Monday, January 31, 2011

Review: Birds of a Feather

Summary: The sequel to Jacqueline Winspear's compelling debut, Maisie Dobbs—"chilling, suspenseful, [and] riveting" (Publishers Weekly, starred review)

Jacqueline Winspear’s marvelous and inspired debut, Maisie Dobbs, won her fans from coast to coast and raised her intuitive, intelligent, and resourceful heroine to the ranks of literature’s favorite sleuths. Birds of a Feather finds Maisie Dobbs on another dangerously intriguing adventure in London "between the wars." It is the spring of 1930, and Maisie has been hired to find a runaway heiress. But what seems a simple case at the outset soon becomes increasingly complicated when three of the heiress’s old friends are found dead. Is there a connection between the woman’s mysterious disappearance and the murders? Who would want to kill three seemingly respectable young women? As Maisie investigates, she discovers that the answers lie in the unforgettable agony of the Great War. -- Penguin

It's that time again -- another edition of Book Club Girl's I'm Mad for Maisie! I realized how much I enjoyed Jacqueline Winspear's first MAISIE DOBBS book (my review) when I re-read the book a few weeks ago; and after reading BIRDS OF A FEATHER, I realized that I truly am Mad for Maisie! I just love this series about a smart and intuitive female detective that takes place in England in the 1930s.

I'm not quite sure how I'm going to review all eight books (assuming I get all of the books read for the read-alongs!) because many of the things I enjoyed about the first two books are the same. First of all, I enjoyed the mystery and it did keep me guessing. Having said that, in books like these, I don't spend too much time trying to figure out the crime -- I just enjoy the story. In BIRDS OF A FEATHER, I thought the murder mysteries were intriguing, and I did like how Maisie unraveled all of the information to arrive at her conclusions. I was bit frustrated when Maisie admitted that she had it all figured out and I was still a little clueless, but that's a good thing in a mystery book, right?

Even though BIRDS OF A FEATHER is a mystery, I find that the parts of the book that most appealed to me have to do with Maisie. She really is such a fantastic character and so interesting to me. In MAISIE DOBBS, I was introduced to Maisie and discovered a lot of information about her past and especially the time she spent as a nurse during the war. All of these events definitely explained much of Maisie's personality and actions, but I was still left with quite a bit of questions about her character when I finished the first novel.

In BIRDS OF A FEATHER, I felt as if I was able to learn more about Maisie's character. This novel not only delved deeper into her relationship with her father, but it also explored some of the lessons she learned from her mentor Maurice. I loved seeing how Maisie "interpreted" crime scenes to learn more about the victims. Her incredible intuition skills almost bordered on the supernatural to me, and I thoroughly enjoyed this aspect of the story.

Besides learning more about Maisie in this novel, I also got to see more of her assistant Billy Beale. In MAISIE DOBBS, I found him to be a great character who also provided a little bit of comic relief -- until the end when he went undercover to help Maisie solve a crime. However, in BIRDS OF A FEATHER, Billy's character was much more complex and even dark at times. I admit that I was pleasantly surprised by the depth of Billy's character and I really appreciated that the book explored Billy's troubles as well as his recovery.

One of the things that I loved most about both MAISIE DOBBS and BIRDS OF A FEATHER was how Maisie managed to learn some valuable things about herself while investigating the crimes. In the case of BIRDS OF A FEATHER, Maisie's concerns about not fitting in as well as her lack of close female friendships came to light while looking into the disappearance of a wealthy woman and the deaths of her friends. I really liked how, in both novels, the author tied Maisie's growth and character development to the circumstances surrounding the mystery. So smart and so well-done!

I just loved the second book in the Maisie Dobbs series, and I can't wait to read the third novel -- PARDONABLE LIES! Make sure you stop by and see what everyone is saying about BIRDS OF A FEATHER!

Giveaway: The Murderer's Daughters

Summary: Lulu and Merry's childhood was never ideal, but on the day before Lulu's tenth birthday their father drives them into a nightmare. He's always hungered for the love of the girls’ self-obsessed mother; after she throws him out, their troubles turn deadly.

Lulu had been warned to never to let her father in, but when he shows up drunk, he's impossible to ignore. He bullies his way past Lulu, who then listens in horror as her parents struggle. She runs for help, but discovers upon her return that he's murdered her mother, stabbed her five-year-old sister, and tried, unsuccessfully, to kill himself.

Lulu and Merry are effectively orphaned by their mother’s death and father’s imprisonment, but the girls’ relatives refuse to care for them and abandon them to a terrifying group home. Even as they plot to be taken in by a well-to-do family, they come to learn they’ll never really belong anywhere or to anyone—that all they have to hold onto is each other. 

For thirty years, the sisters try to make sense of what happened. Their imprisoned father is a specter in both their lives, shadowing every choice they make. One spends her life pretending he's dead, while the other feels compelled, by fear, by duty, to keep him close. Both dread the day his attempts to win parole may meet success.

A beautifully written, compulsively readable debut, The Murderer's Daughters is a testament to the power of family and the ties that bind us together and tear us apart. -- St. Martin's

A few weeks ago, I reviewed a fantastic book called THE MURDERER'S DAUGHTERS by Randy Susan Meyers. I mentioned in my review that I loved the character development, and I thought it would make a terrific book club pick.

Thanks to the publisher, I have a paperback copy of THE MURDERER'S DAUGHTERS to share with one lucky reader. To enter, just fill out the form below before Sunday, February 13th at 11:59 p.m. ET. I will randomly select and notify the winner the following day. This contest is open to those of you with U.S. and Canada mailing addresses only. Good luck!

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Review: The Crabby Cook Cookbook

Summary: Introducing a very funny, slightly edgy, winning new kind of cookbook Jessica Harper—that Jessica Harper, star of Minority Report, Stardust Memories, Love and Death, Pennies from Heaven, and more—is a working mother of two who faces the same problems of every other woman who’s the designated home cook: How do you feed a family of picky eaters when you’re not crazy about being in the kitchen in the first place? A natural-born storyteller and terrifically engaging writer, she does what she’s done all her life—entertain us—while at the same time offering 100 not just easy but really easy-to-make, really tasty recipes.

Her stories are filled with charming crabbiness—of cooking early in the day for the two kids who eat only six things, then later for the husband who eats only about eight things, none of which share common ground with those first six; of inviting her mother-in-law for dinner and handing her an apron; of suffering HAS—Hostess Anxiety Syndrome—having the book club over and picking
The Good Earth because it matches the neighborhood’s great new Chinese take-out, so no cooking involved! She wants to give a Nobel Prize to the person who invented bagged salad, and she recounts a wonderful story of making homemade turkey pot pie for the very first time—its crust tasted like rosemary-scented Play-Doh—to serve to Richard Gere and Cindy Crawford.

But crabby or not, she’s found a way to make it work, and work brilliantly.
The Crabby Cook is about how to change your food-i-tude—no more garnish guilt, for example, and why “sort of homemade” is just as good as homemade (ie, knowing when to go all out with Pain-in-the-Ass Minestrone and when to settle for the almost-as-tasty Lazy-Ass Minestrone). It’s how to identify those Miracle Foods—the stuff that everyone loves, like Gobble-It-Up Turkey Chili and Tony’s Rigatoni. And even a whole survival guide—despite her HAS—to entertaining, including drinks, Whore’s Doorves, Dip One and Dip Two, and My Big Fat Greek Platter. -- Workman

A few days ago, I was on twitter (no surprise there!) and found out that there was a twitter party going on with Jessica Harper, author of THE CRABBY COOK COOKBOOK. After lurking for a few minutes, I found myself quite interested in a cookbook with Crabby Cook in the title; and I hopped right in to ask what were some of the author's favorites recipes! I immediately decided that I had to take a look at this cookbook because it sounded so perfect for me -- I think that I, too, just might be a "crabby cook."

