Thursday, September 30, 2010

Review: Pope Joan

Summary: For a thousand years her existence has been denied. She is the legend that will not die–Pope Joan, the ninth-century woman who disguised herself as a man and rose to become the only female ever to sit on the throne of St. Peter. Now in this riveting novel, Donna Woolfolk Cross paints a sweeping portrait of an unforgettable heroine who struggles against restrictions her soul cannot accept.

Brilliant and talented, young Joan rebels against medieval social strictures forbidding women to learn. When her brother is brutally killed during a Viking attack, Joan takes up his cloak–and his identity–and enters the monastery of Fulda. As Brother John Anglicus, Joan distinguishes herself as a great scholar and healer. Eventually, she is drawn to Rome, where she becomes enmeshed in a dangerous web of love, passion, and politics. Triumphing over appalling odds, she finally attains the highest office in Christendom–wielding a power greater than any woman before or since. But such power always comes at a price . . .

In this international bestseller, Cross brings the Dark Ages to life in all their brutal splendor and shares the dramatic story of a woman whose strength of vision led her to defy the social restrictions of her day. -- Three Rivers Press

Earlier this month, my book club read and discussed POPE JOAN by Donna Woolfolk Cross. I had read the book almost ten years ago (or maybe more -- it was before I kept a reading journal), and I had enjoyed it a great deal back then. I don't do a lot of re-reads, but I figured if I wanted to take part in our discussion, I probably shouldn't depend on my questionable memory. I have to admit that I did appreciate POPE JOAN this time around, but I'm not sure it held the exact same magic for me as it did when I first read it. (I think that's pretty typical for me as far as re-reads go unless it's a book like TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD.)

Having said that, I do think POPE JOAN is an excellent example of "good" historical fiction. There are so many elements of this story which make it a quality read. The story is fascinating, the characters are interesting, and the historical aspects of the novel are so well-done. Plus there is action, suspense, deception, love, betrayal and more. POPE JOAN really does have something for everyone.

I could go on and on about the storyline and the characters, but suffice it to say that I thought they were terrific. The idea of a female pope, or really any woman disguising herself as a man, makes for a very interesting book -- you have to admit that you are curious about how she pulled it off. But I also really appreciated how well the characters were developed. I think Joan was a very "real" character that female readers could relate to, and I enjoyed seeing her experiences as both a man and a woman.

I think what I most enjoyed about POPE JOAN, though, were the historical elements. It was apparent that Ms. Cross did some very thorough research about this time period and she did a wonderful job of incorporating the facts into this story. However, she also wisely selected a topic without a great deal of of historical information. This gave her the ability to really create wonderful characters with amazing lives. I thought Ms. Cross did an excellent job of merging the fact and fiction and making the story believable. And isn't that what really makes historical fiction special?

One thing that I appreciated more with my second read of POPE JOAN was how much this book addressed the topics of feminism and the role of women. Joan did manage to rise to success in a time when society did not value women at all, but she also had to disguise herself as a man to do so. In addition, she had to make so many sacrifices throughout her life including not having a relationship with her family, not being able to marry the man she loved, and never having the opportunity to be a mother. While Joan's case was certainly extreme, I think woman throughout the ages can relate to Joan and the sacrifices she had to make to be successful in a man's world.

My book club was fortunate that the author Donna Woolfolk Cross called into our meeting to discuss her novel with us. It was an extremely interesting conversation, and I just love how passionate Ms. Cross is about her book ... and the movie based on her book. I think we all agreed that we gained some valuable insight into Joan's story as well as the research Ms. Cross conducted while writing it. If you are interested in learning more about the book and the author, then check out this interview.

I highly recommend POPE JOAN for book clubs who enjoy historical fiction books. The story is captivating and there are actually quite a few things to discuss. I can say this with certainty since my club had a wonderful time talking about the role of women throughout history. There is a reading guide which will help you to keep your conversation on track, but our group didn't really find it necessary to use the exact questions. Some of the topics for discussion include feminism, education, love, secrets, and faith vs. intellect/reason. We had some fantastic discussion about Joan's character as well as her motivations. The author also loves to do author chats (she does about three a week) so I also highly recommend contacting her too.

I highly recommend POPE JOAN if you are a fan of historical fiction or books about the strength of women. It's a very interesting read that is guaranteed to entertain you!

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Review: Open

Summary: Far more than a superb memoir about the highest levels of professional tennis, Open is the engrossing story of a remarkable life.

Andre Agassi had his life mapped out for him before he left the crib. Groomed to be a tennis champion by his moody and demanding father, by the age of twenty-two Agassi had won the first of his eight grand slams and achieved wealth, celebrity, and the game’s highest honors. But as he reveals in this searching autobiography, off the court he was often unhappy and confused, unfulfilled by his great achievements in a sport he had come to resent. Agassi writes candidly about his early success and his uncomfortable relationship with fame, his marriage to Brooke Shields, his growing interest in philanthropy, and—described in haunting, point-by-point detail—the highs and lows of his celebrated career. -- Vintage

I'm always up for a good memoir and OPEN by Andre Agassi most definitely fits the bill. I had read the rave reviews about this book when it first came out in hardcover, but unfortunately I never got around to reading it. I so regret waiting this long because OPEN will probably be one of my favorite books of 2010. I can't really say that I remember reading a better memoir than this one. Agassi's life story was fascinating and the writing was excellent; however, I think it was Agassi's "openness" and honesty that really blew me away.

I wasn't always an Andre Agassi fan, though. I thought he had an awful temper and was more worried about his image than winning tennis matches. In fact, for many years, I was probably more of a fan of Pete Sampras', Agassi's arch rival. It wasn't until Agassi was a little older (and more of an underdog) that I came to actually find myself rooting for him. And towards the end of his career, like many Americans, I had warmed up to him and considered him the most exciting player in American tennis.

So I admit that I picked up OPEN, I already had a soft spot in my heart for Andre Agassi. I knew he had his fair share of ups and downs both professionally and personally, but I respected his ability to turn his life around. And I really appreciated how much time and money (over $85 million) Agassi has spent on the Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy for underprivileged children. I kind of knew that it would be one of those stories that would just warm my heart.

And I was right -- I absolutely loved Agassi's story as well as almost everything about this book. I read it over a weekend and couldn't put it down. My poor husband probably knows more about Andre Agassi than he ever cared to know. This truly is a book for fans of tennis, but also anyone who loves a good story.

I was immediately hooked on OPEN from the first few pages. The book begins with a scene titled "The End" and it's an extremely powerful chapter. To be honest, I was really, really impressed with the writing. So much so that I turned to the Acknowledgments section to see if Agassi really penned this book by himself (I was thinking that he could have had a career as a writer if that entire tennis gig didn't work out.) I wasn't totally surprised to see that he had some help in the form of J.R. Moehringer, author of THE TENDER BAR (another really great book, by the way.) Even though there was another writer, the book was still entirely Agassi's story. OPEN read as if Agassi was just having a conversation with a friend, and I thought it was filled with the same passion and intensity that we came to recognize in Agassi's on-the-court actions.

And that brings me to the next reason that I loved this book so much -- Agassi was so incredibly honest... and open. (I have to add that the title is absolutely perfect!) Agassi doesn't hesitate to delve into the many problems he had in his life from his relationship to his father, to his drug problems, to dropping out of high school, to his failed marriage to Brooke Shields, to the ups and downs of his career, to his insecurities about his hair (or lack thereof), and even to his hatred of the game of tennis. As I read this book, I couldn't help but feel bad for Agassi because for so much of his life, he seemed like a tortured soul. Even though it seemed like he had it all -- fame, fortune, etc., I don't think he found true happiness until he met his wife Stefanie Graf.

Agassi's story is an incredibly interesting one, but at its heart, I thought this memoir was extremely uplifting. Throughout Agassi's entire life, he struggled with accepting himself and finding some sort of contentment and happiness. With the support of some wonderful people that wouldn't give up on Agassi (or let him give up on himself), Andre Agassi was able to turn around not only his career, but also his entire life. Despite Agassi's amazing life and career, I think OPEN resonates with readers because we learn that he isn't really all that different than many of us. And personally, I found his story to be one that inspired me -- especially when it came to his perseverance and how much he gives back to his community.

