Thursday, September 3, 2015

Review: The Signature of All Things

Summary: In The Signature of All Things, Elizabeth Gilbert returns to fiction, inserting her inimitable voice into an enthralling story of love, adventure and discovery. Spanning much of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the novel follows the fortunes of the extraordinary Whittaker family as led by the enterprising Henry Whittaker—a poor-born Englishman who makes a great fortune in the South American quinine trade, eventually becoming the richest man in Philadelphia. Born in 1800, Henry’s brilliant daughter, Alma (who inherits both her father’s money and his mind), ultimately becomes a botanist of considerable gifts herself. As Alma’s research takes her deeper into the mysteries of evolution, she falls in love with a man named Ambrose Pike who makes incomparable paintings of orchids and who draws her in the exact opposite direction—into the realm of the spiritual, the divine, and the magical. Alma is a clear-minded scientist; Ambrose a utopian artist—but what unites this unlikely couple is a desperate need to understand the workings of this world and the mechanisms behind all life.

Exquisitely researched and told at a galloping pace, The Signature of All Things soars across the globe—from London to Peru to Philadelphia to Tahiti to Amsterdam, and beyond. Along the way, the story is peopled with unforgettable characters: missionaries, abolitionists, adventurers, astronomers, sea captains, geniuses, and the quite mad. But most memorable of all, it is the story of Alma Whittaker, who—born in the Age of Enlightenment, but living well into the Industrial Revolution—bears witness to that extraordinary moment in human history when all the old assumptions about science, religion, commerce, and class were exploding into dangerous new ideas. Written in the bold, questing spirit of that singular time, Gilbert’s wise, deep, and spellbinding tale is certain to capture the hearts and minds of readers. -- Viking

Despite reading tons of great reviews about THE SIGNATURE OF ALL THINGS by Elizabeth Gilbert, I still wasn't thrilled when my book club decided to read it for June. Had I known that I would be at the beach and miss the meeting, I admit that I probably wouldn't have picked it up. I didn't consider myself a fan of Ms. Gilberts after trying to read EAT, PRAY, LOVE; and truth be told, this book didn't appeal to me in the slightest based on the description. However, I gave it a shot and actually ending up really appreciating it. You could even say I liked it... a lot.

THE SIGNATURE OF ALL THINGS takes place during the 18th and 19th centuries and tells the story of the Whittaker family. Henry Whittaker was born in England and grew up very poor; however, he made a fortune in the quinine trade and became one of the richest men in Philadelphia. His daughter, Alma, would like to follow in his footsteps so she decides to becomes a botanist.

Alma has few friends -- really just her beautiful sister and one other girl, and she's pretty much decided that she's going to be a spinster. She focuses mainly on her science instead of relationships... which eventually allows her to examine the concept of evolution. However, when she meets Ambrose Pike, her life is turned upside down. He is an artist who paints gorgeous orchids, and he introduces Alma to the world of the spiritual.

Through her relationship with Ambrose, Alma begins to took at all of life and question how it works. Her initial impressions about science are also called into question and she becomes one of the brightest minds in evolution theory. Through Alma's life, THE SIGNATURE OF ALL THINGS takes readers all over the world and vividly demonstrates the amount of change taking place during this exciting time.

It's been quite awhile since I've finished THE SIGNATURE OF ALL THINGS but I still remember this book vividly. I think that's a testament to how powerful of a story this is and just how well written it was. I'm not sure what I was expecting when I picked up this novel, but it certainly delivered more than I had hoped. It was well researched, well written, and very literary. Count me impressed with Ms. Gilbert as a historical fiction author!

THE SIGNATURE OF ALL THINGS is an epic story about one family, and especially one woman, that was both smart and interesting. No one was more surprised than I to discover that I actually was interested in Alma's life and even botany and evolution. I enjoyed seeing the world through the pages of this book, and I was really impressed with how she wove Alma's life story into what was really going on during this transitional time in world history.

Alma, like her father, was a fascinating character. I can't say that I liked her all that much, but in this novel, that totally didn't matter. She was an odd duck to say the least, and Ms. Gilbert created her so well that she seemed like a real person. I loved how she balanced the science and intelligence aspects of Alma with her desire to be loved. And I found Alma's ideas about life to be incredibly interesting... especially for a woman during that time period.

