Monday, May 30, 2011

Books, Books & More Books!

My TBR pile is TOWERING... Actually, it's several towers (!!), although it's helped from a space perspective that I've been buying more Nook books this past year. Finding time to make a dent in my enormous stack (whether paper or electronic) is another matter, of course, but I've been enjoying delving into my recent book purchases in every format they've come in -- hardcover, trade paperback, mass market and ebook. This spring, I discovered some excellent stories, and I've listed a handful of them below -- alphabetically by author's last name. Hope you'll give a few of these a try:

The Wednesday Sisters by Meg Waite Clayton
Five women, one passion, and the unbreakable bond of friendship... When five young mothers–Frankie, Linda, Kath, Ally, and Brett–first meet in a neighborhood park in the late 1960s, their conversations center on marriage, raising children, and a shared love of books. Then one evening, as they gather to watch the Miss America Pageant, Linda admits that she aspires to write a novel herself, and the Wednesday Sisters Writing Society is born. The five women slowly, and often reluctantly, start filling journals, sliding pages into typewriters, and sharing their work. In the process, they explore the changing world around them: the Vietnam War, the race to the moon, and a women’s movement that challenges everything they believe about themselves. At the same time, the friends carry one another through more personal changes–ones brought about by infidelity, longing, illness, failure, and success. With one another’s support and encouragement, the Wednesday Sisters begin to embrace who they are and what they hope to become, welcoming readers to experience, along with them, the power of dreaming big.

Operation Sheba by Misty Evans
Hotshot spies never die. They just slip undercover. Julia Torrison-codename Sheba-is keeping secrets. Seventeen months ago she was a CIA superagent, tracking down dangerous terrorists with her partner and lover, Conrad Flynn. A mission was blown, literally, when a bomb Julia built exploded early and Conrad died. Yanked back to Langley and given a new identity, she is now the Counterterrorism Center's top analyst, spending her days at CIA headquarters and her nights in the bed of her boss. Her former life as a secret agent has been sealed off. Like her heart. Conrad Flynn-codename Solomon-has his own secrets. For starters, he's not dead. Going under the deepest cover possible, he faked his death to save Julia's life. Now he must tear her life apart and ask her to help him hunt down a traitor: her new love. Is Con a rogue agent or just a jealous ex-lover? To find out, Julia will have to enter a web of seduction and betrayal to play the spy game of her life using nothing more than her iPod-and her intuition. Julia warns: "Beware of sexy spies bearing gifts. Trust no one and sleep with a gun under your pillow." Conrad warns: "Sex, lies and tantalizing suspense.don't worry, I'll protect you."

Sleeping Beauty: Vampire Slayer by Maureen McGowan
In this thrilling story full of adventure and romance, Sleeping Beauty is more than just a lonely princess waiting for her prince—she's a brave, tenacious girl who never backs down from a challenge. With vampire-slaying talents that she practices in secret, Sleeping Beauty puts her courage to the test in the dark of night, fighting evil as she searches for a way to break the spell that has cut her off from her family. In a special twist, readers have the opportunity to make key decisions for Sleeping Beauty and decide where she goes next—but no matter the choice; the result is a story unlike any fairy tale you've ever read! Sleeping Beauty: Vampire Slayer is an entirely new type of fairy tale–one that will keep today's kids guessing and offer them hours of magical fun.

Evenfall by Liz Michalski
In life, Frank could've had any woman he wanted. In death, he'll try to win back the one that mattered... Frank Wildermuth always regretted a mistake he made as a teenager: choosing Clara Murphy over her sister Gert. And like a true Murphy woman, Gert got on with her life, never admitting to heartbreak. Not even now, decades later, with Frank dead-dead, that is, but not quite gone. Now, Frank's niece, Andie Murphy, is back in town to settle his estate, and she sees that things have changed in Hartman, Connecticut. Aunt Gert still drives her crazy, but Cort, the wide-eyed farmboy she used to babysit, is all grown up-with a whole new definition for the word "sleepover." Even freakier are the whispers. Either Andie's losing her mind, or something she can't see is calling out to her-something that insists on putting right the past.