Needless to say, I adored this book (and I admit that I love Andre Agassi now too!) Highly recommended!

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Guest Review: The War Lovers

Summary: On February 15, 1898, the USS Maine exploded in the Havana Harbor. Although there was no evidence that the Spanish were responsible, yellow newspapers such as William Randolph Hearst's New York Journal whipped Americans into frenzy by claiming that Spain's "secret infernal machine" had destroyed the battleship. Soon after, the blandly handsome and easily influenced President McKinley declared war, sending troops not only to Cuba but also to the Philippines, Spain's sprawling colony on the other side of the world.

As Evan Thomas reveals in his rip-roaring history of those times, the hunger for war had begun years earlier. Depressed by the "closing" of the Western frontier and embracing theories of social Darwinism, a group of warmongers that included a young Teddy Roosevelt and Henry Cabot Lodge agitated loudly and incessantly that the United States exert its influence across the seas. These hawks would transform American foreign policy and, when Teddy ascended to the presidency, commence with a devastating war without reason, concocted within the White House--a bloody conflict that would come at tremendous cost.

Thrillingly written and brilliantly researched, THE WAR LOVERS is the story of six men at the center of a transforming event in U.S. history: Roosevelt, Lodge, Hearst, McKinley, William James, and Thomas Reed, and confirms once more than Evan Thomas is a popular historian of the first rank. 
-- Little, Brown & Company

When I first saw THE WAR LOVERS: ROOSEVELT, LODGE, HEARST, AND THE RUSH TO EMPIRE, 1898 by Evan Thomas, I immediately thought of my father. He loves non-fiction books and especially history ones. I obviously didn't inherit that trait from him although I wish I had at times. Here are his thoughts:

In The War Lovers, Evan Thomas gives a unique perspective of the 1898 Spanish-American War. Thomas elected to tell the story through five main characters: Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Cabot Lodge, national politicians; William Randolph Hearst, media mogul; Thomas Brackett Reed, lawmaker and William James, well-known intellectual and professor. Roosevelt, Lodge and Hearst were portrayed as war hawks while Reed and James are shown as doves. Of course as would be expected, Roosevelt has the starring role.

Thomas’ picture of the late 1890s in the United States shows it as a time of celebrations of patriotism and country. The Pledge of Allegiance and America the Beautiful were written during this period and Memorial Day celebrations became increasingly popular. The 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago further emphasized this attitude with the American display of the progress of American civilization. With the perceived “closing” of the western frontier during this period, many wondered where Americans could go to carry on its adventurous spirit. War seemed to be the answer.

Thomas’ account of Roosevelt is consistent with profiles found in other books about him. Theodore Roosevelt seemed to always be preparing for some kind of conflict. He believed that it was important to prove one’s “manliness” and personally did so through large game hunting and adventures in the western frontier. When a border incident almost caused confrontation with Mexico in 1886 he anxiously offered his services. He became excited, along with the general public, with the prospect of war with England over a Venezuelan incident in 1895. The Spanish-American War was perfect for him. He was able to serve with his Rough Riders, restore his family’s reputation for his father not serving in the Civil War and become a national hero leading him to the U.S. presidency.

Henry Cabot Lodge, Roosevelt’s best political and personal friend, was advocating in 1895 “the Large Policy”, a plan to establish worldwide American possessions to protect and open trade for the United States. The Spanish-American War opened the door for the U.S. to become the world power he envisioned with the annexation of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Hawaii and the Philippines.

William Randolph Hearst, owner of the New York Journal wanted a war to build readership. He often provided stories, both real and exaggerated, to promote war. The Spanish-American War was a bonanza for Hearst. His fabricated stories claiming the USS Maine was sunk in Havana Harbor by the Spanish stirred the American public to a feverish war pitch and directly led to a reluctant president McKinley declaring war against Spain. Although they had much in common, Hearst and Roosevelt disliked each other. However, they found themselves on the same side of the Spanish-American War and were able to “use” each other to advance their agendas.

According to the author, Thomas Brackett Reed was one of the most powerful men to ever serve as Speaker of the House. He resisted the country’s war fever and in 1895 stopped the House of Representatives from recognizing the legitimacy of the Cuban insurgency. This position angered both Roosevelt and Lodge who ironically were Reed’s friends. Lodge ran Reed’s campaign for speaker in 1889 and both men supported him for the Republican nomination for president in1895. Reed’s position on the Spanish-American War led to the loss of his leadership position in Congress and damaged his friendships with Roosevelt and Lodge beyond repair.

William James, Roosevelt’s former teacher at Harvard, was opposed to the war and felt the U.S. imperialism was a betrayal of the principles of 1776. I didn’t think that James fit as neatly into the novel as the other four individuals who actually influenced government policy.

The main outcome of the war was that the United States became a global power, Roosevelt became president and Cuba’s independence remained an unsettled situation.

I thought Thomas’ claims that the Spanish-American War had many parallels to the Iraq invasion was a little stretch. He stated that the intervention in each war was based on a false pretext - the bogus sinking of the Maine in Cuba and the lack of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Thomas pointed out that waterboarding so publicized in the Iraq War was first used in the Philippine resistance against the United States.  He claims that both were “wars of choice”.    

The War Lovers is an entertaining retell of the story of the Spanish-American War, a war the author says led to more than 100 years of foreign military intervention by the United States. Thomas brings the time of the Spanish-American War to life with his well researched details of the lives of Roosevelt, Hearst, Lodge, Reed and James. The author may have given Roosevelt, Hearst and Lodge more credit for the War than they deserved, but the book provides some lessons as to how personalities and events can impact public opinion. I believe that this is as true today as it was in the last decade of the nineteenth century. Anyone interested in United States history will enjoy this book.

Thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy and to Booking Pap Pap for his great review.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Review: Crossing Oceans

Summary: Jenny Lucas swore she’d never go home again. But being told you’re dying has a way of changing things. Years after she left, she and her five-year-old daughter, Isabella, must return to her sleepy North Carolina town to face the ghosts she left behind. They welcome her in the form of her oxygen tank–toting grandmother, her stoic and distant father, and David, Isabella’s dad . . . who doesn’t yet know he has a daughter. As Jenny navigates the rough and unknown waters of her new reality, the unforgettable story that unfolds is a testament to the power of love and its ability to change everything—to heal old hurts, bring new beginnings . . . even overcome the impossible. A stunning debut about love and loss from a talented new voice. -- Tyndale

As part of my effort to read more Christian fiction, I decided to pick up CROSSING OCEANS by Gina Holmes. Based on the book's description, I thought it sounded like a contemporary women's fiction story that I'd enjoy about a single mother who returns to her childhood home. And I admit that Tess Gerritsen's blurb on the front cover didn't hurt either -- "Poignant and unforgettable, this book will break your heart -- and then put the pieces back together again."

So when I read that blurb plus the book's description, I knew I was in store for a touching story. CROSSING OCEANS deals with a young mother who has terminal cancer and only a few months to live. She is doing her best to mend relationships from her past so that her five year old daughter will be taken care of when she is gone. Not exactly the most happy of storylines. In fact, there were times when this novel was very difficult for me to read and I found myself crying. However, I don't want to scare away any readers because this book was definitely worth the emotional impact.  The story is a beautiful one about a mother who sacrifices many things for the love of her child; and ultimately, the book did end on an upbeat and hopeful note to me.

My heart went out to Jenny for so many reasons. As if being a single mother and knowing you only had a few months to live weren't enough, Jenny was also trying to deal with a  lot of personal baggage. Her mother had died of cancer when she was a teen and she had an almost non-existent relationship with her father. Her daughter had never even met her family or her father, and Jenny only had a short time to get everything squared away. Yet despite all of these things, Jenny managed to find some peace and happiness and even mend those troubled relationships -- all because it was the right thing to do for her daughter.

