Monday, February 28, 2011

I Have My Own Domain Name....Finally!

It took some convincing, but I finally decided to make the switch to my own domain name. (Thank you, Kathy/Bermudaonion and Candace/Beth Fish Reads for all of your support and help!) You can now find me at:

If you continue to use the old url, it will redirect you -- or at least it seems that way right now. If you want to be sure, you can always update your reader. Please let me know if you have any problems!

Review: Messenger of Truth

Summary: London, 1931. On the night before the opening of his new and much-anticipated exhibition at a famed Mayfair gallery, Nicholas Bassington-Hope falls to his death. The police declare it an accident, but the dead man's twin sister, Georgina, isn't convinced. When the authorities refuse to conduct further investigations, Georgina takes matters into her own hands, seeking out a fellow graduate from Girton College: Maisie Dobbs, psychologist and investigator.

The case soon takes Maisie to the desolate beaches of Dungeness in Kent, as well as the sinister underbelly of the city's art world. She again uncovers the dark legacy of the Great War in a society struggling to recollect itself in difficult times. But to solve the mystery of the artist's death, she will have to remain steady as the forces behind his death come out of the shadows to silence her.

Jacqueline Winspear delivers another vivid, thrilling, and utterly unique episode in the life of Maisie Dobbs. -- Picador

MESSENGER OF TRUTH by Jacqueline Winspear has proven once again why I'm Mad for Maisie! I know I say something to this effect every time I read another Maisie mystery, but I think this one might have been my favorite. I know what you're thinking....until you read the next one!

I am not alone in my praise of MESSENGER OF TRUTH. It was a Sue Feder/Macavity Award for Best Historical Mystery Award Nominee a few years back, and I can certainly see why. Out of the four Maisie books that I've read, I found that MESSENGER OF TRUTH had the best mystery storyline and was probably the most traditional "whodunit." The mystery of this novel just seemed more complex, and a larger portion of the story pertained to the mystery.

I've said in my prior reviews that one of my favorite things about the Maisie Dobbs books was Maisie herself. I loved how these books were technically mysteries, yet delved so deeply into Maisie's character. In fact, the third books in the series, PARDONABLE LIES, really showed a great deal about the effects that Maisie's childhood and war experiences had on her. However, because the last book seemed almost as if the mystery storyline was secondary, I think I appreciated a little break from all of Maisie's issues and more focus on the crime. I think MESSENGER OF TRUTH was a fantastic followup to PARDONABLE LIES.

That's not to say that this book still didn't encompass everything I've grown to love about the Maisie books -- you know, all that Maisie character development. There still were quite a few scenes about Maisie's relationships, and I appreciated seeing how much she has grown throughout the series both as a detective, a friend, and a woman. I admit that I'm still curious about whether Maisie will ever be truly content and feel as if she "fits in" anywhere. I guess I'll learn more in the next four books.

I was very glad to see that Billy, Maisie's assistant, had a more important role in this novel, although what happened to him and his family saddened me. Despite the heartbreak, I did appreciate the storyline about Billy's daughter because it showed reality during this time period. In 1931 London, there were still many poor people who didn't have access (or couldn't afford) to get the health care they needed. Disease was rampant and many children were taken from their families in an effort to contain the sickness. It was all so sad to me to see how many people lived -- people who had sacrificed so much for their country.

Another wonderful part of MESSENGER OF TRUTH (and really all of the Maisie books) was how well the author established the setting. I enjoyed all of Ms. Winspear's descriptions about the people and places and even the artwork and decorating, but I absolutely love how she describes the fashions of the time. I can perfectly picture Maisie and I just adore all of the attention to detail.

As is the case with every Maisie book that I've read, MESSENGER OF TRUTH would be fun to discuss at your next book club meeting. There is a reading guide available which touches upon some very interesting topics. Some things you might want to explore include family dynamics, art and artists, the effects of war, the role of women, loss, grief, and the metaphor of dance. I have no doubt that any group would find a great deal to talk about from this novel.

MESSENGER OF TRUTH is the half-way point in the series, but it's still not too late to join in all the fun at Book Club Girl's Mad for Maisie readalong! (I must admit that I'm happy I've been able to keep up so far!) The books are relatively quick reads so you can try to catch up -- or just jump in and start the next one AN INCOMPLETE REVENGE.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Review: Letters from Home

Summary: Chicago, 1944. Liz Stephens has little interest in attending a USO club dance with her friends Betty and Julia. She doesn’t need a flirtation with a lonely serviceman when she’s set to marry her childhood sweetheart. Yet something happens the moment Liz glimpses Morgan McClain. They share only a brief exchange—cut short by the soldier's evident interest in Betty—but Liz can't forget him. Thus, when Betty asks her to ghostwrite a letter to Morgan, stationed overseas, Liz reluctantly agrees.

Thousands of miles away, Morgan struggles to adjust to the brutality of war. His letters from “Betty” are a comfort, their soul-baring correspondence a revelation to them both. While Liz is torn by her feelings for a man who doesn’t know her true identity, Betty and Julia each become immersed in their own romantic entanglements. And as the war draws to a close, all three will face heart-wrenching choices, painful losses, and the bittersweet joy of new beginnings. 

Beautifully rendered and deeply moving, Letters from Home is a story of hope and connection, of sacrifices made in love and war—and the chance encounters that change us forever. -- Kensington

I hesitate to even start my review like this... but when I first started reading LETTERS FROM HOME by Kristina McMorris, I wasn't sure that I was going to appreciate this novel. While I do enjoy fiction that takes place during WWII, the first few chapters of the book made me fear that this was going to be a sappy romance-type book -- not exactly my favorite genre. However, I have to give credit where credit is due. I was pleasantly surprised by the depth and scope of LETTERS FROM HOME, and I actually ended up enjoying this story (and the characters) a great deal.

LETTERS FROM HOME did have elements of romance, especially between the beautiful letters that went back and forth between and Liz and Morgan, but it wasn't heavy handed to me. Maybe I'm getting mushy in my old age, but I enjoyed seeing how their relationship grew through the almost-extinct craft of letter writing. In addition, I also really appreciated how these letters served another purpose to the reader -- showing the horrors of war through the eyes of a solider.

