Thursday, March 31, 2011

Review: The Girl Who Would Speak for the Dead

Summary: Emily Stewart is the girl who claims to stand between the living and the dead. During the quiet summer of 1925, she and her brother, Michael, are thirteen-year-old twins-privileged, precocious, wandering aimlessly around their family's estate. One day, Emily discovers that she can secretly crack her ankle in such a way that a sound appears to burst through the stillness of midair. Emily and Michael gather the neighborhood children to fool them with these "spirit knockings."

Soon, however, this game of contacting the dead creeps into a world of adults still reeling from World War I. When the twins find themselves dabbling in the uncertain territory of human grief and family secrets-
knock, knock-everything spins wildly out of control. -- Amy Einhorn

For whatever reason, when I first picked up THE GIRL WHO WOULD SPEAK FOR THE DEAD by Paul Elwork, I thought it was a going to be a ghost story; and if I'm being entirely honest, I'm usually not a big fan of ghost stories. Maybe it was the title or even the cover that had me thinking this book was going to be a little creepy, but I wasn't sure if this was going to be a book that would appeal to me. And then I reminded myself that it was an Amy Einhorn book and I usually appreciated books from this imprint. Plus the reviews for the novel were extremely good, so I thought I'd give it a try.

And boy am I glad I did! I thoroughly enjoyed THE GIRL WHO WOULD SPEAK FOR THE DEAD, and this novel definitely ended up being more than just a story about some kids and ghosts. I read the entire book in just a day because I was so intrigued with not only the plot and the characters, but also the author's writing style. This novel was just a genuinely good story filled with a little intrigue, some mystery, and lots of family secrets. However, it was how this book explored grief that really resonated with me and made this book so special.

THE GIRL WHO WOULD SPEAK FOR THE DEAD tells the story of twins Emily and Michael. When Emily discovers that she can mysteriously make her ankle "knock" without moving, the twins decide to turn Emily's new talent into something a bit more interesting -- they pretend that the knocking sounds are ghosts speaking through Emily! At first, they entertain their friends and neighborhood children, and it's all fun and games; but it suddenly becomes much more serious when Emily begins using her skills to help adults contact their lost loved ones.

While this novel is definitely less about hauntings than I was expected, I still found it to be rather haunting (in a totally different way, of course.) In fact, I was pleasantly surprised by the direction this story took because it became much more somber, dark, and even tragic. What was seemingly an innocent childhood prank eventually became bigger than Emily could handle when she began speaking with adults, and specifically one of her friend's fathers. As Emily "spoke" with this man about his son who died during the War, she learned how incredibly large this man's grief was and how his pain encompassed his entire being. She quickly realized she was in way over her head with her game.

I definitely found THE GIRL WHO WOULD SPEAK FOR THE DEAD to be an all-consuming read. There is no doubt that I was anxious to see where the story and characters were going to go; and there was just enough family secrets to keep things interesting. However, what I most appreciated about this novel were the many serious themes that this book explored. I was blown away by how this book handled the issue of grief as well as the many different ways that people deal (or don't deal) with it. In addition, I was impressed with how well this book demonstrated the desperation certain people have to contact their lost loved ones and learn that there is some sort of peace for them.

THE GIRL WHO WOULD SPEAK FOR THE DEAD would make an interesting book club pick. I wasn't able to find a reader's guide on-line, but I do think there is plenty to discuss without the need for formal questions. Of course, the major themes that jump out to me are grief and loss, but there are also some interesting family secrets to talk about. Some of topics that you might find interesting include guilt, family dynamics, love, passion, war, desperation, forgiveness, and deception.

If I haven't convinced you to give THE GIRL WHO WOULD SPEAK FOR THE DEAD a try, then maybe the starred Publishers Weekly review will! Trust me... this book is not to be missed.

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

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Review: Catfish Alley

Summary: Roxanne Reeves defines her life by the committees she heads and the social status she cultivates. But she is keeping secrets that make her an outsider in her own town, always in search of acceptance. And when she is given a job none of the other white women want-researching the town's African-American history for a tour of local sites-she feels she can't say no.

Elderly Grace Clark, a retired black schoolteacher, reluctantly agrees to become Roxanne's guide. Grace takes Roxanne to Catfish Alley, whose undistinguished structures are nonetheless sacred places to the black community because of what happened there. As Roxanne listens to Grace's stories, and meets her friends, she begins to see differently. She is transported back to the past, especially to 1931, when a racist's hatred for Grace's brother leads to events that continue to change lives decades later. And as Roxanne gains an appreciation of the dreams, courage, and endurance of those she had so easily dismissed, her own life opens up in new and unexpected ways. -- NAL Accent

I would consider myself a pretty big fan of Southern fiction despite spending almost my entire adulthood in the North. Maybe it's because I grew up in the South, but I have a feeling that Southern Fiction is just one of those genres that I truly appreciate. While I have read many terrific books that take place in the South over the past few years, I'm always on the lookout for new Southern authors or new Southern books. And that's how I discovered CATFISH ALLEY by Lynne Bryant.

CATFISH ALLEY tells the story of two very different women and their unlikely friendship. Roxanne is a middle-aged white woman who is extremely concerned about her social status, while Grace is an elderly black woman who lives in a plantation house. When Roxanne begins looking into the town's African-American history to see which sites might be included on a historic tour, her research takes her to Grace. Throughout the course of the novel, Roxanne not only learns about the history of Grace and other black families; but in the process, she also gains some wonderful friends and learns more about herself than she ever imagined possible.

I adored CATFISH ALLEY for so many reasons. First and foremost, it's just a good story with good characters. I found myself caring about all of the characters a great deal, especially Grace and Adelle; and I was anxious to learn about their pasts. Even Roxanne, who was a little difficult to like right off of the bat, captured my heart as I realized what a rough time she had dealing with her many insecurities. In addition, I liked the way that Ms. Bryant told this story. Much of the story took place during the present, but when Roxanne talked with Grace and others to learn more about the town's black history, the author used flashbacks to share the details about the events that occurred past. I thought the flashbacks were extremely effective because they kept my attention and, at the same time, made me desperate for more! Through all of Grace's stories, there were hints and references to some major events; and Ms. Bryant revealed the characters' stories in very smart tidbits.

CATFISH ALLEY has been compared to THE HELP a few times, so I wasn't necessarily surprised that I enjoyed this story. However, I was a bit surprised by how much this book affected me. Like many Southern stories, CATFISH ALLEY deals with how poorly whites treated blacks in the past. There are very sad and even disturbing scenes in this story about how blacks were persecuted in the early 1930s including beatings, rapes and lynchings. Part of me was disgusted and embarrassed by these stories, while the other part of me just cried. I have to tell you that so many of the characters' recollections just broke my heart.

But I also appreciated how the author demonstrated what is occurring in present day life between the races. Through the use of Roxanne and Grace, Ms. Bryant showed that we still have a long way to go before there will be full integration. For example, in the story, Roxanne is upper middle class life and basically has little interaction with African Americans (except for her housekeeper whom she only exchanged brief, transactional conversation.) Now, it's been awhile since I've lived in the South (and I never did live in the Deep South), but I felt as if the portrayal of these interactions between the races were pretty authentic.

Another thing that I enjoyed a great deal about this novel was the message about the basic goodness in people. No doubt there were some awful people in this story, but CATFISH ALLEY showed the strength and resilience of quite a few characters -- especially Grace, Adelle, and Mattie. They all had to deal with horrible setbacks and losses, yet they maintained their dignity (and their friendship) and eventually turned these negative events into positives. These three women were truly amazing!

I also loved the changes that occurred in Roxanne's character. She wasn't the most likable character when the story began, but I soon realized that she was carrying some baggage from her childhood which affected her ability to truly like herself. I loved that Roxanne eventually allowed herself to open up and truly hear Grace's stories, and she eventually didn't care about her social status. She realized that true friendships are way more important and valuable than what her snooty "friends" message thought of her. CATFISH ALLEY was a sweet story about the ultimate power of female friendships, and you know how I'm a sucker for books with that message!

