Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Cassandra King at the Southern Festival of Books

Cassandra King appeared at the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville to discuss her book, The Same Sweet Girls' Guide to Life. She said they couldn't find her name tag when she arrived, so someone was running around with a badge that said "Cassandra King". She called it a metaphor for her life; she was never where she should be.

King thanked everyone was coming. She's been writing for twenty-some years. It still amazes her that people love reading enough to come out and hear writers. She thanked everyone for joining her to discuss the love of books and reading.

The book came about because King was asked to write the commencement speech for Wesleyan College in Georgia. Commencement speeches are usually boring. Since the college was a girls' school, she decided to talk about her friends, "the Same Sweet Girls". They met in college at a girls' school, and they were the inspiration for her third novel, The Same Sweet Girls. When she told her editor what she was doing, she said they wanted top publish it as a gift book. King had just arrived home from a book tour, and now she faced another book and another tour sooner than she expected. The Same Sweet Girls' Guide to Life: Advice from a Failed Southern Belle is her first nonfiction book.

Cassandra King was raised in Lower Alabama "LA" on a farm. Cassandra was the oldest of three girls, and her mother's fondest dream was that she'd be the perfect Southern lady, a Southern belle. King commented "Bless her heart. She failed miserably." Her mother wanted her oldest daughter to be the ideal daughter, a combination of Betty Crocker, Melanie Wilkes and Susanna Wesley (mother of John & Charles Wesley, founders of the Methodist church). Cassandra had different ideas. She wanted to be Zelda Fitzgerald or Dorothy Parker, off the farm and out of the sticks.

King said she did have a blessed childhood. The family farm had been in the King family for generations. Her mother tried to make her into the perfect Southern lady. But, an event that happened when Cassandra was seventeen, a metaphor for the problem with the whole idea, should have told her mother that it wasn't going to work.

Cassandra King was Christmas queen for the town. She was excited, and could see herself on a float. But, the town was too small to have a float. Instead, they decorated the only convertible in town. In her green dress, King looked like Miss Scarlett after she re-did the curtains. She was sitting on the back seat in her crown, with her dress all spread out, waving to everyone. It was her mother's finest day. And, then the convertible made a quick stop, Cassandra fell over with her head down. Her hoop skirt went up, and she mooned the whole town. Hoop skirts were just not meant for her.

King's mother enrolled her in Methodist College in Montgomery, Alabama. But, Cassandra didn't want to go there. She had visited Alabama College outside Birmingham. It seemed to be more a place for aspiring writers. She talked her mother into letting her go there. And, then she arrived and found it was run like the girls' school it used to be. King felt she made a terrible mistake. The college had some of the prissiest girls she'd ever seen. This was the mid-sixties, and the girls were wearing matching cardigans and pearls. They could only wear dresses on campus. She thought, "I messed up." But she couldn't admit it and go home, so she decided to stick with it for one year. She doesn't own a dress to this day.

The Dean of Women terrified everyone. There was required convocation on Thursdays, and everyone had assigned seats. The dean watched them from above. And, then one Thursday there was a serendipitous event that changed King's life. That day, the National Maid of Cotton was the speaker. She told about her year representing Alabama and the U.S. When she said, I traveled the world, met the President, the Pope, and all kinds of people, but "I'm still the same sweet girl I've always been," Cassandra started laughing, and couldn't stop. Then, she noticed other girls laughing, too. Naturally, they all got in trouble, but they were all confined to the same dorm. So, King got to know the other girls who had been laughing. Whenever they saw each other, they'd ask, "Are you still the same sweet girl you've always been?"

Those girls became Cassandra King's lifelong friends. They still get together yearly. She won't say how old they are, but most of those "Same Sweet Girls" graduated in 1967. The relationships made in college can be some of our most important ones.

Cassandra King took a number of questions about her mother, her sisters, her father, and, finally, her husband, Pat Conroy. She said everyone asks her about living with him, and she said he's actually quite easygoing and funny, despite the tone of his books.

