‘Best Staged Plans’ by Claire Cook


Rating: 5 stars

Best Staged Plans by Claire Cook is a novel that’s about finding out what is important in life (tips for staging one’s home and clearing out clutter are also included).

Sandy and her husband have raised their two children and are ready for a new stage in their lives. At least, Sandy is. Frustrated with her husband, who is procrastinating about getting their lovely Victorian home in the Boston suburbs in perfect shape to sell, and about her grown son living in their basement, she takes a staging job in Atlanta.

Determined to stay there until she hears that her husband has done the work, she finds out that there is more to life than a perfect home.

The story is told in first person narrative, which provides lots of opportunities for Sandy’s innermost thoughts and feelings to be shared with the reader. Her epiphany, when it happens, is wonderfully written.

Sandy finds out that having a grown son living in her basement and a husband who prefers jogging and playing tennis over painting the kitchen cabinet doors is just not that bad on the spectrum of what could really go wrong with a life.

It takes a homeless woman in Atlanta to teach Sandy that important lesson. But once Sandy begins to work on changing her priorities, she finds that helping others is a reward all its own.

In addition to finding out what’s more important than a beautifully staged home, Sandy shares other important secrets with the readers. She is an expert at “staging” dinner from Trader Joe’s. I know that I will never walk through Trader Joe’s again without thinking of Sandy and her assembled dinners. Hint: be sure to throw out all packaging that might give away the fact that the whole meal is not homemade.

Unlike Cook’s last novel, Seven Year Switch, the protagonist in Best Staged Plans is a female Baby Boomer, right in there with the other boomers — thinking about retirement, downsizing, and what to do when the kids are gone. It’s a perfect read for anyone approaching those years be she forty or sixty.

This review was based on the final hardcover book provided by the publisher.

Seven Year Switch by Claire Cook


Rating: 5 stars

In Seven Year Switch, Claire Cook really makes the reader care about Jill, a single mom. Jill is a single mom because her husband, a fellow inveterate lover of world travel, took off to continue his travels without her and their three year old daughter, leaving behind an empty bank account and a shocked spouse and daughter.

When Seth, the disappearing husband, reappears after seven years without a word, he wants to be part of both his daughter’s life and Jill’s.

But can you forgive someone whom you loved with all your heart–and who left you bereft, broke, and alone? Seven years alone, trying to be both mother and father; seven years trying to support two; and seven years trying to keep the bitterness and anger out of her daughter’s sphere of awareness.

Claire Cook includes a plethora of great characters in Seven Year Switch.

There is the neighbor Cynthia. Cynthia, tennis-playing, diamond-wearing, drop-dead beautiful, and uncharacteristically generous, but full of malapropisms. Jill, while grateful for the designer kitchen sink and new porch railings, wonders how to help Cynthia learn to speak properly.

For example, Cynthia says to Jill, ‘”I almost picked you up some vertigo blinds my client was getting rid of this morning, but I think we should only go for high-end hand-me-down.”

“Vertical,” I said. I mean how could Cynthia build her business if no one corrected her when she misspoke?

“Vertigo,” Cynthia said, “is what they give me…“‘

When her luggage appears after catching a different flight to Costa Rica, she says, ‘”Whew, that was a clothes call.“‘

There is also Billy, a new client who needs advice on doing business in Japan. He dresses in bike shorts, and his idea of dressed-up is a polo shirt and jeans.

There are also the seniors from the community center who love Jill’s class on international cooking and culture. They are her pseudo-parents, generous with advice and gentle teasing.

Claire keeps the reader guessing until the end–will Jill forgive Seth? Will she finally take a long-deserved and coveted vacation? And what will she do with Billy, who would like to take their relationship to a different level?

It’s a trip–and one worth taking! Visit Claire Cook on her website for more information about all her books, her giveaways, her blog and more.

Please note: This book review was based on the final paperback book provided by the publisher.

‘The Queen of the Tearling’ by Erika Johansen: Beautiful adult fantasy saga


Rating: 5 stars

Erika Johansen’s debut novel, “The Queen of the Tearling” is a masterpiece. It’s about a time in the future when society has devolved into something like the Middle Ages — no modern comforts but lots of nobles and poor common folk.

Into this mix comes the Queen, a nineteen-year-old girl named Kelsea, who was raised by a couple in secret. She never attended school, but was assiduously tutored and taught how to think and govern. The story is fantasy because there is a touch of magic in the pages. Kelsea has the Queen’s sapphire necklace which itself has magical properties. The Red Queen, ruler of the powerful neighboring country, Mortmesne, also has magic — hers from an evil source.

The world (continent) that Johansen builds is deftly detailed, and her characters are beautifully drawn. It’s no wonder that Warner Brothers acquired the film rights for this movie; but no film could really do justice to the story. While the story is written in third person narrative, Johansen manages to share Kelsea’s feelings and thoughts with the reader so that the reader understands Kelsea’s motivations.

Kelsea is a great character. She is not pretty (this is not a romance, folks!) and does not feel queenly much of the time. But she does feel driven, especially when the King’s and Queen’s jewels are together — helping her and guiding her. Kelsea feels insecure at times, but she also feels secure in knowing the right thing to do. Her character is part of what makes this book a great read — readers want to know what she’s going to do next.

This is not a short, quick read. At over 400 pages, this is a book with some heft. It’s also a book with a beautifully designed cover that looks both elegant and regal, and there’s a lovely red ribbon bookmark attached.