There is an extremely interesting Author's Notes section at the end of this book which provided me with some addition insight into the story as well as Ms. Bryant's inspiration for the novel. The author gives a little bit of her history growing up in the Deep South, and I have to say that I loved her honesty. She even mentions in how oblivious of race she was growing up as a white child in the South, "We played separately, ate separately, shopped separately. And when my own daughter graduated from new Hope twenty-five years later, in 2002, there was still a black homecoming queen and a white homecoming queen."

CATFISH ALLEY should be a book that a lot of groups choose to discuss, and there is a terrific reading guide available in the back of the book to help facilitate conversation. There are so many important themes to talk about like race, prejudice, segregation, and the past. However, there are also some interesting (and universal) topics like loss, forgiveness, acceptance, redemption, self-confidence, mother/daughter relationships, and friendship which run throughout the story. The story in CATFISH ALLEY is one that I think most readers will appreciate; however, I think the real beauty of this novel is that it will cause many people to reflect on their own lives and their own behavior. I believe that there are some valuable lessons in this story!

While there is no denying that some of the scenes in this book are downright ugly, I felt as if CATFISH ALLEY was ultimately a book about hope and friendship. I highly recommend it!

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

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Review: The Uncoupling

Summary: When the elliptical new drama teacher at Stellar Plains High School chooses for the school play Lysistrata-the comedy by Aristophanes in which women stop having sex with men in order to end a war-a strange spell seems to be cast over the school. Or, at least, over the women. One by one throughout the high school community, perfectly healthy, normal women and teenage girls turn away from their husbands and boyfriends in the bedroom, for reasons they don't really understand. As the women worry over their loss of passion, and the men become by turns unhappy, offended, and above all, confused, both sides are forced to look at their shared history, and at their sexual selves in a new light.

As she did to such acclaim with the
New York Times bestseller The Ten-Year Nap, Wolitzer tackles an issue that has deep ramifications for women's lives, in a way that makes it funny, riveting, and totally fresh-allowing us to see our own lives through her insightful lens. -- Riverhead

I have been so excited to read THE UNCOUPLING by  Meg Wolitzer ever since my book club discussed Ms. Wolitzer's THE TEN YEAR NAP a few years ago. While I admit that THE TEN YEAR NAP wasn't one of my all-time favorite reads, it did generate one of my group's best discussions ever. In addition, it really made me think about my role as a mother and wife as well as my career (or should I say lack thereof?) I had high hopes that THE UNCOUPLING would be another book that caused me to have more of these thought-provoking discussions.

And I am very happy to say that THE UNCOUPLING did not disappoint. In fact, I thoroughly enjoyed THE UNCOUPLING and actually thought it was a much easier (and enjoyable) read than THE TEN YEAR NAP. I'm not sure it "hit home" for me quite as much as THE TEN YEAR NAP, but it definitely entertained me a great deal and I adored all of the social commentary on women and their "relationships" with men. Having said that, I have plenty of friends who I'm pretty sure will relate to the "spell" that came over the women in the novel.

I have to say that THE UNCOUPLING has one of the most unique premises that I've come across in recent reading. Basically, a "spell" is cast over the women of this town where they no longer want to have sex with their husbands/significant others. Oddly enough, this spell occurs at the same time a new drama teacher begins auditioning for the school play Lysistrata. For those of you not familiar with this Greek comedy, it's a story about women who stop having relations with their men in order to stop a war. Needless to say, the women are confused about their behavior and changes of heart, while the men are just really confused... and frustrated.

I was extremely impressed with Ms. Wolitzer's ability to make this story work... because, if I'm being honest, this story seemed a little out there for me. One of the things that I most appreciated about this story is that the book almost seemed like a fairy tale of sorts. There was a magical quality to a few of the characters along with that whole "spell" business. And while parts of the story were mythical, the overall themes are guaranteed to resonate with female readers. I loved how the author was able to not only tie-in the story of Lysistrata with modern day women, but also provide some commentary (and potential food for thought) on the war in Afghanistan. And I loved the symbolism/comparison between the "spells" which cause humans to fall in love as well as the ones which cause them to fall out of love (or lust!)

Another thing that I really enjoyed about this book was that the chapters alternated between a variety of characters. This novel wasn't just a predictable story about middle-aged women who are fed up with their husbands and sex lives. Rather, Ms. Wolitzer showed how the spell affected all types of women (and also all ages of women.) It was interesting to see how each woman handled the sexual changes in her relationship, but I found it especially fascinating how each women then reflected on their own lives and needs and ultimately, their own happiness.

Ms. Wolitzer did a fabulous job with this novel and I really can't stress how terrific of a writer she is. Much of her prose is beautiful, but I most appreciate how spot-on her thoughts are about human nature... and specifically female nature. I definitely enjoyed all of the satire and humor that were woven into this story, and I admit that I did find myself chuckling a few times over the men's reactions to their women! One thing's for sure...Meg Wolitzer has an uncanny ability to make readers see (and think about) themselves through the characters that appear in her books.

The only negative thing I have to say about THE UNCOUPLING is that I was left wanting more. You see, I immediately felt the need to discuss the story with my friends. I'm not sure our conversation would be quite as open as it was for THE TEN YEAR NAP, namely because the subject matter tends to be more personal. However, I do think this book is perfect for female book clubs. There is an excellent reading guide available which delves into many interesting topics. Some things you might want to talk about include desire and loss of desire, marriage, sex, apathy, falling in love and falling out of love, and attraction.

I thought THE UNCOUPLING was a fantastic read and I highly recommend it to fans of women's literary fiction!

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

Monday, March 28, 2011

Review: Among the Mad

Summary: Christmas Eve, 1931. On the way to see a client, Maisie Dobbs witnesses a man commit suicide on a busy London street. The following day, the Prime Minister’s office receives a letter threatening a massive loss of life if certain demands are not met--and the writer mentions Maisie by name. Tapped by Scotland Yard’s elite Special Branch to be a special adviser on the case, Maisie is soon involved in a race against time to find a man who proves he has the knowledge and will to inflict destruction on thousands of innocent people. 

In Among the Mad, Jacqueline Winspear combines a heart-stopping story with a rich evocation of a fascinating period to create her most compelling and satisfying novel yet. -- Picador

AMONG THE MAD by Jacqueline Winspear is the sixth book in the Maisie Dobbs series. If you recall, I am participating in Book Club Girl's Mad for Maisie readalong where I am attempting to read all eight of the Maisie Dobbs books in a little over two months. While I definitely love the books in this series and recommend them to fans of both historical fiction and mysteries, I admit that I kind of wish I had spaced reading these books out over a longer period of time. Not so much because I haven't enjoyed all of the books, but rather because it's getting so darn hard to write these reviews!

AMONG THE MAD was actually a little different from the other books that I've read in the Maisie Dobbs series. I don't want to make it sound like all of these books are the same or that the stories even run together, because that's not the case. However, AMONG THE MAD had a different feel to it... and it was exactly what I needed to happen at this point in this series. AMONG THE MAD still had the terrific mystery aspect as well as the characters I've come to know and love, but the pace of this book was much faster. Maisie, working as a special advisor to Scotland Yard, was attempting to find the identity of a crazed man who was threatening to inflict damage on innocent people. The clock was ticking and the sense of urgency was apparent throughout the novel.

As is the case in all of the Maisie Dobbs books, I appreciated that the author continued to keep the theme of war (and the effects on its victims) as a major part of this story. I don't want to give anything away because I truly thought the mystery in this story was very intriguing, but Maisie ended up discovering an extremely scary (and very believable) scenario that was primarily the result of the war effort on a few troubled individuals. I actually thought the crime, the motivations for the crime as well as the crime's resolution might have been the most interesting of any Maisie Dobb case yet.