Cassandra King's website is

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Christmas Bouquet by Sherryl Woods

I think I've mentioned before that Sherryl Woods' Chesapeake Shores novels remind me of Nora Roberts' MacGregor family romances. One features an Irish American family, the O'Briens. The other features a Scottish-American family. But, they are both series featuring large supportive clans with a patriarch who enjoys seeing everyone in love. Woods' series just features a patriarch who interferes a little more than he should because he wants all of his extended family to be happy. The Christmas Bouquet, the eleventh in Woods' series is a typical romance featuring Mick O'Brien's interfering ways, troubles between a couple, and a happy ending. There's very little Christmas in the books, just a Christmas wedding reminder that leads to a wedding a year later. Even so, this is as satisfying as the other books by Woods.

Caitlyn Winters blames the wedding bouquet she caught for all of her problems. Soon after the O'Brien family wedding, she met family medicine resident Noah McIlroy, fell hard for him, and now she's facing an unexpected pregnancy. While Noah is overjoyed, Caitlyn is upset, angry, frustrated. A pregnancy will disrupt all of her carefully laid plans for her life - med school, internship, residency, and then off to Africa to save children, one village at a time. How can she move to Africa if she has a husband and baby in Maryland? How does she tell her O'Brien family that she, "the grounded, goal-oriented" twin, has a kink in her plans? And, she never even told her family about Noah.

As reluctant as Caitlyn is to reveal her condition to her family, Noah is just the opposite. While she fights tooth-and-nail to stick to the plan she designed, Noah is willing to compromise, understanding the importance of family, love, and compromise. While Caitlyn's grandfather, Mick, demands a wedding, and the O'Briens are eager for another marriage, Noah is patient and Caitlyn is stubborn. It will take a very patient man to wait for Caitlyn's decision.

The Chesapeake Shores novels are known for humor, strong family support, strong, independent women, and Mick's outrageous attempts to control his family. The Christmas Bouquet is one more enchanting story in the series. There are few surprises. It falls under Woods' formula for these books. But, it's a formula all of her readers enjoy. There's one more family to welcome home to Chesapeake Shores, a family home filled with love.

Sherryl Woods' website is

The Christmas Bouquet by Sherryl Woods. Harlequin MIRA. 2014. ISBN 9780778316626 (hardcover), 183p.

FTC Full Disclosure - Library book

Monday, October 20, 2014

A Breast Cancer Alphabet by Madhulika Sikka

One in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer. The greatest risk for developing breast cancer? Being a woman. Is there anyone who doesn't know that October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month? I'm sure Madhulika Sikka, executive producer of NPR's Morning Edition was aware of that month before she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010. But, she wasn't aware of all the little things that go hand-in-hand with that diagnosis. That's were her book comes in, A Breast Cancer Alphabet.

With her opening and closure, Madhulika Sikka illustrates that anyone can be diagnosed with breast cancer. There she is, at the White House, when she receives her news. And, a year later, there she is again, after going through everything involved in that diagnosis. Sikka is a reluctant member of the pink ribbon club. She says right out loud, "It sucks to get cancer." And, she takes readers through all kinds of subjects that aren't usually discussed. "A is for Anxiety." Sikka says there's nothing like all the fear and anxiety that comes with diagnosis, and gives women the permission to be anxious. Why are women always expected to be strong, to be warriors in a fight? She doesn't talk about nutrition or fighting through the pain. She talks about pain, and not ever being hungry, the need for pillows. She's brutally honest about going bald, and wanting to look better despite everything a woman goes through during chemo. And, she's honest about the days when she just couldn't force herself to get out of bed. And, she says it's all OK.

Sikka's book is an absorbing warning, a look into the world of a breast cancer victim. The author manages to add traces of humor, but the best part of the book is the honesty. And, each chapter, each letter of A Breast Cancer Alphabet, is short, informative, and comforting in that honesty. I do wish, though, that I could show you the stunning illustrations by Roberto de Vicq de Cumpitch. They truly illustrate Madhulika Sikka's words.

I do have one problem with this book. When do you give this informative book to someone? Do you give it to every woman you know in October? Do you wait until someone is diagnosed, and they're too stunned to care? Or mid-way through a year, when they can see themselves on these pages? Madhulika Sikka's A Breast Cancer Alphabet would be a valuable gift. What is the etiquette of passing this on?