THE SIGNATURE OF ALL THINGS is a big book -- I read it in hardcover and it weighs a ton. It's not a quick read, and yet the story does move at a steady pace. I never found myself getting bored with the story (which quite honestly shocked me), and that's probably because this book accomplishes so much. I was so impressed with how "tight" the story was. Alma's professional and personal live blended perfectly with what was going on in the world, the characters were all extremely intriguing. Overall, it was just an enjoyable and educational read.

And that brings me to my next point, and probably what I liked the most about THE SIGNATURE OF ALL THINGS. This novel taught me a thing or two about history and science, and it made me think. I loved that this book questioned the status quo and it made me rethink my opinions on certain things about life. At the very least, it allowed me to consider the role of religion and the spiritual on our world today.

I am sorry that I missed our meeting for THE SIGNATURE OF ALL THINGS. I'm pretty sure it was a great meeting because this book has so much to discuss. There is a reading guide available with fourteen questions. Some of the themes you might want to explore include the role of women, science, religion, class structure, friendship, love, parent/child relationships, evolution, curiosity, and sexuality.

I was pleasantly surprised by THE SIGNATURE OF ALL THINGS. It thought it would be too long, too boring, etc.; and yet, I ended up really enjoying it. Highly recommended to fans of historical fiction.

Thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy of this novel.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Review: The Last Pilot

Summary: Jim Harrison is a test pilot in the United States Air Force, one of the exalted few. He spends his days cheating death in the skies above the Mojave Desert and his nights at his friend Pancho's bar, often with his wife, Grace. She and Harrison are secretly desperate for a child-and when, against all odds, Grace learns that she is pregnant, the two are overcome with joy.

While America becomes swept up in the fervor of the Space Race, Harrison turns his attention home, passing up the chance to become an astronaut to welcome his daughter, Florence, into the world. Together, he and Grace confront the thrills and challenges of raising a child head-on. Fatherhood is different than flying planes-less controlled, more anxious-however the pleasures of watching Florence grow are incomparable. But when his family is faced with a sudden and inexplicable tragedy, Harrison's instincts as a father and a pilot are put to test. As a pilot, he feels compelled to lead them through it-and as a father, he fears that he has fallen short.

The aftermath will haunt the Harrisons and strain their marriage as Jim struggles under the weight of his decisions. Beginning when the dust of the Second World War has only just begun to settle and rushing onward into the Sixties, Benjamin Johncock traces the path of this young couple as they are uprooted by events much larger than themselves. The turns the Harrisons take together are at once astonishing and recognizable; their journey, both frightening and full of hope. Set against the backdrop of one of the most emotionally charged periods in American history, The Last Pilot is a mesmerizing debut novel of loss and finding courage in the face of it from an extraordinary new talent. -- Picador

I've mentioned more than a few times lately that I am very behind in writing reviews. One book that I feel horrible about waiting to write my review for is THE LAST PILOT by Benjamin Johncock. I admit that I have actually procrastinated a bit on this one because I was blown away by this story... and it's been difficult for me to convey my feelings. Rather that sitting right down and forming my thoughts about this novel, I've waited entirely too long and that's probably a disservice to the book and the author.

THE LAST PILOT tells the story of Jim Harrison, a test pilot in the US Air Force, and his wife Grace during the 1940s. Being a pilot defines Jim and both his and Grace's lives revolve around that. Their friends are fellow pilots and their wives, and they hang out most nights with them at Pancho's, the local bar owned by Jim's good friend Pancho Barnes (a real-life character). Jim and Grace have unsuccessfully tried to have a baby for years, so when they learn Grace is finally pregnant, they are thrilled.

Jim decides to pull back on his dangerous career, forgoing a chance to be an astronaut and stay close to his daughter Florence. However when a tragedy occurs in their family, Jim finds that all of his talents as a pilot won't translate into saving their daughter. Instead of mourning the loss with Grace, Jim decides to sign up to be an astronaut and move to Houston. Once Jim relocates, he becomes fully involved in the Space Race... even if that means pulling away from his wife and never really dealing with their loss.

THE LAST PILOT is the debut novel by Benjamin Johncock and I have to say that he's an incredible writer. I honestly don't have the words to express just how talented he is. The prose was absolutely stunning, and the story and characters were equally compelling. All in all, this novel is very, very powerful (and unique) and one that I can't recommend enough!