In addition to the mystery surrounding the "mad" man behind the crimes and threats, I also appreciated how this book explored depression and mental illness. I did find this book to be rather dark and many of the characters actions were disturbing to me, but I thought they all seemed to be realistic. In addition, I loved how the author showed two very different (and equally serious) ways to grieve. Ms. Winspear did a great job of juxtaposing how one character didn't have the ability to stop looking back and living in the past while another character couldn't handle moving forward. Both charaters were almost paralyzed because of their grief and fears.

Another thing I liked about this book is that it touched upon so many topics that are relevant today. Even though this book took place in London in 1931, I was surprised to see how many of the political and economical issues mentioned in the novel are still occurring today. For example, political activism, terrorism, and a struggling economy are incredibly timely in today's world; and I definitely can see how desperate times call for desperate measures.

While much of AMONG THE MAD did deal with some very sobering issues, I enjoyed seeing how Maisie's character continues to change. There is no doubt that she is still dealing with the effects of the war on her life; however, I sense that Maisie can finally release some things from her past and move on with her life. I was happy to see that Inspector Stratton had a larger role in this novel, and I also liked seeing Maisie's personal interactions with her friends, co-workers, and even some potential suitors!

AMONG THE MAD would make for a very interesting discussion book club discussion. There is a great reading guide which brings to light many of the fascinating issues addressed in this novel. I have to warn you, though, that the discussion questions do include some spoilers. Some of the topics you might want to talk about include depression/mental illness, activism, the effects of war, friendships, dependency, and terrorism.

I sure hope by now that I've convinced some of you to give the Maisie Dobbs series a try! These books really are highly entertaining and thought provoking!

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

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

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Review: Home to Woefield

Summary: Prudence Burns, a well-intentioned New Yorker full of back-to-the-land ideals, just inherited Woefield Farm—thirty acres of scrubland, dilapidated buildings, and one half-sheared sheep. But the bank is about to foreclose, so Prudence must turn things around fast! Fortunately she'll have help from Earl, her banjo-playing foreman with a family secret; Seth, the neighbor who hasn't left the house since a high school scandal; and Sara Spratt, an eleven-year-old who's looking for a home for her prize-winning chickens. 

Home to Woefield is about learning how to take on a challenge, face your fears, and find friendship in the most unlikely of places. -- Harper

I admit that I first was attracted to HOME TO WOEFIELD by Susan Juby because of the cover. I have never considered myself to be a huge chicken fan, but there's just something about that little bird that made me want to pick up this book. Of course, the blurb on the cover from Meg Cabot didn't hurt either. But in reality, it was the overall story itself that drew me in. I just adore books with quirky characters that embody the true meaning of friendship.

I found HOME TO WOEFIELD to be a delightful story. It is a relatively quick read and I found it to be funny (sometimes hilarious) and at the same time, heartwarming. While I could never in a million years imagine leaving New York City to live on (and work) a run-down farm, I loved that Prudence embraced her decision to make a go of things. In some ways, I thought Prudence was living in la-la land (and it did provide for some comic relief), however, I actually ended up respecting her hard work and eternal optimism.

But it was her supporting cast at the farm that really charmed my heart. There is no doubt that each of Prudence's "helpers" were a bit odd in their own way, but I prefer to think of them as rather interesting and eventually downright lovable. In fact, Woefield Farm kind of reminded me a little bit of the Land of Misfit Toys. One character was a crotchety old farmer who had some family baggage, while another one was a hair band groupie who also happened to be a recluse with a drinking problem. There was also a very sweet young girl who wanted to find a home for her chickens while at the same time escape from her troubled family home. This might sound silly, but I thought Woefield Farm fit right in as another character in this book. The characters and the farm were all a bit damaged, and just needed a little tender loving care to blossom!

HOME TO WOEFIELD was just an entertaining book that also warmed my heart. As I mentioned earlier, I love books about unlikely friendships, and there is no doubt that, at its very essence, HOME TO WOEFIELD showed the importance of the support of friends. In addition, I really appreciated some of the other themes that the characters embodied including standing up to a challenge, going outside one's comfort zone, and staying true to what one believes. It was because of these sweet messages that this book gave me the warm fuzzies!

HOME TO WOEFIELD would make a fun book club pick. There is a reading guide available which explores some of the topics I mentioned above. In addition, your group might want to talk about the definition of family, abuse, addiction, fear, assumptions, values versus opinions, forgiveness, redemption, and the role of satire in this novel. There are quite a few things to discuss, plus you could serve some dishes made with local ingredients.

One more thing: Book Club Girl is hosting a BlogTalk Radio show with Susan Juby on April 5th at 7:00 ET. I am excited to say that I will be participating in this show and I have a few questions that I'm anxious to ask the author. It's not too late for you to read this charming book in preparation for the radio show! You can set a reminder for the show here.

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

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Kid Konnection: Picture Books for Little Ones

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 picture books that we've been enjoying in our house over the past few weeks.

Summary: Learning—and using—Yiddish is fun for the whole family, from the youngest mamaleh to the oldest bubbe and zaideh. Introduced to America as the mother tongue of millions of Jewish immigrants, Yiddish has made its way into everyday English. The sprightly, rhyming text follows a toddler through a busy day and is peppered from beginning to end with Yiddish words. Oy!—will everybody kvell when they hear their little ones spouting words from this most expressive of languages. Here are just a few that are included in this sturdy board book: bissel—little bit; ess—eat; kibitz—joke around, chat; klutz—clumsy one; kvell—burst with pride, gush; kvetchy—dissatisfied, whiny.-- Random House

NOSH SCHLEP SCHLUFF BABYIDDISH by Laurel Snyder and illustrated by Tiphanie Beeke was a very cute and original book. Basically, this sweet little board book introduces children (and probably some parents) to some basic Yiddish words. The book is written in short phrases rhyming text so it's quick to read and perfect for little ones! Booking Son wasn't exactly the targeted age range for this book -- he's six (and a half, he'd add) -- but he liked the illustrations and the "funny sounding words."

I realize that this book is geared towards toddlers, but I have to be honest. I used this book to introduce Yiddish to my son and explain that it was the language spoken by Jewish immigrants. In addition, there were a few words that he recognized, like klutz, so I'm hoping that I was able to explain how words from other languages become common in our everyday lives.

I just love the author of this book, Laurel Snyder! I was fortunate enough to spend some time with her last year at the 2010 Lititz Kid Lit Festival, and I was deeply impressed with her passion to write culturally diverse books. I can't remember ever reading a book like this as an adult or a child, and I think it's terrific that she's sharing her heritage with so many children!

Summary: Stunning photographs of wild African elephants are paired with rhyming, toddler-appropriate action verbs. Babies and toddlers will delight in seeing elephants of all sizes in their natural habitat as they romp, stomp, stretch, step, splash, dash, and more. This is the 14th book in the popular Busy Book series.-- Tricycle Press

BUSY ELEPHANTS by John Schindel and Martin Harvey is another very cute board book. Needless to say, Booking Son considers himself way too old for board books, but this one was simple enough that he treated it as a "learn to read" book. Plus, what kid can resist these gorgeous photographs of elephants?

BUSY ELEPHANTS is ideal for toddlers! The book is small enough for the littlest of hands to hold and there are very few words on each page. I think my kids could have even sat still for this book when they were younger. Each page of the book begins with the text, "Elephants..." (i.e. Elephants meeting, Elephants, greeting, etc.) It's pretty catchy and easy for kids to chime in!

BUSY ELEPHANTS is the 14th installment in the Busy Book series. I wasn't familiar with these books prior to reading this one, but I will definitely be checking out the rest of this series for potential gift ideas. I am a huge sucker for pictures of animals (and especially jungle ones), and I thought this book was adorable. Highly recommended for little ones and animal lovers!

Summary: This delightful board book captures the affection and playfulness of grandmother and grandchild interaction with a clever, funny text and illustrations that are right on the mark.  The rhyming couplets also teach about animal behavior, which comes to life in Hiroe Nakata's sweet and charming artwork. -- Robin Carey Books

Attention all you grandmas out there, I have a precious book for you! It's called GRANDMA CALLS ME GIGGLEPIE by J.D. Lester and illustrated by Hiroe Nakata, and it's one of those sweet books that you and your little grandkids will love!