I think what made this book so special to me were the characters. I thought the author did a great job of developing each one and making them seem to real. LETTERS FROM HOME told the story of four different people -- Liz, Morgan, Betty and Julia. Each character's story was interesting (as were their background stories) and I thought the characters were surprisingly complex. In addition, I appreciated how each character evolved by the end of the novel -- war really does make people see things differently. Finally, I enjoyed that by "meeting" these four characters, the reader was able to see how the war affected not only the people fighting and working overseas, but also those who remained home.

LETTER FROM HOME is Ms. McMorris' debut novel and I think it's a very strong start. She did a good job with dialogue, character development and the setting; however, I think what I most appreciated about her writing was the passion in her words. It was evident that LETTERS FROM HOME was a labor of love for her, and I admit that I was touched by the inspiration for this novel. When Ms. McMorris was collecting recipes for a family cookbooks, she discovered love letters that her grandparents wrote to each other during the war. Reading these special letters gave her the starting point for her first novel.

I believe that LETTERS FROM HOME would make an interesting book club pick. Because the novel gives four different characters' stories, there is a great deal to discuss about their thoughts and actions. There is a reading guide available which touches upon some very important themes including letter writing, communication, the effects of war, friendships, responsibility and obligation, loss, parent/child relationships, the role of women, honesty, love, self-discovery, sacrifice and forgiveness. There are also some suggested activities to enhance your meeting like invitation and decor ideas, food and beverage suggestions, and even favor ideas. And if you really want to go all out, Ms. McMorris is available to chat with your group.

Ms. McMorris has a fantastic website which definitely captures the essence of LETTERS FROM HOME. There are details about the research that Ms. McMorris' conducted to write this novel, as well as some photographs and excerpts from her grandparents' letters. In addition, she has even included a few of the characters' favorite recipes (some also appear in the back of the book.) Maybe it's because I'm dieting, but I thought this one for Peach Basket Turnover sounded especially delicious:

Peach Basket Turnover

A tasty twist on pineapple upside-down cake, this was another of Liz's favorites made by Nana.

2 eggs (yolks and whites separated)
1/2 cup sugar
1 15 oz. cans sliced peaches in light syrup
1 cup flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt, divided
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup brown sugar
2 tablespoons butter

In a bowl, beat yolks with sugar until light. Drain syrup from canned peaches into a cup. Set peaches aside. Add 1/3 cup of the syrup to yolk mixture. Beat 5 minutes. Fold in egg whites. Sift together flour, baking powder, and 1/4 teaspoon salt. Blend with mixture and add vanilla. In a separate medium bowl, cream together brown sugar and butter, then add peaches and rest of salt. Spread peach mixture evenly in greased 8x8" baking pan. Pour batter over top. Bake at 400 degrees for 40 minutes or until done. Turn out upside down. Serve hot with whipped cream.

I found LETTERS FROM HOME to be a sweet novel that touched my heart. I recommend it to fans of women's fiction, romance and WWII historical fiction books.

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

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, February 26, 2011

Kid Konnection: More Fun 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 some fun picture books that Booking Son and I have been enjoying!

Summary: From the award-winning team behind A Curious Collection of Cats comes a new collection of visual poems celebrating all things canine—from obedience school, to backyard break outs, to flatulent Fidos. Whether your best friend is a plucky Jack Russell, an indecisive basset hound, or a poodle with an indiscriminate appetite, you're sure to find this dazzling display doggone delightful. -- Tricycle Press

A DAZZLING DISPLAY OF DOGS by Betsy Franco and illustrated by Michael Wertz was a huge hit with Booking Son... and me too! While it looks like a normal picture book from the outside, it is actually a book filled with lots of fun poems about dogs. Many of the poems are rather silly and that made them perfectly geared to my six year old son.

As much as we did enjoy the poems, I think the presentation of them was what made this book extra-special in my eyes. The illustrations are terrific and colorful, and they are whimsical too, which makes them ideal for these style of poetry. In addition, the text of the poems are even presented in an artistic way. Some poems have words that "travel," while others have words forming the shapes of dogs and other images.

I'm not sure my brief review did justice to A DAZZLING DISPLAY OF DOGS. It's one of those books that you just have to see for yourself.

Summary: Felicity likes adventures. Cordelia likes to stay home. While Felicity sets off on her hot air balloon, Cordelia picks berries and bakes pies. Through letters, paintings, and dreams, the two are never far apart. When Felicity runs into trouble on her trip, she knows that it's time to come back home.

This charming story of two unlikely friends shows that differences can be a good thing. -- Frances Foster Books

FELICITY & CORDELIA: A TALE OF TWO BUNNIES by Lisa Jahn-Clough is a cute book about two very different bunnies. Felicity is definitely the more adventurous of the two, and Cordelia is more of a worry-wart and homebody. When Felicity decides to take a trip in a hot-air balloon, the two friends realize just how much they care about each other.

Booking Son liked this story although he wasn't able to articulate why. (It could have been his mood because sometimes he does get tired of having to offer an opinion on every book!) I thought this book was very sweet and demonstrated that it's okay for friends to to be different. The story was told in a very gentle way and showed that while both Felicity and Cordelia realized their differences, they didn't find the need to disagree about them. As a mom, I liked that this book had strong messages about kindness, acceptance, and friendship.

In addition to the sweet story, this book also had some very cute illustrations. The pictures were simple, yet colorful, and even a provided a few laughs for Booking Son and me. I definitely think they were the perfect complement to the story.

FELICITY & CORDELIA is a precious book that will appeal to young children and parents alike.

Summary: Bestselling, award-winning author/illustrator Mark Teague makes readers laugh aloud when LaRue goes on vacation with Mrs. Hibbins's cats!

Ike's plans for a peaceful cruise with Mrs. LaRue are thwarted when their neighbor, Mrs. Hibbins, falls suddenly ill from heat stroke. Mrs. LaRue suggests that she and Ike care for her cats while Mrs. Hibbins is in the hospital, inviting them along on the cruise. But cats aren't allowed, and Mrs. LaRue decides to take them all on a week's vacation of road-tripping.

