Friday, September 30, 2011

Review: The Art of Fielding

Summary: At Westish College, a small school on the shore of Lake Michigan, baseball star Henry Skrimshander seems destined for big league stardom. But when a routine throw goes disastrously off course, the fates of five people are upended.

Henry's fight against self-doubt threatens to ruin his future. College president Guert Affenlight, a longtime bachelor, has fallen unexpectedly and helplessly in love. Owen Dunne, Henry's gay roommate and teammate, becomes caught up in a dangerous affair. Mike Schwartz, the Harpooners' team captain and Henry's best friend, realizes he has guided Henry's career at the expense of his own. And Pella Affenlight, Guert's daughter, returns to Westish after escaping an ill-fated marriage, determined to start a new life.

As the season counts down to its climactic final game, these five are forced to confront their deepest hopes, anxieties, and secrets. In the process they forge new bonds, and help one another find their true paths. Written with boundless intelligence and filled with the tenderness of youth,
The Art of Fielding is an expansive, warmhearted novel about ambition and its limits, about family and friendship and love, and about commitment--to oneself and to others. -- Little, Brown

One of the books that was getting a ton of buzz at this year's BEA was THE ART OF FIELDING by Chad Harbach. I was fortunate enough to score an autographed copy of this novel and spend a minute or two chatting with the author. When he described his book to me, I had a feeling that I was going to enjoy it. (I love both coming-of-age stories and baseball!) And, I have to say that I found THE ART OF FIELDING to be a very special novel. I just adored it!

THE ART OF FIELDING is a book about baseball and baseball players -- or it it? At first glance, it seems like the novel delves deeply into Henry, a stellar short-stop on the Westish baseball team, along with a few of his friends and fellow team members. However, I can assure you that there is much more than just baseball players living within the pages of this novel. There are also some fascinating supporting characters including the college president and his daughter. And when all of these interesting characters get together, their interactions are extremely entertaining. So here's my message for all of you non-baseball fans out there: Do not disregard THE ART OF FIELDING as a "baseball story" because you will be missing out on a terrific novel.

There was love, friendship, and camaraderie between the characters which I enjoyed a great deal. There was also humor, symbolism and creative use of metaphors by Mr. Harbach.  But it was the universal themes about human nature that really touched my heart and made me think. And quite frankly, how Mr. Harbach presented these complex characters to the reader and how he showed their honesty and vulnerabilities is really what made this book a stand-out to me.

Even though I finished this book a few days ago, I can't get it out of my  mind. These characters were so vividly drawn for me that they seemed like real peoplel. I found each and every character discussed in this novel to be fascinating and complex, and also seriously flawed. But there are lots of books with characters like that, right? So why was THE ART OF FIELDING so special to me? I've thought a lot about this and I think it's because Mr. Horbach created such incredibly interesting dynamics and exchanges between all of the characters. For example, these characters depended on each other and, at the same time, competed with each. (And that's one simplistic example of what was going on in this novel.) I loved thinking about what the various characters' motivations were, and I also liked seeing how they evolved throughout the story both as individuals and members of a "team."

While there is a lot going on in this novel about the various characters' lives, THE ART OF FIELDING still does have a quite a few baseball references in it -- Mr. Harbach is kind of a baseball expert as you can see in his magazine n+1. I happened to love all of the baseball talk, and I especially appreciated the reference to Steve Blass Disease. For those of you who don't know, Steve Blass was a terrific pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates in the early 1970s. For some unknown reason, he pitched one day and couldn't get the ball over the plate -- no way, no how. It destroyed his career and he was forced to retire. I grew up a big Pirates fan and it wasn't too long ago that my grandfather and I were discussing Blass's career while watching a Pirate game. So when Henry fell "ill" to Steve Blass Disease in THE ART OF FIELDING, I found myself fascinated and forced to do some more research.

I highly recommend THE ART OF FIELDING to book clubs -- both male and/or females ones. My only hesitation is that the book is quite the chunkster. It comes in at well over 500 pages, but I promise that it's a fairly quick read (or at least it was for me -- some critics/reviewers might disagree.) There are just so many themes to discuss in this story that you definitely wouldn't lack for book-related conversation. My only warning is that, because there is so much to discuss, it might be helpful to use a discussion guide to keep things on track. Some of the topics you might want to explore include family, expectations, pressure, friendship, teamwork, romantic relationships, change, love, commitment, monomania, perfections, sacrifice, and competition. My mind is still reeling from this novel and I'm dying to discuss it with friends. That's certainly a testament to the power of this book!

Honestly, I just loved THE ART OF FIELDING and I didn't want it to end. It's a well written story about all types of love and relatioships as well as all types of commitment, and I highly recommend it!

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Review: Q: A Novel

Summary: “Q, Quentina Elizabeth Deveril, is the love of my life.” 

Shortly before his wedding, the unnamed hero of this uncommon romance is visited by a man who claims to be his future self and ominously admonishes him that he must not marry the love of his life, Q. At first the protagonist doubts this stranger, but in time he becomes convinced of the authenticity of the warning and leaves his fiancĂ©e. The resulting void in his life is impossible to fill. One after the other, future selves arrive urging him to marry someone else, divorce, attend law school, leave law school, travel, join a running club, stop running, study the guitar, the cello, Proust, Buddhism, and opera, and eliminate gluten from his diet. The only constants in this madcap quest for personal improvement are his love for his New York City home and for the irresistible Q. 

A unique literary talent, Evan Mandery turns the classic story of transcendent love on its head, with an ending that will melt even the darkest heart. -- Harper

When I read that Book Club Girl was doing a show with Evan Mandery author of Q: A NOVEL, I immediately signed up to participate. The premise of this novel sounded very unique and like nothing I've ever read before. In one way, it sounded a bit like science fiction with a time travel element. But on the other hand, it sounded like a coming-of-age story. I figured I'd give it a try since I love coming-of-age tales and personal growth stories. I just hoped that I'd be able to accept the sci-fi parts.

As I read the first part of the novel, I found myself really enjoying Q. I appreciated the narrator's voice and I enjoyed learning about his relationship with Q. In many ways, it was a sweet love story and I was definitely intrigued when the narrator's future self showed up. All was good -- the character development, the storyline and the writing; however, it didn't exactly stay that way for me. I found myself gradually losing interest in the narrator's life story and the novelty of the future selves (with their words of advice) eventually wore off. I won't go so far as to say that I didn't want to finish the novel, but I was disappointed that the beginning was my favorite part.

Was there something specifically wrong with this novel or the story? I don't think so. I'm pretty sure it was just me since there are plenty of extremely positive reviews out there. I just think I enjoyed the initial direction of the story, when Q was a major character, much more than what occurred after Q was gone. Then the story became all about the narrator, his future selves, and his choices. Furthermore, the book started reading more like a philosophical treatise with many profound ideas about life. At times, I found that these ideas weren't resonating with me; and at other times, I found that I just wasn't all that interested. Perhaps this type of book just isn't my thing, and most likely, I'm just not smart enough to grasp all of the ideas.