GRANDMA CALLS ME GIGGLEPIE is another board book (we've been receiving quite a few of these lately) that is perfect for little ones. Each spread of the book shows a very special grandma and her grandchild (the book includes humans, bears, pigs, and even apes); and it also lists many silly names that the grandmas call their grandbabies (like Gigglepie, Snaggletooth, and Slurpy-Slopp.)

In addition to the funny, rhyming text, the illustrations in this book are adorable. I love the colorful pictures of the grown-up and baby animals, and I think each and every pictures captures the fun that grandmas and grandchildren can share.

GRANDMA CALLS ME GIGGLEPIE is one of those books that will bring a smile to your face because it shows the bond between grandmothers and their grandkids! Definitely recommended!

Summary: Press the yellow dot on the cover of this book, follow the instructions within, and embark upon a magical journey! Each page of this surprising book instructs the reader to press the dots, shake the pages, tilt the book, and who knows what will happen next! Children and adults alike will giggle with delight as the dots multiply, change direction, and grow in size! Especially remarkable because the adventure occurs on the flat surface of the simple, printed page, this unique picture book about the power of imagination and interactivity will provide read-aloud fun for all ages! -- Chronicle Books

I saved our review of PRESS HERE by Herve Tullet for last because it was Booking Son's absolute favorite book from last week. Of course, in all fairness, it was the only one actually geared towards his age range. Both of us absolutely adored this book and it's already been read over and over again!

I actually wish I had taped our bedtime reading of this book because it was so funny. Booking Son couldn't stop giggling -- it was pretty much all-out belly laughs with a few snorts thrown in. The concept behind PRESS HERE couldn't be simpler. The book is filled with colorful dots that change in appearance as the reader interacts with the book. For example, the reader is asked to press the buttons, tilt the book, shake the book, etc.; and as he/she turns the page the dots "react" to what the reader did. But why this book is so original is that it's not actually filled "real" buttons or any technology of any sorts. It's all done with illustrations of the dots as well as the child's imagination!

I absolutely can't rave enough about this book. It was so much fun to "play" with the dots and then see what they were going to do! Both Booking Son and I couldn't stop laughing as we realized the dots changed sizes and moved across the pages. For a few minutes, I think Booking Son was a bit confused about what to make of PRESS HERE. He wasn't quite sure how the dots knew what to do, and I'm pretty sure that he thought the book was magical!

I love that the end of this book sets up the reader to start all over again -- and so did Booking Son. Now, he's reading the book and playing with it on his own. Yay for books that make him want to read by himself!

PRESS HERE is sure to be a hit in your house -- just like it was in ours! VERY HIGHLY RECOMMENDED -- a MUST-READ book for kids of all ages!

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, March 25, 2011

Review: Between Shades of Gray

Summary: Lina is just like any other fifteen-year-old Lithuanian girl in 1941. She paints, she draws, she gets crushes on boys. Until one night when Soviet officers barge into her home, tearing her family from the comfortable life they've known. Separated from her father, forced onto a crowded and dirty train car, Lina, her mother, and her young brother slowly make their way north, crossing the Arctic Circle, to a work camp in the coldest reaches of Siberia. Here they are forced, under Stalin's orders, to dig for beets and fight for their lives under the cruelest of conditions.

Lina finds solace in her art, meticulously-and at great risk-documenting events by drawing, hoping these messages will make their way to her father's prison camp to let him know they are still alive. It is a long and harrowing journey, spanning years and covering 6,500 miles, but it is through incredible strength, love, and hope that Lina ultimately survives.
Between Shades of Gray is a novel that will steal your breath and capture your heart. -- Philomel

I debated saving my review for BETWEEN SHADES OF GRAY by Ruta Sepetys for a future Kid Konnection post (it's technically classified as Young Adult), but I decided that I adored this book so much that I didn't want to wait to share my thoughts with you. I thought this novel was amazing! I was blown away by how much this book affected me... and is still affecting me. I'm afraid that I'm not going to be able to articulate myself very well because not only do I want to gush about this book, but I was also so deeply touched by the story that it's hard for me to compose myself enough to write.

There truly are so many wonderful things about this novel that I'm probably only going to be able to skim the surface in this review. (That means that you have to read this book yourself to get the full appreciation of it!) I was extremely impressed with the character development, the storyline, and especially the author's writing style. Everything just seemed to work perfectly in this novel.

BETWEEN SHADES OF GRAY tells the story of Lina, a 15 year old Lithuanian girl who, along with her mother and brother, is deported to Siberia in 1941. The book begins with their removal from their home and follows their horrific travels to Siberia as well as many of the years they spent at a Soviet labor camp. The story is told in Lina's voice and includes many flashbacks of her normal life prior to the evacuation. Needless to say, this novel is deeply disturbing just based on the subject matter alone. I cried quite a few times and I even had that queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach for much of the time.

However, and this is a big however, as horrific as the events were that Lina's family experienced, I thought this book was beautiful.... and showed the power of love and hope. I loved Lina -- for her strength and her resilience and her courage and especially her ability to share her story through words and art. She was an amazing young girl and one that I won't soon forget, and I thought the author did a remarkable job of capturing her essence.

In addition to Lina, I thought many of the supporting characters were interesting. I truly appreciated how the author showed the complexities of the characters' lives and the different ways people coped (and weren't able to cope) with this horrific situation. I don't want to give too much away, but I loved how Lina learned to "see past the surface" of many of the people she encountered during her time at the labor camp. For example, Andrius and his mother, the Soviet soldier, and the grumpy bald man all demonstrated that their actions weren't black and white -- that their behavior lies somewhere "between shades of gray."

I would be remiss if I didn't mention the character of Lina's mother. While she wasn't the main character (and it wasn't her story), she was my absolute favorite character in the entire book. Maybe it's because I am a mother and her entire ordeal hit a little closer to home for me, but I thought she epitomized everything wonderful about a mother's love. Not only did she stay strong for her children as well as deeply sacrifice for them, she just demonstrated through her daily actions how to live a life with so much grace.

BETWEEN SHADES OF GRAY would make a marvelous book club pick. In fact, I'm pretty sure this one is going to be making appearances at many book clubs over the next few years -- kind of like THE BOOK THIEF. The author has a great page on her website devoted to book clubs. You will find a listing of the various themes for discussion which appear in the book as well as some extremely thought-provoking discussion questions. I am so excited about this reader's guide because it's just so good and it's appropriate for teens and adults alike! Some of the concepts that you might want to delve into include persecution, war, survival, determination, perseverance, fear, courage, memory, art, sacrifice, and the will to live. These are all fascinating to think about in their own right, but what I also loved most about the guide is that it included some questions about the literary aspects of the novel. For example, there is a question about how a certain character acts as a catalyst for Lina's actions.

BETWEEN SHADES OF GRAY is a beautiful book and one that I will be strongly recommending to everyone I know. It's one of those stories that will not only touch your heart but quite possibly change the way you  live your life.

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

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Review: The Dressmaker of Khair Khana

Summary: The life Kamila Sidiqi had known changed overnight when the Taliban seized control of the city of Kabul. After receiving a teaching degree during the civil war—a rare achievement for any Afghan woman—Kamila was subsequently banned from school and confined to her home. When her father and brother were forced to flee the city, Kamila became the sole breadwinner for her five siblings. Armed only with grit and determination, she picked up a needle and thread and created a thriving business of her own. 

The Dressmaker of Khair Khana tells the incredible true story of this unlikely entrepreneur who mobilized her community under the Taliban. Former ABC News reporter Gayle Tzemach Lemmon spent years on the ground reporting Kamila's story, and the result is an unusually intimate and unsanitized look at the daily lives of women in Afghanistan. These women are not victims; they are the glue that holds families together; they are the backbone and the heart of their nation. 

