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Fall Bookapalooza: Spotlight on “House of Wonder” (and Giveaway)

September 9, 2014

Congratulations Julia Munroe Martin as the giveaway winner!

In celebration of fall and back-to-school, I have an exciting series of posts for all of you book enthusiasts! For the next five weeks, I’ll be spotlighting a new book and offering a giveaway too. There are so many awesome new novels and memoirs coming out and I’m eager to share them with you. First up: House of Wonders by Sarah Healy

house of wonderFrom the publisher:

Theirs wasn’t always the misfit family in the neighborhood. Jenna Parsons’s childhood was one of block parties and barbecues, where her mother, a former beauty queen, continued her reign and her twin brother, Warren, was viewed as just another oddball kid.

But as her mother’s shopaholic habits intensified, and her brother’s behavior became viewed as more strange than quirky, Jenna sought to distance herself from them. She is devoted to her career and her four-year-old daughter, Rose. But now, in his peculiar way, Warren summons her back to 62 Royal Court.

What she finds there—a house in disrepair, a neighborhood on tenterhooks over a rash of petty thefts, and evidence of past traumas her mother has kept hidden—will challenge Jenna as never before. But as she stands by her family, she also begins to find beauty in unexpected places, strength in unlikely people, and a future she couldn’t have imagined.

Books about family mysteries always intrigue me and this book was no different. Sarah’s tale is engaging and there were several passages she wrote that I feel like I could have written myself. A good sign when the story is that relatable to the reader.

GIVEAWAY: I have one copy of House of Wonders to give to one lucky reader. To be entered to win, leave a comment telling me what you’re currently reading. The giveaway closes Sunday, September 14 at 5 pm Pacific time. 

And don’t forget to check back next week for the next novel and giveaway in the Fall Bookapalooza event!

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Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of House of Wonders to review for this blog post.  All opinions are my own and I only endorse books that I am proud to recommend to others.

Welcome to 1st Grade!

September 8, 2014

Sophie started first grade last week. I’m in awe of how much she’s grown, just over the summer months. She stopped sucking her thumb completely (more on that later). She got her ears pierced. She can now read entire books by herself, road signs, and so many words. She is so much more confident at her school and knowing more kids. I’m so proud of the little person she’s becoming.

What I learned in just the first few days of school is how first grade is quite different from kindergarten. The expectations are higher. The classroom is completely learning focused; there is no “free choice” playtime anymore. The kids have text books. They are treated as responsible little people. I like that. And Sophie is definitely ready for it too.

I can already feel that this school year is going to be a great one for Sophie. I’m excited to see how she grows. Bring on first grade!

My 1st grader.first day of 1st grade

A few photos from the week (walking to school). sophie walking to school

School supplies! school dask

At her “big kid” desk with an “under pocket” (under the desk tray for books). She’s very excited about this because kindergarteners don’t use under pockets! sophie at desk

And of course, a look back at previous first days of school.first-days-of-school_collage

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Snapshots: Thinking, Reading, Doing, Snapping and Eating (August)

August 25, 2014

Thanks for all your positive comments about my debut “Snapshots” post. Here’s the latest roundup-esque post with a glimpse of things I’ve been doing, thinking, writing, reading, photographing, and eating during the last week.

Thinking …
I’ve certainly been doing my share of thinking. But I’m not going to write a lot at this moment. I woke up Saturday morning having pulled a muscle in my neck and it’s been so painful all weekend. I suspect typing until all-hours on this computer won’t help. So I’ll catch you up with my thoughts in future posts.

books_aug 24

Reading …
I’m continuing my summer binge-reading with some great books. I already told you about Good Chinese Wife, which was a wonderful read. I went on to read The Mourning Hours by Paula Treick DeBoard. This book was sitting on my “to read” pile for months and I finally picked it up, and proceeded to finish it within a few days. I love it when you find a hidden gem of a book waiting for you all along.

This is a great story about a Midwestern family that is torn apart after the girlfriend of one of the son goes missing. It was beautifully written, heartbreaking, yet not depressing either. It was a really great reminder how something like what this family went through could really happen to any one of us. And the cover’s beautiful image of fireflies in a jar is just gorgeous too.

I just started Under the Jeweled Sky by Alison McQueen. This story takes place under the backdrop of India’s transformation and follows a woman who must confront her past in order to fight for her future. I just started this one, so I’m not ready to give it a full review. But it’s definitely help my interest so far.

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Eating …
The best thing I ate (and baked) in the last few weeks was a Finnish marble cake from the Apples for Jam cookbook. This book is gorgeous, chocked full of colorful photos, family stories, and simple recipes that are organized by color (love this idea). This cake was absolutely mouth-watering and so simple. The recipe is below. Make it today! You’re welcome!

