Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Help: A Review

Quite simply--I. Loved. It.

I really can't think of a thing I didn't like. I only wanted it to last longer. If you don't have time to read the rest of my review, just know it's worth your time to read this book. Go on. Read it.

And now, for the review--

One of my favorite things about reading is the chance it gives me to leave my own life behind--what is living, breathing reality to me--and experience the reality of another.

It's thrilling, actually. In a matter of minutes I zip into another world, another time, another country, and experience what I'd never experience if I lived a hundred times over. And as my fingers slide through the pages, my mind slides into the consciousness of another, and I am feeling, breathing, living that life--if for only a few hours.

Of course some writers capture me better than others. Some beckon me so strongly to that other world that I must force myself back to my own, scraping up the will power to WAIT. I don't want to miss my own life going on all around me, after all, even if that life is waiting for me in the form of dishes or laundry or bathrooms. Okay. Maybe not so much then.

Anyway, some books do their job so well that when the visit is over, my heart hurts a bit at the finality of "The End." It seems almost a tragedy not to have the characters--now my dear friends--step out of the book and into my life. For in the pages they seem so real. I LOVE it when that happens!

And no matter what my rational mind tells me. Those characters are real. So real I can hear them breathing.

The characters that most recently "breathed" for me are the three heroines of The Help, a touching story set in the south during the turbulent 1960s.

Eugenia "Skeeter" returns home to Jackson, Mississippi, after graduating from Ole Miss. She returns to her parents and her high-society friends but struggles to return to her old way of living and viewing life. The black maid who raised her, and whom she loves dearly, is nowhere to be found, and mystery surrounds her departure. She starts to notice the hypocrisy and ugliness of her society in general and her own friends in particular.

Wise and regal Aibileen is a black maid who works in the home of Skeeter's friend, Elizabeth. She is raising her 17th white child. After years of service to wealthy white families, something inside her changes when her only son, Treelore, is killed in a terrible accident. She tells her story in an eloquent yet authentic dialect.

Minny is Aibileen's best friend and mother to many of her own children. She is sassy and strong, but her tongue has gotten her into trouble, and she finds herself fired, yet again.

Together these three women embark on a dangerous journey of "what if." What if, in a world where people seem frantic to hold on to the ugliness and injustices of the past, things could change?

From a 21st century perspective, it's almost appalling to believe that just a short time ago things were in such need of changing. My own visit in this particular "life" sent me swinging from relief that things are not like that anymore to horror that it was ever that bad.

And yes, I paid attention in history class. I learned about the civil rights movement. And I love it every year when my kids come home and tell me what they've learned about Martin Luther King or Rosa Parks. But there is something different--something life-giving--to the experience when you read about it in fiction.

Does fiction make it truer? More real? I wonder, sometimes. This particular portion of history is truer for me now than it has ever been before.

The Help is told masterfully, alternating from the perspectives of each of these women. I loved the authenticity of their voices--each different and each a treasure of humor, sorrow, wisdom, and individual growth. The relationship of Aibileen and her "17th child," Mae Mobley, is reason enough to read the book, but there are so many others.

Quite simply I loved it. And you're so lucky if you still have this journey ahead of you. My advice--take it soon.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Will Power and Peanut Butter Kiss Cookies

I ask you. . . . Is it my fault my husband left the Hershey's Kisses my daughter won in an estimating contest out on the counter? Can I be blamed for the fact that as I walked past them, sitting all shiny and inviting on the counter, I was forced to acknowledge the best way to enjoy those drops of milk chocolate is when they're sitting squatty and soft on the cushion of a warm peanut butter cookie? Can you really fault me for remembering with some satisfaction that I possess what is arguably the best peanut butter cookie recipe on the planet (thank you Mom). And is it further my fault that upon thinking this I immediately remembered the jar of creamy peanut butter in my cupboard that may as well be used right now?

I think not.

I pause for a moment, though. My extra ten pounds are laughing at me. They know they've been given a reprieve, having had war declared on them in January. A glance again at the Kisses seals the deal. As I gather the ingredients I comfort myself with this oft-told truth: "Tomorrow is another day with no mistakes in it." Thank you Anne Shirley. I feel so much better.

The first two ingredients are my favorite to do. The peanut butter and butter blend together into a smooth pattern of golden ripples that glide across the bottom of the mixing bowl. It's like art. There's no turning back now--even if I wanted to. Which, of course, I don't.

As I add the sugar and the rest of the ingredients, as I form the cookies into little balls of peanut butter bliss and place them on the cookie sheet, as I unwrap each individual kiss, I consider ways of disposing of the evidence of my New-Years-resolution-breaking "crime."

Hmm. Maybe I'll eat them all before he gets home from the gym.

And so you can enjoy them too . . .