As I look back on this novel, I will admit that it did give me a lot to think about. And for that, I am very glad that I read it. I did appreciate the concept of the future selves and I liked how they changed based on the narrator's decisions. (I don't want to say too much more because it's best to experience these future selves on your own.) I also enjoyed the humor that was woven into the story (I know... it doesn't sound like a funny book, but it is.) And while some of the philosophy parts of the book bored me or were over my head, I did find some of the ideas presented to be rather interesting.

Based on what I said in the last paragraph, I do think Q would make an interesting book club discussion... for some book clubs. I'm not sure my personal one would appreciate it, but I do think groups who are more focused on literary fiction and philosophy would. There is a reading guide available which touches upon some very thought-provoking themes. Some of the topics that you might want to explore include moral and ethical issues, technology, choices, forgiveness, love, redemption, and second chances.

While I didn't exactly love Q: A NOVEL, I did appreciate it. And I do think many readers will enjoy this novel and find that this story resonates with them.

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

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Saying Goodbye to Grandma

Grandma Penny (My Maternal Grandmother) and Me

On Sunday afternoon, my grandmother passed away. She was 88 years old and had lived an incredibly full and blessed life. I try to find comfort in those facts and I know she's in a better place, but selfishly, I'm going to  miss her a great deal. Since words can't really begin to express the void I will have in my life because she is no longer here, I thought I'd share some words that I wrote almost a year ago inspired by Adriana Trigiani's DON'T SING AT THE TABLE: LIFE LESSONS FROM MY GRANDMOTHERS.

My grandma Penny is my mom's mother, and she's one of the most Christian women that I've ever met. She was the oldest of 12 children, and like my grandma Carol, she wasn't able to finish high school because her family needed her help. She married my grandfather who was a farmer and had 6 children over the next 23 years. Talk about a hard worker! She did all the cooking, cleaning, and laundry for eight people, but she didn't have the luxuries (like automatic washing machines, microwaves, and dishwashers) that we have today. In addition, she maintained a humongous garden, canned all of the fruits and vegetables, and made almost all of the clothes for the entire family -- the list could go on and on. As a child, I honestly don't remember her ever sitting down; and if she did, she was mending clothes. She has slowed down a bit in the past few years -- she lost her husband a few years ago and currently lives in a nursing home -- but she recently received a certification to be a peer counselor for other patients in the home. She is celebrating her 88th birthday tomorrow and she has 17 grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren. Needless to say, her family is her life.

Things I Learned from Grandma Penny
-- A Strong Work Ethic
-- Patience
-- The Importance of Family
-- Nothing Should Go to Waste
-- How to be "Green" -- reusing baggies, saving containers, composting, etc.
-- My Love of Cookbooks and Crafts
-- The Value of Religion
-- There is Strength in Silence

I am going to miss my Grandma Penny so much. I was incredibly fortunate to have her in my life for 42 years; and I'm even luckier that she's shared so many important life lessons with me and my children. I will be forever grateful that I was able to spend time with her during her last few days, and I was amazed by how she continued to give so much to me -- even in her last few hours. My grandma taught me not only how to live with grace and dignity, but also how to die with grace and dignity. She was truly one incredible woman!

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Review: The Winters in Bloom

Summary: ogether for over a decade, Kyra and David Winter are happier than they ever thought they could be. They have a comfortable home, stable careers, and a young son, Michael, who they love more than anything. Yet because of their complicated histories, Kyra and David have always feared that this domestic bliss couldn't last - that the life they created was destined to be disrupted. And on one perfectly average summer day, it is: Michael disappears from his own backyard.

The only question is whose past has finally caught up with them: David feels sure that Michael was taken by his troubled ex-wife, while Kyra believes the kidnapper must be someone from her estranged family, someone she betrayed years ago.

As the Winters embark on a journey of time and memory to find Michael, they will be forced to admit these suspicions, revealing secrets about themselves they've always kept hidden. But they will also have a chance to discover that it's not too late to have the family they've dreamed of; that even if the world is full of risks, as long as they have hope, the future can bloom.

Lyrical, wise, and witty,
The Winters in Bloom is Lisa Tucker's most optimistic work to date. This enchanting, life-affirming story will charm readers and leave them full of wonder at the stubborn strength of the human heart. -- Atria

At this year's BEA, I was fortunate enough to meet author Lisa Tucker and receive an autographed copy of her latest novel THE WINTERS IN BLOOM. I was even luckier to have the opportunity to spend a few minutes having drinks with Ms. Bloom and talking about her new book. I knew Ms. Bloom was a somewhat local author because she lives in Philadelphia (and when you live in Central PA, you'll take credit for anyone within a two hour radius!) But what I also discovered is that Ms. Bloom used to live just a few minutes from my current residence. Now that's definitely what I consider a local author!

So it was with much anticipation that I picked up THE WINTERS IN BLOOM. Of course, I really wanted to like it because I felt as if I had some mini-connection to the author, but I had also read some pretty good reviews for the book. Heck... Pat Conroy is blurbed on the front cover and it's an Indie Next List Great Read Selection. And I did like THE WINTERS IN BLOOM. In fact, I liked it a lot -- mainly because it wasn't a typical read for me. I just don't know if I'd go so far as to say it was one of my favorite books of the past few months.

There were a number of things that I did appreciate about THE WINTERS IN BLOOM though. One of the things that I enjoyed the most about this novel was how unique it was. In fact, I don't know exactly how to describe the book. It was part mystery but it definitely didn't fit clearly into that classification. On the other hand, it was part psychological thriller... but that just doesn't seem right either. And lastly, it was a literary novel with well-developed characters (and that I can say with certainty.) It was definitely a unique story and I enjoyed the topics and characters that it explored.

When I first picked up THE WINTERS IN BLOOM, I thought that it was going to be a book about the search for a missing child -- more of a mystery, if you will. And it was to a certain extent. However, it was so much more than that too. It was truly a well-written book that explored some pretty heavy themes and some extremely complex characters. Initially, I thought I could discuss the themes on their own, but I quickly realized that the themes and characters are so closely entwined that it's impossible to discuss one without the other. Through the various actions of the characters, this novel delved into so many universal themes including love, families, and redemption. In fact, I found THE WINTERS IN BLOOM to be a touching story, and at the same time, an extremely thought-provoking novel.

While an important part of the story takes place in the present with the quest to find little Michael, Ms. Tucker effectively uses flashbacks of the characters' prior lives as a means to develop their characters. I found it fascinating to not only learn about these characters, but also to see some of the reasons that they are the way they are today. Some of the flashback portions of the novel seem almost to be separate stories; however, by the end of the novel, everything comes together to a satisfactory conclusion. I have to give Ms. Tucker kudos for how well she presented this story and how great her writing was.

At its heart, THE WINTERS IN BLOOM explores family dynamics -- both the good and the bad, the normal and the dysfunctional (although I'd have to say there was a lot more dysfunction than normalcy) -- through the lives of these diverse characters. I appreciated how this novel touched upon so many familial relationships, husband and wife, parent and child, sisters, in-laws (and even ex in-laws), and many more. I think every single character in this story was flawed (and I mean deeply flawed) and it certainly made me think about the effects that our past experiences have on our current lives.