What broke my heart even more than Jenny's life was her daughter Isabella's. She was only five years old and didn't understand all of the changes in her life. Not only did she move to a new home, but she had to live with people that were virtually strangers to her. And, she didn't understand all of the tension and fighting among the grown-ups. When Jenny finally explained that she was dying through the use of an ocean metaphor, poor Isabellla was so distraught and confused that she began lashing out. It was just such a tragic situation for everyone.

I was extremely impressed with Ms. Holmes' writing style. She chose to write CROSSING OCEANS in Jenny's voice, and I thought she did a wonderful job of capturing the essence of Jenny's character. I have no idea how I would react in a similar situation (although this novel definitely made me explore those thoughts), but I think Jenny's character behaved very realistically. Jenny still got depressed and angry, and she even showed signs of jealousy -- all behaviors that I could relate to. And while Jenny ultimately made some huge sacrifices for her daughter, she was extremely human in how she came to make those decisions.

While this novel is technically Christian fiction, I didn't feel that the messages were at all heavy-handed. I appreciated the faith aspects of this novel and how Jenny's faith helped her through this difficult time; however, I don't think that there were a lot of references to God.  I'd go so far as to say that the messages in this story were there but not obvious enough to make "non-Christian fiction readers" uncomfortable. I think women of all ages and beliefs will appreciate Jenny's story.

CROSSING OCEANS would make a fantastic discussion book for groups who enjoy reading contemporary Christian fiction; however, I think any group made up of moms will be deeply affected by this novel. There is a discussion guide in the back of the book which delves into some wonderful and thought-provoking questions. Some of the things your might want to discuss include secrets, sacrifices, death, parenting, parent/child relationships, love, faith, marriage, forgiveness, trust, acceptance, and grief. So many of the themes are universal to all women, and most of the questions weren't centered around faith or spirituality.

I hesitate to say that I really enjoyed CROSSING OCEANS because of the subject matter; however, I can definitely say that I deeply appreciated this novel. It was a beautiful story about the strength of a mother's love for her child, and it's one that will resonate with many women.

Thanks to the author and Promotions a la Carte for sending me a review copy of this novel.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Review: The Comfort of Apples

Summary: The idea for The Comfort of Apples came to chefs Philip and Lauren Rubin when, after an afternoon spent picking apples at a local orchard, they looked at each other and wondered, "What do we do with them?" With the abundance of apples filling farmer's markets, supermarket produce sections, and orchards every fall, it is a rare soul who doesn't wind up with a veritable bounty of apple varieties filling their larder for at least several months out of the year. And yet many cooks don't realize that apples have infinite cooking applications beyond sauces, crisps, and pies. As this beautifully illustrated book shows, they can be julienned raw in a salad; poached whole in wine; used in the form of cider as a deglazing or braising liquid; fermented into warm drinks; or juiced and turned into sorbet. The list goes on.

Excited by the many uses for the humble apple, the authors here share nearly one hundred original recipes that will take the home cook beyond the basics -- recipes for breakfast, appetizers, entrees, and desserts. In addition, they suggest the best apples for certain recipes, including many unconventional varieties that are showing up at greenmarkets and farm stands across North America. Some of the mouthwatering recipes include Poached Eggs and Apple Butter; Crostini with Clams, Bacon, and Apples; Oysters with Apple and Lime Granite; Crisp Pork Belly with Lentils and Applesauce; Gnocchi with Cauliflower, Peas, and Apples; and Applesauce Spice Cake with Penuche Icing.
-- Lyons Press

Apples are one of my all-time favorite foods, so when I discovered that there was a cookbook devoted to this fruit, I jumped at the chance to review it. THE COMFORT OF APPLES: MODERN RECIPES FOR AN OLD-FASHIONED FAVORITE by Philip & Lauren Rubin is a gorgeous cookbook that both gourmet cooks and apple-lovers should definitely check-out.

I was pleasantly surprised by the variety of recipes in THE COMFORT OF APPLES -- there are over 100 apple recipes.The cookbook is divided into chapters according to the types of food; however, there is also an Introduction section which includes some general  information about the history of apples and apple recipes. I particularly liked the handy little Apple Tasting Chart which gives the apple name along with the flavor and recommended usage. (For example, Granny Smith apples are "tart" and recommended for "eating" and "pie.") The following chapter titles include Breakfast, Snack, Sandwiches, and Salads, Appetizers, Meat and Poultry, Fish, Pasta, Sides, Dessert, Sauces and Condiments, and Cocktails.

The photographs in THE COMFORT OF APPLES are beautiful. In fact, the cookbook is almost pretty enough to display on your coffee table. There are loads of photographs of apples, apple trees, and various ingredients; however, I was a bit disappointed that there weren't photographs of the recipes. It's not essential that I have pictures of the end result, but I admit that I do prefer cookbooks with color pictures of at least some of the recipes.

When I first picked up the cookbook, I was expecting a lot of apple dessert recipes; however, I was surprised that most of the recipes weren't dessert ones at all. There were loads of apple recipes with all kinds of meat including duck, bacon, salmon and tuna; and I admit that I was a little surprised by some of the combinations. I'm sure that if I were served these dishes in a restaurant or someone else's home, I'd think they were delicious; however, I admit that I would be hesitant to try them for my family. In addition, I found many of the recipes to be "tres gourmet!" I don't mean that they were extremely difficult to make -- just that they had unique flavors and ingredients.

There were quite a few recipes that appealed to me, but I finally decided to make the plain old "Apple Cake." The authors state that sometimes "the best recipes are those handed down through generations of a family." And that's exactly what this recipe reminded me of -- an old-fashioned apple cake. It was quick and easy to make and turned out beautifully. I actually served it to my book club and it was a big hit. This apple cake was extremely moist and almost reminded me of the Tastefully Simply Nana's Apple Cake -- but better because it was homemade!

Apple Cake


1 1/3 cups vegetable oil
2 cups granulated sugar
2 eggs
3 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon vanilla
3 tart apples, peeled, cored, and diced small

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9x13-inch baking pan. Line pan with waxed paper and grease the paper.

2. In a large mixing bowl, beat together oil, sugar, and eggs until well blended. Add flour, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, and vanilla. Beat for 2 minutes at medium speed; the dough will be very thick. Remove bowl from mixer and fold in the apples.

3. Pour cake batter into prepared pan, smoothing the top to make an even layer. Bake for 25 minutes, then reduce oven heat to 300 degrees and continue cooking for 35 to 40 minutes. Cake is done when a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.

4. Remove cake from oven and set aside to cool for 5 minutes. Carefully, turn cake out of pan and remove waxed paper. Instantly turn cake back over so that the "pebbly" side of cake is up.

Thanks to FSB Associates for sending me a review copy of this gorgeous cookbook.

Weekend Cooking is hosted by Beth Fish Reads and is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, fabulous quotations, photographs. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up anytime over the weekend. Please link to your specific post, not your blog's home page. For more information, see the welcome post.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Kid Konnection: Pirates & Giveaway

Every Saturday, I host a feature called Kid Konnection -- a regular weekend feature about anything related to children's books. Today, I'm going to share with you a fun book called FISH about a boy who ends up living as a pirate! I realize that I'm a few days late for International Talk Like a Pirate Day (it was September 19th), but here at Booking Mama, we are still celebrating -- see the bottom of this post for a giveaway. It's better late than never, right?

Summary: Fish--nicknamed for his incredible swimming abilities--is a twelve-year-old boy from a poor farming family. After taking a job as a courier for his uncle, Fish is waylaid by pirates, who steal the package he's carrying. He soon learns that it's the key to locating the Chain of Chuacar, a legendary treasure. As he works to earn the trust of Cobb, the fortune-hunting captain of the Scurvy Mistress, Fish learns of a mutiny headed by a nasty pirate called Scab. With time running out to find the Chain, Fish and some fellow shipmates still loyal to Cobb must thwart Scab's dastardly plan. -- Scholastic

In honor of International Speak Like a Pirate Day, I decided to read FISH by Gregory Mone. FISH is a very fun middle grade book that I found highly entertaining, and I'm sure kids will love it too. I think even even the most reluctant of male readers are going to enjoy reading about Fish's adventures on a pirate ship!