Ike begs and begs for bus fare in his letters to Mrs. Hibbins, but why does she not respond? As they drive farther and farther from the coast, his wistful dreams of a cruise fade into desperation over the desert horizon. Ike complains he is low on bones, and Mrs. LaRue is almost out of patience. It now seems that nothing short of an empty gas tank can bring this horror show of a road trip to a haulting stop. But then what?

Join Mark Teague on this wonderful romp of a road trip across America's immediately recognizable tourist destinations. Teague masterfully drives us to the story's very satisfying ending through his hilarious text and slyly smart paintings. We are left with one profound question: Can cats and dogs really be friends?!-- Scholastic

And last, but certainly not least is the new LaRue book LARUE ACROSS AMERICA: POSTCARDS FROM THE VACATION by Mark Teague. Three words for this book... Too Darn Cute! Both Booking Son and I loved it (although I'll admit that I might have enjoyed it a bit more than he did!)

Booking Son was so excited to receive LARUE ACROSS AMERICA because he had just brought home another LaRue book from the library a few days earlier. He thought it was "perfect timing." And I had to agree. I wasn't familiar with the LaRue books prior to last week, but now I can say I'm a huge fan. These books are terrific and have just enough humor that parents and children will want to read them over and over again.

The premise behind LARUE ACROSS AMERICA is that LaRue and his owner and going to go on a cruise for a vacation until they get stuck babysitting a neighbor's cats. Instead they decide to take a car trip across the country, and LaRue is far from happy about this. On each page, there are hilarious postcards written by LaRueLaRue is a hoot and had me laughing out loud on many occasions. One thing's for sure...that LaRue is one manipulative doggie!

I adore LaRue and his postcards, but I would be remiss if I didn't mention the illustrations in this book. They are spectacular! I love how LaRue is portrayed as well as the two cats (they are quite funny in their own way.) And I definitely appreciated how the pictures showed the characters playing at the various tourist attractions across the country like the Empire State Building, Dino-Land Theme Park, and the Grand Canyon. The pictures of the animals are hilarious and I might have even snorted when I saw LaRue and the cats riding a donkey along the Grand Canyon! And don't even get me started about the cats and the maracas...

LARUE ACROSS AMERICA is an extremely entertaining book, but it also had a cute message about unlikely friendships. I really can't rave enough about this book and I highly recommend reading it with the kiddo in your life!

Thanks to the publisher 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, February 25, 2011

Review: When We Were Strangers

Summary: "If you leave Opi, you'll die with strangers," Irma Vitale's mother always warned. Even after her beloved mother's passing, 20-year-old Irma longs to stay in her Abruzzo mountain village, plying her needle. But too poor and plain to marry and subject to growing danger in her own home, she risks rough passage to America and workhouse servitude to achieve her dream of making dresses for gentlewomen. 

In the raw immigrant quarters and with the help of an entrepreneurial Irish serving girl, ribbon-decked Polish ragman and austere Alsatian dressmaker, Irma begins to stitch together a new life . . . until her peace and self are shattered in the charred remains of the Great Chicago Fire. Enduring a painful recovery, Irma reaches deep within to find that she has even more to offer the world than her remarkable ability with a needle and thread. -- Harper

When I first read the description of WHEN WE WERE STRANGERS by Pamela Schoenewaldt, I had a pretty good idea that I might like this book. It seemed to embody so many of the things I love about historical fiction -- a strong female character, a coming-of-age story (of sorts), and an interesting setting. However, I had absolutely no idea how much I would adore this novel. The quality of this story and its overall effect on me even took me a bit by surprise.

I'm a little afraid that I'm going to sound over-the-top, but I thought WHEN WE WERE STRANGERS was wonderful! I loved the story, the characters and Ms. Schoenewaldt's writing style. Now it's true that I am drawn to stories about immigrants and especially ones from Italy; and I do love reading about the changes in America in the late 1800s. So WHEN WE WERE STRANGERS definitely had some things already in its favor, but it was the character development and the portrayal of immigrants' plights in our country that made this book extra-special to me.

I think one of the main keys to this book's appeal in my mind was the character of Irma. She truly is an incredible one and I can't get out her of my mind. (Isn't that always the sign of a special character?) I was deeply moved by her situation in Italy -- her mother was dead, her father was a mess, and there were no men left to marry in her small village; and I understood that she had no option but to head for America. Once she made the courageous decision to leave her family, her situation on the boat over was no less difficult. When she arrived in Cleveland (and later Chicago), she had to find a place to live and a job, and even learn a new language. She had to deal with prejudices against her just because she was an immigrant as well as huge feelings of loss and loneliness.

There is no doubt that Irma was one tough cookie. She found some friends and a great job in Chicago; and just when it appeared that things might be starting to work out for Irma, she was the victim of a horrific act of violence. And while I wouldn't have wished anything even close to this on my biggest enemy; in many ways, this act was a huge changing point for Irma. I felt as if the after effects of this "encounter" demonstrated that even bad things can bring something good to our lives. And I really loved that Irma was able to not only bounce back from this event, but become an even stronger woman as a result.

Not only did I love the story in WHEN WE WERE STRANGERS, but I appreciated how this novel made me feel. I mentioned that my heart broke over and over again for Irma (at times, I was even a little sick in my stomach); however, this novel also left me with so many wonderful thoughts. One message that I received loud and clear from WHEN WE WERE STRANGERS was about the beauty of human kindness. Based on Irma's story and her struggles, you might be surprised to hear that, but I loved that each time something awful happened to Irma, someone was there to help her. Often times, Irma had absolutely nothing -- no place to live, no job, no money, no friends, and really no where to turn; and it was the kindness of strangers and mere acquaintances that got her through. I found this novel to be such an uplifting story about how fellow man does come through when people are in need.

In addition, WHEN WE WERE STRANGERS gave me a deeper appreciation for my ancestors -- the ones who left their families and took the risk to come to America. Even though Irma was a fictional character, I kept thinking that elements of her story were probably true for many immigrants. Just imagine moving from a small town where everyone knew you to a big city where you knew no one. You could very well have had no family, no friends, no home, and no job; and it's likely that you didn't even speak the language. Personally, I would have been terrified and I'm not sure I could have done it. I'm just extremely thankful that my ancestors had the courage and foresight to come to a new country and make roots here.