You can probably tell by now that THE WINTERS IN BLOOM would make a fantastic book club pick. There is a reading guide available which explores so many of the topics that I mentioned earlier. As a recap, some of the themes you might want to further explore include family dynamics, the effects of past events in a person's life, insecurity, trust, forgiveness, loss, guilt, grief, fear, redemption, and secrets. In addition, you might want to discuss the meaning and/or symbolism of the book's title.

I definitely recommend checking out Lisa Tucker's THE WINTERS TO BLOOM. It's a novel that explores the frailties of human nature and family dynamics, and I'm pretty confident in saying that you will enjoy the story as well as the effect it will have on you.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Review: Dial Me for Murder

Summary: Paige Turner’s skills as a true crime reporter for Daring Detective magazine have earned her an intriguing job opportunity. Sabrina Stanhope of Gramercy Park wants her to look into the murder of Virginia Pratt—a young secretary whose naked body was found bound and gagged under a pile of autumn leaves in Central Park. Sabrina wants the murderer exposed, but she insists that Paige keep her exclusive investigation off the record and out of the pages of Daring Detective. Why the need for such secrecy? Because Virginia was more than a secretary—she worked nights as a high priced call girl in Sabrina’s employ. Should word get out, the resulting scandal would be devastating, not only to Sabrina’s hush-hush enterprise, but to some of Manhattan’s wealthiest movers and shakers. Now, Paige must become a daring detective herself—even though it means going undercover to entice the interest of a sadistic killer.... -- Berkley Prime Crime

I've had a lot on my mind these past few weeks and my reading has definitely taken a backseat to everything else. My reading hours have been drastically cut and I haven't been able to focus on much of anything. And that's one of the reasons that I love cozies so much -- I can read them even when my life is crazy! The latest book that I read (and enjoyed) was DIAL ME FOR MURDER by Amanda Matetsky.

DIAL ME FOR MURDER was a very fun read for me. I especially liked the setting of the novel. DIAL ME FOR MURDER takes place in 1950s New York City, and I thought the author did a terrific job of describing the details of this time period for the reader. There were loads of cultural references to areas of New York (like Greenwich Village), restaurants (like John's Pizzeria -- one of my personal favorites), television, music, fashion, and books. Not only did I appreciate the pop culture references, but I also liked reading about the current events of that time period. I thought Ms. Matetsky chose a fantastic setting for a murder mystery and she definitely brought that time period to life.

Another fun thing about this novel were the characters. They were all interesting and they definitely kept my interest throughout the entire story. I really liked the narrator of the story Paige Turner (how great is that name for a crime reporter and mystery novelist?), and I liked how she used her skills to solve crimes. She wasn't a tough woman in the strictest sense of the word, but she wasn't afraid to dig in and get her hands dirty if it meant solving a crime. She also had a great sense of humor and I especially appreciated her self-deprecating humor.

In addition to liking Paige, I also found some other characters to be very entertaining. The men that worked with Paige at the magazine were definitely chauvinistic and typical of the time, but I liked how they demonstrated society's (and especially men's) views of women in the 1950s. I also liked her boyfriend Dan who also happened to be a police officer (funny how that always seems to be the case in books like this) and I truly loved Paige's friend Abby who provided quite a few funny moments.

As far as mysteries go, I definitely liked this one... and I didn't figure it out until the very end! There were a few very likely suspects and I went back and forth wondering who the murderer was. All definitely could have been involved because one was an actor, one was a politician and one was a mobster -- how about that for a cast of villains? I appreciated the author's choice of suspects because it further allowed her to capture the essence of that time period.

DIAL ME FOR MURDER is the fifth book in the Paige Turner Mystery series and I wouldn't hesitate to pick up some of the earlier books. I found this book to be an entertaining read and it allowed me to escape for a few hours. It was exactly what I needed!

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

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Review: Mark Bittman's Kitchen Express


In Mark Bittman’s Kitchen Express, “America’s foremost home cook” (New York Observer) presents more than 400 incredibly fast and easy recipes tailored to each season and presented in a simple, straightforward style. Bittman’s recipe sketches are the ideal mix of inspiration and instruction: everything a home cook needs to prepare a delicious, healthful, and cost-conscious repertoire of meals for any season and any time of day. And since they’re written with an eye for speed and flexibility, you can be cooking on a moment’s notice—just check the pantry or fridge and away you go. With Bittman’s trusted voice leading you, you’ll be in and out of your kitchen in 20 minutes or less. Bittman also includes a guide to the foods you’ll want on hand to cook the Kitchen Express way as well as suggestions for seasonal menus and lists of recipes for specific uses, like brown-bag lunches or the best dishes for reheating. You may never order takeout again! -- Simon & Schuster

If you are anything like me, then weeknight dinners are a challenge. Yes, my family is picky. And yes, I have to worry about my son's food allergies. However, the real issue is having the time to cook. I know many of you are working women and/or busy moms (like me) and finding an hour or more to prepare a real, healthy meal is next to impossible. So get ready for this... I have some exciting news for you. I've recently discovered a terrific cookbook that just might be the answer to your evening meal woes. It's called MARK BITTMAN'S KITCHEN EXPRESS: 404 INSPIRED SEASONAL DISHES YOU CAN MAKE IN 20 MINUTES OR LESS. Did you catch that? Twenty minutes or less!!!

KITCHEN EXPRESS is a definite winner in my opinion. Of course, the immediate appeal is that it has over 400 recipes that can be made in 20 minutes or less. But I like so many things about this cookbook. First of all, Mr. Bittman explains how to use this cookbook in the introduction. He presents the recipes in the simplest form possible and home cooks can tinker with each recipe to make it their own. All of the recipes are "precisely imprecise" which means that they do not call for specific amounts of ingredients. I have to admit that this took me a little while to get used to. I'm one of those cooks that likes to follow step-by-step directions because I have no confidence in my cooking abilities.

In addition, I like the layout of KITCHEN EXPRESS. I love that the recipes are divided into chapters based on seasons. The reason for this is that Mr. Bittman wants to feature the "right ingredients at the right time." As someone who likes to use a lot of fresh ingredients, this idea really makes a lot of sense to me. I've found that it's less overwhelming to pick a recipe to make when I can at least limit it to a season. I also appreciate the advice Mr. Bittman offers in the chapters at the beginning of the cookbook from pantry suggestions, to year-round recipe ideas, to an easy substitution list.

And finally, I think the recipes in KITCHEN EXPRESS are outstanding... and offer so many possibilities. The directions for the recipes themselves are extremely easy to follow -- often times, they are only a few sentences. And you can play with them! The recipes do not appear in a traditional cookbook format with ingredients and amounts listed first. Rather they are written as if someone is telling you how to cook a quick and easy meal. Each recipe is only a very short paragraph and a few recipes appear on each page.