Now that might come as a surprise to a few of you who follow my Sunday posts because it seems like I enjoy cooking. And truth be told, sometimes I do. It's just the day-to-day drudgery of coming up with quick and healthy meals to feed my very picky family that I hate! That's where THE CRABBY COOK COOKBOOK comes in. After looking through this cookbook quite a few times, I discovered that there are loads of family friendly recipes that I want to try.

In addition to having lots of good recipes (but sadly no photos!), THE CRABBY COOK COOKBOOK is a hoot to read. It's obvious that the author Ms. Harper has a fabulous sense of humor and I loved all of her stories that she included. I will admit that as I read through this book, I laughed a lot -- kind of taking away from my whole crabby cook nature. I guess that's a good thing!

THE CRABBY COOK COOKBOOK is so much fun and would make the perfect gift for the "crabby cooks" in your life -- even if the "crabby cook" is you! The book is chock full of great recipes as well as helpful hints, variations, and recipe notes. The book is divided in the following chapters: Breakfast, Slow and Fast; Mom's Little Lost Lamb (and Other Lunch Options); The Cycle of Seven (Burgers, Casseroles, and Other Regulars); A Toast to the Roast; Let 'Em Eat Pasta; Go, Fish!; Beside Myself; Let Me (Not) Entertain You; Salad Days: The Chicken Years; and Just Desserts. I think you get an idea of the author's sense of humor with these chapter titles, and I loved that she stuck the chicken chapter at the end -- I was wondering where the chicken recipes were.

Ms. Harper suggested that I start with the Gobble-It-Up Turkey Chili. She assured me that everyone likes it and it's classified as a Miracle Food in the cookbook. (A Miracle Food is one that is sure to be a crowd-pleaser!) I'll be honest when I say that this recipe was a bit intimidating because it has a rather long list of ingredients and lots of chopping, but it was still relatively easy. I've found that the healthier I cook, the more work it is for me because I'm using more fresh products -- it's a good trade-off though!

I absolutely loved this dish; however, my very picky family wasn't as thrilled. They assured me that it wasn't the recipe, it was just that they might not be fans of turkey chili -- aren't they sweet? My husband had a fit when he saw cut up carrots and the kids thought it was too spicy (it wasn't that spicy!) Next time, I will leave the carrots out because I don't think it will affect the taste; and I will leave out the optional cayenne pepper (my husband and I can always add it to our individual bowls.)

I also decided to try the Day-O Banana Bread -- it seems like I always have ripe bananas around the house. I was intrigued by this recipe because it was so healthy -- even healthier than my normal low-fat banana bread recipe! I used Pam instead of butter to grease the pan, and I omitted the walnuts to make it even more low-fat. I'll tell you that I wasn't too sure that I was going to like this bread -- whole wheat baked goods can be so heavy and dry; however, it was very good. I was extremely impressed with how moist the bread was. I wouldn't hesitate to make this one again. I might even try a little cinnamon. I'm thinking of changing the name, though, to No Guilt Banana Bread!

If you are like me and consider yourself a "crabby cook," then you are definitely going to want to take a look at this very fun and helpful cookbook!

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this 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, January 29, 2011

Kid Konnection: Picture Book Round-Up

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 some fun picture books that Booking Son and I recently read together.

Summary: Happy Groundhog Day! But when Brownie steps outside, there's not even the slightest sign of spring-just her shadow, a frosty field, and a hungry fox who wants to munch her for lunch. Determined not to become a meal, Brownie finds a clever and tasty way to melt the ice and turn Fox into a friend…and make the wait for winter's end a little warmer. 

Susan Blackaby's deliciously witty writing and Carmen Segovia's adorable animals and stunning landscapes combine to create a picture book filled with springtime joy. Just right for reading with a cup of cocoa and cinnamon toast…Brownie's favorite meal!-- Sterling

BROWNIE GROUNDHOG AND THE FEBRUARY FOX by Susan Blackaby and illustrated by Carmen Segovia is a fun read for this time of year -- as Groundhog Day quickly approaches. This cute picture book tells the story of Brownie a very cunning groundhog and February the fox who wants to eat him! Time and time again, Brownie manages to distract February, save his own life, and eventually make a new friend in the process.

Booking Son really liked this book. He thought it was hilarious that the fox wanted to eat the groundhog for lunch. (Is that boy humor because I just don't get it?) And then he found Brownie's actions to be quite clever. When we finished reading it, he told me that it was a great story -- enough said!

Summary: When the sky grows dark
and the moon glows bright,
everyone goes to sleep . . .
except for the watchful owl!

With a spare, soothing text and beautifully rich and textured illustrations of a starry night, this is the perfect “book of sleep.” Join the owl on his moonlit journey as he watches all the other animals settle in for the night: some sleep standing up, while some sleep on the move! Some sleep peacefully alone, while others sleep all together, huddled close.

Il Sung Na makes his American debut with this gorgeous bedtime offering. While each animal rests in its own special way, little ones will also drift off to a cozy sleep. -- Knopf

A BOOK OF SLEEP by Il Sung Na is a sweet board book for toddlers and perfect for bedtime reading. This adorable book shows various animals and the different ways that they sleep. For example, elephants makes a lot of noise when they sleep and giraffes sleep standing up. But no matter all the different ways animals sleep, they all wake up when the sun comes out -- except the owl!

Of course, Booking Son is way too old for this book, but he did like reading the simple words on each page. We also liked the colorful watercolor illustrations on each page -- they were not only beautiful but interesting to look at.

I highly recommend this book for babies and toddlers, especially before bedtime!

Summary: Evelyn is lots of things. Circus performer. Antarctic explorer. I'm not.

Here is the perfect book for children who feel like their outgoing friend is oh-so-talented . . . and they're not. Our shy narrator lists all the things that her best friend, Evelyn, is good at—from jumping on the bed to roller skating really fast. Luckily, Evelyn points out what makes her so special: she's a one-of-a-kind true blue best friend. Robert Weinstock's hilarious illustrations wonderfully complement Pam Smallcomb's simple text, perfect for young children. This sweet depiction of friendship shows—in a completely fresh, original way—that everyone is special. -- Schwartz & Wade

I'M NOT. by Pam Smallcomb and illustrated by Robert Weinstock is another fantastic picture book. In fact, I think I enjoyed this one even more than Booking Son did. I'M NOT. tells the story of a young girl who feels intimidated because her best friend Evelyn is so special. At the end of the book, she realizes that she not only has her own special talents, but that she is also a wonderful friend.

As a mother, I really appreciated the messages in this book. I am amazed at how young my children were when they started realizing that their friends were "better" at certain things than they were. I remember being so sad when each one of them because aware of their limitations (especially in sports) because it was almost like a loss of innocence to me. Maybe that's why I'm such a big fan of I'M NOT. It is the perfect book to help children realize that they each have their own special talents. And more importantly, I love that this book shows the value in being a good friend.