Please consider WHEN WE WERE STRANGERS for a future book club discussion -- I'm almost begging you. I am pretty certain that everyone would appreciate this story, and as you can see, it's one that entertains and makes you think (and in the case of me, really feel!) There are so many things to talk about in this novel that you don't even need a readers guide, but here are the discussion questions

As if you couldn't tell, I highly recommend WHEN WE WERE STRANGERS! As far as I'm concerned, it's a must read for historical fiction fans and especially ones who appreciate stories about immigrants.

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

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Review: Georgia Bottoms

Summary: Georgia Bottoms is known in her small community of Six Points, Alabama, as a beautiful, well-to-do, and devoutly Baptist Southern belle.

Nobody realizes that the family fortune has long since disappeared, and a determinedly single woman like Georgia needs an alternative, and discreet, means of income. In Georgia's case it is six well-heeled lovers-one for each day of the week, with Mondays off-none of whom knows about the others.

But when the married preacher who has been coming to call (Saturdays) decides to confess their affair in front of the whole congregation, Georgia must take drastic measures to stop him. In GEORGIA BOTTOMS, Mark Childress proves once again his unmistakable skill for combining the hilarious and the absurd to reveal the inner workings of the rebellious human heart. -- Little, Brown

I have been a fan of Mark Childress' for quite awhile now -- long before my blogging days. I have enjoyed many of his novels, including CRAZY IN ALABAMA; and I just love how his books can make me laugh. And it's not only Mr. Childress' books that are funny! My book club was lucky enough to have him call a few years back to discuss his last novel ONE MISSISSIPPI. (Trust me, he kept us entertained!) So when I heard that his latest novel GEORGIA BOTTOMS was being published, there was no doubt that this fan would be checking it out!

I had a lot of fun with GEORGIA BOTTOMS, and this novel definitely made me remember why I like Mr. Childress' books so much. They are just pure entertainment and so much fun! GEORGIA BOTTOMS is humorous Southern fiction at its best -- don't be surprised to find yourself laughing out load at certain scenes. And it has a very memorable character in Georgia -- she's a modern day version of Scarlet O'Hara.

Tell me the premise of this book isn't original. Since Georgia's family no longer has their fortune, but they still have the expenses of their estate, Georgia turns to what Georgia does best -- she "entertains" men. In fact, she has a different man for every day of the week (although she does manage to take off one day a week!) When the Baptist minister almost announces their indiscretion to the entire congregation, Georgia kicks into survival mode. And, she does a fairly good job of damage control... or so she thinks.

The book's description really doesn't do this book justice since it only covers the first few pages of the novel. However, I don't want to give too much away about the rest of the story because I think it's best to just experience it. What I will say is that Georgia is surrounded by a hilarious cast of characters and the church scene is just the beginning of some extremely funny (and almost preposterous) experiences.

There is no doubt a great deal of humor in this story, and there are times that I found myself laughing at things that might not be perceived as funny (like dementia, broken hearts, and acts of desperation.) However, that's what makes Mark Childress books so terrific. They just make you smile and laugh at human nature. And don't think, based on this review, that this book doesn't strike a few serious chords. There are also some sweet and even touching scenes at the end of the novel which I appreciated even more because of all the silly ones.

GEORGIA BOTTOMS definitely read like a movie to me -- does that even make sense? What I'm trying to say is that I could picture the scenes and characters perfectly thanks to Mr. Childress' descriptions. In fact, I'm confident in saying that Georgia, her family and friends, and her antics are perfect for the big screen. It could happen considering that CRAZY IN ALABAMA was made into a movie with Melanie Griffith in 1999. Needless to say, I'll be anxiously awaiting to see if my prediction comes true!

GEORGIA BOTTOMS would certainly be an entertaining book for book clubs. I'm not sure it will appeal to those groups who are looking for a more "literary" read, but it your discussion would have the potential to be a lot of fun! Since Georgia is such a hoot, there wouldn't be a lack of conversation about her behavior and motivations. Plus, the theme of delicious food (which occurs everywhere in this novel) would provide for plenty of great serving ideas.

I found a great reading guide on Mr. Childress' site which includes not only some discussion questions, but also a possible menu and even some recipes. (The Coca Cola Cake sounds yummy, but I admit that I'd probably pass on the Miss Angie's Five-Layer English Pea Salad.) Some of the topics you might want to revisit include the theme of ants (yes you read that right!), friendship, female stereotypes, racial discrimination, dementia, desperation, parent/child relationships, secrets, guilt, and forgiveness.

If you are a fan of Southern fiction or you are just looking for a very funny read, then I highly suggest giving GEORGIA BOTTOMS a try!

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

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Review: The Tudor Secret

Summary: The era of the Tudors was one of danger, intrigue, conspiracy, and, above all, spies.

Summer 1553: A time of danger and deceit. Brendan Prescott, an orphan, is reared in the household of the powerful Dudley family. Brought to court, Prescott finds himself sent on an illicit mission to the king’s brilliant but enigmatic sister, Princess Elizabeth. But Brendan is soon compelled to work as a double agent by Elizabeth’s protector, William Cecil, who promises in exchange to help him unravel the secret of his own mysterious past.

A dark plot swirls around Elizabeth’s quest to unravel the truth about the ominous disappearance of her seriously ill brother, King Edward VI. With only a bold stable boy and an audacious lady-in-waiting at his side, Brendan plunges into a ruthless gambit of half-truths, lies, and murder. Filled with the intrigue and pageantry of Tudor England, The Tudor Secret is the first book in The Elizabeth I Spymaster Chronicles. -- St. Martin's Griffin

I just love C.W. Gortner! He has established himself as one of my favorite historical fiction authors with such fantastic novels as THE CONFESSIONS OF CATHERINE DE MEDICI (my review) and THE LAST QUEEN (my review.) Needless to say, I have been anxiously awaiting another book, and I'm so happy to say that it's now available. It's called THE TUDOR SECRET: THE ELIZABETH 1 SPYMASTER CHRONICLES (VOLUME 1), and I just have to tell you --Mr. Gortner has done it again!