I found the concept of FISH to be so creative. Fish is a farm boy who is forced to move to the city when his family needs extra money. He takes a job as a courier and finds himself in a heap of trouble when pirates steal a very important package. Fish soon learns that the package might contain the key to a huge treasure and he must do everything in his power to save the day!

FISH is a fast-moving adventure story that is guaranteed to entertain young readers. Of course, there are lots of pirates and pirate adventures that kids will find exciting, but there is also some mystery, intrigue, and even  betrayal in this story! In addition to the captivating storyline, FISH was also a very funny book. There were humorous characters who seemed to end up in some very funny situations.

However, what I loved the most about this book was the character of Fish. He was just a wonderful character who demonstrated that nice guys can finish first. As a mother, I just loved Fish and what he stood for. Despite all of the hardships that he faced, Fish stayed true to himself. He was extremely smart and hard-working, and at the same time, he was loyal to his friends. He refused to fight other pirates (he actually practiced learning non-fight moves) and he used all of his God-given skills to save his friends and search for the treasure.

I highly recommend FISH for middle grade readers. The book is filled with suspense and humor and also some very good messages!

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book.

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!

Giveaway alert: Thanks to the fine folks at Scholastic, I have a copy of FISH to share with one lucky reader. To enter, just fill out the form below. I will be accepting entries until October 8th at 11:59 p.m. ET, and I will notify the winner the following day. Open to US and Canada mailing addresses only. Good luck!

Friday, September 24, 2010

Review: Maybe This Time & Giveaway

Summary: Andie Miller is ready to move on in life. She wants to marry her fiancé and leave behind everything in her past, especially her ex-husband, North Archer. But when Andie tries to gain closure with him, he asks one final favor of her before they go their separate ways forever. A very distant cousin of his has died and left North as the guardian of two orphans who have driven out three nannies already, and things are getting worse. He needs a very special person to take care of the situation and he knows Andie can handle anything.

When Andie meets the two children she quickly realizes things are much worse than she feared. The place is a mess, the children, Carter and Alice, aren’t your average delinquents, and the creepy old house where they live is being run by the worst housekeeper since Mrs. Danvers. What’s worse, Andie’s fiancé thinks this is all a plan by North to get Andie back, and he may be right. Andie’s dreams have been haunted by North since she arrived at the old house. And that’s not the only haunting.

What follows is a hilarious adventure in exorcism, including a self-doubting parapsychologist, an annoyed medium, her Tarot-card reading mother, an avenging ex-mother-inlaw, and, of course, her jealous fiancé. And just when she thinks things couldn’t get more complicated, North shows up on the doorstep making her wonder if maybe this time things could be different between them.

If Andie can just get rid of all the guests and ghosts, she’s pretty sure she can save the kids, and herself, from the past. But fate might just have another thing in mind…-- St. Martin's

I have heard so many terrific things about author Jennifer Crusie that I finally decided to pick up one of her novels. I am not a big romance fan, but I have heard that Ms. Crusie's books are something special. I decided to start with her latest release MAYBE THIS TIME because I have seen quite a few positive reviews in the blogosphere. Plus, the plot kind of intrigued me. It's a ghost story!

I mentioned that I'm not a big fan of romance books, but I'm also not a big reader of ghost stories (or even supernatural ones for that matter.) However despite my misgivings, I thought MAYBE THIS TIME sounded cute. And, after reading this novel is less than a day, I have to say that I'm so glad that I read outside my box because this book was highly entertaining.

MAYBE THIS TIME tells the story of Andie, a woman who has been divorced from North for almost 10 years after a very brief marriage. When North needs some help with the two children that are in his guardianship, he asks Andie to help him out -- as one last favor. I'm not sure what Andie as thinking (of course the money North offered didn't hurt), but she accepted. And she soon discovers that she has a mess on her hands. Not only are the children a little different, but the house they are living in is falling down...and has ghosts!

Naturally, Andie does everything in her power to get through to these children, while at the same time trying to get the house in order. When she starts seeing ghosts on top of everything, she questions her sanity until the evidence of their existence is so strong that she can no longer deny it. And if all of this isn't enough, Andie discovers that she is still very much attracted to her ex-husband despite having a serious boyfriend.

Ms. Crusie's reputations as a wonderful storyteller is well deserved if MAYBE THIS TIME is any indication. In this novel, she created some great characters whom I actually cared about; and she told a story that kept me intrigued from the very start. MAYBE THIS TIME was a fun read, namely because Ms. Crusie included so much humor into the story -- there were some pretty unique characters who faced some pretty unique situations. In addition, I thought Ms. Crusie handled the supernatural aspects of the story extremely well and I didn't find myself rolling my eyes over the presence of ghosts. And believe it or not, I actually liked the romance parts of the story, especially the chemistry/tension between Andie and North.

MAYBE THIS TIME is a perfect light read for this time of year -- Halloween is only a month away! If you are like me and tempted by a ghost story with a little romance thrown in, then this is one book that you won't want to miss.

One more thing: When I was researching this book, I discovered something that I thought was too cute. Throughout the story, Andie bakes... a lot -- pretty much every afternoon. One of Andie's "famous" recipes was for banana bread. Here's the recipe: Annie Archer's Banana Bread Recipe!

Thanks to The Book Report Network for sending me a review copy of this novel.

Giveaway alert: I have a copy of MAYBE THIS TIME to share with one lucky reader courtesy of The Book Report Network and the publisher. To enter, just fill out the form below. This giveaway is open until Thursday, September 30th at 11:59 p..m. ET. US and Canada addresses only -- no p.o. boxes please. Good luck!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Review: A Hope Undaunted

Summary: What happens when the boy she loved to hate becomes the man she hates to love?

The 1920s are drawing to a close, and feisty Katie O'Connor is the epitome of the new woman--smart and sassy with goals for her future that include the perfect husband and a challenging career in law. Her boyfriend Jack fits all of her criteria for a husband--good-looking, well-connected, wealthy, and eating out of her hand. But when she is forced to spend the summer of 1929 with Luke McGee, the bane of her childhood existence, Katie comes face-to-face with a choice. Will she follow her well-laid plans to marry Jack? Or will she fall for the man she swore to despise forever? -- Revell

I keep saying that I don't read a lot of Christian fiction, but that doesn't seem to be the case lately...

One Christian fiction author that I absolutely adore is Julie Lessman. Not only is she a super sweet person, but she is also a fantastic historical fiction/romance author. I have read and enjoyed her Daughters of Boston series (you can read my reviews here, here, and here), and I was very excited to learn that she is now writing another series -- Winds of Change. The first novel in the Winds of Change series is A HOPE UNDAUNTED.

I just loved all of the characters in the Daughters of Boston series, and I was relieved when I started reading A HOPE UNDAUNTED to find that many of the same characters appear in this novel. The book centers around Katie who is the youngest daughter in the O'Connor family -- the Daughters of Boston books each deal with her three older sisters. Katie was just a young girl in the other novels, but in A HOPE UNDAUNTED, she has definitely grown up. And, Katie's spunk as a child has carried forward into her young adulthood. She knows what she wants and when she wants it!

I really, really enjoyed A HOPE UNDAUNTED. Of course, I have come to know and love the O'Connors, and I always like reading about their lives. I loved that the extended family was included in this book through the inclusions of side stories, but the real treat of this novel was Katie. I found Katie to be a very interesting character, and I appreciated learning about her journey to find her faith.