Summary: Big Bad Wolf’s first visit to his local library (as related in Mind Your Manners, B.B. Wolf) was such a success that he returns to tell his version of “The Three Little Pigs.” His outrageous spin on the tale draws skeptical remarks from his audience: “Isn’t that wolf’s nose getting longer?” asks Pinocchio. “It’s a cooked-up, half-baked tale,” snaps the Gingerbread Boy. And “Tell the truth, B.B. Wolf!” squeal the Three Little Pigs. Caught in his own lie, B.B. explains that he is a reformed villain: “Now I’m begging on my knees, Little Pigs, forgive me, please!” How B.B. turns his bad old deed into a good new one provides a happy ending to this fun-to-read fractured fairytale. -- Knopf

TELL THE TRUTH, B.B. WOLF by Judy Sierra and illustrated by Jotto Seibold is such a fun picture book. Both Booking Son and I laughed a lot while reading this one. When B.B. Wolf is invited to the library to tell the story of the three pigs, he puts his own slant on the story. Good thing the pigs (and their friends) are there to keep him honest! The wolf eventually sees the light, asks for forgiveness, and even makes some reparations! to the pigs.

I can't tell you how much fun we had reading TELL THE TRUTH, B.B. WOLF. Of course, my singing of the pig songs no doubt added to the humor of the story. The wolf is hilarious when he gives his own rendition of the story, but the supporting characters (the three pigs, Humpty Dumpty, Pinocchio, Little Engine, and the Gingerbread Boy) are also quite funny as they call out the wolf on the veracity of his tale.

Not only is the story very entertaining, but the illustrations are terrific. They are bright and whimsical and absolutely the perfect complement to this fun book. This one is definitely a must-read for young kids who appreciate humorous stories!

Thanks to the publishers for sending copies of these books.

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!

Friday, January 28, 2011

Review: Pictures of You

Summary: Two women running away from their marriages collide on a foggy highway, killing one of them. The survivor, Isabelle, is left to pick up the pieces, not only of her own life, but of the lives of the devastated husband and fragile son that the other woman, April, has left behind. Together, they try to solve the mystery of where April was running to, and why. As these three lives intersect, the book asks, How well do we really know those we love—and how do we forgive the unforgivable?-- Algonquin

A few days ago I was tweeting about how wonderful the month of January has been for new releases. It seems like I've read one book after another that belong on a "Best of 2011 list," and the year has barely even gotten off the ground. I just finished reading another book that I absolutely adored -- PICTURES OF YOU by Caroline Leavitt. Words cannot express how much I treasured each and every word of this book.

I have to admit that I'm reluctant to write this review for a few of reasons. First, any time I like a book this much I'm afraid that I won't be able to do it justice. I'm sure I will gush and go overboard, and for that reason alone, turn some of you away! And then, there's that whole business that Ms. Leavitt is not only an accomplished author, but she's also a well known book reviewer. Who the heck am I to even try to "review" her book? Talk about intimidating!

There are just so many incredible things about PICTURES OF YOU from the prose, to the character development, to the story itself. I was caught up in this novel within just a few pages -- it really just grabbed me and held on! The story was intriguing and yet heartbreaking, and I loved how complex each of these characters' were. PICTURES OF YOU explored the lasting effects of a terrible accident on the remaining "victims," and I thought Ms. Leavitt managed to capture the essence of loss and grief so honestly. While each character dealt with the accident in a very different way, I could relate to how each one of them processed the pain they were experiencing.

And where to even begin with Ms. Leavitt's writing? -- it's really, really good. The dialogue between the characters is authentic, and her descriptions are so eloquent and beautiful. She managed to make me feel not only as if I could understand each of these characters, but that they were truly real for me. I think that says quite a bit. And while I appreciated everything about she told this story, one thing that brought this book to the next level for me was that I was continually surprised. So often, I thought I knew where she was going with this story; and then, it wasn't at all what I was expecting. PICTURES OF YOU wasn't predictable for me... at all, and I liked that the book's ending wasn't wrapped up in a neat little bow. I'm not even sure the ending was what I wanted, but I will say that I was satisfied and it did make me think. In fact, I'm still wondering about what happens to each of these characters after the novel ends.

My on-line book club is discussing PICTURES OF YOU for February, and I'm so excited. It's a marvelous book for discussion. The characters are so incredibly well-developed and so complex that I'm sure you could talk about just their actions and motivations for hours. In addition, because the book was so written and had so many surprises, you can discuss Ms. Leavitt's writing choices. There is a reading guide included in the back of my book with 15 great questions -- I absolutely loved them; and they actually got me thinking even more about this novel -- which I didn't think was possible. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to find an on-line link for the guide. Some of the topics you might want to further explore include escapism, marriage, parenthood, motherhood, grief, loss, love, new beginnings, illness, and forgiveness.

I've tried to express my feelings towards this novel (I know it was major gushing!), and I do hope that you will give it a try. The story is gripping, and at the same time touching; and Ms. Leavitt's writing is positively beautiful. Trust me on this one -- read PICTURES OF YOU!

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

Review: Pretty Penny Sets Up Shop

Summary: Pretty Penny has lots of big ideas. For instance, she wants to throw a birthday party for her grandmother, Bunny, but there is only one problem—she doesn't have any money! What's a creative, industrious girl to do? When Penny notices that Bunny's attic is cluttered with old things that still have value, Penny has an idea—create a "Small Mall!" Penny will have to clean up and set up shop in the attic to sell the old items to earn the money for Bunny's surprise celebration. Author/illustrator Devon Kinch has created a charming, stylish character with a signature look, just like such classic children's book characters as Madeline, Eloise, Pippi Longstocking, and Olivia—Penny is never without her fuschia purse! With Pretty Penny's help, kids can get money savvy! -- Random House

When I first read about PRETTY PENNY SETS UP SHOP by Devon Kinch, I thought it was a great idea -- or at least a great way to teach Booking Son about fiscal responsibility. I don't know how it works in your house, but my kids seem to have a lot of stuff -- pretty much everything they could ever want or need. Don't get me wrong, I feel blessed that we have so much; but at the same time, I'm extremely worried about some of the messages I'm sending to my children. While I think I'm teaching them some strong fundamentals about money management (they see me using coupons and I definitely don't buy them everything they ask for), I still an not entirely sure that they "get it" -- especially my six year old. And that's exactly where PRETTY PENNY comes in.

PRETTY PENNY SETS UP SHOP teaches youngsters about sensible spending as well as the importance of saving money. Penny is a bright young girl who has enormous drive and moxie. When she decides to throw a birthday party for her grandmother and realizes that she doesn't have enough money, she open her own store (which is adorable, by the way) in her grandmother's attic. By selling off all of the items that they no longer use, she earns enough money to buy a treat for the party.

Booking Son immediately related Penny's shop to our own yearly garage sales. He is excellent about getting rid of books and toys (especially for charity), but he's not too good about saving money. I think he learned a little bit about the value of a dollar in PRETTY PENNY SETS UP SHOP, and there is no doubt that this book opened up a discussion for us. PRETTY PENNY SETS UP SHOP is the first book in the series, and I look forward to reading the other books to him and teaching him a thing or two about saving.

Of course, the messages about money management are terrific, but this is also a very cute book. The illustrations are also done by Ms. Kinch and I thought they were just precious. Booking Son also liked them although he did think that they were a little girly with all the hot pink and black! I thought all of the characters were sweet, but I especially liked Penny's sidekicks -- the dogs, cat and pig!