The recipes cover a very wide range of foods from salads to soups to main courses to desserts. I appreciated that some of them were rather unique (at least to my family's tastes.) All of the recipes contain fresh ingredients and they are from many different ethnicities. I can barely even begin to list the recipes that appealed to me because there are just too many. However, right now, I am drawn to the soup recipes because they are super-simple and perfect for the upcoming fall and winter months.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that there is one thing about KITCHEN EXPRESS that didn't exactly thrill me. It's that this paperback cookbook does not contain any pictures. I love to just look at the pictures in cookbooks for fun, and I was sad to see that this book is just filled with text. Having said that, this cookbook is a terrific bargain at $15 and it has tons of very do-able recipes.

Mark Bittman is the New York Times Bestselling Author of HOW TO COOK EVERYTHING and he also writes a weekly New York Times column called The Minimalist. In addition, he appears regularly on The Today Show and has hosted his own public television series. So I guess what I'm saying is that this guy knows food and cooking. I have my own copy of HOW TO COOK EVERYTHING and I've found that it's an incredibly useful reference book!

Highly recommended for busy women looking for quick meal ideas!

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

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Kid Konnection: Hound Dog True & More

Every Saturday, I host a feature called Kid Konnection -- a regular weekend feature about anything related to children's books. This week, I'm going to share with you a new middle grade book that touched my heart.

Summary: A story about small acts of courage from the author of A Crooked Kind of Perfect.

Do not let a mop sit overnight in water. Fix things before they get too big for fixing. Custodial wisdom: Mattie Breen writes it all down. She has just one week to convince Uncle Potluck to take her on as his custodial apprentice at Mitchell P. Anderson Elementary School. One week until school starts and she has to be the new girl again. But if she can be Uncle Potluck’s apprentice, she’ll have important work to do during lunch and recess. Work that will keep her safely away from the other fifth graders. But when her custodial wisdom goes all wrong, Mattie’s plan comes crashing down. And only then does she begin to see how one small, brave act can lead to a friend who is hound dog true. -- HMH

When I was at BEA this year, I was super excited to receive a copy of HOUND DOG TRUE by Linda Urban . I was a huge fan of Ms. Urban's prior middle grade novel A CROOKED KIND OF PERFECT -- you can read my review here, and it's one of those books that I always recommend to tween girls. Needless to say, I couldn't wait to read Ms. Urban's new novel.

Admittedly, I had very high hopes for HOUND DOG TRUE because A CROOKED KIND OF PERFECT is a book which is very near and dear to my heart. And to set out reading HOUND DOG TRUE with that mentality was probably a tad unfair. While I did enjoy HOUND DOG TRUE, I didn't love it. It's not that there was anything specific about the novel that I didn't enjoy -- it was a cute story with some wonderful messages. It's just that HOUND DOG TRUE didn't resonate with me as much as I had hoped.

HOUND DOG TRUE tells the story of Mattie, a young girl who is extremely insecure. Mattie is kind of a loner and doesn't have many friends, partially due to the fact that she is always the new girl at school. Rather than trying to fit in at yet another school, Mattie decides to "hide" by being her uncle's custodial apprentice. (This does lead to some funny stories!) It isn't until she decides to step out of her comfort zone that she learns what friendship is all about.

When I read HOUND DOG TRUE'S description, I was expecting to relate to Mattie because, like her, I moved around quite a bit as a child and was always the "new girl" at school. However, Mattie was a lot more bashful and insecure than I ever was and she kind of created her own little world. My heart went out to her and I could relate to some of her feelings, but I admit that I found her to be a bit different... and sometimes immature. Having said that, her odd behavior was what made her interesting and definitely provided some humor in the story.

As a parent of a middle grader, I appreciated so many of the messages in  HOUND DOG TRUE. In fact, I do think it would make a great mother/daughter book club pick. Some of the themes in this story include friendship, parent/child relationships, insecurity, fear, shyness, self-awareness, and courage.

I enjoyed many things about HOUND DOG TRUE and I definitely recommend it to tween girls. It was a very sweet and funny story and I liked that it focused on courage -- not exactly a theme in many reality fiction books for tweens.

And now for something a little different... I'm going to share with you a fun new app for your iPhone or iPad. The National Geographic Weird but True iOS app is  designed especially for kids, and I have to warn you that it's a kind of addictive. My kids and I couldn't stop reading all of the very strange factoids.

The Weird but True app is a fully interactive random fact generator which was inspired by the popular National Geographic Kids book series of the same name. (The book series was actually inspired by a successful feature in National Geographic Kids magazine.) Along with the collection of facts, you can save your favorites to look at later. And you can also rate each fact on the Weird-o-Meter scale and see a collection of the weirdest true facts as voted on by the users. Facts can be shared via email as well.

There are loads of entertaining facts (and even some gross ones!) and this app definitely proves the saying that "truth is stranger than fiction." For example:

- New Zealand has more sheep… than people. (Baaa!)
- Parachutes were invented before airplanes (Look out below!)
- Honeybees can be trained to detect bombs (Bzzzzz….. BOOM!)
- A sneeze travels 100 mph (Bless you!)
- Some honeybee queens… quack (Duck! It’s a bee!)

Both of my kids enjoyed playing (or dare I say learning) with this Weird but True app. In fact, they were so excited by the facts that they were grabbing for my iPad at the same time -- oh the horror! Once they calmed down, I had my chance to "play." I must say that I liked reading the facts and seeing some gorgeous photos, and I thought it was a lot of fun to swipe or shake my iPad to bring up new facts.

Overall, the Weird but True app was a big hit in our household! I definitely recommend it for kids of all ages (and especially those ones who are interested in fun science facts.)

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, September 23, 2011

Book Club Exchange: Liza Gyllenhaal & Giveaway

I'd like to welcome author Liza Gyllenhaal to Book Club Exchange, a feature on Booking Mama which highlights anything and everything book club-related! Yesterday, I reviewed Ms. Gyllenhaal's latest novel SO NEAR and I found it to be a touching and thought-provoking novel about the lasting effects of grief. It's also a great book club pick!

I thoroughly enjoyed Ms. Gyllenhaal's post for Book Club Exchange and I hope you do too!

Book clubs give back to writers in so many ways…

When my first novel for NAL Local Knowledge was published in 2009, I really enjoyed calling and, if I could travel by car to the area, sitting in on book club get-togethers. Writing is a pretty solitary undertaking and I put two long years of my life into Local Knowledge. So it was a gratifying experience to be invited to get out and meet readers in person or over the phone and talk — for a happy hour or two — about something so dear to my heart.

Initially, I have to admit, I was a little intimidated — and worried. Like many writers, I tend to be shy and not all that verbal. What if I said the wrong thing — or sounded like an idiot? What if my being there actually dampened, rather than enlivened, the conversation? What I didn’t take into account was the fact that, in terms of a novel I’d written, I actually was the leading expert on the subject. In fact, I think there might have been a couple of meetings when my hosts started to wonder if I ever was going to, um, shut up.

One of my most rewarding meetings was in my home town in Pennsylvania. The group was comprised of women a generation younger than me, many of them still bringing up young children. By this point, I’d started writing my second novel So Near (now just published) and I mentioned that my work-in-progress involved a young couple who lose their child in an accident when the safety seat malfunctions. They then pursue a product liability case against the seat manufacturer. When I heard a young woman cry “oh, my heavens!” I worried that the plot line had upset her. Instead, it turned out that her husband was a lawyer who specialized in product liability cases, representing car seat manufacturers!