When I read the description for this novel, I wasn't sure that it really appealed to me. I'm not that interested in pilots or astronauts for that matter, and I still have flashbacks to visiting NASA all of the time as a kid. But after reading a few reviews (and a few emails from the publicist), I decided to give it a shot... and thank goodness I did because this book is one of my favorites for 2015!

I probably won't be able to describe just how unique this author's writing style is. His prose is sparse with many of the sentences just being a few words -- truly like no other author I remember reading; and his dialogue is really good -- but with no quotation marks. In fact, if you skim through the book, I think you'll be surprised by just how unusual the dialogue and sentences look. His style could easily have been choppy and disjointed, and yet, it's not. It's perfect! I don't know how he managed to pull it off and make it appear effortless.

I absolutely loved the characters in this novel. Jim and Grace, and their relationship, were fascinating.  The dynamics between them were so real and many times very painful. I also loved how the author used the Space Race as the backdrop to their story. The juxtaposition of what was going on in the characters' lives and what was going on in the "real world" was especially powerful.

And finally, I actually did enjoy learning about pilots and astronauts despite having my doubts. The author did a great job of researching this time period and bringing it to life for the reader. I was truly amazed by what these pilots and their wives did for their country. The technology was primitive by today's standards and they were really risking their lives each and every time they took flight. I also appreciated how the author incorporated real life pilots like Chuck Yeager and Gus Grissom into Jim's story.

THE LAST PILOT would make an outstanding book club selection. There truly is so much to discuss about the characters and the changes that were occurring in our country. There is a reading guide available with sixteen questions. Some of the themes you might want to explore include family, parenting, sacrifice, love, grief, guilt, loss, the role of women, commitment, coping mechanisms, and hope.

THE LAST PILOT is an incredible debut novel by a promising author. My review certainly doesn't come close to showing just how special this book really is. Highly recommended!

Thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy of this novel.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Review: The Middle of Somewhere & Giveaway

Summary: With her thirtieth birthday looming, Liz Kroft is heading for the hills—literally. Her emotional baggage weighs her down more than her backpack, but a three-week trek promises the solitude she craves—at least until her boyfriend, Dante, decides to tag along. His broad moral streak makes the prospect of confessing her sins more difficult, but as much as she fears his judgment, she fears losing him more. Maybe.

They set off together alone under blue skies, but it’s not long before storms threaten and two strange brothers appear along the trail. Amid the jagged, towering peaks, Liz must decide whether to admit her mistakes and confront her fears, or face the trail, the brothers and her future alone. -- NAL

When I received a copy of THE MIDDLE OF SOMEWHERE by Sonja Yoerg, I was extremely excited. This novel was one that I heard about at the BEA Book Group Speed Dating Session and wrote down as must-read for this fall. In addition, I enjoyed the author's previous novel HOUSE BROKEN -- you can read my review here.

THE MIDDLE OF SOMEWHERE tells the story of Liz Kroft, an almost 30 year old who decides to take a three week hike along the John Muir Trail. Liz is definitely dealing with some pretty heavy issues from her past, and she is looking forward to having some time to herself to work through her pain. However, her boyfriend Dante decides to come with her... even though he's not exactly the hiking type!

On one hand, Liz knows that she should tell her secrets to Dante, but Dante has strong feelings about what's right and wrong and she's afraid she might lose him. On the other, she's not sure she even wants to continue her relationship with him. Wracked with guilt, Liz and Dante begin their journey.

There experience many ups and downs (both literally and figuratively) as they travel the trail. However, when serious storms and two very odd brothers appear, Liz realizes that this adventure has turned very dangerous. Liz is forced to decide if she wants to continue with Dante and if she can face admitting the regrets from her past.

I enjoyed THE MIDDLE OF SOMEWHERE but I didn't like it quite as much as HOUSE UNBROKEN. I think I'm probably alone with these feelings based on other reviews out there. It's not that I don't think this book is very well written. Rather I just couldn't relate to Liz; and for much of the novel, I didn't really care for her. I admit that I had a few issues with her past decisions, and I had a hard time feeling an affinity with her. It probably didn't help that I'm just not the outdoorsy type and didn't fully appreciate the descriptions of hiking and the trail.

One thing I can definitely say about THE MIDDLE OF SOMEWHERE is that Liz was a well-developed character. Even though I had some issues with her, I appreciated how complex she was. The guilt she had been carrying for years was weighing her down so much that she couldn't fully engage in a relationship with Dante. Her inability to share her innermost thoughts with him didn't help matters either.