I commend Ms. Kinch for aiming her money management books at youngsters. I agree that it's never too early to start teaching children fiscal responsibility. Ms. Kinch has an interesting personal experience with financial woes; and as a result, she wants to share her lesson with as many people as possible. When Ms. Kinch was in her early 20s, she accrued a great deal of debt and it took her almost 10 years to pay it off. She realized that education about money is extremely important and that it needs to begin with very young children. And viola, PRETTY PENNY was born!

I am very fortunate that Ms. Kinch has prepared a guest post for Booking Mama about some fun ways that you can "Do-It-Yourself" and teach your children about some money-saving techniques in the process!

DIY for Kids and Parents Alike

Times are tough. With a shrunken economy comes a shrinking household budget, but even in tough economic times, kids still want things. It seems the desire to have fun doesn’t disappear when the economy fails. So, how do you have fun for free? Better yet, how do you have fun and make some money to boot?

The Do-It-Yourself movement (DIY) is not exactly new. For years, the scrappiest among us have relied on their own resourcefulness to fix appliances, redecorate homes, repurpose old clothing into something fabulously new, and create homemade crafts for little or no money. What better way to engage young people than in the act of using their heads and hands to have some fun on the cheap?

When I wrote Pretty Penny Sets Up Shop, I wanted Penny to be a resourceful young girl who is  able to solve problems (in her case, financial) by using things readily available to her. Penny is determined to throw a surprise birthday party for her grandmother, Bunny, but doesn’t have any money.  Penny arrives at a solution that doesn’t require a dime: she will transform her grandmother’s attic into the Small Mall. With Bunny’s permission, she will sell old, unwanted items in an effort to make some cash. Penny pulls it off in her own signature style.

As the series develops, Penny will dream up all kinds of unconventional and humorous solutions to everyday money problems. She’ll tackle topics like investing, understanding advertising, using credit cards, and stealing - all with that inspiring can-do spirit. She has the uncanny ability to turn nothing into something while having a whole lot of fun. The DIY approach is helpful in a tight economy, but it’s an especially useful skill for children as they begin to understand financial fundamentals.

For parents interested in helping their children “set up shop,” visit for a free downloadable Small Mall Starter Kit that includes, coupons, price-tags, shop ledgers, receipts and more.

Devon Kinch is a designer and illustrator who struck upon the idea for Pretty Penny while successfully repairing her own relationship with money after years of accruing debilitating debt. The Pretty Penny series became her thesis work at the Designer as Author program at the School of Visual Arts. It is Devon's belief that young children can avoid financial trouble by learning how to establish a healthy relationship with money at an early age through fun, creative storytelling. This is her first children's book.

Born and raised in Ramsey, New Jersey, Devon studied painting and art history as an undergraduate and earned her Master's Degree in Design from the School of Visual Arts in 2009. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Check out these other stops on the PRETTY PENNY SETS UP SHOP tour:

Monday, January 24 - Teaching Books
Tuesday, January 25 - Book Faerie
Wednesday, January 26 - Family Finance
Thursday, January 27 - The Children’s Book Review
Saturday, January 29 - Two Writing Teachers
Sunday, January 30 - A Frugal Friend
Monday, January 31 - Random Acts of Reading
Tuesday, February 1 -

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

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Review: Deep Down True

Summary: From the author of Shelter Me--a funny and poignant novel about having your heart in the right place.

Newly divorced Dana Stellgarten has always been unfailingly nice- even to telemarketers-but now her temper is wearing thin. Money is tight, her kids are reeling from their dad's departure, and her Goth teenage niece has just landed on her doorstep. As she enters the slipstream of post-divorce romance and is befriended by the town queen bee, Dana finds that the tension between being true to yourself and being liked doesn't end in middle school... and that sometimes it takes a real friend to help you embrace adulthood in all its flawed complexity. -- Penguin

I was so excited to learn that Juliette Fay had a new book coming out called DEEP DOWN TRUE. I reviewed her first novel SHELTER ME a few years ago and really enjoyed it. I found that many of the things that I remembered enjoying about SHELTER ME were also the case in DEEP DOWN TRUE -- great character development, an interesting story, and wonderful writing! DEEP DOWN TRUE is sure to be a hit with readers who appreciate good women's fiction.

DEEP DOWN TRUE tells the story of Dana, a recently divorced mother of two who is facing some major changes in her life. Besides being single again, she is also navigating the world of dating, re-entering the work force, and handling co-parenting with her ex-husband (and his new young girlfriend.) And if that's not enough, she has a middle grade daughter who seems to have an eating disorder and a troubled teenage niece who just shows up on her doorstep and asks to live with her. I had to ask myself, how much can one woman handle?

Evidently quite a bit! Dana was just a fantastic character, and that's one of the reasons that I liked this book so much. Dana was incredibly nice (sometimes too nice) and despite all of her troubles, she still found the time to take food to a family whose father was dying of cancer. I found that she rarely put herself first, and I had to question how she could ever be happy when she wasn't tending to her own needs. Dana certainly wasn't perfect, but she was extremely real to me -- especially when it came to her feelings as a mother. I thought Ms. Fay did an amazing job of bringing her life, and I loved seeing how much her character grew (and changed for the better) as a result of her choices.

Once again, I was extremely impressed with Ms. Fay's writing style. Somehow, her dialogue and prose seem almost effortless -- it's just incredibly authentic to me. I also think she has an extreme talent of creating characters that get under your skin -- in a good way. Not only did I feel an affinity with Dana, but I absolutely loved her niece Alder (who was wise beyond her years) and her boss Tony (who was one of the most sensitive and patient men I've ever come across!) In addition, I thought Ms. Fay did a wonderful job with Dana's tween daughter Morgan. Not only did she treat her eating disorder in, what I thought, was a very honest way, but she also captured the essence of mean girls and middle school -- and I do know a thing or two about that.

It's difficult for me to articulate another reason why I enjoyed this book so much, but I'll give it a try. I thought some of the themes that occurred throughout the novel were so well done. As was the case with SHELTER ME where the theme of "shelter" kept appearing, I appreciated how the theme of "food" ran throughout the story. For instance, Dana used food as a way to comfort herself and others; and yet food was also a huge issue for her tween daughter. In addition, I loved how the theme of staying true to yourself while also trying to maintain friendships was a big part of Dana and her daughter Morgan's life -- it seems like some things like mean girls never change regardless of how old we are!

DEEP DOWN TRUE is ideal for book clubs, especially groups made up of moms. There is a reading guide in the back of the paperback book which I thought was very well-done. There is a detailed summary (is that an oxymoron?) in the back of the book along with an interview with Ms. Fay and ten thought-provoking discussion questions. Some of the topics you might want to further explore include divorce, dating, new beginnings, food, motherhood, sister relationships, eating disorders, anger, love, forgiveness, and happiness.

I found DEEP DOWN TRUE to be a delightful read and I highly recommend it to fans of women's literature.

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

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Review: The Proper Care and Maintenance of Friendship

Summary: What makes a wife a lover?For Kate, the spark went out of her marriage long ago but her husband doesn't seem to notice. Their role as parents consumes their lives so they need to rekindle the romance they once shared.

What makes a woman a mother?
For Jo, a high-powered career has led her to believe that she doesn't have a single maternal instinct. When an orphan unexpectedly enters her life, she is forced to confront her own unhappy childhood and the walls it has built around her heart.

What makes a man the love of your life?
For Sarah, home is the steamy jungles of Africa while the man of her dreams waits in the air-conditioned confines of Los Angeles. Her longing for this man from the past is blinding her to a new love standing right in front of her.