Madhulika Sikka's website is

A Breast Cancer Alphabet by Madhulika Sikka. Crown Publishers. 2014. ISBN 9780385348515 (hardcover), 209p. (Also available as an ebook and on audio from Random House.)

FTC Full Disclosure - The publisher sent me a copy of the book, hoping I would review it.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Mr. Miracle by Debbie Macomber

Debbie Macomber's Christmas novels are staples of the Hallmark Channel. So, now you know all about this year's book. It's a romance, ends happily, and it's set at Christmas time.Mr. Miracle introduces a new angel, a friend of Macomber's other angels, Shirley, Goodness, and Mercy. But, honestly? It's just another Christmas novel with nothing remarkable about this one.

Harry Mills is an angel who has been sent to a Pacific Northwest community on a trial mission. He's teaching at Southshore Community College, where he's supposed to assist an insecure student returning to take one class. His mentor, Celeste, warns him though that he's to obey the rules at the college, and try to avoid the college president while working with Addie Folsom. Addie is dyslexic, and is finally returning to college, hoping to continue on and work in the medical field like her late father. But, Harry's charge has a few problems. She's stubborn, and has a long history with her neighbor, Erich Simmons. Harry's job is to assist Addie, in school, and in her personal life.

Needless to say, Harry has a few problems with his assignment. He's not prepared to deal with human emotions of anger, embarrassment, sexual attraction. And, he's not quite as competent with his assignment of Addie as he thought he would be. He needs that mentor because he overestimated his own abilities.

Macomber does do something a little different with Mr. Miracle. Because Harry is teaching English, he assigns his students to read Dickens' A Christmas Carol. And, she uses the story as a message about change.

Saying Debbie Macomber's Mr. Miracle is just an ordinary Christmas novel isn't a disparaging comment. Instead, it creates the atmosphere we expect, and appreciate, in Christmas stories. Addie's feelings about the holiday actually perfectly expresses what readers expect of most Christmas novels. She considered "...the holidays an extra-special time of year. Magic hung in the air, and people were gentler, kinder to one another. Differences are set aside, friendships deepened, and people in general were more charitable and happier." Mr. Miracle just wasn't quite as magical as I had hoped.

Debbie Macomber's website is

Mr. Miracle by Debbie Macomber. Ballantine Books. 2014. ISBN 978055391152 (hardcover), 255p.

FTC Full Disclosure - Library book.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Sons of Sparta by Jeffrey Siger

Some of Jeffrey Siger's mysteries expose the underside of Greek life and politics. Although there are some political elements to his latest novel, Sons of Sparta, this is a story that emphasizes Greek family life and connections. And, for a change, the emphasis is not on Chief Inspector Andreas Kaldis. His assistant, Detective Yianni Kouros, is the focus of a family story with a legendary past.

Kouros' family has a violent, criminal past in the mountainous Peloponnese where the people, the Mani, say they are descendants of the ancient warriors, the Spartans. The Mani have a history as pirates, highwaymen, and warriors. But, they may be best known for the blood feuds, the vendettas against other families. And, when Kouros' uncle, the shrewd head of the family, and a retired criminal, dies unexpectedly before he can sign the paperwork for a lucrative deal, Kouros fears his cousins will start a war to avenge his death. And, Kouros, an honest cop, knows that family supports family. Kaldis may be caught up in an investigation involving land deals in Crete, but he certainly doesn't want powerful families going to war in the Peloponnese.

With Siger's insider's knowledge of Greece, his mysteries are always fascinating exposés of life, crime, and politics. Chief Inspector Andreas Kaldis, along with Kouros, and Kaldis' best friend and mentor, Tassos Stamatos, are a formidable team. They are shrewd, powerful men who work the system beautifully, pulling strings while manipulating criminals and crooked politicians to provide answers. This triumvirate actually only yields to the women in their lives, Kaldis' wife, and Tassos' girlfriend, Maggie, who is also Andreas' secretary, office manager, and the most powerful behind-the-scenes person in the police department. 

