imperfect moments. (Synopsis courtesy of Amazon.)

You also have a chance to win this special prize:
Like BookBub? Then you’ll absolutely and irrevocably fall madly in love with Forewordz (coming soon), a book lover’s community connecting authors and readers through daily eBook deals and special promotions. We heart readers so much that we're giving away a $25 Barnes & Noble gift card before we even launch! Visit us on Facebook and Twitter.

**Both giveaways are US only**

How to win: Use Rafflecopter to enter the giveaway. If you have any questions, feel free to contact us. If you have trouble using Rafflecopter on our blog, enter the giveaway here.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

US only. Giveaway ends July 29th at midnight EST. First winner who is chosen by Rafflecopter will receive the gift card.