What these women all have in common is a friend with a generous soul, an irrepressible spirit- and a serious illness. In her final letters, Rachel raises one last question:  

What makes a friend live in our hearts forever? -- Five Spot

When I first saw THE PROPER CARE AND MAINTENANCE OF FRIENDSHIP by Lisa Verge Higgins, I was immediately drawn to the novel because it looked like a book that I'd enjoy. You know the type -- one about a group of very different women who are brought together by the strength of their friendship. I was expecting a light fun read -- kind of chick lit for grown-ups, if you know what I mean. However, I was pleasantly surprised by the depth and scope of this novel.

I did find the plot of THE PROPER CARE AND MAINTENANCE OF FRIENDSHIP to be a good one with lots of potential for character growth. This book tells the story of three women -- Kate, Jo, and Sarah.  When their good friend Rachel dies of cancer, she leaves a letter behind for each of them with her "one final wish." She asks each women to do something outside their normal comfort zone -- one request more demanding/crazy than the next. When each woman accepts Rachel's request, they ultimately end up not only fulfilling her wishes, but they also end up learning a great deal about themselves in the process. Even (or should I say especially) from the grave, Rachel was an extremely special friend. She actually knew her friends better than they knew themselves -- and that's really saying something.

I did enjoy this novel quite a bit and I thought Ms. Higgins' writing was strong, especially her character development. I appreciated that the story and some of the characters were funny, but I really liked how much this novel touched my heart. I know I'm a sucker for books with messages about women and friendships, and this one had all of those terrific elements. Having said that, the book was not entirely predictable, but I wasn't really surprised by any of the characters' stories either.

While I definitely enjoyed this novel, I didn't love all of the characters. Of course, each woman was flawed -- some more than others and there were times that I was frustrated with all three; however, there was one in particular that really irked me. I thought I would most relate to the stay-at-home mom, Kate. It appeared that I probably had the most in common with her, and yet I could barely stand her for much of the novel. (An analyst would probably have a field day with me and my issues about Kate!) As I read the book, I knew she'd eventually "come around" but I had a very hard time sympathizing with her.

I did find that the characters of Jo and Sarah were much more interesting to me. I especially enjoyed Sarah's story and liked that the book followed Sarah and her work to remote and impoverished countries. I also enjoyed Jo a great deal, and I absolutely loved how much she grew as a person by the end of the novel. Despite having a hard time with Kate, I did feel that these three characters were perfect complements to each other -- kind of like their friendship.

THE PROPER CARE AND MAINTENANCE OF FRIENDSHIP should be a popular pick among book clubs, especially ones with my club's demographics -- late 30s/early 40s, wives, and moms. I am pretty confident in saying that almost all women will relate to this novel and its characters. There is a reading group guide available with thirteen thought-provoking questions. I think that there are some wonderful things to discuss including death, loss, grief, forgiveness, marriage, motherhood, friendship, family dynamics, sacrifice, and many more.

I definitely recommend THE PROPER CARE AND MAINTENANCE OF FRIENDSHIP to female readers who enjoy books about the strength of female friendships. It will entertain you and touch your heart!

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

Wondrous Words Wednesday - January 26, 2011

Wondrous Words Wednesday is a weekly meme hosted by Kathy aka Bermuda Onion where we share new (to us) words that we’ve encountered in our reading. Feel free to join in the fun.

BIRDS OF A FEATHER by Jacqueline Winspear

dekko - So, I was standin' outside, taking a dekko at the premises, when up she comes in 'er car. (p. 48)

dekko: slang (Brit) a look; glance; view

What new words did you discover this week?

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Review: The Book of Tomorrow

Summary: From the author of the New York Times bestseller P.S. I Love You comes an "engrossing new novel . . . filled with family secrets, intrigue, and magic aplenty" (Booklist).
Born into the lap of luxury and comfortable in the here and now, spoiled, tempestuous Tamara Goodwin has never had to look to the future—until the abrupt death of her father leaves her and her mother a mountain of debt and forces them to move in with Tamara's peculiar aunt and uncle in a tiny countryside village. 

Tamara is lonely and bored, with a traveling library as her only diversion. There she finds a large leather-bound book with a gold clasp and padlock, but no author name or title. Intrigued, she pries open the lock, and what she finds inside takes her breath away. 

Tamara sees entries written in her own handwriting, and dated for the following day. When the next day unfolds exactly as recorded, Tamara realizes she may have found a solution to her problems. But in her quest to find answers, Tamara soon learns that some pages are better left unturned and that, try as she may, she mustn't interfere with fate.-- Harper

For many years I've wanted to read a novel written by Cecelia Ahern. I was pretty sure that her books would appeal to me -- chick-lit but also kind of smart. So when I recently discovered THE BOOK OF TOMORROW, I thought it sounded like a good one to start with. Not only did the story about a young teen girl who was undergoing some very major life changes appeal to me, but I liked the idea that some elements of "magic" were also included.

I enjoyed THE BOOK OF TOMORROW and I wouldn't hesitate to pick up another book by Ms. Ahern. I enjoyed her writing as well as her character development, and I definitely appreciated how she incorporated so much magic into the story. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised by all of the family secrets and the twists and turns that the story took. And I especially liked Tamara's character and how much she learned about not only her past, but also about life in general. While much of this book did keep me captivated, I will admit that I found some parts of this novel to be kind of slow-going. I thought the second half of the book was much better than the first.

What I really liked the most about the novel was the premise of the story -- that Tamara has a journal to write her thoughts; and when she opens it, she discovers that her journal entry for the next day is already written. I'm not a big fan of supernatural books, yet I thought this concept as well as the execution was pretty well done. I thought Tamara's initial reaction to her journal was spot on, and I liked how her reactions evolved over time. I also liked the many lessons she learned as a result of having this magical diary -- namely that there are some things in life that you just have to accept and can't ever change.

I found it interesting that THE BOOK OF TOMORROW is being marketed as an adult fiction one. I' m not saying that the book should be read by the young adult audience because there were a few adult situations as well as swear words; however, I have to ask why wasn't this novel written/published with teens in mind? The protagonist of the story, Tamara, was only 16 years old and handled many universal issues that teens deal with on a regular basis. In addition, many of the "magical" elements of the story would definitely appeal to young adults. And finally (and maybe most importantly), the book had some wonderful messages about life and growing up that I think teens could benefit from hearing. It certainly seemed like a YA novel except for a few small scenes!

THE BOOK OF TOMORROW would make an interesting discussion book for book clubs. I wasn't able to find a link to any discussion questions, but I don't think your group would have any problems finding things to discuss. Some of the topics you might want to explore include loss, grief, secrets, honesty, acceptance, and fate. In addition, it might be refreshing to discuss such a young main character as well as her "different" family members.

I recommend THE BOOK OF TOMORROW is you like magical books and ones that give you a little bit to think about. Thanks to the publisher for sending me a review copy of this book.

Giveaway alert: I have a copy of THE BOOK OF TOMORROW to share with one lucky reader courtesy of Harper Collins. To enter, just fill out the form below before February 7th, 2011 at 11:59 p.m. ET. I will randomly select and notify the winner the following day. This contest is open to those of you with U.S. and Canada mailing address only. Good luck!

Monday, January 24, 2011

Guest Review: Tick Tock

Summary: NYC's #1 detective, Michael Bennett, has a huge problem--the Son of Sam, the Werewolf of Wisteria and the Mad Bomber are all back. The city has never been more terrified!