Siger always manages to beautifully combine a police procedural with some of that black humor that allows police to get through the daily grind of dealing with corruption and crime. Although he's been known to almost predict the next Greek crisis, in this case, Siger's story of crime and corruption has a much more personal angle. The story of the Mani, descendants of the Spartans, and those formidable Spartan mothers, is a fascinating story of lawlessness and revenge. Siger's Sons of Sparta brings that story into the twenty-first century with a powerful mystery of family, murder, and vengeance.

Jeffrey Siger's website is, and he can also be found at

Sons of Sparta by Jeffrey Siger. Poisoned Pen Press. 2014. ISBN 9781464203145 (hardcover), 254p. (Also available as trade paperback, large print, and ebook)

FTC Full Disclosure - The publicist sent me a copy of the book, hoping I would review it.

Friday, October 17, 2014

A Cozy Debut Series Giveaway

I'm giving away two terrific mysteries this week, books that kicked off new series. Good luck!

Death is Like a Box of Chocolates is the first Chocolate Covered mystery by Kathy Aarons. Chocolates and Chapters is a combination bookstore and chocolate shop owned by best friends Michelle Serranno and Erica Russell. But, the success of their business is threatened when a photographer is found murdered, poisoned by one of Michelle's signature truffles. With Michelle at the top of the suspect list, the two must pick through the suspects before their business melts away.

Or, you could win Mary Kennedy's Nightmares Can Be Murder. Have you ever heard of a dream club, a club where members get together to discuss their dreams? Taylor Blake is a little skeptical about her sister Alison's dream club and their interpretations. But, when one of the dreams resembles the murder of a local dance club instructor, and Alison had a relationship with him, this dream starts to become a nightmare.

Which book would you like to win? You can enter to win both, but I need separate entries. Email me at Your subject heading should read either "Win Box of Chocolates" or "Win Nightmares Can Be Murder." Please include your name and mailing address. The contest will end next Thursday, Oct. 23 at 6 PM CT. Entries from the U.S. only, please.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Christina Baker Kline at the Southern Festival of Books

I really shouldn't lead off my occasional recaps of the Southern Festival of Books with Christina Baker Kline even though she was the first author I saw there. She also had one of the best presentations I saw in the three days. The author of Orphan Train showed us some heartbreaking slides, and told us fascinating stories of history.

Orphan Train is the #1 book club book in the country. Kline has been a novelist for 20+ years, and this was her fifth novel. She has always been traditionally published, always a midlist author with her first four books. She thought her life was great. She had reasonable advances. She worked as a professor, and edited manuscripts, as so many authors do. The success of Orphan Train came as a shock to her. It took everyone by surprise; Kline, her editor, her publisher, HarperCollins.

Why was this book such a success? It's her same voice. Why did it hit a chord with readers?

Kline found incredible archival documents and photos about the history of the orphan trains. And, she showed us some of these photos telling the stories of these children. 250,000 children were sent from the East Coast to the Midwest between 1854 and 1929. This was the largest single migration of children in U.S. history, hidden in plain sight. Why does Kline say "hidden in plain sight"? There are twenty books with this same title, Orphan Train, and yet the vast majority of people never heard of this movement.

Kline's book is a novel, not nonfiction. It's the story of a ninety-one-year-old woman, a wealthy woman living in Maine whose hidden history was as a train rider. It's also the story of a seventeen-year-old girl, a foster child, Goth. She steals a book from the library, and, after being caught, is assigned community service or she'll end up in juvenile detention. She's assigned fifty hours cleaning out the attic of the wealthy woman. She's hostile at first. And, then they find they have a lot in common. The book takes place in the present, first person narrative of the ninety-year-old woman. The seventeen-year-old is part Penobscot Indian and part white.

Before continuing the program, Christina Baker Kline asked that people not ask questions with spoilers in them at the end of the presentation. She said on her web page,, she has the top ten questions that book clubs ask, so she probably answered those spoiler questions there.