As the story progressed, more information became available about Liz's past; and I'll admit that I did begin to like her a bit more. Once I realized the extent of her pain, I felt bad for her and I definitely was rooting for her to come to terms with her past and forgive herself. Even though Liz did bring some of her pain onto herself, she blamed herself for everything... even those things which were out of her control. I can't imagine how miserable she was and how much she needed to work through things while challenging herself to such a rigorous hike.

Another thing that I appreciated about THE MIDDLE OF SOMEWHERE were the author's descriptions of the trail. It's apparent that she traveled these paths quite a bit and she definitely brought them to life with her prose. As I mentioned before, I'm not one who enjoys hiking so this trip sounded like hell to me, but I did like that I got an idea of what a three week trip on the John Muir Trail would entail. In addition, I thought Ms. Yoerg's descriptions of the setting were outstanding. I could almost picture the beauty of the trail with her vivid details about the majestic mountains.

And finally, I really enjoyed how Ms. Yoerg used Liz's journey on the trail as an allegory to her journey in life. As Liz was trying to deal with a huge amount of guilt and grief, she was also taking on a mammoth effort to hike for three weeks in a variety of elements. The ups and downs of her path to self-discovery were linked closed to what she experienced on the trail. Her decisions to tackle things alone or with Dante mirrored some of the decisions she was trying to work through in her personal life. I don't want to give too much more away about how these things were so closely related, but suffice it to say that I liked how well the author linked the two journeys.

THE MIDDLE OF SOMEWHERE would make an outstanding book club selection and there's even a discussion guide in the back of the book. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to find a copy of it on-line. Some of the themes you might want to explore include secrets, guilt, grief, religion, hope, lies, perseverance, courage, and forgiveness. In addition, you might want to discuss some of the allegories in the story including the actual journey itself and how evil and good was represented.

THE MIDDLE OF SOMEWHERE has a little bit of something for everyone. It's a beautifully written story that also tackles some serious issues. Recommended to fans of women's fiction and book clubs.

Thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy of this novel.

Giveaway alert: I have a copy of THE MIDDLE OF SOMEWHERE to share with one lucky reader courtesy of the publisher. To enter, just fill out the form below before September 14th at 11:59 p.m. EST. I will randomly select and notify the winner the following day. This contest is open to those of you with U.S. addresses only. Good luck!

Monday, August 31, 2015

Review: All Day and a Night

Summary: A new murder case with ties to a convicted serial killer leads Detective Ellie Hatcher into a twisting investigation with explosive and deadly results in this superb mystery from the “terrific web spinner” (Entertainment Weekly) Alafair Burke.

When psychotherapist Helen Brunswick is murdered in her Park Slope office, the entire city suspects her estranged husband—until the District Attorney’s office receives an anonymous letter. The letter’s author knows a chilling detail that police have kept secret: the victim’s bones were broken after she was killed. Her injuries were eerily similar to the signature used twenty years earlier by Anthony Amaro, a serial killer serving a life sentence for his crimes. Now, Amaro is asking to be released from prison, arguing that he was wrongly convicted, and that the true killer is still on the loose.

NYPD Detectives Ellie Hatcher and JJ Rogan are tapped as the “fresh look” team to reassess the original investigation that led to Amaro’s conviction. The case pits them against both their fellow officers and a hard-charging celebrity defense lawyer with a young associate named Carrie Blank, whose older sister was one of Amaro’s victims.

As the NYPD and Amaro’s lawyers search for certainty among conflicting evidence, their investigations take them back to Carrie’s hometown, where secrets buried long ago lead to a brutal attack—one that makes it terrifyingly clear that someone has gotten too close to the truth. -- Harper

I honestly can't explain why I haven't picked up a novel by Alafair Burke. I have been reviewing mysteries almost every Monday for years now, and I have quite a few of her books sitting on my shelves...and yet, it took until last week for me to finally read one. ALL DAY AND A NIGHT is her tenth book and the fifth in the Ellie Hatcher series, and this is the one I finally decide to read? All kidding aside, I absolutely loved it and can't wait to read more of her novels.

ALL DAY AND A NIGHT begins when psychotherapist Helen Brunswick is brutally murdered in office. Naturally, her husband is suspected; however, when the District Attorney's office receives an anonymous letter, questions surface about the similarities between this murder and a series of murders from twenty years ago. Now, Anthony Amaro, the man serving a life sentence for the crimes, is asking to be released from prison.