Tick--a killer's countdown begins

A rash of horrifying crimes tears through the city, throwing it into complete chaos and terrorizing everyone living there. Immediately, it becomes clear that they are not the work of an amateur, but of a calculating, efficient, and deadly mastermind.

Tick--Michael Bennett is on the chase

The city calls on Detective Michael Bennett, pulling him away from a seaside retreat with his ten adopted children, his grandfather, and their beloved nanny, Mary Catherine. Not only does it tear apart their vacation, it leaves the entire family open to attack.

Tock--your time is up

Bennett enlists the help of a former colleague, FBI Agent Emily Parker. As his affection for Emily grows into something stronger, his relationship with Mary Catherine takes an unexpected turn. All too soon, another appalling crime leads Bennett to a shocking discovery that exposes the killer's pattern and the earth-shattering enormity of his plan. From the creator of the #1 New York detective series comes the most volatile and most explosive Michael Bennett novel ever. -- Little Brown

Booking Pap Pap and I both enjoy a good thriller every now and then. So it should come as no surprise that he definitely wanted to get his hands on a copy of TICK TOCK by James Patterson and Michael Ledwidge . Here are his thoughts:

TICK TOCK by James Patterson and Michael Ledwidge brings back New York City detective Michael Bennett in his latest crime-solving adventure.

Detective Michael Bennett, his Catholic priest grandfather and his ten adopted children are enjoying a vacation at the beach that is interrupted by a series of bizarre murders in New York City

Bennett calls in FBI Agent Emily Parker who assisted him in solving a prior case. They soon discover that the murders are copycats of some of the most notorious crimes ever committed. These strange murders arouse memories of the Son of Sam, the Werewolf of Wisteria and the Mad Bomber and put the City into total panic. Bennett’s prior personal affection for Emily soon emerges and confounds the murder case as well as his feelings for Mary Catherine, his children’s nanny. To further complicate matters, Bennett’s absence from the beach house to travel to New York has put his family in harms way.

Bennett finally discovers a pattern to the crimes and realizes that he may also be a target of the killer. At the end, the crimes, the family exposure to harm and Bennett’s love life are brought to conclusions in a surprising and exciting way.

In TICK TOCK, Patterson and Ledwidge take the reader through the story line in a rapidly paced easy reading style accentuated by short action filled chapters. TICK TOCK is a well written novel that I would recommend to anyone who enjoys a good crime mystery.

Thanks to the publisher for sending a review copy of this book and thanks to my dad for his review!

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Review: Perfect One-Dish Dinners

Summary: In Perfect One-Dish Dinners, the New York Times best-selling author Pam Anderson shares her secret for having people over without breaking stride: Make just one dish. Instead of a parade of offerings, she focuses attention on a single main course—a rustic tart, paella, grilled platter, or homey stew. Perfect One-Dish Dinners showcases about forty such meals, perfect for every season and occasion, all designed to wow guests, calm the cook, and relieve the dishwasher at the end of the night.

Stews for All Seasons

Worldly Casseroles

Roasting Pan Complete

Big Summer Salads and Grilled Platters

But that’s not all. If the cook wants to make something extra, Pam provides a compatible appetizer, salad, and dessert for every one dish. And as a special bonus, she throws in “nearly instant” alternatives for each—more than 200 mixable, matchable recipes. Whether for a book group, church get together, birthday party, or family supper, Perfect One-Dish Dinners makes easy, shareable meals perfectly doable. -- Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

I do love looking at cookbooks, and I'm even starting to enjoy trying out new recipes. So when Swapna reviewed PERFECT ONE-DISH DINNERS: ALL YOU NEED FOR EASY GET-TOGETHERS on her blog a few days ago, I knew I needed to get my hands on this book. Her review made it sound like this cookbook might have some recipes that my family might enjoy.

A huge thanks to Swapna because I really liked PERFECT ONE-DISH DINNERS! I found quite a few recipes that I thought sounded interesting as well as new twists on some classic recipes. What really stood out to me about this cookbook (beside the gorgeous photos!) was the format of the recipes. The book is divided into the following chapters -- Stews for All Seasons, Worldly Casseroles, Roasting Pan Complete, and Big Summer Salads and Grilled Platters. Within each chapter, there were main dish recipes (just like I was expecting) but there were also recipes for appetizers, sides and desserts that complemented the main course.

In addition to the many recipes in this cookbook, there were "Instant Alternative" tips that made the recipe ideas even more versatile. I also liked that there were drink suggestions for each meal; i.e. types of wine and/or beer. I think PERFECT ONE-DISH DINNERS is ideal for people who entertain on a regular basis, but I also liked that many of the recipes were easy enough to make for a regular family dinner.

There are quite a few recipes that I plan on trying, but I decided to go with something really simple first -- Shells and Cheese for Everyone. Since I made this on a night with play practice and karate, I didn't even attempt any of the sides. It was the easiest homemade mac and cheese recipe that I've ever made, and it was also probably the richest. Despite substituting 1% cottage cheese and low-fat sour cream, it was still very creamy and I thought it was delicious. I also substituted panko for the regular bread crumbs because isn't panko always better?

Shells and Cheese for Everyone
serves 8 to12

1 pound medium-size pasta shells
1 pound grated sharp cheddar cheese
1 container (16 ounces) cottage cheese
1/2 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese
1 container (16 ounces) light or regular sour cream
Freshly ground black pepper
1 cup plain dry bread crumbs
3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
3 tablespoons butter, melted

Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position and heat oven to 350 degrees. Coat a 13-by-9-inch baking dish with vegetable-oil cooking spray.

Bring 2 quarts water and 1 tablespoon salt to a boil in a large soup kettle over high heat. Using package directions as a guide and stirring frequently at first to keep it from sticking, boil pasta, partially covered, until just tender. Drain.

Meanwhile, mix cheese and sour cream in a large bowl. Add hot pasta and toss to coat. Adjust seasonings, including salt and pepper to taste. Transfer to baking dish.

Mix bread crumbs, parsley, and butter in a small bowl and sprinkle evenly over shells and cheese. Bake until casserole is bubbly and crumbs are golden brown, 30 to 35 minutes. Serve.

If you are looking for a cookbook that's very user-friendly, but also has over 200 mix and match recipes, then look no further than PERFECT ONE-DISH DINNERS.
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, January 22, 2011

Kid Konnection: DC Super-Pets

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 new series of very fun books for early readers called DC Super-Pets!