I mentioned a few weeks ago that I haven't been reading as much historical fiction lately because I kind of have the blahs on the king and queen sagas. I'm pretty sure that it won't be a permanent departure, but I think I just need a little break. (Of course, I will continue to read my favorites like Mr. Gortner.) Having said that, you might be surprised that I enjoyed THE TUDOR SECRET as much as I did. I think one of the things that made this book so good is that it wasn't a typical Tudor novel -- it was so original. In fact, I found this book to be more intriguing than most because it was filled with spies, romance and secrets!

Unlike most Tudor books, THE TUDOR SECRET's main character and narrator, Brendan Prescott, is a fictional one. (Of course, there are lots of "real" characters too like Elizabeth I and The Dudley family members.) I just adored Brendan and thought he truly was a likable and charismatic character. Much of that credit goes to Mr. Gortner because he did a wonderful job of creating and developing Brendan. He allowed the reader to learn about Brendan's troubled childhood as well as to see what an honorable man he became. I, for one, think Brendan was a great character and a great hero; and I couldn't help but fall for him just a wee bit!

Many of the secondary characters were terrific too. I loved really liked Elizabeth's lady-in-waiting, Kate as well as the stable boy, Peregrine. I appreciated how Brendan's interactions with them were portrayed, and I especially liked the humorous aspects of their relationships. However, I also really liked the interpretation of Elizabeth I in this novel. I have read quite a few books about the queen, and most show a not-so-positive side of her. I thought Mr. Gortner's rendering was original and I appreciated seeing another aspect of her character.

Brendan (and many of the other characters) were one of the main reasons that I enjoyed this novel so much, but I'd be remiss if I didn't mention how great the story was too. In fact, it was difficult to put this book down because the pace of this book was so fast and so much was going on. Because THE TUDOR SECRET was a spy novel, the story had a lot of twists and turns and even a few surprises. Like Brendan, I was often times confused about various characters' motivations and who should be trusted. I also thoroughly enjoyed the romance aspect of the story. It wasn't a huge part of the story, but it was sweet and just right!

If you haven't read any of Mr. Gortner's novels, then you are definitely missing out. He is a marvelous writer and just does so many things so well. In THE TUDOR SECRET, he did a great job of bringing Brendan and the other characters to life; and he also created a unique and exciting story that's guaranteed to keep readers' interest. However, I wasn't surprised to learn that this novel was written prior to his other ones. (Evidently, he reworked it prior to publication.) While I still thought the book was very well written, I didn't feel as if it quite the same feel as his other two novels. For example, some of the descriptions in the first half of the novel seemed to be too flowery for my taste. I have a feeling that I'm just being picky, though -- THE TUDOR SECRET was still a great novel.

I also want to mention how impressed I was with Mr. Gortner's ability to bring this time period to life. It's apparent that he conducted a tremendous amount of research and really knows his stuff about the Tudors. Mr. Gortner certainly has a gift when it comes to taking the "facts" and incorporating just enough "fiction" with them to create a wonderful story. He truly is a masterful storyteller!

THE TUDOR SECRET would make a great book club pick, especially if your group is looking for something a little different from the other historical fiction fare out there. There is a reading guide included in the back of the book along with an author interview, a timeline, recommended reading suggestions and an interesting essay about Elizabeth I. If you decided to read THE TUDOR SECRET, some of the topics you might want to discuss include the characters' motivations, religious conflicts, the political environment, love, secrets, trust, honor and loyalty.

I'm excited to say that this novel is the first in a series of Elizabeth I Spymaster Chronicles! So that means, more Brendan and more of Mr. Gortner's fantastic writing. If you are a fan of historical fiction, then you definitely need to check out THE TUDOR SECRET (along with all of Mr. Gortner's novels.)

Thanks to the author for sending me a copy of his terrific novel.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Guest Review: Wrong

Summary:  Our investments are devastated, obesity is epidemic, test scores are in decline, blue-chip companies circle the drain, and popular medications turn out to be ineffective and even dangerous. What happened? Didn't we listen to the scientists, economists and other experts who promised us that if we followed their advice all would be well?

Actually, those experts are a big reason we're in this mess. And, according to acclaimed business and science writer David H. Freedman, such expert counsel
usually turns out to be wrong--often wildly so. Wrong reveals the dangerously distorted ways experts come up with their advice, and why the most heavily flawed conclusions end up getting the most attention-all the more so in the online era. But there's hope: Wrong spells out the means by which every individual and organization can do a better job of unearthing the crucial bits of right within a vast avalanche of misleading pronouncements. -- Little, Brown

I found the premise of WRONG: WHY EXPERTS KEEP FAILING US AND HOW TO KNOW WHEN NOT TO TRUST THEM by David H. Freedman to be extremely interesting, and it I had a feeling that it was a book that would appeal to my dad. I think you'll agree that this book makes some very good points... as does Booking Pap Pap's review. Here are his thoughts:

WRONG: WHY EXPERTS KEEP FAILING US AND HOW TO KNOW WHEN NOT TO TRUST THEM by David H. Freedman  is a book about the ways that experts of all ilk including scientist, management, media, economics and even the social network so often fail us. 

Freedman explains that many factors contribute to the current state of misleading scientific studies including the natural bias of the scientists, the human desire for quick solutions to complex problems and a sensation seeking media.  Even the competition among leading research universities vying for limited funds results in some erroneous scientific results.

Freedman argues that we all put too much trust in scientific studies that should be questioned.  His examples of studies with flawed results cover things such as popular medications, obesity, and stem cell research.  He contends that 2/3 of all medical findings published in medical journals are refuted within a few years.

The author also challenges the work of organizational experts who advise us of the best way to manage a company, financial experts who tell us the best place to put our money, sports experts who determine the best players and teams, and informal experts who tell of the best schools, best hospitals, and best cars.  He argues that these so-called experts are often peddling bad advice.

WRONG also takes on the media by pointing out that they are a ready partner reporting on studies without sufficiently reason checking the results.  A gullible public is also a willing participant in that they tend to believe everything the so-called experts say even when the results are too good to be true.  Freedman praises the information that is available on the social networks but cautions that expert information on the web is likely to have even less scrutiny than occurs in traditional media.