Detective Ellie Hatcher and her partner are assigned to take a "fresh look" at the original investigation that led to Amaro's conviction. Needless to say, the officers who worked the case are less than thrilled that they are re-investigating; and the defense lawyer for Amaro is definitely adding to the controversy.

Both the NYPD and Amaro's lawyers, including one whose sister was murdered by Amaro, are looking into finding the truth... and they all find themselves in danger as they get closer to finding the truth.

I absolutely loved Ellie Hatcher and ALL DAY AND A NIGHT. I can't believe that I've been missing out on this series and this author for so long! What's ironic is that I've read some review of this novel, and evidently it's not even the best one in the series. Needless to say, that makes me very excited to read more of Ms. Burke's novels!

One thing I really enjoyed about this novel was the character of Ellie Hatcher. While this novel definitely works as a stand-alone, I could tell that Ellie's character had evolved through the years. There were some minor references, especially as they pertained to her personal life, that made me want to know more about Ellie's past. Having said that, there was nothing in this novel that didn't work even without knowing the characters in this novel.

Ellie was an extremely interesting character to me. I really liked her and her grittiness, and I found her intuition about the cases to be compelling. I am a huge fan of this genre and I love that there is a series with a strong woman character. I even enjoyed the dilemmas she had in her personal life by dating a lawyer who worked in the D.A.'s office.

Another character is really liked in this novel was Carrie, the lawyer who worked for Amaro's lawyer and also whose sister was one of Amaro's victims. She was a fantastic character and I really appreciated seeing her return to her hometown and face the people and circumstances from her past.

I also enjoyed the mystery of the story. There were a few twists but I'm not sure I'd go so far as to say that I was shocked with the final outcome. (Evidently some readers are and some aren't!) I was surprised by a few of the turns and I appreciated that things were always interesting. In addition, I felt as if the book was so much more than just a mystery given the complexity of the characters, so I didn't mind not being gobsmacked by the conclusion.

Even though I prefer to start series at the beginning, I am so glad that I finally read an Ellie Hatcher novel. You will definitely be seeing more review of Ms. Burke's books here! In the meantime, I highly recommend ALL DAY AND A NIGHT for fans of mysteries.

Thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy of this novel.

Mystery Mondays is a regular feature where I review all types of mystery books -- traditional mysteries, suspense/thrillers, and even cozies! Please feel free to share your thoughts on any recent mystery books that you've read. Mystery Mondays is a regular feature where I review all types of mystery books -- traditional mysteries, suspense/thrillers, and even cozies! Please feel free to share your thoughts on any recent mystery books that you've read.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Kid Konnection: Chasing Secrets & Giveaway

Every Saturday, I host a feature called Kid Konnection -- a regular weekend feature about anything related to children's books. This week I'm going to share with you a wonderful book by Newbery Honor Book winner Gennifer Choldenko.

Summary: Newbery Honor–winning author Gennifer Choldenko deftly combines humor, tragedy, fascinating historical detail, and a medical mystery in this exuberant new novel.

San Francisco, 1900. The Gilded Age. A fantastic time to be alive for lots of people . . . but not thirteen-year-old Lizzie Kennedy, stuck at Miss Barstow’s snobby school for girls. Lizzie’s secret passion is science, an unsuitable subject for finishing-school girls. Lizzie lives to go on house calls with her physician father. On those visits to his patients, she discovers a hidden dark side of the city—a side that’s full of secrets, rats, and rumors of the plague.

The newspapers, her powerful uncle, and her beloved papa all deny that the plague has reached San Francisco. So why is the heart of the city under quarantine? Why are angry mobs trying to burn Chinatown to the ground? Why is Noah, the Chinese cook’s son, suddenly making Lizzie question everything she has known to be true? Ignoring the rules of race and class, Lizzie and Noah must put the pieces together in a heart-stopping race to save the people they love. -- Wendy Lamb Books

When I was asked if I was interested in participating in a book tour for the novel CHASING SECRETS by Gennifer Choldenko, I jumped at the chance. I rarely participate in book tours anymore because my schedule doesn't really allow me to have many commitments; however, I felt this book was worthy of something special. I read this middle grade book in one sitting and can't rave enough about it. Ms. Choldenko has done it again. She's written an intriguing book with fantastic characters that also manages to teach kids a thing or two!