While this reviewer is not normally an adult fantasy fan — count me in for this series! It will appeal to many types of readers simply because of the good writing, the cast of great characters and the plot.

Please note: This review is based on the final hardcover book provided by the publisher, Harper, for review purposes.

Exclusive interview with author Michael Grant


Spoilers included! Watch the video and hear Grant discuss 'BZRK' and 'Fear'

Michael Grant was in town (Chicago) for a few days as part of his world-wide tour for his trilogy, ‘BZRK.’ He was also willing to discuss ‘Fear,’ the latest in the ‘Gone’ series.

Grant has answered many questions about BZRK on different websites including bookmachine.org, so this interview is about Grant himself, not just his books. And Grant is a pretty interesting guy.

Both Grant and his wife, Katherine Applegate, have worked at many jobs including delivering flowers, waiting tables and cleaning toilets. They both much prefer writing books! Before meeting Applegate, Grant literally was living under an overpass until finding a job bussing tables in a restaurant, then waiting tables.

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‘Here Comes the Easter Cat’: A picture book not just for Easter


Rating: 5 stars

“Here Comes the Easter Cat” by Deborah Underwood and illustrated by Claudia Rueda is an adorable and extremely clever book about a cat who longs to be the Easter Bunny. He is jealous because everyone loves the Easter Bunny.

So the cat explains to the narrator, through facial expressions and a series of signs (the cat doesn’t talk), that he can wear cute clothing and drive a motorcycle (so he can beat the Easter Bunny who gets around by hopping). However, once the cat leaves for his “Easter Cat” journey, he quickly the returns. He needs a nap.

“A nap?! You’ve already taken five naps today,” says the narrator. The cat proudly shows a sign with a picture of seven cats napping. “You’ve taken SEVEN? Then you can’t possibly be tired!” The narrator goes on to say that the Easter Bunny doesn’t get to take any naps — at all. Cat is horrified at the thought.

What cat decides to do when the Easter Bunny shows up with an egg for him is precious. Readers will be “oohing” and “ahhing” till the last page. And, of course, there is a slight twist at the end.

The illustrations look like pen and ink with some colored pencil. They are very spare, very cartoonish, but very effective. There is a lot of white space, and one double-page spread with just the word “Cat?” on it. In spite of the simplicity of the drawings, the emotions of the cat and the Easter Bunny come through loud and clear.

In spite of the primary level of the picture book, there is plenty of character change in the cat. This book would be a great tool for primary teachers to introduce the idea of character change in books. It beautifully illustrates how characters change and grow.

Please note: This review is based on the final hardcover book provided by Candlewick Press for review purposes.

Interview with Ilsa Bick, author of fabulous YA book Ashes


Ashes will grab you from the first page!

Courtesy of publisher

(Please note: This is a reprint of a 2011 interview)

Ilsa Bick, the author of “Ashes,” a wonderful new YA title about survival and morality when civilization is coming to an end, met with me to talk about her life, her writing, and what’s next.

Bick is an animated speaker, and after a day in Naperville and Plainfield speaking in front of two huge groups of middle school students (over three hundred students in each group), she still spoke excitedly about “Ashes” and her other books.

About “Ashes” she said, “I wanted to blow up the world and pick something that had never been done.”

One of the main ideas in the book is that under stress, people behave horribly. Bick said, “In the end, if there is a direct threat to your survival, all the nice stuff goes away. There are no moral absolutes at the end of the world.”

In “Ashes,” Bick uses many of her unique perspectives to create a world filled with terror, horrors beyond belief, selfishness, cruelty, and at the same time characters with integrity who exemplify personal sacrifice.

Bick’s love of hiking and her military background are showcased in both the remote setting, a fictional Waucamaw Wilderness (based on the Porcupine Mountains in the Upper Peninsula), and in the survival techniques that Alex, the protagonist, and Tom, one of her traveling companions, use to keep them and Ellie, the third in their group, alive.

Bick’s background as a child psychiatrist both in private practice and in the military perhaps helped her portray humanity at its worst — and it gets pretty bad in the book — but also at its best.

When we discussed the huge variation in how the characters in Ashes react to the end of civilized life, she said, “The people in the book are part of me and pieces of everyone I’ve ever known.”

In “Ashes,” Alex maintains her humanity, but there are still two more books to come in the trilogy. And, according to Bick, it’s going to get worse. (Many of you who have read Ashes are now thinking what I thought, “It gets worse?”)

“Ashes” leaves the reader with many unsolved mysteries. Where are Tom and Ellie? What secret has Tom been hiding? Why did Alex’s sense of smell return? Why did she change? And of course the biggest mystery, what happens on the next page? The page that every reader is dying to read — the one that explains what happens to Alex in the five minutes after the book ends. Because Bick leaves the reader hanging.

The book actually has no beginning or ending, because, as Bick said, when the world comes to an end, nothing will be tied up neatly. Again, beware; there is NO ending to Ashes. The story just stops. Right in the middle of the action.

So her fans will hang for a year until the publication of “Shadows,” the next title in the series. It’s all written, but Bick is mum about what happens. Even her daughters don’t know. She did drop a few hints about the next book. The action will be shown from various points of view, so the reader will have a connection with more of the characters. And even though Alex is heading away from the town of Rule, those characters are still important.