Summary: When the carnival comes to METROPOLIS, BEPPO THE SUPER-MONKEY isn't far behind. This CHIMP OF STEEL can't wait to chow down on chocolate-covered bananas and other fair foods. Unfortunately, the world's evilest ape, GORILLA GRODD, has other plans. He wants to turn this festival of fun into a day of destruction. With a little help from the WONDER TWINS and their space chimp, GLEEK, BEPPO must somehow stop GRODD'S midway monkey madness. -- Picture Window Books


Summary: Deep in the ocean, TOPO THE OCTOPUS plays some relaxing music for AQUAMAN. Suddenly, a huge whirlpool appears in the distance, threatening the city of ATLANTIS. Without a moment to lose, AQUAMAN leaps aboard his SUPER-SEAHORSE, STORM, and jets toward the liquid tornado. While the SEA KING rescues a whale caught in the deadly current, his SUPER-PETS discover the source of the problem . . . MISTY and SNEEZERS, the BLACK MANTA'S minions! TOPO, STORM, and ARK THE SEAL, must stop these evil rays, or their underwater city could be lost again. -- Picture Window Books

POOCHES OF POWER! by Sarah Stephens

Summary: When sardines go missing from the GOTHAM CITY Marina, ACE THE BAT-HOUND investigates. This clever canine quickly discovers a couple of clues, but something still smells fishy. To help solve the case, ACE calls on the most powerful pooch around . . . KRYPTO THE SUPER-DOG! They track down three fowl felons, the PENGUIN'S BAD NEWS BIRDS, ARTIE, GRIFF, and WADDLES. Working together, the doggy duo must recover the stolen sardines and throw those dirty birds in the can. -- Picture Window Books


Summary: While napping in the FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE, STREAKY THE SUPER-CAT is suddenly awakened by a television news alert. The evil Siamese cat ROZZ has kidnapped Prince Zouli, a noble hamster from the village of Kardamyla. UP, UP, AND AWAY! The CAT OF STEEL is on the case and quickly tracks down the royal rodent. Unfortunately, the fearsome feline has a few tricks up his fur. When ROZZ reveals a chunk of KRYPTONITE in his collar, STREAKY must help the hamster, and save himself as well. -- Picture Window Books


Summary: After traveling through the universe, the GREEN LANTERN B'DG chills out at a water park on Earth. However, when the RED LANTERN DEX-STARR shows up, his day in the sun is anything but fun. This fearsome feline chases B'DG through the pool, down the waterslide, and into outer space. While there, the two opponents discover a common enemy . . . the SINESTRO DOG CORPS! These parched pooches are looking for a place to soak their snouts. If B'DG and DEX-STARR don't team up and stop them, their favorite water park will become mutt puddle. -- Picture Window Books


Summary: The speedy super-villain CHAUNCEY THE CHEETAH is loose on PARADISE ISLAND! However, WONDER WOMAN'S SUPER-PET, JUMPA THE KANGAROO, isn't worried. This blazing-fast bouncer is the quickest critter on Earth. Or is she? When CHAUNCEY challenges JUMPA to a race, the kangaroo must prove her swiftness and her cleverness. But this criminal cat is chasing more than bragging rights. She's seeking JUMPA'S tiara as top prize. If the SUPER-KANGAROO doesn't have a few tricks in her pouch, she might lose in more ways than one. -- Picture Window Books

When I first heard the idea behind the new series, DC Super-Pets, I had a feeling that Booking Son might be just a tad bit interested. And I was certainly right! You should have seen him when he first saw these little books -- his eyes got really big and he started to smile. Then, he asked me if they were for him because "I really want them." After I told him yes and that they were for early readers, he immediately grabbed a book and started flipping through it. I don't think he got my subtle dig about "early readers" but he is only 6 years old -- he is constantly begging for me to read them to him!

The DC Super-Pets series features the crime-fighting adventures of various DC Comics superheroes' animals. For example, one book features Superman's pet Krypto the Super-Dog. Other pets include Ace the Bat-Hound (Batman), Streaky the Super-Cat (Supergirl), Beppo the Super-Monkey (Superman), and Jumpa the Super-Kangaroo (Wonder Woman.) In each story, the Super-Pet faces various pet super villains and has to "save the day."

While I am many, many years past being an early reader, I can definitely see the appeal with these books. They truly are perfect for young kids (and their parents), and I'm betting that they are even going to appeal to reluctant readers. All six stories have lots of action and adventure scenes (and even a few of those fighting onomatopoeias like Thwap and Thud!) And as fun as the stories are, I think the pictures are what make these books extra-special. The illustrator is the Eisner Award-winning DC Comics Artist Art Baltazar, and he is one very talented guy!

The books are so much fun, but as a mother, I also like that they are also educational. The books are perfect for children just learning to read independently -- the words are fairly simple and the sentences are relatively short. The books are also divided into chapters so there are good starting and stopping points. In addition, each book includes illustrations of all of the Super-Pets (both heroes and villains) in the series as well as a few corny jokes and a glossary (including pronunciation) of some of the more challenging words.

In honor of the DC Super-Pets Book Launch, Picture Window Books is sponsoring a writing contest for students in grades 1-3. Children can enter the "My Pet is Super" contest by writing an article for an imaginary newspaper, The Daily Planet about why their own pet is super. The artist Art Baltazar will create an illustration of the winning Super-Pet that will appear in a future book in the DC Super-Pets series. The winning entry will also receive the original illustration as well as copies of the book. Authors of the top 50 entries will also win free books. The contest runs from January 15, 2011 to February 28, 2011. For complete rules, visit here.

I really can't recommend these books enough -- they are both fun and educational. I'm sure they will be a huge hit with early readers!

Thanks to Blue Slip Media for providing me with review copies of these books.

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!

Friday, January 21, 2011

Review: Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter

Summary: Tom Franklin's extraordinary talent has been hailed by the leading lights of contemporary literature—Philip Roth, Richard Ford, Lee Smith, and Dennis Lehane. Reviewers have called his fiction "ingenious" (USA Today) and "compulsively readable" (Memphis Commercial Appeal). His narrative power and flair for character-ization have been compared to the likes of Harper Lee, Flannery O'Connor, Elmore Leonard, and Cormac McCarthy.

Now the Edgar Award-winning author returns with his most accomplished and resonant novel so far—an atmospheric drama set in rural Mississippi. In the late 1970s, Larry Ott and Silas "32" Jones were boyhood pals. Their worlds were as different as night and day: Larry, the child of lower-middle-class white parents, and Silas, the son of a poor, single black mother. Yet for a few months the boys stepped outside of their circumstances and shared a special bond. But then tragedy struck: Larry took a girl on a date to a drive-in movie, and she was never heard from again. She was never found and Larry never confessed, but all eyes rested on him as the culprit. The incident shook the county—and perhaps Silas most of all. His friendship with Larry was broken, and then Silas left town.

More than twenty years have passed. Larry, a mechanic, lives a solitary existence, never able to rise above the whispers of suspicion. Silas has returned as a constable. He and Larry have no reason to cross paths until another girl disappears and Larry is blamed again. And now the two men who once called each other friend are forced to confront the past they've buried and ignored for decades. -- William Morrow 

I was so excited to see that CROOKED LETTER, CROOKED LETTER by Tom Franklin was nominated for a 2011 Edgar Award. I have only read one other book on the list  -- Laura Lippman's I'D KNOW YOU ANYWHERE (my review) which I adored, but I can most definitely see why CROOKED LETTER, CROOKED LETTER is considered one of the best mystery books of the year. It was soooo good!

CROOKED LETTER, CROOKED LETTER tells the story of Larry and Silas, two men who were friends when they were younger despite their many differences. When a girl goes missing in a small Mississippi town, Silas (who is now the town constable) begins to investigate and the immediate suspect is his old friend Larry. That's because, over 20 years ago a teenage girl went missing after a date with Larry. Larry never admitted to the crime, nor was he ever found guilty, but he has always been blamed for the crime.

After the first girl went missing, Larry chose to stay in his hometown, leading basically a very lonely existence -- oh how my heart broke for him; while Silas disappeared for years before returning as a constable. The two men had no contact after the strange disappearance of the girl. Fast forward 20 years, Larry and Silas are brought back together as a result of another unfortunate crime; and now, they both have to face their past and come to terms with each other's actions.

Based on the description of CROOKED LETTER, CROOKED LETTER, you can probably guess that the cases of the missing girls are the "mystery" parts of this novel. The book does delve into these crimes and eventually offers the reader explanations for both; however, I wouldn't say that the mystery is what made this book so special (although it was a good one.) Rather, it was Mr. Franklin's writing -- it was nothing short of spectacular!

