Jill Murray has been able to cobble together a pretty good life for herself and her daughter – by working a collection of part time jobs and by scrimping and saving she has managed as a single Mom to her daughter Anastasia for seven years, ever since her husband Seth abandoned them. It hasn’t been easy – he took all of their money and disappeared, forcing Jill and Anastasia to spend several months living in her car and, while they now have a small house and plenty to eat, they bypass even small luxuries. Still, Jill feels she’s making progress and that they’re happy. And then Seth shows up unannounced, wanting to be a father to Anastasia and to try again with Jill.

In Seven Year Switch by Claire Cook, Jill must deal with her own anger, with her daughter’s desperate desire for her father, with opening her heart to someone again, to letting go. Written with humor and grace, all of the characters are complex and real and it’s easy to put yourself in their shoes and understand their actions. You’ll be moved to tears sometimes, but you’ll also laugh out loud with this charming and heartwarming read.

With the movie version of the book Eclipse due to hit theaters any day now, everyone is checking out what came before it to get pumped up for the film’s release.  After the mega-success that was her first book, Twilight, Stephenie Meyer penned its sequel, New Moon.  This book starts off with a bang:  while celebrating her 18th birthday, Bella gets a papercut, and her blood fuels an attack by Jasper.  This attack leads Edward and the rest of the Cullens to decide that it is time for them to leave Forks, and Bella cannot come with.  Bella spirals into a depression, which she is only brought out of through her blossoming friendship with Jacob Black.  Bella once again finds herself caught up in supernatural occurances that she never expected to face, including finding out that her new best friend is a werewolf and racing through an Italian city filled with celebrating vampires.  This book is a good follow-up to Twilight and contains a bit more action, though Edward fans might not enjoy his limited appearances in the novel.

Following the success of the movie version of Twilight, production was immediately started on the next film.  New Moon follows along very closely with the book, including the birthday party, Sam rescuing Bella in the forest, and and the confrontation between Bella and Laurent.  One of the biggest changes from the book is that not only does Bella hear Edward’s voice when she is doing something dangerous (as she does in the book), she also sees him.  This was no doubt done to keep Team Edward fans happy, since his character didn’t really appear in the book much.  The movie includes some very intense fight scenes, especially once Bella, Alice, and Edward reach Volterra.  The special effects have greatly improved over the first movie, likely the result of a higher budget due to the massive success of Twilight.  As in the first movie, some of the dialogue comes across a bit cheesy, but true Twilight Saga fans won’t mind.  Overall, I think that fans of the book, and even those who wish Edward had been featured in it more, would enjoy this movie adaptation.

Though the book and its companions are often found in the Young Adult section of the library, this series is not just for teens.  People of all ages are engaging in heated debates of Team Edward vs. Team Jacob, and they’re all clearly invested in who Bella ends up with at the end of the saga.  This series is guilty pleasure reading at its best, and the movies have so far stuck to what is in the books, making them a lot of fun to watch.

They were just six days at the end of a miserably hot summer. Yet to 13-year-old Henry those six days will change everything about his life in Labor Day by Joyce Maynard.

For Henry, the days pass monotonously – his emotionally fragile mother Adele has mostly checked out of life, rarely leaving the house. His father has a new family on the other side of town. Henry, lonely and awkward, and at that stage when you know so much and yet so little, just wishes something would happen. And then, Frank, bleeding and limping, walks into their lives. Henry has no idea how different he will be in six days. He will learn how to bake a pie, how to throw a baseball, the pain of jealousy and betrayal, and the power of love. Those six days will shape him into the man he will become.

Frank is an escaped prisoner who has been serving time for murder who seeks sanctuary with Henry and his mother. He is kind and thoughtful and soon Adele and Frank fall in love. They make plans to escape together to Canada. Henry struggles with this new person in their lives – relief that he is no longer the only person responsible for his mother’s happiness, fear that he’ll be left behind.

Narrated by Henry as an adult looking back on those six days, you hear the angst of the teenager softened by the perspective of time. It is written with simplicity and eloquence and a sympathetic understanding of the emotional complexity of people. The extended epilogue –  particularly the last sentence – brings the story to an especially yet realistic satisfying conclusion.