Afghanistan's future remains uncertain as debates over withdrawal timelines dominate the news. The Dressmaker of Khair Khana moves beyond the headlines to transport you to an Afghanistan you have never seen before. This is a story of war, but it is also a story of sisterhood and resilience in the face of despair. Kamila Sidiqi's journey will inspire you, but it will also change the way you think about one of the most important political and humanitarian issues of our time. -- Harper

I'm sure this is going to sound familiar to some of you book bloggers out there. Do you ever get frustrated because you have so many review commitments and can't actually "get" to some really good books on your shelves? I know I constantly struggle with this -- so many good books, so little time! So when I picked up my People Magazine a few days ago and saw a Four Star review for THE DRESSMAKER OF KHAIR KHANA by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, I decided that I had to read I just dropped everything and spent a few uninterrupted hours reading this book.

And boy am I glad I did because I thought THE DRESSMAKER OF KHAIR KHANA was an excellent book. I couldn't put this book down. It only took a few pages for me to become caught up in the incredible story of Kamila and her family. I was blown away by the strength and resilience (not to mention the courage) of Kamila. But at the same time, I was appalled by the changes that occurred in Afghanistan after the Taliban took over the government. There were times when I couldn't believe that these events were happening in our world, and I was deeply angered and, at the same time saddened, that so many innocent people's lives were destroyed. As I read this book (and even for days after), I couldn't help but reflect on world events as well as how incredibly fortunate I was just to be born in the United States.

I am still reeling from Kamila and her family's story. Kamila is truly an incredibly person (as were her sisters, her parents, and so many women in this story.) After the Taliban took over, Kamila's parents left Khair Khana and Kamila was desperate to find a way to support her brother and sisters. Kamila decides to become a seamstress and sell her wares to various stores in Kabul. Consider that this is in a time when women couldn't walk the streets with a male chaperone and women were required to be full covered and only had a very small opening through which they could see.

What's even more unbelievable to me is that Kamila didn't even know how to sew when she came up with this plan -- that's how resourceful and determined she was to provide for her family. Somehow, Kamila not only learned to sew, but had much success in selling her outfits to local stores. In addition, Kamila felt as if she had to help more than just her family -- she truly wanted to help others. So she hires other women from her neighborhood to sew and that still wasn't enough. Kamila then she begins school to teach women how to be seamstresses. And Kamila didn't stop there. She has devoted her life to helping women in unfortunately situations.

And this is the part of my review which probably is going to sound a little strange. While I did adore THE DRESSMAKER OF KHAIR KHANA (and I truly did), I still felt as if this book could have had more details. I'm not one for adding unnecessary pages to a book just to make it longer; however, I felt as if I was left wanting a little bit more information. I absolutely adored Kamira and her sisters, yet I felt as if I wasn't able to truly connect with them. I understood their stories and their actions, but I wanted more about their feelings and fears. Does that make sense?

Having said that, I was still so moved by this book and I thought the story was quite powerful. Of course, I was disheartened by everything that has occurred in Afghanistan; however, this book absolutely showed that beautiful things can come out of any tragedy. Through Kamila's story, I was reminded of how strong and courageous people can be when facing challenges. In fact, I thought THE DRESSMAKER OF KHAIR KHAHA was one of the most inspiring books I've read in recent memory.

I do think this book would make an excellent pick for book clubs. It is not only educational, but it reflects on so many universal themes about humankind. There is a reading guide available which touches upon many of the things I've mentioned in this review like the role of women, family dynamics, responsibility, resourcefulness, etc. However, it also brings to light some questions about faith, economic hardships, oppression, and war. There is quite a bit to discuss and I think most female book groups would love to delve into this story.

Needless to say, I highly recommend THE DRESSMAKER OF KHAIR KHANA! It's a must-read as far as I'm concerned.

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

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Review: Unfamiliar Fishes

Summary: Many think of 1776 as the defining year of American history, when we became a nation devoted to the pursuit of happiness through self- government. In Unfamiliar Fishes, Sarah Vowell argues that 1898 might be a year just as defining, when, in an orgy of imperialism, the United States annexed Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and Guam, and invaded first Cuba, then the Philippines, becoming an international superpower practically overnight.

Among the developments in these outposts of 1898, Vowell considers the Americanization of Hawaii the most intriguing. From the arrival of New England missionaries in 1820, their goal to Christianize the local heathen, to the coup d'├ętat of the missionaries' sons in 1893, which overthrew the Hawaiian queen, the events leading up to American annexation feature a cast of beguiling, and often appealing or tragic, characters: whalers who fired cannons at the Bible-thumpers denying them their God-given right to whores, an incestuous princess pulled between her new god and her brother-husband, sugar barons, lepers, con men, Theodore Roosevelt, and the last Hawaiian queen, a songwriter whose sentimental ode "Aloha 'Oe" serenaded the first Hawaiian president of the United States during his 2009 inaugural parade.

With her trademark smart-alecky insights and reporting, Vowell lights out to discover the off, emblematic, and exceptional history of the fiftieth state, and in so doing finds America, warts and all. -- Riverhead Books

I can say without any reservation that UNFAMILIAR FISHES by Sarah Vowell is not a book that I'd usually go out of my way to read. It's pretty much a history book (which I don't tend to "do") about Hawaii (somewhere I've never even visited.) But I have heard so many great things about Sarah Vowell that I wanted to give one of her books a try. I figured I might as well start with her most recent, and I think I'm glad I did.

I actually was surprised by how much I enjoyed UNFAMILIAR FISHES because first, and foremost, it was a history book; and I usually prefer to get my history lessons from historical fiction. However, I have to say that if I'm going to read a non-fiction book, then UNFAMILIAR FISHES definitely appealed to me. I certainly liked the way that Sarah Vowell presented the information with her brutal honesty and caustic wit. I'd go so far as to say that this book was almost an irreverent account of Hawaii's history (and definitely not one you'd get in any textbook), but at the same time, I'm sure it's true (and much more interesting!)

UNFAMILIAR FISHES tells the story of the Americanization of Hawaii. While I knew next to nothing about Hawaii's entrance into the United States prior to reading this book, I can't say that I was entirely shocked with how we "acquired" the territory -- although I can say that I was saddened. The book covers some of Hawaii's history and background. It also tells about when New England missionaries came to teach the natives about Christianity and how their ancestors eventually overthrew the queen. Much of this story is fascinating, as are the characters involved (in fact, I would have loved more information about the Hawaiian queen because she sounded like an amazing woman); and I definitely found parts of this book to be pretty darn incredible.

UNFAMILIAR FISHES is a relatively short book (around 230 pages), but it does give a nice overview of Hawaii's history and its annexation into the United States. While I did appreciate learning so much about Hawaii as well as the United States' attempts to impose their beliefs of self-government on Hawaii (and many other countries), I think I most enjoyed Sarah Vowell's voice. She has a unique way of "telling it like it is" and I thought her insight was so refreshing. (Why couldn't I have had a history teacher like this when I was in school?) My only regret with this book is that there weren't more of her reflections and wise-cracking comments on Hawaii's history!

Sarah Vowell made learning fun for me, and as a result, I definitely want to check out more of her books. I'm thinking that an audio one might even be interesting. For those of you who've read her books, which title do you recommend for me? And, should I give an audio one a try?

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

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Review: The Four Ms. Bradwells & Giveaway

Summary: Meg Waite Clayton’s national bestseller The Wednesday Sisters was a word-of-mouth sensation and book club favorite. Now the beloved author is back with a page-turning novel that explores the secrets we keep, even from those closest to us, and celebrates the enduring power of friendship.

Mia, Laney, Betts, and Ginger, best friends since law school, have reunited for a long weekend as Betts awaits Senate confirmation of her appointment to the Supreme Court. Nicknamed “the Ms. Bradwells” during their first class at the University of Michigan Law School in 1979—when only three women had ever served full Senate terms and none had been appointed to the Court—the four have supported one another through life’s challenges: marriages and divorces, births and deaths, career setbacks and triumphs large and small. Betts was, and still is, the Funny One. Ginger, the Rebel. Laney, the Good Girl. And Mia, the Savant.