I have to admit that I kind of had a difficult time liking Katie and her friends throughout the first part of this novel. I thought Katie was extremely self-centered and materialistic; however, I also think she struggled with her role in life. Not to make too many excuses for her, but she was the youngest child of a large family which couldn't have been easy; and she was growing up in the 1920s when there was so much change occurring for women. Since I was familiar with Katie's sisters' stories, I had a feeling that she would eventually "see the light." I just know that I found myself frustrated with how long it took for her to get there.

That's not to say that I didn't like Katie because I certainly did. Even when she was acting bratty, there was still something about her. As Katie struggled with growing up and realizing what was important in her life, I could see little glimmers of hope for her character. It took some major crises to occur before Katie allowed God into her life, but isn't that the case with so many of us? What I really liked was that once Katie realized her priorities, she showed the same spunk and determination that demonstrated in the first half of the book...but with a more positive (and meaningful) result.

I'm usually not a fan of romance books, but for some reason, I don't seem to mind these elements in a Julie Lessman novel. I think she has a way of writing these scenes where they don't come across as silly. What I do know (and love) is that she manages to show some very real aspects of male/female relationships -- both the ups and the downs. And, I guess I'm just a sucker for how much her characters love each other on many different levels.

As is the case with every Julie Lessman book that I've read, I thought the messages in A HOPE UNDAUNTED were beautiful and ones that I can never hear too often. There were quite a few positive messages about faith, trust and love in this story, but the one that really spoke to me was the importance of patience. (Maybe if I read the book again, another message would stick out to me, but evidently I needed to hear about patience at this point in my life.) Despite all of the lessons that Katie learned during this story, I think the one that was probably the most difficult for her was learning to be patient. When I saw how she demonstrated this trait during the end of the book, I realized just how far she had come.

Another aspect of this book that pleasantly surprised me were the historical details. The book takes place in the late 1920s a time of great change in our country.There were lots of references to women's rights and the suffrage movement that I found very interesting, but I also liked reading about prohibition as well as the Great Depression. In fact, I really enjoyed that the story took place during the Roaring 20s, and I am looking forward to the next book in this series.

If you are a fan of Julie Lessman's, then you won't want to miss A HOPE UNDAUNTED!

By the way, there are lots of fun activities surrounding the release of A HOPE UNDAUNTED. The author is sponsoring a contest with a brand new KINDLE and other great prizes! Check out the details at the contest preview page. In addition, she is hosting a Facebook Party on October 7th, with a live chat and the KINDLE winner will be announced. Go here for the details.

A big thanks to Revell/Baker Publishing Group for sending me a copy of this novel. A HOPE UNDANTED is available September 2010 at your favorite bookseller.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Review: Hush

Summary: A lyrically written, powerful exploration of a girl's struggle within a hidden society

Inside the closed community of Borough Park, where most Chassidim live, the rules of life are very clear, determined by an ancient script written thousands of years before down to the last detail—and abuse has never been a part of it. But when thirteen-year-old Gittel learns of the abuse her best friend has suffered at the hands of her own family member, the adults in her community try to persuade Gittel, and themselves, that nothing happened. Forced to remain silent, Gittel begins to question everything she was raised to believe.

A richly detailed and nuanced book, one of both humor and depth, understanding and horror, this story explains a complex world that remains an echo of its past, and illuminates the conflict between yesterday's traditions and today's reality. -- Walker

HUSH by Eishes Chayil is one incredibly moving book. I finished it a few days ago and I admit that the story is still stuck in the forefront of my mind. I usually think it's a positive thing when I can't stop thinking about a book, and I still do because it's really a credit to the author to have a story stay with the reader. However, I found HUSH to be so disturbing, and it made me so uncomfortable, that I'm not sure that I want to keep thinking about it. Having said that, HUSH is an amazing story and one that needed to be told. It is a story that deserves to stay in our thoughts for a very long time.

I am not alone in my praise for HUSH. It has already been very well received by critics and has received starred reviews from Kirkus Reviews and BCCB. I would love to tell you all about HUSH; however, I think this book is best appreciated if you don't really know too much about it. I picked it up only knowing that it was about a girl who was growing up in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish culture. Since I have always been interested in the Jewish faith, and especially the ultra Orthodox faith, I thought the book sounded extremely interesting. I guess I knew that the book also delved into the issue of sexual abuse; however, I really didn't know much beyond that.

While I did find this book difficult to read at times, I was pleasantly surprised by the author's honesty in telling her story -- it was so special to get an insider's view into this life. Of course, the parts of the story about abuse were horrific and very depressing for me, but this book wasn't just about abuse. It was largely about growing up in an ultra-Orthodox Chassidic community. Needless to say, I have very little in common with this culture; however, I found their beliefs and actions to be very interesting. What surprised me even more about HUSH was that parts of this book were actually entertaining, and I almost found myself almost laughing at some of the things that happened to Gittel and her family.

Despite my issues with how Gittel's community and family chose to deal with the scandals, HUSH made me see how incredibly difficult it would be for an insulated society like this one to deal with controversy. I am not making excuses because children should never have to go through any of this, but HUSH demonstrated how differently these people see the world. And while the people in this community all tried to cover-up and "hush" what happened, I think it's important to remember that this community was a loving and supportive community in many other ways.

The author of HUSH actually used a pen name Eishes Chayil which means "Woman of Worth." In the Author's Note section at the back of the book, she explains that she began writing this story when she was 23 years old, but it took her many years to process all of it and put it down on paper. Like the character in the book, she grew up in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish community and she lived through knowing that her best friend was being molested. I commend her for telling this story and for her efforts to help children who have lived through an ordeal like this.

HUSH would make a fantastic book club selection for teens or even for mother-daughter book clubs. Besides giving the reader an insight into the ultra-Orthodox Chassidic world, this novel also deals with many sensitive, yet important, topics including sexual abuse, suicide, and depression. There are so many themes throughout this story that should be explored and discussed by teens. Even though this story takes place in an insulated community, I think this book has so many powerful messages that will resonate with teens everywhere.

HUSH is a beautifully written story that is sure to say with you for a very long time because of its disturbing subject matter. I highly recommend it.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this novel.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Just a Few More Days...

I have such a fun-filled weekend in store and it will be here before I know it! Between my normal mommy activities plus my blogging duties and getting everything ready for my trip, I know this week is going to be crazy for me.

On Saturday morning, I will be getting up bright and early to head to Washington, DC for the National Book Festival. Despite having lived in the DC metro area for almost 10 years (and still living only two hours away), I have never attended. I can't wait because there are so many terrific authors on the schedule. Plus, I will get to see so many of my blogging buddies!

And, then on Sunday, I will be attending the Baltimore Book Festival. The schedule of events is fantastic as well, and I am fortunate enough to be part of the panel on Book Clubs which takes place at 3:00. I am also looking forward to The Wonderful World of Book Blogging Panel which is at 1:00. If you are planning on being there, please let me know!

I will be sure to post about both of these fabulous events next week!

Review: Pies & Prejudice

Summary: Right before their freshman year, Emma's family unexpectedly moves to England! But the resourceful girls find a way to continue their club -- and discuss a particularly fitting choice, Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice.

In England, Emma encounters a new queen bee, Annabelle. Back in Massachusetts, Annabelle's cousins have swapped homes with Emma's family and they are causing some major distractions. Cassidy clashes with moody Tristan, a modern-day Mr. Darcy, while everyone swoons over his younger brother, Simon. Meanwhile, Megan starts a fashion blog that gets her into some trouble, and Jess discovers a talent for rehabilitating wild animals.

When the girls cook up a plan to bring Emma Home, it grows into a thriving business, Pies & Prejudice. After this sweet scheme falls short, though, they are left wondering if their club will ever be together again.

In this fourth book int he Mother-Daughter Book Club series, the girls can't allow their pride or their prejudices to get in the way of their first year of high school!-- Simon & Schuster

If you've been following my blog for awhile, then you already know that Booking Daughter and I are big fans of The Mother-Daughter Book Club Series by Heather Vogel Frederick. In fact, Booking Daughter loves the books so much that she wanted to share them with her book club. (You can read about our successful meeting here.) Coincidentally, right around the same time that we picked THE MOTHER-DAUGHTER BOOK CLUB, I received a copy of the fourth book PIES & PREJUDICE in the mail.