The Love Goddess' Cooking School by Melissa Senate
Holly Maguire's grandmother Camilla was the Love Goddess of Blue Crab Island, Maine--a Milanese fortune-teller who could predict the right man for you, and whose Italian cooking was rumored to save marriages. Holly has been waiting years for her unlikely fortune: her true love will like sa cordula, an unappetizing old-world delicacy. But Holly can't make a decent marinara sauce, let alone sa cordula. Maybe that's why the man she hopes to marry breaks her heart. So when Holly inherits Camilla's Cucinotta, she's determined to forget about fortunes and love and become an Italian cooking teacher worthy of her grandmother's legacy. But Holly's four students are seeking much more than how to make Camilla's chicken alla Milanese. Simon, a single father, hopes to cook his way back into his daughter's heart. Juliet, Holly's childhood friend, hides a painful secret. Tamara, a serial dater, can't find the love she longs for. And twelve-year-old Mia thinks learning to cook will stop her dad, Liam, from marrying his phony lasagna-queen girlfriend. As the class gathers each week, adding Camilla's essential ingredients of wishes and memories in every pot and pan, unexpected friendships and romances are formed--and tested. Especially when Holly falls hard for Liam . . . and learns a thing or two about finding her own recipe for happiness.

Still looking forward to reading more (and more!) this summer, including Friendship Bread by Darien Gee, Maid for Love by Marie Force, The Senator's Wife by Sue Miller, Dolci di Love by Sarah-Kate Lynch, The Bird Sisters by Rebecca Rasmussen, Ash Wednesday by Ethan Hawke (yes, the actor :) and I Love the 80s by Megan Crane.

What about you? What have you been reading? What are you looking forward to picking up this summer?

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Halloween...in May!

Every once in a long while an experience comes along that's a combination of surprising, heartwarming, funny and so fabulous that trying to explain it defies words. Thankfully, I had my camera with me last Friday night, which is the only thing that gives me a fighting chance at describing the incredible book club I visited.

My first clue that it was going to be a really unique evening should have been the big Halloween decoration on front door. But Claudia was hosting the event, and she's an artist. Her house is filled with lots of cool crafts and gorgeous paintings. So I thought, "Maybe she just kept it up from the fall because she likes the look of it or, maybe, she forgot to put it away." I could totally relate to that. One winter I put up these snowflake window clings and I just never got around to talking them down. And then it was, like, September, and my son said, "Mom! Why are there STILL snowflakes up?" And all I could say back was, "Ohhh, yeah, those (sheepish shrug). Well, we're getting really close to Christmas again. It's gonna snow any day now..." So, you see, when I spot hanging jack-o-lanterns up on doors in mid-May, I don't judge.

Turns out, though, that Claudia hadn't been forgetful. And it wasn't any kind of a nod to the spookiness of the date: Friday the 13th. Nope. Because when I rang the bell and the door opened, there were three people greeting me -- Claudia, her sister Allison, and their long-time friend Terri -- who were in costume. (And so was Lily the dog!) And they were dancing...to the sounds of Fleetwood Mac's Rumours CD. That's when I finally understood what these awesomely creative ladies had done: They'd brought to life my book's Halloween party!! (Pictured right: Marty, Marcie, Allison, Claudia and Terri)

For those of you who've read Friday Mornings at Nine, you're familiar with the big party (for adults only) in the middle of the book. It had a fairy tale theme, so most of the food served had a name twisted to fit. Like the "Three Bloody Pigs in a Blanket," the "Jack and the Bean Dip" and the "Headless Gingerbread Men." Well, they recreated the food, too (!!), plus made up a few dishes of their own. Terri, gorgeously dressed in retro 1970s red, even concocted a version of my "Witch's Brew," which I strongly suspect was more potent than the stuff I'd envisioned for the novel's party chapter. (I was feeling a little lightheaded after only half a glass!) Take a peek at all the fabulous treats:

Yum! Loved trying these delicious foods. (FYI: they tasted a lot better than their names would indicate. ;)

More yum!! Gluten-free pasta with pesto, vegetarian and non-vegetarian pigs in a blanket, hilarious headless gingerbread men...

Check out the adorable Halloween napkins and plates, too.

Very strong drinks with the inspired addition of sour gummy worms. Wish I would have thought to add those to the Witch's Brew mix in the book -- they were perfect!

And there were even wrapped Halloween candies taped to the wall -- just as I'd written it in the story. At different moments during the night, one of us would pull a Kit Kat or a Snickers off the wall and eat it. At other times a Butterfingers would spontaneously drop to the floor and *someone* would have to grab it and devour it at once... It was the best!

Here (pictured right) are Terri, Claudia and Beth at the table with our spook-tacular feast.

Janet (pictured left with Claudia) brought a photo album along with pictures from her wonderful European trip and, also, shared a story with me about her "battle with Betty White" in the bookstore to get my novel, LOL. Loved that!