But when the Senate hearings uncover a deeply buried skeleton in the friends’ collective closet, the Ms. Bradwells retreat to a summer house on the Chesapeake Bay, where they find themselves reliving a much darker period in their past—one that stirs up secrets they’ve kept for, and from, one another, and could change their lives forever.

Once again, Meg Waite Clayton writes inspiringly about the complex circumstances facing women and the heartfelt friendships that hold them together. Insightful and affecting,
The Four Ms. Bradwells is also a captivating tale of how far people will go to protect the ones they love. -- Ballantine

It seems like I've been waiting for THE FOUR MS. BRADWELLS by Meg Waite Clayton for a very long time. It actually has been a few years since I read (and really enjoyed) THE WEDNESDAY SISTERS, and I have been anticipating Ms. Clayton's next novel ever since. When I heard that THE FOUR MS. BRADWELLS was another story about a group of women and their friendship, I had a feeling that I was going to be in for a treat. Just in case you don't know, I love books that explore women and their relationships.

And THE FOUR MS. BRADWELLS certainly was a treat. I'm not sure that I appreciated it quite as much as THE WEDNESDAY SISTERS, but there were many things that made this book special to me. First and foremost is Ms. Clayton's writing. I just love it! She has the wonderful ability to create memorable characters and an intriguing story while also causing the reader to think. Needless to say, that's a very special skill.

Another thing that made THE FOUR MS. BRADWELLS so special was that there was a mystery incorporated into the story. There are quite a few books out there that do a good job with handling the interactions between different generations of women, but I must say that the mystery surrounding the death of a family friend that occurred over 30 years ago brought the book to the next level for me. I definitely kept reading because I just had to discover the events surrounding the death/suicide and I desperately wanted to know how each woman was involved.

While the suspense and intrigue definitely piqued my interest, I was also extremely impressed with how the author represented the strength of female friendships as well as how complex these relationships can be over the course of a lifetime. These four women were extremely human (and by that I mean flawed), and their relationships represented their weaknesses and insecurities (and of course their loyalty to each other.) As a reader, I just loved how "real" their interactions seemed. I was also extremely impressed with how Ms. Clayton also managed to show the dynamics between mothers and daughters (another one of my favorite topics in literature.) And as if that wasn't enough, she also made some very interesting social commentary on the changing/evolving role of women in society.

While I enjoyed this novels and the characters, I initially had a hard time keeping track of the characters. The book is told in each of the four women's voices, and I didn't get a grasp on their backgrounds and their distinct personalities as early as I would have liked. In addition, I had some issues with how the story jumped back and forth between the present and the past -- I got a little confused with the transitions. I'm more than willing to admit that these issues are mine and mine alone. I was probably just preoccupied when I read the book, and I sincerely doubt most readers will share my view.

As was the case with THE WEDNESDAY SISTERS, I think THE FOUR MS. BRADWELLS lends itself to a fantastic discussion. I'm betting that this book will also be a big hit with female book clubs. There is a very thought-provoking reader's guide which I found on the author's website. It has thirteen excellent questions which cover a wide variety of topics. Some of the issues that you might want to discuss include friendships, love, mother/daughter relationships, violence against women, role models, family dynamics, secrets, and the role of women in society as well as how it's changed throughout the years. Besides including this discussion guide, the author also has another feature for book clubs which I absolutely adore. She has a table of contents with quite a few "chapters" which provide insight into her writing and the book. For example, there is a section on "A Short Timeline of Women in Politics and the Law, America-Style" and other ones on the setting, poetry and even pearls!

While I can't say that I enjoyed THE FOUR MS. BRADWELLS quite as much as THE WEDNESDAY SISTERS, I still thought the book was a very good read. And it's definitely one that I recommend to fans of Meg Waite Clayton and literary women's fiction as well as book clubs!

I reviewed this novel as part of a TLC Book Tour. You can check out the entire tour schedule here.

Thanks to TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of this novel.

Giveaway alert: I have a copy of THE FOUR MS. BRADWELLS to share with one lucky reader courtesy of the publisher. To enter, just fill out the form below before Monday, April 4, 20011 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!

Monday, March 21, 2011

Review: Learning to Swim

Summary: When she witnesses a small child tumbling from a ferry into Lake Champlain, Troy Chance dives in without thinking. Harrowing moments later, she bobs to the surface, pulling a terrified little boy with her. As the ferry disappears into the distance, she begins a bone-chilling swim nearly a mile to shore with a tiny passenger on her back.

Surprisingly, he speaks only French. He’ll acknowledge that his name is Paul; otherwise, he’s resolutely mute.

Troy assumes that Paul’s frantic parents will be in touch with the police or the press. But what follows is a shocking and deafening silence. And Troy, a freelance writer, finds herself as fiercely determined to protect Paul as she is to find out what happened to him. What she uncovers will take her into a world of wealth and privilege and heedless self-indulgence—a world in which the murder of a child is not unthinkable. She’ll need skill and courage to survive and protect her charge and herself.

Sara J. Henry’s powerful and compelling Learning to Swim will move and disturb readers right up to its shattering conclusion. -- Crown

How could I not want to read LEARNING TO SWIM by Sara J. Henry after a description like that? The entire premise for the book sounded so good, and those last few words ("move and disturb readers right up to its shattering conclusion") absolutely put me over the edge. This book sounded like one that I couldn't afford to miss.

I have to say that I really enjoyed LEARNING TO SWIM and it definitely kept me on the edge of my seat. It was an action-packed mystery that kept me guessing all the way to the end. In fact when I realized that there weren't many pages left in the story and I had no idea how it was going to end, I began questioning how the author was going to wrap up the story so quickly. Needless to say, she did while also managing to pack a pretty powerful punch! And when that "shattering conclusion" finally occurred, I admit that I was kind of blown away -- my jaw might have even dropped and I quite possible let out a little gasp! Maybe some readers are more astute than I am, but I didn't see this coming one little bit!

I found LEARNING TO SWIM to be a terrific mystery. It was full of action, suspense, and surprises -- really, everything I look for in a good mystery book. However, I also thought this book had some additional strong qualities. For example, I really liked the character of Troy and thought she was developed fairly well for a character in this genre. Troy was extremely likable, but she was also rather complex and multi-dimensional (and maybe even a bit of a mess.) She has commitment/relationship problems with men and she was kind of estranged from most of her family; however, she immediately bonded with Paul, the little boy that she rescued, and felt almost a maternal instinct towards him.

This might sound strange, but I was actually surprised by how much LEARNING TO SWIM kept me guessing. In some mystery books (namely cozies), I don't spend much time trying to solve the crime. I just sit back and enjoy the story. Well in the case of LEARNING TO SWIM, I definitely enjoyed the story, but I didn't find myself sitting back too often. Rather, I was more on the edge of my seat and took a much more active approach to figuring out the crime. There were characters that I really wasn't sure whether Troy should trust, and I found myself both wanting to restrain her as well as hit her upside the head. For whatever reason (and it probably is a credit to the author), I felt as if I were part of this story.

While I certainly enjoyed the ride that LEARNING TO SWIM took me on, I have to mention that there were a few parts of the story where I felt as if I had to suspend reality. For example, right off the bat, I had some issues with why Troy kept the child rather than turning him over to the authorities. Of course, if she had done that, there wouldn't have been a story, but it seemed a little odd that she just took the little boy home with her. I guess I understand that Troy was worried about what would happen to him if she let him go, but it was still a little leap for me. To give the author credit, she did address Troy's thought process and behavior in the next chapter, and she convinced me enough that I didn't dwell on it longer than a minute or two.

LEARNING TO SWIM is Sara J. Henry's debut novel, and I think it's a fabulous start. I couldn't put this book down because it was just so intense -- from the crime, to the characters, to the mystery, to the twists! I actually can't wait for another one of her books, and I'm even hoping to see the character of Troy again. At the end of LEARNING TO SWIM, the situation with Troy's personal life was left open-ended enough that it's entirely possible for her to return to solve another mystery!