Book clubs give back to writers in so many ways — but that was a particularly serendipitous moment. I was able to interview the lawyer on several occasions and he generously provided me with the kind of first-hand information and authentic detail that makes all the difference in bringing a story to life.

Liza Gyllenhaal spent many years in advertising and publishinhg. She lives with her husband in New York City and western Massachusetts.

A huge thanks to Ms. Gyllenhaal for stopping by today and sharing her thoughts about book clubs! If you are interested in participating in a future Book Club Exchange, please contact me at bookingmama(at)gmail(dot)com.

Giveaway  alert: The publisher has graciously offered to provide a copy of SO NEAR for one lucky reader. To enter, just fill out the form below before Thursday, October 6th at 11:59 p.m. ET. I will randomly select and notify the winner the following day. Contest is open to those of you with U.S. and Canada addresses only. Good luck!

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Review: So Near

Summary: In the aftermath of a devastating loss, Cal and Jenny Horigan's marriage is unraveling. Both are plagued by guilt, unable to seek comfort from one another. Burdened by remorse, they begin to lose sight of the love that once anchored them-together with their sense of right and wrong. 

As the Horigans try different ways to deal with their pain, a new acquaintance seems to offer the support they desperately need-though at times they are unsure whether his guidance is leading them back to each other or further apart... -- NAL

Given everything going on in my personal life right now, I'm not entirely sure why I decided to pick up SO NEAR by Liza Gyllenhaal. It's not that the description of this novel didn't appeal to me, but I'm not sure that now was the time for me to be reading a book about grief and loss. SO NEAR tells the story of a couple whose young daughter dies in a car accident. Of course, Cal and Jenny are both reeling with the pain of losing their daughter (which is difficult enough on a marriage), but they also secretly blame themselves for her death. They try a number of ways (many not-so-positive) to deal with their grief and they find that they are each shutting out their spouse and the marriage definitely suffers as a result. Not exactly a light, uplifting read.

I found that I was immediately drawn into SO NEAR and I actually read the book in just two sittings. I don't know if I was so much "riveted" by the story, but I wasn't able to stop reading. In many ways, the characters' lives resembled as a train wreck for me. One because Cal and Jenny were both heading on a path to self-destruction; and two, because I couldn't turn away and not look! I could see where the story was heading and I'd probably go so far as to say that much of it was predictable, but none of that stopped me from needing to know what was going to happen.

One thing I really liked about SO NEAR was how the author decided to tell Cal and Jenny's stories. The chapters alternated in each of their voices and I really felt as if I got to understand each of them because of this presentation style. I thought Ms. Gyllenhaal did a very good job of capturing their individual voices and making these characters into very complex and dynamic individuals. In addition, I found it interesting that she chose to write the last chapter of the book in third person and told both Cal and Jenny's story together. I liked this decision on her part and felt as if it symbolized the state of their relationship.

Furthermore, I thought this novel did an excellent job of exploring the feelings of grief and guilt. I don't even want to think about how horrendous it would be to deal with the loss of a child, and if I felt I were to blame for the death, I don't know how I'd even begin to cope. And that's exactly the two huge issues that Cal and Jenny were dealing with. Both Cal and Jenny handled the loss of their daughter in very different ways, and their actions and feelings were probably pretty typical. However, they made the entire grieving process worse by not communicating with each other. At a time when they both needed to depend each other, they found themselves turning to others.

One thing that kind of bothered me about SO NEAR was the character of Daniel. He was the man that both Cal and Jenny turned to with their secrets. Maybe it's because Daniel was just a despicable person, but I felt as if he wasn't as well developed as the other characters in the story. He was so awful and had absolutely no redeeming qualities (that I could see), and, as a result, I think he just appeared to be a stereotype of a "bad guy." I would have liked for him to have been more complex. He still could have been "bad" and served the same purpose in the story, but I would have appreciated his character more if he hadn't been so one-dimensional.
SO NEAR is an ideal pick for book clubs and there is even a discussion guide in the back of the novel (along with an interesting author interview.) I wasn't able to find a link to the guide on-line though. Some of the topics you might want to explore include grief, marriage, sibling rivalry, trust, deception, forgiveness, lies, secrets, adultery, and guilt. In addition, you can discuss how Jenny's garden serves as a metaphor for her life, and whether it worked for you... or not. I found almost every character in this novel to be very interesting, and I think most groups could talk about their actions and motivations for hours.

While I found SO NEAR to be a difficult read at times, I still appreciated the book (enjoy might be too strong of a word here considering the subject matter!) I felt as if this novel did a good job of showing the various ways that grief can affect people; and I definitely recommend it to book clubs!

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

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Review: Learning to Die in Miami

Summary: In his 2003 National Book Award–winning memoir Waiting for Snow in Havana, Carlos Eire narrated his coming of age in Cuba just before and during the Castro revolution. That book literally ends in midair as eleven-year-old Carlos and his older brother leave Havana on an airplane—along with thousands of other children—to begin their new life in Miami in 1962. It would be years before he would see his mother again. He would never again see his beloved father. 

Learning to Die in Miami opens as the plane lands and Carlos faces, with trepidation and excitement, his new life. He quickly realizes that in order for his new American self to emerge, his Cuban self must "die." And so, with great enterprise and purpose, he begins his journey. 

We follow Carlos as he adjusts to life in his new home. Faced with learning English, attending American schools, and an uncertain future, young Carlos confronts the age-old immigrant's plight: being surrounded by American bounty, but not able to partake right away. The abundance America has to offer excites him and, regardless of how grim his living situation becomes, he eagerly forges ahead with his own personal assimilation program, shedding the vestiges of his old life almost immediately, even changing his name to Charles. Cuba becomes a remote and vague idea in the back of his mind, something he used to know well, but now it "had ceased to be part of the world." 

But as Carlos comes to grips with his strange surroundings, he must also struggle with everyday issues of growing up. His constant movement between foster homes and the eventual realization that his parents are far away in Cuba bring on an acute awareness that his life has irrevocably changed. Flashing back and forth between past and future, we watch as Carlos balances the divide between his past and present homes and finds his way in this strange new world, one that seems to hold the exhilarating promise of infinite possibilities and one that he will eventually claim as his own. 

An exorcism and an ode, Learning to Die in Miami is a celebration of renewal—of those times when we're certain we have died and then are somehow, miraculously, reborn. -- Free Press

Last week, I mentioned that my book club read  LEARNING TO DIE IN MIAMI: CONFESSIONS OF A REFUGEE BOY by Carlos Eire for our September meeting. At first, I was a bit reluctant about reading the book because I didn't think it appealed to me. But, isn't that one of the reasons we join book clubs -- to read books that we might not otherwise read? However, once I read the book's description and flipped through a few pages, I changed my mind. I thought it looked extremely interesting and I was truly looking forward to reading it.