I just want to rave about how well written CROOKED LETTER, CROOKED LETTER was. Not only did the story unfold beautifully as the book went back and forth between the present day and the past, but the characters were remarkably well developed, especially for a book of this genre. Both Larry and Silas were incredibly complex, yet flawed, characters; and I just felt as if their relationship was portrayed so realistically -- and honestly. In addition, I thought Mr. Franklin's dialogue was spot-on, right down to the regional colloquialisms and dialect.

And that brings me to my next point... Mr. Franklin's descriptions of the setting. The book takes place in rural Mississippi (thus the title -- it's a rhyme to help kids remember how to spell Mississippi) and Mr. Franklin brought this small town to life. I could see and feel this town right down to the old jeep that Silas drove, to Larry's deserted automobile shop, to the woods where the girl's body was found. Mr. Franklin's word choice was so perfect -- it seemed as if each and every word was used to evoke a particular feeling in the reader.

Because CROOKED LETTER, CROOKED LETTER was such a great literary novel, I do think it would be a wise choice for book clubs. There is a reading guide available with 23 questions! Some of the topics you might want to discuss include honesty, betrayal, parent/child relationships, friendships, prejudice, deception, responsibility, and redemption. There are even some symbols in this novel that you could explore.

If you are a fan of literary suspense, then you won't want to miss CROOKED LETTER, CROOKED LETTER!

This book counts toward the Okra Picks Challenge and the Criminal Plots 2011 Challenge. Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this novel.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Giveaway: The Lincoln Lawyer Movie -- Books and Posters

Summary:  This #1 bestselling legal thriller from Michael Connelly is a stunning display of novelistic mastery - as human, as gripping, and as whiplash-surprising as any novel yet from the writer Publishers Weekly has called "today's Dostoevsky of crime literature."

Mickey Haller is a Lincoln Lawyer, a criminal defense attorney who operates out of the backseat of his Lincoln Town Car, traveling between the far-flung courthouses of Los Angeles to defend clients of every kind. Bikers, con artists, drunk drivers, drug dealers - they're all on Mickey Haller's client list. For him, the law is rarely about guilt or innocence, it's about negotiation and manipulation. Sometimes it's even about justice.

A Beverly Hills playboy arrested for attacking a woman he picked up in a bar chooses Haller to defend him, and Mickey has his first high-paying client in years. It is a defense attorney's dream, what they call a franchise case. And as the evidence stacks up, Haller comes to believe this may be the easiest case of his career. Then someone close to him is murdered and Haller discovers that his search for innocence has brought him face-to-face with evil as pure as a flame. To escape without being burned, he must deploy every tactic, feint, and instinct in his arsenal - this time to save his own life. -- Grand Central Publishing

It's not everyday that I get this excited about an upcoming movie, but I can barely wait for March 18th when The Lincoln Lawyer will be released! First of all, the movie is based on one of my all-time favorite books THE LINCOLN LAWYER by one of my all-time favorite authors Michael Connelly.

And if that's not enough, the movie stars Matthew McConaughey as Mickey Haller (oh my!) as well as Ryan Phillippe, Marisa Tomei, William H. Macy, Josh Lucas, John Leguizamo and more. Is that a great cast or what?

Check out the movie trailer (and get a sneak peek at Matthew McConaughey) here or read an excerpt from this fantastic book here. You can also Like the movie on The Lincoln Lawyer Movie Facebook page.

Thanks to the fine folks at Hachette, I have five copies of THE LINCOLN LAWYER (mass market) to share with five lucky readers. In addition, each winner will receive an official movie poster! To enter, just fill out the form below before February 10th at 11:59 p.m. ET. I will randomly select and notify the winners the following day. This contest is open to those of you with U.S. and Canada mailing addresses only. Good luck!

Review: The Weird Sisters

Summary: There is no problem that a library card can't solve. 

The Andreas family is one of readers. Their father, a renowned Shakespeare professor who speaks almost entirely in verse, has named his three daughters after famous Shakespearean women. When the sisters return to their childhood home, ostensibly to care for their ailing mother, but really to lick their wounds and bury their secrets, they are horrified to find the others there. See, we love each other. We just don't happen to like each other very much. But the sisters soon discover that everything they've been running from-one another, their small hometown, and themselves-might offer more than they ever expected. -- Amy Einhorn

Amy Einhorn has done it again -- another fantastic book! That's two in a row I've recently read and reviewed if you're counting. The latest book that I adored is Eleanor Brown's THE WEIRD SISTERS. This book actually had me from the first sentence of the description -- "There is no problem that a library card can't solve." What book lover doesn't understand that sentiment? And who can help but be drawn to a family that lives by that general motto?

THE WEIRD SISTERS really is "such stuff as dreams are made on." (Yes, that's a William Shakespeare quote!) I loved every page of this book -- from the characters, to the Shakespeare quotes, to Ms. Brown's writing. THE WEIRD SISTERS is just a wonderful read; and one that I will be highly recommending to all of my family and friends.

Any time I try to articulate my thoughts about a great book, I find it extremely difficult. There were so many special things about this story. I could start by telling you that I couldn't put this book down and I didn't want it to end, but I'm not sure that's going to make you pick up this book. Maybe I should just start with the character development -- I liked all three of the sisters and I felt as if I truly got to know then while reading this book. From all outside appearances, each sister was extremely different and I think readers will find one sister to which they can relate. Furthermore, I loved how each woman grew to not only discover things about herself, but also to make positive changes in her life based on that knowledge. In so many ways, it was a coming-of-age story for all three women! I think all three women realized in their own time that "To thine own self be true." (Yep -- another Shakespeare quote!)

In addition to the characters, I also loved how the sisters' relationship was portrayed. The quote on the front of the book kind of sums it all up -- "See, we love each other. We just don't happen to like each other very  much." These three women were so different from each other in many ways, and they experienced many of the same things that all siblings do -- jealousy, resentment, etc. But what I really appreciated about their relationship is that, for much of the story, they were unable to define themselves apart from each other. This aspect just made things so complicated for each of them.

Another amazing part about this story was Ms. Brown's writing style. I just loved it! I could go on and on about her prose, but I think I'll just feature one very special aspect of this novel which set it apart from so many other books about family dynamics. THE WEIRD SISTERS was written in "omniscient first person plural" -- that means the collective "we" instead of "I." I thought that by writing this novel in this fashion, Ms. Brown managed to effectively convey just how tightly linked these sisters' lives were.

You won't be surprised when I tell you that THE WEIRD SISTERS would make a fantastic book club selection -- and I'm pretty sure it will be a popular one for the next few years. There is a reading group guide available with seventeen discussion questions which I absolutely loved. They managed to capture the essence of the story while also challenging the reader to really think! Some of the topics you might want to explore include sibling rivalry, parent/child relationships, family dynamics, maturity, blame, illness, forgiveness and acceptance to name just a few. And make sure you also read the very interesting interview with Ms. Brown that is part of the guide.

As far as I'm concerned THE WEIRD SISTERS is another must-read book of 2011 -- boy am I on a roll! I loved everything about it especially Ms. Brown's writing style. I certainly hope that she is already working on another book because I have some advice for her -- If THE WEIRD SISTERS is any indication of your talent as a writer, "Be not afraid of greatness!" (That's another Shakespeare quote in case you were wondering!)

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