I highly recommend LEARNING TO SWIM to fans of mysteries/thrillers as well as fans of women's fiction.

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

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Mystery Mondays

Over the past few weeks, I've read quite a few mysteries -- mainly because of Book Club Girl's Mad for Maisie Readalong -- and I've found that I'm really enjoying them. I used to read all types of mysteries prior to my blogging days, but for some reason, it seems like I've almost forgotten about these books. While I do read a fair amount of books each year, I seem to be reading less and less mysteries in favor of other genres.

So you might ask where am I going with this post? Well, I decided that I've had so much fun reading mysteries lately that I want to continue to do so. While I could set an unofficial blogging goal to "read more mysteries", I wanted to do something a little more exciting. And then it came to me... I could do "Mystery Mondays" posts. Basically, I thought it might be fun to share a weekly review for a mystery book every Monday. It could be a traditional mystery, a suspense or thriller, or even a cozy.

Now, I realize that I'm setting my sights pretty high by attempting to write a weekly review. And I am almost certain that I won't succeed all of the time. But either way, expect to see a lot more reviews of mystery books on this blog!

Come back tomorrow for my first installment of Mystery Mondays -- my review of LEARNING TO SWIM by Sara J. Henry.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Kid Konnection: I See I Learn 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 a couple of books from the Stuart J. Murphy's I See I Learn series. The intent of this series is to help young children learn the skills they need to help them prepare for school and daily life. The I See I Learn series is organized around four critical learning domains:

* Social Skills
* Health and Safety Skills
* Emotional Skills
* Cognitive Skills

Summary: Sometimes Percy gets upset. He scowls and stamps his feet. But when he learns to take a deep breath, count to ten, and talk about his feelings, he can calm down. When Percy's not upset, he can have fun again! -- Charlesbridge

The first I See I Learn book that Booking Son and I read was PERCY GETS UPSET. The premise of this book is one to which both of my children definitely could relate, and one with a very important lesson. When Percy gets mad, he tends to show his temper and misbehave. With the help of his mother, he realizes that there are other ways to deal with his anger instead of acting out.

While this book is actually geared towards two to five year-olds, I was still curious to get Booking Son's impressions. He did think the book was a bit babyish; however, he laughed a lot at Percy's behavior. (Little did he know that he does all of those things on occasion!) I could also see his little mind churning while I was reading the more constructive ways to deal with anger.

At the end of the story, there is a flowchart of sorts that reviews the basic ideas of the story. For instance, there are parallelograms that show the various feelings a child can have when they are upset, and there are ovals which show the different ways that children can stop being upset. There is also a page titled "A Closer Look" which has questions that the reader can ask to the child. These questions are designed to help the child apply the lessons in the story to their own lives.

For each book in the I See I Learn series, there is a list of reasons why the book is good for your brain. In the case of PERCY GETS UPSET, the reasons include Picture Text Connection, Sequencing, Character and Plot Development. In case you're interested, this book belongs to the domain "Emotional Skills: Dealing with Frustration."

Summary: Camille loves to build sand forts at the beach. But it's hard to build a big fort alone. Camille and her friends make a plan. They find that they can get more done--and have more fun--when they work together. -- Charlesbridge

We also read CAMILLE'S TEAM which shows little ones the benefits of working in a group and planning. When Camille goes to the beach and decides to build a sand fort, her friends all want to build their own ones too. It doesn't take long for the animals to realize that they can make a bigger sand fort if they work together and break up the tasks.

Booking Son also liked this book and its lessons, but I do think it will be better appreciated by a preschool audience. There are very few words on each page and the book is phrased rather simply, so even the youngest preschoolers can easily grasp the messages.

At the end of this book, there was a page with a cute summary of the story. It was actually four little pictures with arrows between them showing the order of the lesson. If you make a plan and then work together, you can share the fun and therefore cooperate! It's hard to argue with a message like this one, especially if you've ever been the parent of a strong-willed child. There are also a few questions at the end of the story which help to facilitate further discussion with the child.

Like the book PERCY GETS UPSET, CAMILLE'S TEAM also has some reasons listed as to why this book is good for children's brains. Picture Text Connection, Sequencing, Character and Plot Development are specifically mentioned. And if you're wondering, CAMILLE'S TEAM belongs to the domain Social Skills: Cooperation.

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, March 18, 2011

Review: My Only Sunshine

Summary: In 1962 the Cubans have their Russian missiles pointed right at the sugarcane plantations of Red Church, Louisiana, but nine-year-old Charlie Boone and his gravel-eating younger brother, Jute, are fixed on velvet ants and the declining health of a horse named Lunch Time. Their father has been sent upriver after a botched convenience store holdup and a walloping with a can of Crisco. Their mother, too, has vanished—Memaw and Pawpaw insist she disappeared in a hurricane. But Charlie hasn’t given up hope, fondly remembering her singing a campaign song as he dozed off in her lap: You are my sunshine, my only sunshine …

When Charlie’s long-lost uncle Dan rolls up at the grandparents’ farm like a returning war hero in a stolen Buick—the trunk loaded down with erotic contraband, a beautiful girlfriend at his side—the misadventures begin. After taking over Charlie’s bedroom, the latter-day Bonnie and Clyde grab a laundry bag and head for the Great Southern Bank of Baton Rouge. Thinking they plan to bring back a pair of breakfast pigs, Charlie attempts to dig a pen and opens a mysterious gusher of saltwater. Meanwhile the good people of Red Church turn on the air raid sirens, and amidst the confusion of a coming Armageddon, Charlie tries his hand at strip poker and whiskey-drinking. He is promptly dispatched to reform school, where his real education begins.

The intertwining stories of Charlie and his uncle Dan in Lou Dischler’s hilarious novel My Only Sunshine build to an uproarious climax in which an alligator is loosed from a suitcase, the Holy Ghost pays a visit, and Charlie’s once lowlife family is raised up by a five-million-ton geological oddity—what Paw-Paw calls “an honest to God fact of nature.” Buckle up for a big dose of Cajun comedy as Charlie takes charge. -- Hub City Press

I thought I was all done with the Okra Picks Challenge, hosted by Kathy/Bermudaonion, since it ends in just a few days and I had already met my goal. However, when I was cleaning out my basement a few days ago, I realized that I had a copy of MY ONLY SUNSHINE by Lou Dischler. I remember reading some very positive reviews about this little book and I thought I'd give it a shot -- it didn't hurt that it was only 219 pages!

I actually was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed MY ONLY SUNSHINE. It's definitely not a book that I would ever pick up if it weren't for my participation in the Okra Picks Challenge because, while I do love Southern fiction, this book sounded a little bit crazy to me. And if I'm being entirely honest, it was a bit odd and parts of it were almost like a tall tale. But I think that's one of the reasons that I liked it so much. This book made me laugh... and laugh... and laugh.

I would probably classify MY ONLY SUNSHINE as Cajun fiction, although I'm not sure I've ever read any other Cajun books to compare it to. It definitely encompassed a lot of the absurdity and humor that exists in many humorous Southern books; however, it just felt different. There were quite a few references to Louisiana and Cajun culture that I appreciated because they were so unique. But it didn't hurt that the author seemed to have a special way about telling a story. His prose was engaging, his characters were interesting (to say the least), and his sense of humor is incredible.

While the story was most certainly cute and very fast-paced, I have to say that my favorite thing about this novel was the cast of characters that Mr. Dischler created. Boy were they something! Each adult was crazier than the next, but I found myself loving the two boys -- Charlie and Jute (but especially Charlie.) Charlie, a nine year old boy, narrated most of this book; and I absolutely adored him. I thought the author did a great job of capturing the essence of a "juvenile delinquent" nine year old boy from his language, to his antics, to his naivete, and even to his honesty.

If I'm being picky, I did find that the adult narrated chapters weren't quite as entertaining as the ones told in Charlie's voice. I'm extremely grateful that most of the book was told in a nine year old boy's voice. I do understand why the author chose to use the adult voices to tell parts of the story. I'm just saying that I didn't enjoy them as much as the ones about Charlie and his experiences.