In The Icing on the Cupcake by Jennifer Ross, Ansley is a southern belle, Dallas style, whose well-planned life takes an unexpected turn; her perfect fiance leaves her for a fellow Baylor sorority sister. Unusually for romantic fiction, this is completely justified as the heroine is selfish, mean, and manipulative.

To get away from the gossip, she heads to New York City to live with her grandmother. The women of the family have always been expert bakers and have passed down a cookbook in which they record original recipes. Ansley uses her baking and business expertise to open a cupcakery.

A strong point is the insider information about baking (in particular, the difference between home baking and volume baking). Also, insights into Southern culture, specifically the uniquely Dallas way of life is fascinating.

Unfortunately, the novel wraps up quickly and glibly. Up to that point, the reader has willingly suspended belief when there were unlikely plot turns because the writing is graceful and the characters well-drawn. However, the last few chapters are written awkwardly, as if the author ran out of time or inspiration. I’d still give it an overall thumbs up, though…

If you like to travel, you’ll love this book!  In creating this little treasure of a book, Once in a Lifetime Trips: The World’s 50 Most Extraordinary and Memorable Travel Experiences, author Chris Santella  interviewed travel experts with first-hand knowledge of the destinations  described.  The photographs alone are enough to make one drool — the stunning full-page color vistas really seem to capture the essence of each location– and make one dream of someday seeing them in person.

Included are some places I’ve always wanted to go to (such as Machu Picchu in Peru); others I’ve never even considered (Mongolia or Cappadocai) and some, such as Provence by Bike, that I just might have to investigate.  One drawback — these are not cheap trips — they are first class, often even using private jets to conveniently transport guests get from point A to point B, so for most of us, they really are once in a lifetime trips, if ever.  Still, it doesn’t hurt to drool and dream!

They’re Your Parents, Too! by Francine Russo is all too relevant for many baby boomers coping with their aging parents and siblings.

Russo notes that this is the first generation that has had to so frequently manage their parents’ long term illnesses -which may last for decades.  This places a strain on sibling relationships that may already be fraught with unresolved rivalries.  Dysfunctional sibling/parent relationships can be unaddressed for many years only to erupt when everyone is forced to deal with emotional and critical issues.

Some families are able to navigate this very painful terrain, respecting those that have been the primary caregiver(s); many would benefit from a third party such as a social worker or doctor, according to Russo, who has interviewed many, many families. She advises lots of honest communication and attempting to understand the points-of-view of others. It’s never an easy journey, but it can be made bearable if siblings support each other.

To be  honest, I only planned to skim this book when I picked it up, expecting  that it would be rather dry and academic. Instead Sissinghurst: an Unfinished History by Adam Nicolson turned out to be a fascinating, beautifully written history of a remarkable landscape.

To any gardener worth their compost, the name Sissinghurst is instantly recognizable as the site of one of the most beloved gardens in England. It’s gardens, especially the famous White Garden, continue to influence and inspire gardeners today, 70 years after it was created. Sissinghurst was also the home of one of Englands most famous literary couples (and the creators of the gardens), Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West. Now owned and managed by the National Trust, Adam Nicolson (Harold and Vita’s grandson) wished to bring the land surrounding the castle and gardens back to their earlier incarnation as a working farm with all that that involved – an integrated system of meadows, grain, crops, fruit, vegetables and livestock as well as managed woodlands. It was a landscape that encouraged diversity, sheltered wildlife and sustained a strong community.

Nicolson covers the wide-ranging history of the estate, how the land shaped the people that lived there and how people shaped the land. Nicolson’s proposal to return parts of Sissinghurst to farm initially met with resistence that surprised him and had to be addressed. Through it all, his fond memories of growing up on the estate beautifully illustrate both the beauty of and his love for the land, it’s history and it’s people.

Some of today’s most popular movies and television series started off as books.  Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harris is a mystery starring Sookie Stackhouse, a telepathic barmaid from Bon Temps, Louisiana.  The story takes place after vampires have made their existence known to the world and are beginning to be accepted into mainstream society in America.  One night at work, Sookie’s dream comes true and a vampire named Bill walks into the bar.  After rescuing Bill from a couple attempting to drain his blood, Sookie and the vampire embark on a romance and Sookie learns that there are many more interesting creatures in this world than she ever knew of before.  If you like vampire novels with a splash of romance and mystery, this book is for you.  It’s an entertaining bit of light reading that will force you to leave the comfy confines of your home and race back to the library for the sequel.