2 1/4 sticks softened butter

1 1/4 cups sugar

4 eggs

2 1/4 cups plain flour

1 1/2 tsp. baking powder

2/3 cup heavy whipping cream

1 tsp. vanilla extract

2 1/2 Tbsp. unsweetened cocoa powder

  • Preheat oven to 350F. Grease and flour a 9 1/2″ spring-form cake pan. I used a 9″ cake pan.
  • Beat the butter and sugar until pale. Gradually add the eggs. Sieve in the flour and the baking powder. If the mixtures looks curd-ly before, add some flour. Beat well, then beat in the cream.
  • Divide the batter into two bowls, adding more batter to one bowl. In the bigger batter add the vanilla extract, and mix well. Sieve the cocoa into the second bowl, whisking in completely.
  • Dollop most of the vanilla mixture in the pan. Then add spoonfuls of the chocolate mixture, here and there. Then add the remainder of the vanilla mixture. Use a skewer or a tsp to make a few swirls. Do not blend in the two batters.
  • Bake 50 – 60 minutes until skewer comes out clean. Cool in the pan before serving. I added a dollop of fresh whipped cream and fresh raspberries to mine.

Snapping …
This month, Sophie enjoyed her first baseball game. Go San Diego Padres!

baseball

We’ve been spending time in our backyard watching the sunflowers. sunflowers

Sophie’s been keeping busy coloring her cardboard castle.castle

Tess and Casey are hanging around.Tess

Casey

And we only have one more week of peaceful sleeping in and leisurely days until school starts next week! sleeping sophie
So how was your August? What are you reading, eating, cooking and doing? 

A Beautiful Spirit

August 15, 2014

I’m not a big believer in the supernatural. But occasionally something happens that you just cannot explain. And sometimes you have no idea what it means at the time, and other times it may be clear as day. I had an experience a few months ago after my little Bippy cat died that I now believe was more than a random act.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Bipp lately. There’s still not a day that goes by where I don’t shed a tear as I think about him. I miss that little guy so much.

The week Bipp disappeared (and also died) was a strange, eerie time in San Diego. It was the hottest week we had in a long time. The Santa Ana brought a stifling dry heat, and the winds were causing tree branches and yard furniture to crash around the backyard. A fire ended up breaking out not far from us. The air was so thick with smoke and heat that Sophie’s school closed for two days that week. There’s a term called pathetic fallacy, which is a way writer’s use to depict human emotion through nature and weather. I can see why it’s such a powerful literally tool as the weather and conditions that week mirrored the chaos, uncertainty and sadness we felt.

I spent most of my time in the family room that week, hoping to see Bipp make his way to the back door with a meow to be let in. Sophie and I were laying on the sofa Wednesday afternoon, watching television with all the windows and the back sliding door shut. A loud thud crashed against the sliding glass door and I bolted up, thinking it must be Bipp. (Although Bipp died Tuesday morning, I wouldn’t find out until Friday that he was truly gone.) We went outside to see what the commotion was, and we found this little bird perched on the ground right in front of the glass slider.

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I had never seen such a beautiful little creature in my life. The wind must have caused the birdie to fly into our glass door. I was worried he was hurt or frightened because when we went near him, he didn’t even try to fly away.

I immediately thought of Bipp. He was a clumsy soul and would have also run head-on into a glass door. Oh, how he would have loved this bird! After all, birds were one of his favorite “gifts” to give us.

I couldn’t bear to see such a beautiful being hurt. So with a piece of cardboard, I gently picked up this little guy and placed him on our wooden fence; just a little closer to the sky. We watched him for a few minutes and told him to fly off and be okay. About 15 minutes passed and I went back outside to check on the bird. He was gone! Little birdie had survived the crash and flown away. It felt nice to help something flourish during a time I felt completely helpless.

Just like Bipp, I think a lot about this little bird since that day in May. I ask myself what his visit meant. The answer finally came to me recently and I finally understand. When Bipp was hit by the car, he was crossing the street, making his way back to our house. Is it a coincidence that just a day later – after Bipp didn’t make it home that day – this birdie showed up? I don’t think so.

I think Bipp was determined to come home to see us. And the only way he could was through this beautiful bird. He was coming back so we could say goodbye and let us know he would be okay. Then he was ready to flap his wings and fly away.

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“Good Chinese Wife”: A Fascinating Story of Love and China (Giveaway)

August 12, 2014

Congratulations Rivki Silver who won a copy of Good Chinese Wife!

Although I’m an avid reader, there are very few books that I can read within the time span of one weekend. Good Chinese Wife, however, was one of those books. I started Susan Blumberg-Kason’s memoir on a Friday afternoon and did not stop reading until I finished Sunday evening.

good chinese wifeHere’s the gist of the story: Susan, a shy Midwesterner in love with Chinese culture, started graduate school in Hong Kong and quickly fell for Cai, the Chinese man of her dreams. As they exchanged vows, Susan thought she’d stumbled into an exotic fairy tale, until she realized Cai—and his culture—where not what she thought. Susan recounts her struggle to be the perfect traditional “Chinese” wife to her increasingly controlling and abusive husband.