And then a few days before our meeting, I picked up this book and I knew it wasn't going to be an easy read for me. In fact, I found the first 30 or so pages to be almost painful. (I know! Isn't that awful -- LEARNING TO DIE IN MIAMI was critically acclaimed and the author's first memoir WAITING FOR SNOW IN HAVANA won the National Book Award!) I had an extremely hard time getting used to the author's writing style -- and by that I mean his prose as well as his use of "flash forwards;" and I pretty much concluded that I wasn't smart enough to appreciate all of his literary talents.

But then, I started to enjoy the book -- not love it, but enjoy it. LEARNING TO DIE IN MIAMI tells the story of Carlos Eire and what happened to him after he and his brother were flown from Cuba to the United States in 1962. It is a touching story about how Carlos assimilated into an American lifestyle, and there are many sad stories about his experiences especially as they relate to the foster care system. I found this book to be an incredibly honest view into what it must have been like for a young child to come to a new country, learn a new language, and at the same time, be without his parents.

Naturally, I was horrified by some of Carlos' experiences -- the chapter with the mice and cockroaches is still freaking me out. However, I was surprised by how much humor was incorporated into the story. I found myself laughing at Carlos' stories about his childhood antics and I loved how he referred to his parents as King Louie and Marie Antoinette. Maybe having a sense of humor is what allowed Carlos to get through all of these ordeals!

So far in this review, it sounds like I enjoyed this book -- and I did to a certain point. However, I ultimately was wanted more from this memoir. Basically, the majority of the book covered a two year period when Carlos arrived in the United States. I did like reading about his experiences as well as his conflicted feeling about missing his parents. But I had a hard time with how the book jumped forward and backward and how he tried to link the stories with a common theme. This is a very literary memoir and there is some gorgeous prose and some very interesting symbols, but I didn't always appreciate these elements. Sometimes they worked for me and other times they didn't.

I have to wonder if I would have enjoyed LEARNING TO DIE IN MIAMI more if I had read WAITING FOR SNOW IN HAVANA first. I do want to read that first memoir, but I think I need a little break from Mr. Eire's life and writing right now. I have a feeling that I will enjoy it because I now know what to expect!

If you are a fan of stories about overcoming obstacles or literary memoirs, then I do recommend reading LEARNING TO DIE IN MIAMI. I just might suggest that you read WAITING FOR SNOW IN HAVANA first!

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Review: Becoming Marie Antoinette

Summary: This enthralling confection of a novel, the first in a new trilogy, follows the transformation of a coddled Austrian archduchess into the reckless, powerful, beautiful queen Marie Antoinette.

Why must it be me? I wondered. When I am so clearly inadequate to my destiny?

Raised alongside her numerous brothers and sisters by the formidable empress of Austria, ten-year-old Maria Antonia knew that her idyllic existence would one day be sacrificed to her mother’s political ambitions. What she never anticipated was that the day in question would come so soon.

Before she can journey from sunlit picnics with her sisters in Vienna to the glitter, glamour, and gossip of Versailles, Antonia must change
everything about herself in order to be accepted as dauphine of France and the wife of the awkward teenage boy who will one day be Louis XVI. Yet nothing can prepare her for the ingenuity and influence it will take to become queen.

Filled with smart history, treacherous rivalries, lavish clothes, and sparkling jewels,
Becoming Marie Antoinette will utterly captivate fiction and history lovers alike. -- Ballantine

Lately, I have been in a sort of reading funk when in comes to historical fiction. I think I got burnt out on all those books about European royalty. However, I decided to make an exception for BECOMING MARIE ANTOINETTE by Juliet Grey. First of all, a good friend of mine, who has read tons of books on Marie Antoinette, recommended it to me as a "unique perspective on her life." And secondly, I admit that I liked the premise behind this novel -- the first in a trilogy. I was interested in "learning" how a young archduchess was "made into" the historical queen Marie Antoinette. (I use the term "learning" because you know that I choose to learn about history through historical fiction rather than nonfiction!)

I have to say that I really liked BECOMING MARIE ANTOINETTE. I haven't read a lot of historical novels on this subject (or nonfiction ones either), so I can't speak for how this book compares to others. However, what I can say is that I found this book to be very entertaining. This novel didn't focus on the court years as much as some other historical novels. Rather it focused on Marie's character, and specifically, her early life. So I think BECOMING MARIE ANTOINETTE didn't exactly fall into the genre of books that I'm tired of reading. And maybe that's why I was able to enjoy it so much.

There were many interesting things about this novel that made in a good read for me. First of all, I enjoyed the author's writing style and how she blended fact and fiction. She also did an incredible job of describing details and bringing the time period to life. I found myself caught up in the beauty and colors of the fabrics and fashion of the day, as well as the descriptions of the court and its pomp and circumstance. In addition, I found her representation of some of the characters to be fresh and unique. I especially enjoyed seeing how Marie's mother and husband were portrayed.

Another thing about BECOMING MARIE ANTOINETTE that I enjoyed was how it explored Marie Antoinette's beginnings and gave some insight into how she became such a powerful queen. I enjoyed seeing a less refined side of her -- the girl who actually had to be molded into queen material. Just to give you an idea of some of things that Marie went through in her transformation: she had to learn to walk as if she were on wheels, she had braces for her teeth, she had to learn France's history, and much more. In addition, this book references that Marie might have had a condition like scoliosis because one of her shoulders was higher than the other.

And lastly, I want to mention that I appreciated seeing how Marie and her husband's relationship was portrayed. Both Marie and Louis were very young when they were thrown together, and they had some pretty big obstacles to overcome. While Marie seemed almost ready to take on her role, her husband wasn't anywhere near ready and came across as socially immature. And then they had the pressure of consummating their marriage and providing an heir to the throne. I appreciate how Ms. Grey showed how their characters evolved and how complex their relationship with each other was.

BECOMING MARIE ANTOINETTE is the first book in a planned trilogy about Marie Antoinette's life. And there is no doubt that this novel sets up the next one. I am looking forward to seeing how Ms. Grey depicts her ruling years in future books; however, I'm afraid that I might not enjoy the next two books as much as this one (although it's entirely possible that I won't be burnt out on king and queen books by the time the next book is released.) Even if I still am in a "royalty rut," I'll be willing to make an exception for these two books.

If you are interested in learning more about Marie Antoinette's youth and early beginnings as queen, then I definitely recommend BECOMING MARIE ANTOINETTE.

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

Monday, September 19, 2011

Review: The Stranger You Seek

Summary: The papers have called me a monster. You’ve either concluded that I am a braggart as well as a sadist or that I have a deep and driving need to be caught and punished.

In the sweltering heat of an Atlanta summer, a killer is pushing the city to its breaking point, preying on the unsuspecting, writing taunting letters to the media, promising more death. Desperate to stop the Wishbone Killer before another victim meets a shattering end, A.P.D. lieutenant Aaron Rauser turns to the one person he knows can penetrate a deranged mind: ex–FBI profiler Keye Street.

And you must certainly be wondering if I am, in fact, the stranger you seek.