CHASING SECRETS takes place in the early 1900s in San Francisco. Lizzie Kennedy is a 13 year old girl who loves science and medicine, but that's not exactly proper for a young lady who attends a finishing school. Lizzie's mother is gone, but her physician father does the best he can with a teenage daughter. He takes Lizzie with him on house calls and attempts to teach her the art of medicine. Lizzie learns a great deal about life on these visits including the startling discovery that the plague might be hitting San Francisco!

When Jing, her family's treasured cook goes missing, Lizzie is certain that he is stuck in Chinatown where there's a quarantine for the plague. Lizzie is concerned about the plague even most people are saying that it's just a rumor.

One day, Lizzie makes another shocking discovery. Jing's son, Noah, is hiding in a room in the upstairs of her house. Noah and Lizzie hit it off and become fast (albeit secret) friends. Lizzie wants to help Noah by providing food and other treats, but she also realizes that she must find the missing Jing and bring him home... no matter the cost!

I adored CHASING SECRETS from the various characters, to the storyline, to the historical information. It was a wonderful book -- truly a page-turner -- while also being a sweet story about friendship, determination, and self-discovery. This book had a little bit of everything and should appeal to a wide variety of readers. There is drama, suspense, mystery, friendship, humor, and even a history lesson.

I've probably been living under a rock or maybe I'm just lousy at U.S. history, but I wasn't familiar with the story of the plague hitting San Francisco in the early 1900s. Not only did CHASING SECRETS introduce this to me, but Ms. Choldenko brought the entire time period to life. I loved her descriptions of the city and its people, and I was equally interested in how she portrayed the role of women during this time period. Furthermore, I enjoyed learning about the plague as well as the introduction of immunizations. As a fan of historical fiction, I was impressed with how well this book incorporated the facts of the time with the fictional characters.

Another truly special thing about CHASING SECRETS were the characters. I loved many of them, but I was especially drawn to Lizzie and Noah. These kids were just so amazing -- smart and kind, and I think that kids will not only adore them but also relate to them. I found Lizzie to be particularly interesting because she was a bit of a fish out of water. She was definitely a girl who was fascinated by science and medicine, and she didn't quite fit in with the other girls at the finishing school. Despite attempts by her aunt to make her into a lady, Lizzie did her own thing. She was determined to do what she thought was right and heaven help those who got in her way.

I also really liked the mystery aspects of the story. Since few people during this time were admitting to the dangers of the plague, I enjoyed seeing Lizzie pursue the truth... and boy was she resourceful in learning information! In addition, I appreciated the mystery of what happened to Jing. I could sense Lizzie and Noah's urgency and the mystery definitely kept me involved in their story.

CHASING SECRETS is a great read, and I'd love to see it incorporated into classrooms. Ms. Choldenko even includes an Educators' Guide which includes Common Core Standards Correlations to make it easier for teachers to use. There is a pre-reading activity suggestion as well as many discussion questions. There are also curriculum connections and vocabulary. Some of the themes you might want to explore include family dynamics, friendship, racial relations, the role of women, secrets, courage, prejudice, grief, and loss.

All in all, I loved CHASING SECRETS and I would love to see all middle-grade readers pick up this book and talk about it with each other! Highly recommended!

Check out the other Blog Tour stops for CHASING SECRETS:

August 24: Bookhounds YA  
                      Bookish Lifestyle
August 25: Ang Reads!
                      YA Book Nerd
                     Bibliophilia, Please
                     Michelle & Leslie's Book Picks
                      Once Upon A Twilight
Thanks to the publisher for providing review copies of these books.

I am so excited to announce that I have a copy of CHASING SECRETS to share with one very lucky reader courtesy of the publisher. To enter, just fill out the form below before September 11th at 11:59 p.m. EST. I will randomly select and notify the winner the following day. This contest is open to those of you with U.S. addresses only. Good luck!

If you'd like to participate in Kid Konnection and share a post about anything related to children's books (picture, middle grade, or young adult) from the past week, please leave a comment as well as a link below with your name/blog name and the title of the book! Feel free to grab the little button too!

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Review: Saint Mazie

Summary: Meet Mazie Phillips: big-hearted and bawdy, she's the truth-telling proprietress of The Venice, the famed New York City movie theater. It's the Jazz Age, with romance and booze aplenty--even when Prohibition kicks in--and Mazie never turns down a night on the town. But her high spirits mask a childhood rooted in poverty, and her diary, always close at hand, holds her dearest secrets.