Somehow Booking Daughter got her grubby little hands on the book first. She loved it, by the way, but that's no surprise because she has loved all of the books in the series. I had to agree with her. PIES & PREJUDICE was another great installment in a great set of books. (You can read my reviews of the first three books here, and here, and here.) I feel as if I have seen these characters grow from young tweens to somewhat mature teenagers, and I just love following the ups and downs of their lives.

While I readily admit to enjoying all four of these books, I have to say that I most appreciate the books that tie-in to books that I have read. For example, in the first book, the girls read LITTLE WOMEN (which I adored as a young girl) and in the fourth book, they read PRIDE AND PREJUDICE. I don't think it's necessary to have read the tie-in books as evidenced by the girls in our own Mother-Daughter book club; however, I have found that it brings my appreciation to an entirely different level. I think that's because the author does such a great job of bringing together what happens in the books that the girls read with the girls' current lives. I love how these books show that good literature stands the test of time and is still relevant today!

All of the regular characters that I've come to know and love were back, along with a few new ones. What I love so much about the girls in the book club is that they are all very different -- just like the real world. I've found that almost every tween girl that reads these books will relate to at least one of the characters. I also like the positive messages that these characters teach --  that despite their differences (or maybe because of their differences), they still can be wonderful and supportive friends. And more importantly, they learn to accept (and even embrace) the differences in others.

In PIES & PREJUDICE, the girls are starting high school so the book does have change as a pretty major theme. Since Booking Daughter just started middle school, I think she really appreciated that the girls were in a similar situation as her -- facing so many new things. In addition, I think she related to the queen bee scenes as well as the theme of friendship. Since the girls in PIES & PREJUDICE are a few years older than Booking Daughter, there were also some scenes with boy and crushes. All of them were extremely clean, but I'm still hoping that she didn't exactly relate to those scenes!

I can't speak highly enough about how wonderful these books are for middle grade girls, and especially mother-daughter book clubs. The author called this series "enhanced" reality fiction and I just love that term. The books have enough "drama" to keep the girls' interested while at the same time addressing many important and relevant issues in their lives. I found that some touchy subjects like mean girls, verbal bullying, and boys were easier to discuss when brought up in terms of this novel.

It's probably no surprise that I highly recommend PIES & PREJUDICE.. and really, the entire series. They are cute stories with fun characters that are sure to charm all types of middle grade girls!

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this novel!

Monday, September 20, 2010

Mother Daughter Book Club #25

Summary: The book club is about to get a makeover....

Even if Megan would rather be at the mall, Cassidy is late for hockey practice, Emma's already read every book in existence, and Jess is missing her mother too much to care, the new book club is scheduled to meet every month.

But what begins as a mom-imposed ritual of reading Little Women soon helps four unlikely friends navigate the drama of middle school. From stolen journals, to secret crushes, to a fashion-fiasco first dance, the girls are up to their Wellie boots in drama. They can't help but wonder: What would Jo March do? -- Simon and Schuster

Yesterday afternoon, the Tweeny Bookworms met to discuss THE MOTHER-DAUGHTER BOOK CLUB by Heather Vogel Frederick. All of the girls seemed to like (or even love) the book, and I was very surprised by how anxious they were to talk about it. I really think THE MOTHER-DAUGHTER BOOK CLUB was a wonderful books to discuss with middle grade girls because all of them were able to relate to it on some level. We had some really great discussion about mean girls and how to handle their actions, as well as how terrific it is to have friends that are different from you.

Without a doubt, the highlight of the meeting was when we called the author, Heather Vogel Frederick. This was the girls' first author chat but I have a feeling it won't be the last. Ms. Frederick opened up the discussion by talking about her career as a writer, how (and when) she knew that she wanted to write books, and how The Mother-Daughter Book Club series got started. Then she opened it up for questions. I would have sworn that the girls would have been to shy to ask questions, but I would have been very wrong! Almost every girl asked at least one question! And the quality of the questions was outstanding -- keep in mind these girls are 10 and 11. For example, one girl asked her if she was inspired by books that she's read, one asked her for her favorite authors, and one asked her for advice for young writers.

I can't rave enough about how wonderful Ms. Frederick was with the girls. I will never cease to be amazed by how nice authors are to take time from their busy lives to talk to book groups about their books. I think the girls (and the moms) will always treasure the opportunity to talk with a real live author! And personally, I was thrilled to learn that there will be a fifth book in the series where the girls read The Betsy-Tacy books!

Next month, we are reading THE NAKED MOLE-RAT LETTERS by Mary Amato. I am not familiar with the book, but when it was announced, Booking Daughter and her friend went nuts! They both read it in 5th grade and loved it. Since I respect their opinion on books, I have to say that I'm looking forward to this one!

The description isn't too detailed, but it's just enough to make me curious. It sounds like there might be the potential for some great discussion.

Summary: When her father begins a long-distance romance with a zookeeper from Washington, D.C., twelve-year-old Frankie attempts to sabotage the relationship.-- Holiday House

Review: Hiroshima in the Morning

Summary: In June 2001, Rahna Reiko Rizzuto went to Hiroshima in search of a deeper understanding of her war-torn heritage. She planned to spend six months there, interviewing the few remaining survivors of the atomic bomb. A mother of two young boys, she was encouraged to go by her husband, who quickly became disenchanted by her absence.

It is her first solo life adventure, immediately exhilarating for her, but her research starts off badly. Interviews with the hibakusha feel rehearsed, and the survivors reveal little beyond published accounts. Then the attacks on September 11 change everything. The survivors’ carefully constructed memories are shattered, causing them to relive their agonizing experiences and to open up to Rizzuto in astonishing ways.

Separated from family and country while the world seems to fall apart, Rizzuto’s marriage begins to crumble as she wrestles with her ambivalence about being a wife and mother. Woven into the story of her own awakening are the stories of Hiroshima in the survivors’ own words. The parallel narratives explore the role of memory in our lives, and show how memory is not history but a story we tell ourselves to explain who we are. -- Feminist Press

Usually when I pick up a memoir, it's because the person writing the book has led a really interesting life or has something special that happened to them. With HIROSHIMA IN THE MORNING by Rahna Reiko Rizzuto, that was certainly the case. Rahna Reiko Rizzuto decided to leave her husband and young sons for sixth month and head to Japan to interview hibakusha, survivors of the atomic bomb. Since I know next to nothing about this subject, I thought her story might be interesting. Plus, I admit that as a mother, I was curious to see how she could leave her family for that period of time.

I did find Ms. Rizzuto's story to be extremely interesting, but I was surprised by how many other things I really appreciated about this memoir. In fact, I think I found the stories of the hibakusha to be what ultimately affected me the most. While I have always known that the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima was a horrific event that killed hundreds of thousands people, I don't think I ever really thought about the effect that it had on those who actually survived. (I know that I'm a pretty bad person for that and I'm not proud of it.) I can barely fathom surviving the bomb, but when I think about living with the scars -- both the internal and external ones, it really does give me a great deal to think about.

In addition to the survivors' stories, I found Ms. Rizzuto's writing to be simply amazing. I certainly was reading this book for the subject matter, but I can't tell you how pleasantly surprised I was with the author's writing. HIROSHIMA IN THE MORNING truly was a beautiful book to read and her descriptions of Japan were very much appreciated by this reader. I absolutely loved how she portrayed the hibakusha's stories with so much tenderness and compassion. She used actual narratives from the survivors and I felt that reading their words was extremely powerful.

I was rather surprised with Ms. Rizzuto's honesty when it came to telling her own story. I admit that I had a hard time understanding how she could leave her family (and especially her young sons) for six months -- I can barely leave mine for a few days without missing them and  feeling terribly guilty. And, I give her a great deal of credit for providing so much insight into her relationship with her husband. Her words are extremely heartfelt and it had to be difficult to share so much of the pain that was going on in her life. It became clear to me the more I read Ms. Rizzuto's words that she was really searching for some answers in her own life -- about marriage, motherhood, her mother's dementia, and redeeming the past. She admitted many things about herself that I had a hard time really understanding; however, I did appreciate reading her story because I think it broadened my mind about how different women view marriage and motherhood.