Freedman offers a simple solution to the problem.  Use some common sense and a little skepticism in evaluating experts in any field.

An interesting aspect of the book is that Freedman may be guilty of the same issues he criticizes.  He is a member of the media and an expert that quotes other experts to make his points.  Is it possible that his natural bias came into play in only selecting experts and studies that suit his arguments?  The author actually addresses this issue in an Appendix, although I’m not sure his argument is completely successful.

This book is not for the casual reader but anyone curious about the way experts go about their business might want to read WRONG.  Some of Freedman’s examples of bad expert advice and conclusions are of interest because they generally impact our everyday lives.
Thanks to the publisher for sending a review copy of this book and to Booking Pap Pap for his insightful review.

Giveaway: Three Copies of The Paris Wife

Summary: A deeply evocative story of ambition and betrayal, The Paris Wife captures a remarkable period of time and a love affair between two unforgettable people: Ernest Hemingway and his wife Hadley.

Chicago, 1920: Hadley Richardson is a quiet twenty-eight-year-old who has all but given up on love and happiness—until she meets Ernest Hemingway and her life changes forever. Following a whirlwind courtship and wedding, the pair set sail for Paris, where they become the golden couple in a lively and volatile group—the fabled “Lost Generation”—that includes Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, and F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.

Though deeply in love, the Hemingways are ill prepared for the hard-drinking and fast-living life of Jazz Age Paris, which hardly values traditional notions of family and monogamy. Surrounded by beautiful women and competing egos, Ernest struggles to find the voice that will earn him a place in history, pouring all the richness and intensity of his life with Hadley and their circle of friends into the novel that will become
The Sun Also Rises. Hadley, meanwhile, strives to hold on to her sense of self as the demands of life with Ernest grow costly and her roles as wife, friend, and muse become more challenging. Despite their extraordinary bond, they eventually find themselves facing the ultimate crisis of their marriage—a deception that will lead to the unraveling of everything they’ve fought so hard for.

A heartbreaking portrayal of love and torn loyalty,
The Paris Wife is all the more poignant because we know that, in the end, Hemingway wrote that he would rather have died than fallen in love with anyone but Hadley. -- Ballantine

I admit that I haven't had a chance to read THE PARIS WIFE by Paula McLain, and I rarely do giveaways for post that I haven't reviewed. However, I'm making an exception for this novel. I was pretty much sold on the idea of this book based on it's description, and then I read the latest Entertainment Weekly. They gave it an A-! Now, I just have to read it!

Here are links to some reviews of THE PARIS WIFE:

Entertainment Weekly
Books and Books

If you'd like to learn more about this novel, please check out the book's website. Not only can you learn more about the author, but you can also see some photos, a video, a timeline of Ernest Hemingway's life, and even a fact vs. fiction page. In addition, there are some great resources for book clubs including a reader's guide and recipes!

Thanks to the publisher and Entertainment Marketing Group, I have three copies of THE PARIS WIFE to share with three lucky readers! To enter, just fill out the form below before Monday, February 28th 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 US addresses only -- no p.o. boxes please. Good luck!

Monday, February 21, 2011

Review: Skipping a Beat

Summary: What would you do if your husband suddenly wanted to rewrite the rules of your relationship?

Julia and Michael met as high school students in their small, poverty-stricken West Virginia town. Both products of difficult childhoods—Julia's father is a compulsive gambler and Michael's mother abandoned his family when he was a young boy—they find a sense of safety and mutual understanding in each other. Shortly after graduation they flee West Virginia to start afresh.

Now thirty-somethings, they are living a rarefied life in their multimillion-dollar Washington, D.C., home. From the outside it all looks perfect—Julia has become a highly sought-after party planner, while Michael has launched a wildly successful flavored water company worth $70 million.

But one day Michael stands up at the head of the table in his company's boardroom—then silently crashes to the floor. More than four minutes later, a portable defibrillator manages to jump-start his heart. Yet what happened to Michael during those lost minutes forever changes him. Money is meaningless to him now—and he wants to give it all away to charity. A prenuptial agreement that Julia insisted upon back when Michael's company was still struggling means she has no claim to his fortune, and now she must decide: Should she walk away from the man she once adored, but who truthfully became a stranger to her long before his near-death experience—or should she give in to her husband's pleas for a second chance and a promise of a poorer but happier life? -- Washington Square Press

I should probably preface this review by telling you that I love Sarah Pekkanen! She truly is one of those authors who appreciate book bloggers (have you noticed her fabulous contests?) and she writes terrific books. Last year around this time, I read her debut novel THE OPPOSITE OF ME (my review) and really enjoyed it. I have been anxiously awaiting her follow-up novel ever since. It has felt like a long time (because I was so excited!), but SKIPPING A BEAT will be in stores tomorrow!

And I have to tell you that if you are a fans of women's fiction or Ms. Pekkanen, then you are going to want to read SKIPPING A BEAT. I absolutely adored this novel and I am confident in saying that it was even better than THE OPPOSITE OF ME. And that's really saying something because as far as I'm concerned THE OPPOSITE OF ME was a darn good book.

There are quite a few really good things that struck me about SKIPPING A BEAT. The book actually grabbed me from the get-go and held on the entire time. Just tell me the first sentence doesn't pull you right in:

"When my husband, Michael, died for the first time, I was walking across a freshly waxed marble floor in three-inch Stuart Weitzman heels, balancing a tray of cupcakes in my shaking hands."

When Julia goes to visit Michael in the hospital, she discovers that more than just his heart has started again -- he is actually an entirely different person. His suddenly realizes that his obsession with work wasn't worth what he had to give up in his personal life. He sees the errors of his ways and wants to make amends. And even more surprising to Julia is that he has now realizes how much he loves her and he wants to work on their marriage. The problem is that Julia isn't so sure she wants to be married to Michael anymore -- even if he is this "new" Michael.

I really appreciated how Ms. Pekkanen told Michael and Julia's story -- she alternated between the present and the past. It was a very effective way to pull me in and make me care about both Julia and Michael. The book follows how Julia and Michael met in high school and how they eventually arrived where they are today. Their high school romance is incredibly sweet as are their early adult years. However, when Michael becomes heavily involved in finding success and fame, Julia and Michael each start living their own lives. It's an unfortunate story, but one I'm certain many readers will relate to.