When the Great Depression hits, Mazie's life is on the brink of transformation. Addicts and bums roam the Bowery; homelessness is rampant. If Mazie won't help them, then who? When she opens the doors of The Venice to those in need, this ticket taking, fun-time girl becomes the beating heart of the Lower East Side, and in defining one neighborhood helps define the city.

Then, more than ninety years after Mazie began her diary, it's discovered by a documentarian in search of a good story. Who was Mazie Phillips, really? A chorus of voices from the past and present fill in some of the mysterious blanks of her adventurous life.

Inspired by the life of a woman who was profiled in Joseph Mitchell's classic Up in the Old Hotel, SAINT MAZIE is infused with Jami Attenberg's signature wit, bravery, and heart. Mazie's rise to "sainthood"--and her irrepressible spirit--is unforgettable. -- Grand Central Publishing

I apologize for not writing my review of SAINT MAZIE by Jami Attenberg earlier. I actually read this book months ago when it was first released, and somehow it got lost in my pile of finished books. I feel as if it's a disservice to you that I didn't write this review when the novel was fresh in my mind; however, I do recall liking this book a great deal. And once again, I was extremely impressed with Ms. Attenberg's writing.

SAINT MAZIE is based on the real life Mazie Phillips. She's quite the character (both in the book and real life) who sells tickets at The Venice, a famous New York City movie theater. Mazie loves to party and flirt with men, even after Prohibition is enacted; however, she is also hiding secrets from her difficult childhood. While Mazie hides her personal issues from the outside world, she uses her diary to capture her innermost thoughts.

When the Depression hits NYC, and particularly the Bowery, people lose their jobs, their homes, and even their dignity. Mazie decides that she wants to help these individuals. She allows these people to come into The Venice, spends time with them, calls ambulances, gives them money, and basically makes a huge difference in their lives... and the community as a whole.

I enjoyed Mazie and her story so much. She truly was a larger-than-life character and her story is an incredible one. Joseph Mitchell profiled her in his essay collection Up in the Old Hotel, and Ms. Attenberg has "updated" her story in this fictionalized account of her life. Mazie was an incredible woman and I am so glad that Ms. Attenberg wrote this novel and shared her story with so many current readers.

There are quite a few impressive things about SAINT MAZIE besides just the character of Mazie. Of course, she was a very special woman, albeit a little rough around the edges, who managed almost singlehandedly to help both individuals and the community during tough times. I loved the way the author brought Mazie to life and made her such a complex character. In addition, I thought she did an excellent job in portraying this sad period in our history.

Another wonderful thing about this novel is the way Ms. Attenberg chose to tell Mazie's story. The story mainly unfolds through Mazie's diary that was recently discovered by a historian, but it also is revealed through interview snippets and an unpublished autobiography. I loved how Ms. Attenberg shared Mazie's story through Mazie's words, but it was also interesting to read the interviews from individuals who knew (or whose relatives knew) Mazie. I thought the mix of sources came together well in this novel, but I admit I loved Mazie's diary entries the best.

I also really appreciated how Mazie's childhood experiences played such a big role in this novel. Mazie had a pretty horrible childhood that definitely formed her into the adult she became. She eventually ended up living with her sister and brother-in-law (the one responsible for giving her the job at The Venice); and while there were still some problems, it was definitely more stability than Mazie had ever experienced. As a result of her what happened when she was a kid, Mazie became rather tough. She loved to party and hang out with men; however, she also became someone who gave back... even when she didn't have that much to give.

There is no doubt Saint Mazie's story in an interesting one -- from her early childhood to her life helping those less fortunate. However, the author also chose to focus on some of the relationships in Mazie's life. I especially enjoyed the relationship Mazie had with a nun. While you wouldn't exactly expect someone like Mazie to be so close to a nun, their bond was so special and made an incredible impression on Mazie. Her on-going relationship with a sea captain was interesting too, although I did find it a bit sad.

SAINT MAZIE would make an excellent book club pick. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to find a formal discussion guide. I don't think one is necessary to discuss this terrific book and fascinating woman, though. Some of the themes you might want to explore include poverty, charity, religion, friendships, love, loss, sacrifice, the Great Depression, and more.

SAINT MAZIE is a wonderful look at an amazing woman. Highly recommended!