I don't know if I'm doing a good job expressing all of my thoughts about HIROSHIMA IN THE MORNING in this review. I'm finding it difficult for me to articulate them; however, I am going to try to convey how good this memoir really is. I think you've gotten the idea that the author's story is "worthy" of a book, but the way she presents her story is truly what sets this book apart from other memoirs. This book was a pretty quick read for me because I couldn't put it down. I liked how Ms. Rizzuto went back and forth between the present and the past and how she interwove the survivors' personal narratives into the book. In addition, I found it extremely interesting how she juxtaposed the Hiroshima bombing with the 9/11 terrorist attacks with the events in her personal life. It amazed me how it all just came together in this book, and I think that's a credit to the author.

If you are looking for a well-written memoir that explores some very difficult subjects, then I highly suggest HIROSHIMA IN THE MORNING.

I also want to share with you that there will be a live chat with Rahna Reiko Rizzuto in just a few days -- September 22nd. I'm sure it will be fascinating to have the opportunity to ask the author a few questions. Here are the details:

Join us for a Facebook Party Celebrating the Release of HIROSHIMA IN THE MORNING

When:  September 22, 2010 8:30 PM EST
Where:  Facebook.  Be sure to like Rahna Reiko Rizzuto on Facebook.
Who:  You!
What:  A Live Chat with author Rahna Reiko Rizzuto about her new book, Hiroshima in the Morning.  There will also be a chance to win a Koa carved bookmark from Hawaii and receive an entry into the grand prize.
Thanks to the publisher and Winsome Media for sending me a copy of this book.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Review: Baking Kids Love

Summary: Ready, set, bake! Baking is fun, a great way to connect with kids, and the results are delicious. Whether you're slathering fluffy, white frosting over a decadent chocolate cake, or forming soft ropes of dough into creative shapes, time spent together in the kitchen creates memories that last a lifetime. Both young and old love a warm surprise when it comes out of the oven. Baking Kids Love brings the magic of baking alive through thirty delicious recipes, designed for 8 to 12-year-olds, that are totally a blast to make—and eat!

Baking instructor Cindy Mushet and her daughter Bella team up with cookware authority Sur La Table to carefully guide kids through the experience of creating awesome masterpieces in the kitchen. Step-by-step instructions for key steps (along with Bella's personal comments about the recipes), inventive variations, and colorful photography complete the book. Popovers magically rising into puffy, golden pillows, and gooey, warm cheese melting over the sides of a crispy pizza crust—these are just a few of the surprises waiting to be enjoyed in this book. So roll up your sleeves, get a little flour on your hands, and warm your stomach with a treat while sharing a smile. Baking Kids Love is baking that both kids and adults will love. -- Andrew McMeel Publishing

Booking Daughter and I both loved BAKING KIDS LOVE by Cindy Mushet. It's just a fabulous cookbook for kids and parents alike; and it has already been named as a IACP 2010 Cookbook Award Finalist. There are truly so many great recipes in this cookbook that I had a hard time choosing which ones to try first!

In addition to all of the delicious sounding recipes, this cookbook also had a lot of other things to offer. I loved all of the colorful pictures, and I thought the format was terrific. The cookbook is divided into six main chapters -- Let's Bake!, Cookies, Pies, Tarts, and Fruit Desserts, Quick Breads, Cakes, and Yeast Breads. There are also sections with Notes for Adults and Welcome to the Kitchen.

I particularly enjoyed the Let's Bake section. It is absolutely perfect for beginning bakers because it explains everything you need to know about baking including how to line pans with parchment paper, how to measure ingredients, and how to check for doneness. Booking Daughter recently began taking Family & Consumer Sciences (otherwise known to us oldies as Home Ec); and I've recognized how little she knows about cooking. I am willing to take the blame because I haven't been the best mom as far as letting her help in the kitchen. This cookbook is a great start in the right direction for her.

And that's exactly why I love BAKING KIDS LOVE so much. It's absolutely perfect for kids who are interested in baking! It has wonderful recipes as well as very detailed step-by-step instructions. In fact, I was a little intimidated with the length of the recipes until I realized how specific they were. I read through most of the recipes and I can't find even one little thing that was left out. Not only is it perfect for kids, but it is also perfect for beginning bakers -- whatever their age might be.

So you're probably wondering what we decided to make first. Since we are hosting Mother-Daughter Book Club later today, we decided to try two recipes -- Secret Ingredient Chocolate Chip Cookies and Milk Chocolate Toffee Bars. Both were extremely easy to make and very, very good. I have to admit that my first batch (or two) of the cookies kind of didn't work. I loaded the cookie dough on as I normally do for chocolate chip cookies, but the dough was much thinner and spread way more than I was expecting during baking. I had big cookie blobs! I finally learned my lesson and made six cookies per sheet and they turned out perfectly. Booking Daughter said that they were the best cookie she's ever had -- and that's really saying something since she doesn't usually like oatmeal in her cookies. Oh yeah -- the secret ingredient is crushed corn flakes!

We also made the Milk Chocolate Toffee Bars. I thought they were scrumptious and I loved that the recipe was easy and only made an 8-inch x8-inch square. (I always think it's nice when you can make a small portion of a dessert.) They were extremely rich and you really didn't need a very big piece. I will definitely be making this recipe again! And just in case you want to try it:

Milk Chocolate Toffee Bars

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
1 cup tightly packed light brown sugar
1 large egg, at room temperature
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 1/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup milk chocolate chips
1/2 cup toffee baking bits

Before You Begin:
Position an oven rack in the center of the oven, and preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Turn the pan upside down and mold a piece of aluminum foil to the outside. You should have about an inch of overhang around the edges. Slide the foil off the pan bottom , and turn the pan right side up. Slip the foil inside the pan. Fold down any foil that extends past the top edges over the outsides. Lightly butter the foil, or use pan spray.

Mix the Dough
Put the flour, baking powder and salt in the medium bowl and whisk until blended. Add the dry ingredients to the butter mixture and beat on low speed just until no patches of flour are visible. Add the chocolate chips and toffee bits and continue to beat on low until they are evenly blended in the mixture.

Fill the Pan and Bake
Using the spatula, scrape the dough into the prepared pan, and smooth the top in an even layer. Bake on 35 to 40 minutes, until the top is golden brown. Using the oven mitts, transfer the pan to a cooling rack and let cool completely.

Unmold and Cut
To remove the big bar from the pan, grasp the foil at the top in 2 places opposite each other and gently pull upward. Set the big bar on a cutting board, and gently peel off the foil. Using the chef's knife, and starting on one side, cut the square into 6 equal strips. Then cut 6 equal strips in the opposite direction. You will have 36 bars. Of course, you can cut the cookies larger or smaller, if you like. Store in an airtight container or a resealable plastic bag for up to 4 days.

I really can't rave enough about BAKING KIDS LOVE. It's a fun and beautiful cookbook that would make the perfect gift for kids of all ages!

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this adorable cookbook!

Weekend Cooking is hosted by Beth Fish Reads and is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, fabulous quotations, photographs. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up anytime over the weekend. Please link to your specific post, not your blog's home page. For more information, see the welcome post.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Kid Konnection: Picture Books

Every Saturday, I host a feature called Kid Konnection -- a regular weekend feature about anything related to children's books. Today, I'm going to share with you five fantastic picture books that Booking Son and I have recently read.

Summary: M is for las muralistas, making murals of island vistas. Waterfalls that hide brick walls. Rainforest full of tropical trees.

N is for the noisy neighbors who sit on the stoop and catch the breeze.