Michael realizes that he has been a neglectful husband to Julia, and he asks for just three weeks to prove himself again. During these three weeks, he not only makes amends to Julia, but also to an employee that he has wronged. I have to say that Julia is a much tougher sale than I would have been. I eventually grew to adore the "new" Michael and so wanted Julia to forgive him.

For whatever reason, SKIPPING A BEAT just resonated with me a little bit more than Ms. Pekkanen's first novel. True, I am married to my college sweetheart (Julia was married to her high school one) and I am closer to Julia's age, but that's where the similarities end. I am neither childless nor extremely wealthy, and I am still very happily married. I think that I was able to relate so much to Julia is a testament to how well the author developed her character. She was extremely real to me (despite her abundant wealth) and she was a character about whom I deeply cared. I especially loved how Ms. Pekkanen gave so much of Julia's background story (especially all of the issues with her father) because it allowed me to better understand her relationship (both past and present) with Michael.

Another thing that I really appreciated about this novel was how Ms. Pekkanen wove the theme of operas throughout the story. Julia was a huge opera fan and truly appreciated the beauty of the performances. Throughout SKIPPING A BEAT, the author demonstrated just how universal the arias were to not only Julia's life but everyone's. She paralleled various well known operas

The ending of SKIPPING A BEAT is heartbreaking and yet so beautiful. Yes, I did cry... and I didn't even mind. I love it when a book can make me feel so much. This novel not only had wonderful life lessons about love and loss, but it reminded me that I need to live each day to the fullest. In addition, I think this novel will cause me take a step back from the (sometimes) chaos in my own life and appreciate my husband, family, and friends even more.

SKIPPING A BEAT would be a perfect book to discuss with your friends. There is a reading guide available with some fantastic questions. Some of the themes you might want to explore include friendships, parent/child relationships, marriage, infidelity, trust, drive, dependency, addiction, sacrifice, forgiveness, and redemption. The publisher also has some ideas to enhance your meeting as well as a fun interview with Ms. Pekkanen.

Thanks to the publisher and author for sending me a review copy of this novel. I wrote this review in connection with a sweepstakes.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Guest Blogger: Deborah Coonts & Giveaway

I am extremely excited to welcome Deborah Coonts to Booking Mama. I recently read both of her Lucky O'Toole novels -- WANNA GET LUCKY? and LUCKY STIFF. You can read my reviews here and here.

I hope you enjoy Ms. Coonts's guest post as much as I did. I think you'll get a great idea about not only her background, but also her personality and sense of humor!


I know a lot of writers and they each have their own reasons for writing. Some love to play with words. Some love to craft devilish plots. Some love the fantasy. Me? I write because I am eminently unemployable.

I don’t play well with others, never did. And my mind seems to jump around like a water droplet in a hot skillet—either I am insatiably curious or I’m gluten-intolerant and have ADD—either way, boredom is an issue. I can’t imagine doing the same thing over and over, day in, and day out. If that had been my life, I would’ve punched my own clock years ago.

So, I make stuff up. It’s safer that way. Trust me.

According to my mother, I was born be a professional liar. However, back when my talent first reared its ugly head, I was punished for it, now I’m paid for it. Go figure. Ironic, isn’t it?

There’s a lesson in there somewhere and it is this: find your best thing and go with it. You laugh at the simplicity or even the innocence, but doesn’t it have the ring of truth? I know it does, you see, I’m proof.

A good observer, I learned early on that I was expected: to speak only when spoken to, to consider anything written by Emily Post to be second in importance only to the Bible, to be fluent in china and silver patterns and, to aspire to marry the scion of some oil family and join the Junior League. And if my husband was voted in as a member of the Dallas Country Club? Well, I would have achieved far beyond my potential. You see, I was raised in Texas during the last gasp of the Donna Reed era. Suffice it to say, brainpower was not in the top five traits most admired in a woman. Hell, it probably didn’t even make the list.

My grandmother used to tell me I was smart enough to play dumb. Apparently, she wasn’t accurate in that assessment. So, I retreated into stories where adventures awaited and I could be anything, do anything—the world was my oyster. 

Unfortunately, this forward-thinking ideal hadn’t reached my little corner of the universe.

I was told I had to become an accountant. I loathed accounting. Thus began a duplicitous existence. I studied accounting, but I also majored in kinesiology (Heretic that I was, I thought I wanted to be a doctor). I turns out neither was a good fit. But I didn’t know what was. I mean, who announces at twenty she is going to make a living as a novelist? Certainly not the little girl who was told she could aspire no higher than the Junior League.

A great disappointment to my southern friends and knowing there had to be more, I launched myself into the adventure of life. I’ve been everything from a mom (life’s very best adventure) and a wife (I’m not so well-suited for this one), a tax lawyer (boring), a business owner (close), a pilot and a flight instructor (sometimes too much of an adventure).

A veritable Walter Mitty, my well of human experience is deep. And since you gotta live it before you can write it, I’ve come full circle back to my best thing. But it wasn’t quite that simple. Oh, I started putting words on the page—long, rambling sentences, too much backstory, plots with holes you could drive a tank through, purple prose…drivel.

But I was writing! Watch out Sandra Brown!

And, over fifteen years later, I’m an overnight success.

Along the way I put in my 10,000 hours, my million words. And I learned some things along the way: I’m no Sandra Brown…no, I’ve got way too much funny bone. And I’m not terrified to speak in front of a crowd. Apparently I’m over 40/64th hambone. Who knew? God, don’t give me a mike and an audience, you’ll regret it. And I have a terribly inappropriate sense of humor, as my mother would tell me. To be honest, I like that part.

Finally, I am me.

Deborah Coonts's mother tells her she was born in Texas a very long time ago, though she’s not totally sure—her mother can’t be trusted. But she was definitely raised in Texas on barbeque, Mexican food and beer. She currently resides in Las Vegas, where family and friends tell her she can’t get into too much trouble. Coonts has built her own business, practiced law, flown airplanes, written a humor column for a national magazine, and survived a teenager. She is the author of the Lucky in Vegas series, featuring Wanna Get Lucky? and Lucky Stiff.