I received a copy of this novel at the 2015 BEA.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Review: Thank You, Goodnight

Summary: In Thank You, Goodnight, hailed by Billboard as “High Fidelity and About a Boy with a dose of Music & Lyrics thrown in,” the lead singer of a one-hit wonder 90s band tries for one more swing at the fence.

Teddy Tremble is nearing forty and has settled into a comfortable groove, working at a stuffy law firm and living in a downtown apartment with a woman he thinks he might love. Sure, his days aren’t as exciting as the time he spent as the lead singer of Tremble, the rock band known for its mega-hit “It Feels Like a Lie,” but that life has long since passed its sell-by date.

But when Teddy gets a cryptic call from an old friend, he’s catapulted into contemplating the unthinkable: reuniting Tremble for one last shot at rewriting history. Never mind that the band members haven’t spoken in ten years, that they left the music scene in a blazing cloud of indifference, and that the only fans who seem to miss them reside in an obscure little town in Switzerland.

If Teddy manages to snooker his band mates out of their adult lives, can a once immature, self-involved fallen idol find his way back to the top—and possibly back to the one who got away? Thank You, Goodnight is debut novelist Andy Abramowitz’s hilarious, honest, and heartwarming story about love, lyrics, and finding one’s legacy in the unlikeliest of places. -- Touchstone

Every so often, I like to read books with men as the main characters. It doesn't happen all that often, but there are a few authors like Tropper, Hornby, etc. whose books I really appreciate. They have intriguing characters along with humor and sensitivity, and they also seem to have some wonderful insights into life. THANK YOU, GOODNIGHT by Andy Abramowitz is in the same vein as these books, and I definitely liked it.

THANK YOU, GOODNIGHT tells the story of Teddy Tremble, an almost middle-aged attorney who was once the lead singer of Tremble, a rock band that had a huge hit and even won an Oscar. He is comfortable in his career and relationship; however, a part of him still misses the rock star lifestyle. When he discovers that a photographer has included him in a collection titled, "It Feels Like a Lie... and It Looks Like a Mess" that is on display at the Tate Modern in London, his pride is seriously hurt.

In what is beginning to look a little like a mid-life crisis, Teddy decides to confront the photographer in Sweden. He is surprised to discover that his band Tremble is still quite popular in this small Swedish town. Teddy decides to relaunch the band, but first he has to get the other band members to agree... and that might not be easy! The members haven't spoken for almost ten years and there is some baggage between Teddy and the female member.

I thought THANK YOU, GOODNIGHT was a very fun read. Teddy was a fantastic character, as were his bandmates; and I enjoyed following Teddy on his path to bringing back the band. The book was both hilarious and touching, and it even made me think about getting older and a few other life-defining moments. Overall, it was a pretty good read!

Teddy was just great. The story was told in his voice and I think Mr. Abramowitz captured his essence perfectly. Like Teddy, Mr. Abramowitz is a lawyer who once played in a band so his experiences definitely gave the story a bit of authenticity. In so many ways, this book was a coming-of-age story for Teddy; and I loved seeing him get a second chance at "proving" himself. It was interesting to see both Teddy's angst at the unflattering photograph as well as his desire to bring the band back together for one final hurrah.

Another thing I really liked about THANK YOU, GOODNIGHT was the balance humor and seriousness in the story. Make no doubt about it, THANK YOU, GOODNIGHT is hilarious. The scene when Teddy finds the photograph and then his entire trip to Sweden are crazy funny. And the scenes when he meets up with the band members, one in particular, are worthy of a few laughs as well. In fact, so many of the scenes read like a movie... if that makes sense!

However, this novel also was touching. Teddy's journey does have some sad moments and regrets that he hasn't been able to get over. I adored Teddy and my heart broke for him. I actually was rooting for him and Tremble to have a second chance at success. I wanted Teddy to experience a sense of fulfillment that he obviously thought was missing from his life.

THANK YOU, GOODNIGHT would make a great book club selection... especially if your group includes some men. There is a reading guide available with twelve questions along with some ways to enhance your book club meeting. Some of the themes you might want to explore include regret, guilt, self-doubt, secrets, friendship, love, communication, and second chances.

I enjoyed THANK YOU, GOODNIGHT for so many reasons. It was an enjoyable read that also make me think -- and that makes a book pretty special in my mind.

Thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy of this novel.