When Ava's friend Chien visits her in the Barrio, she takes him on a tour of all of her favorite things about the neighborhood. From fire hydrants to ice cream trucks, bodegas to vacant lots, the sights and sounds of the Barrio -- even the less perfect things -- come to life in the poetic words of Quiara Hudes, author of the Tony Award-winning musical IN THE HEIGHTS. -- Scholastic

WELCOME TO MY NEIGHBORHOOD! A BARRIO A B C by Quiara Alegria Hudes and illustrated by Shino Arihara is such a great book. Like many picture books, WELCOME TO MY NEIGHBORHOOD goes through all of the letters of the alphabet and gives examples for each one. What makes this book so unique is that it references items that a child who lives in a barrio might see in his or her everyday life.

Now even though Booking Son has known his letter for almost four years,  he still enjoys ABC books (as does his mommy!) Since we live in Central PA, we don't really have the opportunity to experience many of the same things that families in barrios do. As a result, Booking Son and I not only got to see a glimpse into a new type of neighborhood, but we also learned many new words in the process.

The illustrations in WELCOME TO MY NEIGHBORHOOD absolutely take this book to the next level -- they are just gorgeous. While I definitely liked the artist's style, I also loved that there was so much to appreciate on each page. Some of the illustrations were simple, but beautiful, while others had a lot going on!

WELCOME TO MY NEIGHBORHOOD is a beautiful and educational book that I highly recommend.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book.

Summary: Benjamin Middlemouse lives with his mother in a cozy wardrobe in a little boy’s bedroom. One day, Benjamin’s mother is late coming home. Worried, Benjamin asks his friend, Bumper the elephant, to help find her. Their search takes them to the lair of Sir Pouncelot the cat, who has dinner plans they must put a stop to, fast! -- BraveMouse Books

BENJAMIN AND BUMPER TO THE RESCUE by Molly Coxe and photographs by Olivier Toppin is another very cute picture book. The basic premise of this story is that Benjamin, a little mouse, and Bumper, his stuffed elephant friend, set out on an adventure to find Benjamin's mother.

Booking Son liked the story, but he appreciated the photographs even more. Each page of this story is made up of different photos of very interesting dioramas. Benjamin and Bumper are felted animals and absolutely adorable, but I also enjoyed seeing the various settings that the artists created. I was actually surprised by how detailed each individual photograph was.

Kids are guaranteed to be entertained by BENJAMIN AND BUMPER TO THE RESCUE both because of the adventure story as well as the interesting photographs. There is another book POSIE AND THE PIRATES which will be available in early fall 2012. This next book in the series will feature Benjamin and his friend Posie on a little pirate adventure.

Thanks to Media Masters Publicity for sending me a copy of this book.

Summary: Whimsical and witty, “Man Gave Names to All the Animals” first appeared on Bob Dylan's album Slow Train Coming in 1979. Illustrator Jim Arnosky has now crafted a stunning picture book adaptation of Dylan's song that's a treat for both children and adults, with breathtaking images of more than 170 animals plus a CD of Dylan's original recording.

The revered musical legend rarely allows his songs to be illustrated, and Arnosky has done the song proud with a parade of spectacular creatures ready to receive their names-until the surprise ending, when children get to name an animal themselves! -- Sterling

MAN GAVE NAMES TO ALL THE ANIMALS by Bob Dylan and illustrated by Jim Arnosky is an amazingly beautiful book for so many reasons! Both Booking Son and I absolutely loved it -- and even Booking Daughter had to take a little peek when she saw how excited we were.

I hope I'm not alone when I say that I didn't know the song by Bob Dylan called Man Gave Names to All the Animals. I like some of Bob Dylan's songs, but I'm afraid that I only know the really famous ones. I do know that I've always appreciated his music and his lyrics. And Man Gave Names to All the Animals is no exception. The words in this story are cute, fun and catchy; and they definitely had Booking Son very interested.

After we read through the entire book one time, I put in the CD which comes with the book. The CD actually contains the original Bob Dylan recording, and it's terrific. Booking Son and I started singing along with the song right away, and he even enjoyed listening to the CD while turning the pages himself.

So when you take Dylan's writing and add Jim Arnosky's gorgeous illustrations, you get just a beautiful storybook -- one that is sure to be treasured in many classrooms and homes. As you can see from the cover, the illustrations are spectacular and I promise that each page is more beautiful than the next.

I highly recommend MAN GAVE NAMES TO ALL THE ANIMALS. Parents and kids alike will adore it!

Summary: Nighttime has come to Lulu's cottage, and Lulu is all tucked in.

But somebody somewhere isn't ready for bed.

Whooooo could it be? -- Beach Lane

I know you're probably tired of me saying this, but WHO SAID COO? by Deborah Ruddell and illustrated by Robin Luebs is another precious storybook. This one is aimed at kids ages 3-7, but I honestly thought Booking Son (who's 6) was almost too old for it.

That's not to say that he didn't like it though! He thought Lulu the pig was adorable and he laughed each time something made a noise to keep Lulu awake. He probably recognized the irony that something was keeping Lulu from going to sleep when he usually experiences the opposite problem -- he's the one that doesn't want to go to bed!

I think younger kids, including toddlers, will appreciate this book even more. They will like guessing the various animals that are keeping Lulu from falling asleep. In addition, I think they will "get" the humor and the message at the end of the story.

I loved the illustrations in this book! I might be a sucker for pigs (like Olivia), but Lulu is pretty darn cute in her own right. Her PJs and curly tail are hysterical! The pictures are colorful and whimsical and I have a feeling that kids are going to fall in love with Lulu as well as the other animals in the story.

WHO SAID COO? is just too cute for little ones. I definitely recommend this book for the preschoolers!

Thanks to Blue Slip Media for sending me a copy of this book.

Summary: Take a bite out of this deliciously funny original fairy tale by a bestselling picture-book duo!

What would you do if you were invited to the princess’s tenth birthday party but didn’t have money for a gift? Well, clever Jack decides to bake the princess a cake.

Now he just has to get it to the castle in one piece. What could
possibly go wrong?

Candace Fleming and G. Brian Karas, creators of the bestselling picture book
Muncha! Muncha! Muncha!, have teamed up again to bring us a modern fairy tale starring a determined boy and a story-loving princess with a good sense of humor. While girls will fall for a story featuring a princess’s birthday party, Jack’s adventures with trolls, bears, and gypsies make this the perfect read for young boys as well—and ideal for storytime. -- Schwartz & Wade

And last, but certainly not least, is CLEVER JACK TAKES THE CAKE by Candace Fleming and illustrated by G. Brian Karas. I know Booking Son was caught up in this book and thought it was very funny, but I think I might have enjoyed it even more than he did! I loved everything about this book from its title (which is perfect because it has multiple meanings) to the story to the artwork! This is one of the most special picture books that I've recently read because it is just so darn entertaining. Booklist and School Library Journal agrees. They both gave this book a starred review!

CLEVER JACK TAKES THE CAKE is, for all intents and purposes, a fairy tale. It tells the story of Jack, a young boy who is invited to the princess's birthday party but can't afford to buy her a gift. Jack uses his resourcefulness and even makes some sacrifices to bake the princess a beautiful cake. When he sets off to the castle for the party, he gets way more than he bargained for. Pretty much anything and everything that can go wrong for poor Jack does.

While I admit to loving the story, I also really liked the illustrations; and I think they complemented the fairy tale aspect of the story perfectly. The pictures were extremely cute (and colorful) pencil drawings, yet they also had many details. Quite a few of the illustrations were very funny, and I liked that each one had a a lot going on for the reader to explore.

I almost think the less you know about this story, the better, because the ending is fantastic! Booking Son and I were both laughing, but I was also quite impressed with the creativity of the story. CLEVER JACK TAKES THE CAKE is one of those books that we will read again and again!

I was pleasantly surprised to find that a teacher's guide exists for this author's books. There were some great ideas and activities in this guide and it definitely would make for a great aid in the classroom.

As far as I'm concerned, CLEVER JACK TAKES THE CAKE is a must-read picture book! Don't miss it!

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book.

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!