Kline said she has a family connection to the train riders. The children were from ages two to fourteen. She and her family were visiting her in-laws in North Dakota, and her mother-in-law pulled out a family album. In it, there was a newspaper article about five kids. The oldest one was fifteen, so he had to get off the train and get a job. He was too old for the orphan train. That oldest child was the father of Kline's mother-in-law. The others were her uncle and her three aunts. None of them had told any of the family about their story. There are over 3 million descendants of those 250,000 train riders who rode over seventy-five years.

Kline found a vast amount of resources, but she was afraid to take on the story. However, she gathered files about the stories.

How did the orphan trains come about? In 1853, a Methodist minister, a reformer, Charles Loring Brace realized there were 30,000 kids living on the streets. Poor children were labor. Immigrants were pouring into the city. The Irish were particularly vulnerable. While other ethnic groups would come over as families, due to the potato famine and the English, the Irish were so destitute and persecuted they could only send one or two family members at a time, not whole families. There were large numbers of Irish children on the streets. Brace's Children's Aid Society's orphanage was soon overrun. Brace looked to the bucolic Midwest farms. Sending children to the Midwest was a work program from the very beginning. Future laborers were sent where there was a demand. Notices were placed in Midwestern newspapers saying children would be arriving, and farmers would come. Children were chosen by whoever wanted them.

When Christina Baker Kline showed us photos of the children, she showed pictures of working children in New York City. Boys became boot blacks or newsies. And, they joined gangs for protection. Girls were seamstresses or took care of children. The orphan trains were work programs. The aid societies only sent desirable children with no problems. The children were between the ages of 2 and 14. Then, they were indentured until they were 18-21. Scrappy boys were desirable as farm workers, but at that age, they were often doomed to be trouble.

The orphan trains carried children numbering in the tens to thirties at a time. Kline wondered who was paying to put those children on trains. Someone was subsidizing the movement of children.

The orphan trains ended in 1929. Why? With the Depression, there were even more kids in dire straits. Roosevelt's plans that helped the poor started later, 1939 and 1940. Why end the program in 1929?

In 1854, the railroads were expanding across country in places where no one lived. They needed bodies in those areas. They gambled that kids would stay in the Midwest and not return to New York. The vast majority of the kids not only stayed in the state where they were sent, they also stayed in the same town. By sending kids to these places, they provided labor for farmers, populating the empty spaces. The railroads paid for the orphan trains. In 1929, they built the last depot, and then they stopped paying.

There are fewer than ten train riders still left. Kline went through over 300 archives. Train riders were interviewed. She spoke to seven living train riders.

Not everyone was in favor of the program. There were backlashes in the Midwest. Newspapers ran articles saying stop sending us our garbage, your riffraff. Brace had hoped to get heathen children, Catholic children and others, into good Christian Protestant homes. He hoped that the shipment of children would lead to adoption, but it usually didn't. Farmers plucked out boys to work the farm. But the rest of the family didn't want them inheriting the land. Often they didn't tell the neighbors they took in a train rider. There was a stigma to it.

Why did the children never leave town? Once they were picked out from the platform, they never again saw another kid who rode the train with them. And, they thought the train they were on was the only one. They were given a new outfit, and told to forget about their old life. It was over, and there new life was here. When they arrived at the depot, they were lined up by height on a platform. The platforms resembled slave auctions, and people checked their teeth and bodies. Some of the children took the place of slave labor, slaves who had been freed during the Civil War. The war was over, but labor was still needed. And, the children were indentured until they reached the ages of 18 to 21.

Although Christina Baker Kline could have showed us more slides, unfortunately her time was up. But, she did show us a map of where the children went, actually all over the country. I checked out some of the states where I lived. There were very few in Ohio; none in Arizona, and 3,555 train riders ended up in Indiana.

And, she ended with a little humor. She said remember how she said there was a family connection. Irish children were often sent, including her sons' great-grandfather and his siblings. Even then, there was a stigma against the Irish and redheads. There were always superstitions surrounding redheads; their quick temper, that they were trouble. And, the final slide was of Christina Baker Kline's two oldest sons, college-age young men who are definitely redheads.

Christina Baker Kline's website is

Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline. HarperCollins. 2013. ISBN 9780061950728 (paperback), 278p.