Giveaway alert: Since I just think these books are so much fun, I have a copy of WANNA GET LUCKY? to share with one "lucky" reader courtesy of the publisher. To enter just fill out the form below before Sunday, February 27th 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. addresses only. Good luck!

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Kid Konnection: President's Day Edition

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 few books that kind of, sort of fit with the President's Day Holiday (or at least our country's history!)

Summary: They weren't rock stars -- they were patriots! With an inventive story and charming pen-and-ink drawings, the contributor to favorites such as Math Curse and The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales introduces your child to four of the founding fathers as kids. Through tales of their youth, readers learn about the heroes' future endeavors. A true-or-false quiz at the end ensures that readers know the true facts behind Smith's imaginative rendering. -- Scholastic

I've been a big fan of Lane Smith's picture books for quite awhile now -- especially the recent  IT'S A BOOK (my review.) So when I was working the annual Scholastic Book Fair at our elementary school, I was thrilled to discover JOHN, PAUL, GEORGE & BEN. This book is adorable, educational, and could very well be one of my all-time favorite picture books. Don't you just love how the cover resembles another "Fab Four?"

JOHN, PAUL, GEORGE & BEN is a fun way to introduce some our country's forefathers to young kids. The book tells the stories of John Hancock, Paul Revere, George Washington, and Ben Franklin... and Thomas Jefferson (he's the fifth, but he's "always off doing his own thing.") There are a few pages devoted to each famous man, and children get an insight into some of their greatest achievements. At the end of the book, there are slightly more "serious" summaries of their accomplishments as well as a cute True/False quiz.

JOHN, PAUL, GEORGE & BEN is so much fun to read because the tone is very tongue-in-cheek and filled with lots of humor! In addition, the book is filled with adorable illustrations as only Lane Smith can create. There are lots of different fonts and font sizes to make things exciting, and many of the characters have hilarious expressions on their faces.

There are many things that I love about Lane Smith, but one of the best things about his books is the humor. This book made both Booking Son and me laugh out loud in places. I truly love that Mr. Smith realizes that picture books aren't just for little kids. He actually write books that appeal to both youngsters and their parents. I never tire of reading his stories.

This book is a must-read for children...and parents! Don't miss!

Summary: Eleven-year-old Abigail Jane Stewart's fictionalized diary about her life, family, friends, and neighbors, and the sides they have to choose in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, during the height of the Revolutionary War, renders a vivid portrayal of one of the most memorable and crucial winters in American history.

Abby's life with her family is quickly upended when they are awakened by the unfamiliar sound of drums. General George Washington is leading the Continental soldiers into their winter encampment at Valley Forge, PA. 

Hardship is a constant companion for soldiers and citizens alike throughout the winter, and in her diary, Abby pieces together the beauty, pain, and blessings of this long, revolutionary winter. -- Scholastic

I was so excited to discover that the Dear America series is making a comeback. I just love the idea of getting young girls interested in historical fiction during the late elementary and early middle school years. While my daughter has been reading books from this series for a few years now, I just recently started with DEAR AMERICA: THE WINTER OF RED SNOW - THE DIARY OF ABIGAIL JANE STEWART, VALLEY FORGE, PENNSYLVANIA, 1777 by Kristiana Gregory. As a fan of historical fiction, I just loved this book and can't wait to read more from this series!

THE WINTER OF RED SNOW tells the story of Abigail Jane Stewart and how her family becomes involved in the Revolutionary War. When General George Washington, the leader of the Continental Army, camps his soldiers at Valley Forge, right next to the Stewart home, Abigail's family has to decide which side they want to give their loyalty. I felt as if this book did a good job of representing the dilemma that many families faced.

The entire story is written in the form of Abigail's diary, and I think this first person narrative is extremely effective -- especially for young girls. I know, as a child, that I loved to read first person accounts of stories. I think it was made me more deeply involved with the characters' plights. In THE WINTER OF RED SNOW, I felt as if the author effectively captured the essence of Abigail, and I'm pretty sure that young girls will find themselves relating to some of Abigail's thoughts and actions.

In addition to the story, there are also some terrific learning tools at the end of this book. There is a "Historical Note" which gives some facts about the American Revolution and many maps, pictures, clippings from the time period. I can only imagine how much kids (and teachers) are going to like reading the Dear America series to supplement some of the boring old textbook information!

This novel is a fantastic way for girls to learn about the horrific winter at Valley Forge as well as the sacrifices so many Americans made to gain their freedom. I highly recommend this book!

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

Summary: Introducing the first title in a series of full-color historical graphic novels-each focusing on a key moment in American history, and dropping readers headlong into the conflicts, the characters, and the events' lasting impact on American culture and government.

In Road to Revolution!, Nick and Penny-an orphan and a tavern owner's daughter-find themselves in the thick of the conflict as the colonists prepare to revolt against the British military. -- Bloomsbury

ROAD TO REVOLUTION!: THE CARTOON CHRONICLES OF AMERICA by Stan Mack and Susan Champlin is a great way for middle-schoolers to learn about the history of America's revolution. This book is actually a colorful graphic novel that is very fun to read -- both for kids and adults. Not only is this book educational, but it also has eye-catching illustrations.

I really liked this book and I thought the story was exciting. I'm pretty certain that it will appeal to kids even more than me. The book takes place in Boston right before the war against England and gives readers an inside look into not only some of the actions that brought on the revolt, but also some of our country's major players in our history. The fictional characters of Nick and Penny are great too, and I can definitely see how their smarts and bravery will appeal to kids.

As a mom, I can't rave enough about this book. I think even reluctant readers will be drawn to the graphical novel format as well as the story. I also liked all of the "extras" in the back of the book -- from the chapter-by-chapter breakdown explaining what was fact versus what was fiction to the teacher's guide. There is even an interview with the authors as well as some great discussion questions. I would love to see books like this one being used in the classroom to make learning more fun!

Thanks to the publisher for providing an ARC of this graphic novel. (Note: My ARC was not full-color.)

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!