Keye was a rising young star at the Bureau until addiction derailed her career and her life. Now sober and fighting to stay so, Keye picks up jobs where she can get them: catching adulterers, serving subpoenas, chasing down bailjumpers, and dodging the occasional bullet. With multiple victims, little to go on, and an entire police force looking for direction, the last thing Keye wants is to be pulled into the firestorm of Atlanta’s worst nightmare.

Shall I convince you?

And then it suddenly becomes clear that the hunter has become the hunted—and the stranger she seeks is far closer than she ever dared imagine.

An electrifying thriller debut,
The Stranger You Seek introduces a brash, flawed, and unforgettable heroine in a complex, twisting novel that takes readers deep into a sultry Southern summer, a city in the grips of chaos, and a harrowing cat-and-mouse game no reader will ever forget. -- Bantam

I am so glad that I started challenging myself to read more mystery books as part of Mystery Mondays. Throughout these past few months, I've discovered some very intriguing books as well as some exciting new-to-me authors. The latest thriller that captured my interest (and definitely kept me guessing) was THE STRANGER YOU SEEK by Amanda Kyle Williams.

THE STRANGER YOU SEEK tells the story of Kaye Street a former FBI profiler and current private eye, bounty hunter, and subpoena server. When a horrific serial killer (penned The Wishbone Killer by the press) begins wreaking havoc in Atlanta, Kaye is asked by a police lieutenant (who is also her love interest) to assist in profiling the murderer. As Kaye becomes more and more involved in these murders, she battles not only the demon known as The Wishbone Killer, but also her inner demons.

I had such a fantastic time reading THE STRANGER YOU SEEK. It really encompassed everything I've come to expect from a quality thriller. It had great characters, a scary  murderer, an extremely intriguing mystery, and loads of suspense. In addition, this book was filled with so many surprises. I was actually kept in the dark about the identity of the murderer despite being rather confident that I had it all figured out about halfway through the book. In fact, I can honestly say that I was shocked with the ending of the novel -- not once, but twice. And I think that's a testament to how suspenseful this story was.

Probably one of the things that I most appreciated about this novel was the character of Kaye. First of all, I was just happy to see that more and more thrillers are having women as the main characters. I appreciated that THE STRANGER YOU SEEK could be so gritty, scary, and witty and still have a strong female like Kaye in the lead! In addition, I loved that Kaye was such a complex character. I mentioned earlier that Kaye was a former FBI profiler, and that was because she had an problem with alcohol. In addition to her addiction issues, she also has some other baggage including an ex-boss (who makes an appearance in this story) and an ex-husband (who also makes an appearance in this story.) At times, Kaye is a sheer mess. She's almost self-destructive, if you will; and I thought she was a fascinating character as a result.

Another great thing about this novel was the entire murder mystery aspect. The serial killer in THE STRANGER YOU SEEK was absolutely crazy... and really creepy; and I had absolutely no idea the motive or what The Wishbone Killer was going to do next. The entire time I read this book, I was on the edge-of-my-seat because there was just so much constant tension. And as far as the action-packed ending goes, this book certainly had one. I couldn't read this book fast enough because I needed to know the "why!" (Of course, I ended up finding out the "who" as well, but at the time I was reading, I was sure that I already knew that aspect!)

THE STRANGER YOU SEEK is Ms. Williams' debut novel and I think she's off to a great start. Kirkus Reviews has already given it a starred review! With such a fantastic character as Kaye Street, I can easily see an entire series of these books, and personally, I can't wait. I have a feeling that I'm going to be hooked on these thrillers. I'm only sad that I'm going to have to wait awhile before there's another book available.

If you are a fan of thrillers and like to be a little creeped out when reading about murders, then I highly recommend THE STRANGER YOU SEEK.

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

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

Sunday, September 18, 2011

September 2011 Book Club Meeting

Summary: In his 2003 National Book Award–winning memoir Waiting for Snow in Havana, Carlos Eire narrated his coming of age in Cuba just before and during the Castro revolution. That book literally ends in midair as eleven-year-old Carlos and his older brother leave Havana on an airplane—along with thousands of other children—to begin their new life in Miami in 1962. It would be years before he would see his mother again. He would never again see his beloved father. 

Learning to Die in Miami opens as the plane lands and Carlos faces, with trepidation and excitement, his new life. He quickly realizes that in order for his new American self to emerge, his Cuban self must "die." And so, with great enterprise and purpose, he begins his journey. 

We follow Carlos as he adjusts to life in his new home. Faced with learning English, attending American schools, and an uncertain future, young Carlos confronts the age-old immigrant's plight: being surrounded by American bounty, but not able to partake right away. The abundance America has to offer excites him and, regardless of how grim his living situation becomes, he eagerly forges ahead with his own personal assimilation program, shedding the vestiges of his old life almost immediately, even changing his name to Charles. Cuba becomes a remote and vague idea in the back of his mind, something he used to know well, but now it "had ceased to be part of the world." 

But as Carlos comes to grips with his strange surroundings, he must also struggle with everyday issues of growing up. His constant movement between foster homes and the eventual realization that his parents are far away in Cuba bring on an acute awareness that his life has irrevocably changed. Flashing back and forth between past and future, we watch as Carlos balances the divide between his past and present homes and finds his way in this strange new world, one that seems to hold the exhilarating promise of infinite possibilities and one that he will eventually claim as his own. 

An exorcism and an ode, Learning to Die in Miami is a celebration of renewal—of those times when we're certain we have died and then are somehow, miraculously, reborn. -- Free Press

For our September meeting, we discussed LEARNING TO DIE IN MIAMI: CONFESSIONS OF A REFUGEE BOY by Carlos Eire. I'm going to be honest with you. I had high hopes for this book and I didn't enjoy it like I had hoped. I had a rough time with the author's writing style and I didn't feel as if he was detailed enough about certain events. I will be giving more details about my issues with the book in my review which is scheduled for next week.

So what did my book club think about LEARNING TO DIE IN MIAMI? The opinions were kind of divided. We had a small group at our meeting -- six in total; and only four of us actually finished the book (two other women had started it but weren't able to finish!) Two of the women seemed to really enjoy the book and it was interesting to hear their thoughts. There was definitely one other member who mirrored my opinions -- almost exactly -- and I thought we brought up some valid issues.

While LEARNING TO DIE IN MIAMI wasn't a huge hit with our group, I do think we all appreciated the book at some level. And I will definitely say that we had an excellent discussion surrounding the book. Once we calmed down (we tend to get sidetracked very easily, or in this case, took awhile to start discussing the book), we really delved into the specifics of this memoir. I was pretty proud of us since we discussed the author's experiences, the political environment of Cuba and the U.S., the literary style of the writing, the symbolism, and quite a bit more. We also talked about what worked for us in the book as well as what didn't. We found that we didn't have any formal discussion questions, but that didn't affect us at all. There was a great deal to discuss in LEARNING TO DIE IN MIAMI, and we were actually talking over each other in our excitement to share our views.

Next month, we will be reading WHAT ALICE FORGOT by Liane Moriarty. I read this book a few months ago and loved it. You can read my review here. I am pretty excited about this pick for a number of reasons. First of all, I loved it! Secondly, our group hasn't read much women's fiction lately. And lastly, because I think there's a great deal for us to discuss!