With keen insight and heart-wrenching candor, she confronts the hopes and hazards of intercultural marriage, including dismissing her own values and needs to save her relationship and protect her newborn son, Jake. But when Cai threatens to take Jake back to China for good, Susan must find the courage to stand up for herself, her son, and her future.

Susan’s story was fascinating! And while many of us may not have the same experience of navigating multi-cultural relationships, I’m sure most of us can relate to Susan’s struggles with trying to make a relationship work and the feelings of hope versus reality.

I am very excited to welcome Susan to the blog for a few questions about Good Chinese Wife.

1. You grew up in Chicago, but always dreamed of going to Hong Kong. What about China fascinated you so much? Why did you want to be a part of Chinese culture?

I had several exposures to Chinese culture at a young age. My grandparents—thanks to my uncle’s airline employee discount—traveled to Hong Kong eight times in two decades. I was the delighted recipient of silk padded jackets, satin dragon slippers, and faux-ivory jewelry boxes. Who wouldn’t be intrigued? My mother’s dear friend also brought me goodies from her year in Shanghai at the start of the 1980s, a time when very few Americans traveled there.

But the most important influences were my father’s chemistry students in the mid-1980s who came from Shanghai and Beijing to study in Chicago. These students were women married to men who left everything behind in China (which admittedly wasn’t much back then). They and their families would come to my house for Thanksgiving and the 4th of July, and were like the older sisters I never had. I went to China in college and stayed with their families in Shanghai and Beijing. They would joke around and say that I should find a nice Chinese boyfriend.

2. Do you think it was the cultural differences or the relationship/man you married that made it so difficult to be a “good Chinese wife?” Why?

I’m sure it mostly had to do with a personality clash. Although I went along with most of Cai’s behavior for the duration of our marriage, I realized pretty early on that it was going to be difficult for me to have an equal relationship. But because I was non-confrontational, I thought it would be easier to keep the peace than to start an argument. That obviously didn’t work. But had it just been about the culture, I probably could have dealt with that. As long as two people are willing to compromise, they can have a successful marriage.

3. Tell us about your writing process. You are a freelance writer for various publications. But this is your first book. How long did it take you to write your memoir? How did you decide to write your story? Was it a difficult decision to write the book and reveal so much about your life, and the lives of your ex-husband and son?

Writing a book is so different from writing and editing feature-length articles. And I had no idea how to start writing this book when I first started embarking on this project. Because of this huge learning curve, it took me four years to write a legible manuscript and find an agent, and another year to sign with a publisher. The idea to write this book hit me when my divorce attorney asked me to write down everything that went wrong in the marriage in case we went to trial (we didn’t). When I proofread this 67-page document, I thought it would make a good book! But for a long time I never thought the book would ever be published.

I started writing it in 2008, just as the economy tanked. The publishing industry was also going through big changes with e-publications. As for the people I write about in this book, my son was much younger when I started writing it and was all for it, not knowing all of the content. Now that he’s a teenager, it’s a lot more awkward, but he’s so laid back and mature for his age that I’m not too worried. My ex-husband knows about the book because I was interviewed in the Wall Street Journal last month and the reporter asked to get his side of the story. Cai graciously declined to go into details and gave the journalist a generic quote about how all relationships take two.

4. How has being a mother affected you as a writer?

Well, it affects my schedule, but I’m not complaining. I write when the kids are asleep and in school. My youngest is still in school only half days, so I don’t have much time to myself during the day. Luckily my little ones go to sleep very early, so I have large chunks of time to write at night. I also feel like I’m more cautious about what I write because I know someday my kids might read it. Although Good Chinese Wife is raw and gritty at times, it’s nothing I am ashamed about and wouldn’t want them to read about when they’re older. I also think it could be a good lesson for them when they’re making big decisions like dating and becoming engaged.

5. What advice do you have for a writer who wants to write a very personal story?

I would say it’s essential to develop a thick skin. I started doing that early on when I was querying agents. After four years of rejections, I no longer viewed them as personal affronts. I could look at my story more objectively and not as something that was a direct reflection on the person I am today. If I hadn’t gone through those rejections, I’m not so sure I’d be able to talk about the book so openly today.

GIVEAWAY: I have one copy of Good Chinese Wife to give to one lucky reader. To be entered to win, leave a comment telling me what country you’d love to visit one day, or what you’re currently reading. Or tell me both! (Don’t worry — only answering one question won’t affect your chances of winning.) The giveaway closes Friday, August 15 at 5 pm Pacific time. 

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Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of Good Chinese Wife to review for this blog post.  All opinions are my own and I only endorse books that I am proud to recommend to others.

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