Following the success of this book and its sequels, HBO adapted it into a television series.  Starring Anna Paquin as Sookie, True Blood: The Complete First Season follows the events of Dead Until Dark.  The main storyline remains the same, with Sookie and the residents of Bon Temps trying to figure out who is murdering local women.  Not everything is exactly the same as the book:  characters who are minor in the novel are given their own important storylines (with Sookie’s brother Jason becoming addicted to vampire blood), and characters who don’t appear until later novels are transplanted into this first season and are given new personalities (like Tara and her new “don’t take any you-know-what” attitude).

Personally, I enjoyed the book much more than the TV series.  While the HBO series was spot-on concerning the main events of the novel, the changes that were made from what was originally in the book didn’t seem fitting to me.  However, the casting is excellent and most of the characters are exactly as I saw them in my head while reading the book.  My only other complaint is that I am a bit squeamish, and due to the graphic nature of the show, some of the scenes were a little hard to watch.  But overall, reading the bok and watching the show are both fun escapes from reality.

But enough about what I think.  Which did YOU enjoy more:  the book, or the DVD?

With a few tweaks to design and format, many classics have found themselves again at the top of recent bestseller lists and looking glamorous in the bookstore window displays. Here are a few of my favorite classic updates that would excellent viewing for recent graduates:

Wuthering Heights is all the rage right now due a certain saga of Vampire novels giving numerous nods in Emily Brontë’s direction. And if that wasn’t enough make this classic fly off the shelves, Penguin Deluxe Classics just reissued a new edition of the book featuring a FANTASTIC cover design by fashion illustrator, Ruben Toledo, where Heathcliff is looking particularly handsome and Edward-ish.

One of the most popular trends in publishing right now is the graphic-novelfying of both old and new classics. A People’s History of American Empire: a Graphic Adaptation by Howard Zinn is a great choice for those High School Graduates heading off into the heat of a liberal arts college’s world of discussion and debate.

Nothing gets more classic than a Superhero story of Good vs. Evil. Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog is a 3-part musical starring Neil Patrick Harris, Felicia Day and Nathan Fillion was produced by cult hero Joss Whedon and originally released online. Can a classic story get any more updated than that?! It has since been released on DVD with tons of extras and is a MUST SEE for anyone who will be living in a college dorm where spontaneous, amateur performances of the show are not uncommon.

Your graduate has read the books, seen the movies, and listened to Jim Dale’s narration over and over again. But have they rocked out to Harry and the Potters yet? You cannot know the depths of your love for HP until you have sung “Save Ginny Weasley” at the top of your lungs with a hundred other fanboys and fangirls. Don’t believe me that Wizard Rock is one of the awesomest things right now? Come see Harry and the Potters at the Eastern Grand Opening on July 10, 2010!

Let’s face it.  What most graduates want (and get) is money.  Hard, cold cash.  Not microwaves, techno gadgets or pillows for the dorm, but dollars with which they can select their own microwaves, techno gadgets and pillows for the dorm.

Still, if you’re looking for something a little more meaningful or sentimental, there’s plenty of inspirational, faith-based guides available.  Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life comes to mind.  It’s subtitle is, “What on Earth am I Here for?” so it’s appropriate for any age group, not just graduates.

If you’d rather pick a more secular title, something that has credible advice, but with a short enough format that most teens will still actually read it, try Maria Shriver’s And One More thing Before You Go.  It’s only 61 pages long and has 10 quick chapters, including these topics:

  • Learn from your mistakes
  • Have a little gratitude
  • Keep a childlike quality

Interestingly enough, it ends with advice from teenage girls to their moms.  Hmmm, perhaps that’s really the intended audience all along!

A final suggestion is What I Know: Uncommon Wisdom and Universal Truths from 10-year olds and 100-year olds. by Roger Emerson Fishman.  This small, square gift book has lots of photos and could be enjoyed by both young and old.