Here's the recipe.

Peanut Butter Kiss Cookies
1/2 cup buttter, softened
1/2 cup peanut butter
1 1/3 cups flour
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 egg
1/3 cup sour cream
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon vanilla

Mix peanut butter and butter with an electric mixer on medium speed for 30 seconds.
Add 1/2 cup flour, the sugars, baking soda, baking powder, vanilla, and egg. Beat until thoroughly combined.
Fold in sour cream, and then add remaining flour. Mix.
Cover and chill dough until easy to manage. (Unless you can't wait, like me at this particular time, in which case you can forgo the "shaping" step below and plop them with a spoon onto cookie sheet to put in the oven even quicker!)
Shape dough into 1-inch balls and place on a cookie sheet.
Bake at 375 degrees for 7 to 9 minutes. For softest cookies, do not overbake. (Plus, you can eat them that much sooner.)
Remove from oven and place an unwrapped kiss in the center of each cookie while cookie is still warm. Allow kiss to sit for several seconds, melting the bottom and then press it down again.
Try to have more self-control than I do when enjoying these treats.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Book Review: The Sapphire Flute by Karen E. Hoover

I'm excited to share my first official book review. Official because my friend--the fabulous Tristi Pinkston, editor and author extraordinaire--asked me to review a book that is being released by Valor Publishing Group, a company for which she is the senior editor. For doing so, I have received an Advanced Reader's Edition. I feel so official!

Karen Hoover's debut novel, The Sapphire Flute , is the first in The Wolfchild Saga. It was released on March 16, 2010, so you can get it right now by clicking this nifty Amazon link here. (I'm very proud of myself for figuring out how to do that.)

This story follows two young women.

Kayla is on the verge of achieving her dreams. After years of banishment, the king has recognized her worth as a musician of extraordinary and even magical talent. Now she is on the verge of getting everything she's ever wanted--reinstatement and a return to honor for her family, and marriage to the man of her dreams. But when the king honors her with the guardianship of the Sapphire Flute, her life is thrown into a whirlwind of danger as the evil and desperate C'Tan will stop at nothing to capture this powerful magical tool.

Ember has been hidden all her life from this same C'Tan, who seeks her for an entirely different reason. As Ember starts to uncover the mystery of who she really is, she learns she possesses remarkable powers of her own, including an inherited secret from her father--a secret that brings deadly forces against her.

My Review--

This Story starts out terrific. A father rushes to save his baby daughter from his enemy--someone he thought he could trust. Someone he even loved. The betrayal is devastating, and his sacrifice touches the reader with emotion. I was definitely ready for a gripping story by the end of the prologue.

The pace did not hold consistently, however, for the rest of the story. At times it moved along in a rhythm that captured me and urged me on, but often it was slow and a bit unnatural-feeling. I should note that interruptions to the pace are an intentional part of the story because the author jumps back and forth between the two main characters so that the reader jumps to a different story just when he or she is getting into the groove of the other one. At times this worked more effectively than others, especially when both stories were at a crucial point. But occasionally it was a bit irritating--in an I-want-to-skip-to-the-next-chapter sort of way.

I also would've liked to see more character development. I liked all the characters, but sometimes their actions seemed a little too conveniently naive. I didn't get enough from each to make them feel unique and like living, breathing beings. I imagine this will change as the story progresses in later books.

There were a lot of things I really liked about the book, though. Some of Hoover's ideas were quite creative. I loved the concept of being able to see different types of magic as different colors. I also really liked the special gift Ember's father gave her by way of his friend, though we don't understand much about its significance in this book. Hoover does a great job of bringing the reader along in the thought process Ember goes through as she learns of her powers and how to use them. In general Ember's character seemed more developed and natural to me.

Overall, I would recommend this book to those who love epic fantasy because it promises to be an interesting series as the writer grows with her characters and her story.

If you want to learn more about Karen E. Hoover, visit her website here.

If you want to congratulate me on successfully posting two links to my first-ever official book review or if you want to tell me anything at all, leave a comment below!

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Bleeding on the Screen

"Your best writing . . . will come out of you when you care what you're writing about. Caring will draw things out of you that have nothing to do with spelling or query letters or subscriptions to writing magazines. Bleed your caring onto the paper or computer screen." Jerry Spinelli

That last phrase is the one that hooked me. Up till then Jerry's advice was, well, nothing new. No offense Jerry. I'm sure you "cared" about what you were writing and all, but I've heard this particular writing tip so many times it's practically useless--like telling a boxer if he wants to win the match he needs to punch his opponent. But then you said "bleed." Now that's something.

I've had a few bleeding moments, I've decided, in my writing "career." But nothing recently. And isn't it ironic that when you get that bleeding moment you actually feel . . . ALIVE!