(Pictured left: Claudia, Allison and Dori) And, finally, Dori showed up wielding an ax for, um, the "beheading" scene. (Hee!! It makes sense in context. ;) Claudia was the instigator and Allison -- the book club's president -- was the unwitting victim. I. Couldn't. Stop. Laughing.

Truly, they thought of everything. I half expected my characters to slip in through the back door, sit down at the table with us, unwrap a Twix from the wall and join us in a debate about relationships and Stevie Nicks. I loved every second of Friday night, and I can't thank this wonderful book club enough for giving me one of the most memorable evenings I've ever had as an author. Claudia, Allison, Terri, Marcie, Marty, Beth, Janet and Dori: XOXOXOX (Can't wait to name characters after you all. :)

However, I'm seriously craving a mini Hershey bar right about now, and I've been humming "Dreams" nonstop all week... What's going on for all of you??

Monday, May 16, 2011

Heroes -- Austenesque and Otherwise

Just a quick pop-in to say that I'm over at Austen Authors for the next 24 hours talking about heroes. I'll be back here before the week's out, though, with a brand new post about a tremendously fun weekend event that can only be explained with the help of photographs...and, maybe, a Poisoned Appletini or two...

Hope you've all been having a great start to the week!

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Author Talks featuring Kathryn Stockett

For several months now, three very good friends and I have been looking forward to attending a wonderful new Chicago event, hosted by the Chicago Tribune, called "Author Talks." It's a live Q&A with some interesting visiting writers -- Joyce Carol Oates and Alexander McCall Smith were recent guests -- and it gives those of us in the audience a chance to get an inside scoop on their books and their writing lives.

On Friday, May 6th, my friends (Sarah, Karen and Joyce) and I hopped a train and headed into the city to see the fabulous Kathryn Stockett, who wrote one of my favorite modern novels, the #1 New York Times bestseller The Help.

What a FANTASTIC experience! We decided to make an afternoon/evening out of it, so we left at 2pm and got downtown an hour or so later, in time to enjoy celebratory cocktails at the Elephant & Castle pub.

Next up, a delicious dinner at the Italian Village -- where, between the four of us, we had mostaccioli, whitefish, chicken marsala and seafood ravioli -- SO good!

Then, across the street to the Chase Auditorium at 7pm for Kathryn's interview and author reception, which was terrific from start to finish. Included with our tickets were brand new trade paperback editions of the novel, plus cute black bags, pens and a copy of Chicago Home and Garden magazine. (See photo at top of blog.)

Chicago Tribune literary editor, Elizabeth Taylor, hosted the interview beautifully. And Kathryn was so charming, funny and smart that it was a pleasure to be in the audience just to hear her tell about her years growing up in Mississippi, her struggle to write the novel and then find a good agent for it (she says she got about 60 agent rejections before she found representation ;) and to learn some details and background about the movie, based on the book, that's coming out this August. Can't wait to see it...

We were an appreciative crowd and, in looking around the room, I couldn't spot an empty seat. Elizabeth later told us that the event sold out in just few days. I'm not at all surprised -- it was exceptionally well organized and very enjoyable -- and everyone I chatted with during the evening said the same. I'm looking forward to going to more Author Talks and other Tribnation events in the near future.

After the Q&A ended, the reception and booksigning began. There were plenty of refreshments available, not that we were hungry after our big dinner (this did not, however, stop us from sampling the veggie quesadillas, chicken satays and mini-pastries...yum!), but we did manage to finish snacking before reaching the place where Kathryn was signing books. Again, she was so warm and approachable, it was lovely to get to chat with her personally for a few minutes and have our photo taken with her.

Knowing we had an hour and a half before our train was set to depart, we made one final stop -- for coffee and a dessert to share (because, really, we were on a mission to taste test EVERYTHING that night) -- at a very hip place called IPO: New Urban Cuisine. We decided to get an order of the "Chocolate Waffle," which had sides of chocolate mousse, blueberries, fois gras caramel (a new taste sensation for me), cream cheese, chocolate shavings and a few other mystery ingredients, and it was both unusual and delectable. What a perfect way to end the day before heading for home at last and, after midnight, collapsing into bed...stuffed, satisfied, smiling. Many thanks to ALL involved for making it such a delightful event!

A few years ago, Joyce, Karen, Sarah and I went to see Sue Monk Kidd and found it a joyful and inspirational evening as well. Have any of you gone to an author talk that you especially loved? If so, who was the guest writer and what made his/her program memorable to you?

p.s. Happy Mother's Day to all the moms out there ;).