If you are looking for a very quick and entertaining read, then I definitely recommend MY ONLY SUNSHINE. It's a story that's guaranteed to tickle your funny bone and make you fall hard for one very special "juvenile delinquent."

Thanks to Kathy/Bermudaonion for sending me a copy of this novel.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Review: Major Pettigrew's Last Stand

Summary: In the small village of Edgecombe St. Mary in the English countryside lives Major Ernest Pettigrew (retired), the unlikely hero of Helen Simonson’s wondrous debut. Wry, courtly, opinionated, and completely endearing, the Major leads a quiet life valuing the proper things that Englishmen have lived by for generations: honor, duty, decorum, and a properly brewed cup of tea. But then his brother’s death sparks an unexpected friendship with Mrs. Jasmina Ali, the Pakistani shopkeeper from the village. Drawn together by their shared love of literature and the loss of their spouses, the Major and Mrs. Ali soon find their friendship blossoming into something more. But village society insists on embracing him as the quintessential local and regarding her as the permanent foreigner. Can their relationship survive the risks one takes when pursuing happiness in the face of culture and tradition? -- Random House

For the month of March, my book club decided to read MAJOR PETTIGREW'S LAST STAND by Helen Simonson. I was thrilled because I had heard so many incredible things about this novel and I was looking for an excuse to drop all of my review commitments and read it. Because I tend to wait until the last minute to read my book club books, I already knew that most of the members of our group adored this book (or at the very least really, really liked it.) And while I did enjoy it, I definitely wouldn't go so far as to say that I loved it.

If I had to pinpoint why my feelings were less than ecstatic over this novel, I think it's because so many people told me how much they loved it -- bloggers, reviewers, and even my book club. I think my expectations for MAJOR PETTIGREW'S LAST STAND were just too high -- unfairly high. I have a feeling if I had read this book awhile back (when I received the ARC), I would have really liked (and possible loved) it. Unfortunately, I sat on it and built these unrealistic expectations for it. I think there's a lesson in here somewhere for me....

It probably sounds like I didn't really enjoy this book, but that's not the case. I did like the story and the characters, and I definitely can understand the appeal of this novel. I found MAJOR PETTIGREW'S LAST STAND to be a sweet story -- and very charming, and I did think the cast of characters (especially the Major and Mrs. Ali) to be very entertaining. I absolutely adored Major Pettigrew and all of his quirks, and I just found him to be so incredibly funny. Between his prim and proper manners and his under-the-breath comments about his son, I found him to be just delightful. There is no doubt that Major Pettigrew is one of the characters who will stay in my mind for a long time.

There were quite a few things about this novel that made it special to me. The character of Major Pettigrew was certainly one of them, but I also appreciated the author's writing style. I think she did a great job of capturing the essence of a small village in England. And I thought she did a marvelous job of infusing lots of humor into this story -- I swear I could see certain scenes running through my head just like a movie! But what I think she really excelled at was in how she demonstrated so many universal characteristics of human behavior. Through this delightful story, she managed to touch on racism, prejudices, loss, grief, disappointment, parent/child relationships, religious beliefs, and most importantly, love. So many recurring themes in this book were ones that everyone can relate to -- and I think that's the beauty of this novel.

There is one slight issue that I had with the book (if you can even call it an "issue".) The ending was a little bit strange for me -- I almost think it "jumped the shark." The entire pace of the story was pretty slow until the final scenes and then it was really sped up. I think the pace change was probably the author's intent, but I just didn't think it "fit" with the rest of the story. Some of the women in my book club agreed with me so I don't think I was entirely crazy with these feelings; however, I do think I am probably in the minority with most readers.

MAJOR PETTIGREW'S LAST STAND was a pretty interesting discussion book and I do think most book clubs would find plenty to discuss. The only drawback I can see is that when there is a book that everyone loves, it's sometimes hard to get a good discussion going. You might know what I mean -- everyone just tends to say this part was great and we just agree with each other. There is a brief reading guide available, but we found that we only used one or two of the questions. Some of the topics you might want to explore include aging, loss, new beginnings, obligations, otherness, loyalty, honor, and discovering love at any age. Of course, another great thing about this book is that it lends itself perfectly to an English-themed party. Our hostess went all out and served tea and biscuits, along with some incredible almond bars. She even had an adorable centerpiece with an old-fashioned teapot!

I do recommend MAJOR PETTIGREW'S LAST STAND. It is a very sweet story that is sure to entertain and even resonate with many of you.

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

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Review: Murder in Italy

Summary: In Perugia, Italy, on November 2, 2007, police discovered the body of a British college student stabbed to death in her bedroom. The prosecutor alleged that the brutal murder had occurred during a drug-fueled sex game gone wrong. Her housemate, American honor student Amanda Knox, quickly became the prime suspect and soon found herself the star of a sensational international story, both vilified and eroticized by the tabloids and the Internet.

Award-winning journalist Candace Dempsey gives readers a front-row seat at the trial and reveals the real story behind the media frenzy. -- Berkley True Crime

When I was in high school and college, I couldn't get enough true crime books -- it was probably my favorite genre. I read all of Ann Rule's, Thomas Thompson's, and Joe McGinniss' books (as well as many others); and I'm guessing that I had some hidden desire to be a prosecutor! Through the years, my reading tastes have changed quite a bit, but I still read books from the true crime genre every so often. The latest one I picked up was MURDER IN ITALY: THE SHOCKING SLAYING OF A BRITISH STUDENT, THE ACCUSED AMERICAN GIRL, AND AN INTERNATIONAL SCANDAL by Candace Dempsey.

I'm pretty sure that most of you are familiar with the Amanda Knox story (although I admit that I wasn't quite as "up" on it as my husband.) Here's the very quick and dirty version: Amanda Knox was a young college student studying in Italy when her roommate was violently killed. Amanda and her boyfriend come under suspicion and are eventually arrested for her murder. They were both found guilty and are currently serving time.

So when the author asked me if I was interested in reading her book about Amanda Knox, I immediately said yes and quickly began researching this amazing story. It didn't take me long to realize that this case was very complex and I became very interested in reading a behind-the-scenes account. I'm not sure that this book answered all of my questions, and if I'm being honest, I actually had even a few new ones after reading it. One thing I can say for sure is that truth is definitely stranger than fiction, and this case really hits home that point!

I found that I enjoyed MURDER IN ITALY -- if enjoyed is the right word for a book like this one; and I found the entire Amanda Knox case to be incredibly interesting. I appreciated the background information that the author provided on both Amanda and the victim Meredith Kercher. And I was definitely affected by this horrific crime against a girl who seemingly had a wonderful life ahead of her. As I read this book, I definitely began to question whether Amanda Knox actually could have killed her roommate, and I even wondered how she was found guilty based on the evidence that was presented. There were quite a few questions posed in this book as to the quality of the forensic evidence as well as the initial police investigation.

Bottom line: I'm not sure what I think about the entire Amanda Knox case.  If I were to believe everything in this book, then I would definitely think she was falsely accused and wrongly incarcerated. Or at the very least, that she was found guilty on questionable evidence. While I did find this book to be fascinating, I don't think it will be my final "look" at this crime. That's not to say that I didn't think it was a very worthwhile read. I did feel as if the author did a fantastic job of showing all of the reasons why Amanda Knox is innocent. I just think my curiosity about the case wasn't entirely satisfied with this one source.

The story of Amanda Knox is extremely intriguing and one that is certain to appear in the headlines many more times. (In fact, I just saw a story a few days ago about another appeal where they are questioning an eyewitness's testimony.) Mu curiosity has definitely been piqued and I am now going to be following this case more closely in an effort to learn even more! I have tivoed the Lifetime Original Movie "Amanda Knox: Murder on Trial in Italy," staring Hayden Panettiere and Marcia Gay Harden as well as a news channel's documentary; and I hope to find time to watch them in the very near future.

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