Summary: What would happen if you were visited by your younger self, and got a chance for a do-over?

Alice Love is twenty-nine years old, madly in love with her husband, and pregnant with their first child. So imagine her surprise when, after a fall, she comes to on the floor of a gym (a gym! she HATES the gym!) and discovers that she's actually thirty-nine, has three children, and is in the midst of an acrimonious divorce.

A knock on the head has misplaced ten years of her life, and Alice isn't sure she likes who she's become. It turns out, though, that forgetting might be the most memorable thing that has ever happened to Alice. -- Amy Einhorn

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Kid Konnection: Wonderstruck

Every Saturday, I host a feature called Kid Konnection -- a regular weekend feature about anything related to children's books. This week, I'm going to share with you an amazing new middle grade book/graphic novel!

Summary: Ben's story takes place in 1977. Rose's story takes place in 1927. Ever since his mother died, Ben feels lost. At home with her father, Rose feels alone. When Ben finds a mysterious clue hidden in his mother's room, and when a tempting opportunity presents itself to Rose, both children risk everything to find what's missing. -- Scholastic Press

Ever since I attended this year's BEA, I have wanted to read WONDERSTRUCK by Brian Selznick. Mr. Selznick spoke at the Children's Author Breakfast and I was utterly captivated with his drawings, his story, and basically... him. He just struck me as an amazingly talented artist, who also had a great sense of humor, and just an overall nice guy. He showed us a video of some of the illustrations in his new book WONDERSTRUCK, and I was just blown away -- as was everyone else in the audience. His illustrations were just breath-taking!

I wasn't quite sure what to expect when I picked up WONDERSTRUCK. I had already seen a few reviews that said it was excellent, but beyond that, I wanted to see for myself. I was pretty impressed with the size of the book and wondered if it would appeal to kids as young as 8 or 9; however, I quickly skimmed through it and saw that there were hundreds of illustrations (actually 460 pages of drawings!) I actually ended up reading the entire novel during a two hour car ride, and I can definitely say that kids and adults alike will love this story.

WONDERSTRUCK is actually two very separate stories... until they come together into one! I hesitate to tell you much more because I think WONDERSTRUCK should be experienced. But I will give you a little bit of background just to capture your interest!

The first story in WONDERSTRUCK is entirely narrative and tells the story of Ben, a young boy who doesn't feel as if he belongs. The story takes place in 1977 and begins a few months after Ben's mother unexpectedly died. Ben is naturally missing his mother and longing to discover the identity of his father. The second story is told entirely in pictures and takes place in New York City 50 years earlier. It tells the story of Rose, a young deaf girl, who shares some of Ben's feelings, especially the one of isolation.

At first, it appears the the two alternating stories are unrelated; however, as both stories unfold, an astute child will begin to see some common themes... and they even might see where the story is heading. As both stories progress, they similarities come to life and they actually begin to intersect. When both stories finally come together towards the end of the novel, quite a few surprises are revealed; and I, for one, was deeply touched.

As far as I'm concerned WONDERSTRUCK is a work of genius -- seriously, I thought it was that good! It goes without saying that it's unlike any book I've ever read because of the illustrations. However, the beauty of this novel also lies in how the two stories are first presented and then how they eventually come together. It's pure magic, I tell you!

As a reader, I devoured this book and loved everything about it -- from the characters, to the settings, to the stories, to the illustrations... the list goes on and on. However, I am also going to put on my "mom hat" and tell you some of the things that I appreciated about this book. First and foremost, this book deserves to be read and discussed -- think: classroom discussions and/or book clubs. It touches upon so many wonderful themes and important issues. Some of the topics that I would want to explore with my own kids include isolation, deafness, friendship, parent/child relationships, self discovery, independence, belonging, secrets, and responsibility. Another wonderful thing about this book is that it is actually educational as well as entertaining. The characters in the book visit museums and learn some fascinating historical information. In addition, there are references to major events that occurred in New York City (I really can't be more specific on this because I don't want to spoil anything!) And finally, I love that the mix of words and pictures will encourage even the most reluctant of readers to pick up this book and actually want to read it.

It is with more than a little embarrassment when I admit that I have not read Mr. Selznick's last book THE INVENTION OF HUGO CABRET. If it's anywhere near as good as WONDERSTRUCK, then I am sure to enjoy it. I love that Mr. Selznick has taken what he's "learned" while writing and illustrating THE INVENTION OF HUGO CABRET and incorporated it into his new novel. He must be a very quick student because I thought WONDERSTRUCK was pretty darn near perfect!

As an aside, the movie version of THE INVENTION OF HUGO CABRET, directed by Martin Scorcese, will be out soon; and I need to read the book prior to taking my kids to see the film. I'm thinking this might be a great read-along book for my kids and me!

If you'd like to get a little sneak peek of WONDERSTRUCK, then check out this video with its author Brian Selznick:

I think I'm done gushing about this novel, except for a final few thoughts:

Run, don't walk, and get yourself a copy of WONDERSTRUCK -- you won't be able to put this book down! Prepare to be struck by the wonder of WONDERSTRUCK!

Thanks to the publisher for sending a copy of this incredible book!

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, September 16, 2011

Review: Spycatcher

Summary: Matthew Dunn spent years as an MI6 field operative working on some of the West’s most clandestine missions. He recruited and ran agents, planned and participated in special operations, and operated deep undercover throughout the world. In Spycatcher he draws on this fascinating experience to breathe urgent, dynamic new life into the contemporary spy novel. 

Featuring deft and daring superspy Will Cochrane, Dunn paints a nerve-jangling, bracingly authentic picture of today’s secret world. It is a place where trust is precious and betrayal is cheap—and where violent death is the reward for being outplayed by your enemy. 

Will Cochrane, the CIA’s and MI6’s most prized asset and deadliest weapon, has known little outside this world since childhood. And he’s never been outplayed. So far . . . 

Will’s controllers task him with finding and neutralizing one of today’s most wanted terrorist masterminds, a man believed to be an Iranian Revolutionary Guard general. Intending to use someone from the man’s past to flush him out of the shadows, Will believes he has the perfect plan, but he soon discovers, in a frantic chase from the capitals of Europe to New York City, that his adversary has more surprises in store and is much more treacherous than anyone he has ever faced—and survived—up to now. -- William Morrow

Booking Pap Pap has been doing a lot of reading lately (especially after his trip to the beach in August) and he has read some fantastic books. One that he really enjoyed was SPYCATCHER by Matthew Dunn. SPYCATCHER is a contemporary espionage novel and, if I'm being entirely honest, I'm not sure I would appreciate it. However, my father definitely did. Here are his thoughts:

SPYCATCHER is a typical spy thriller except for one thing – first time author Matthew Dunn was actually a real British M16 field officer and his experiences add a real-life aspect to the story.

The main character in SPYCATCHER is Will Cochrane, the ultimate M16 agent. Cochrane is known as Sparta, M16’s special weapon. His skills are so unique that only one agent can carry the Sparta name. To make matters more interesting Cochrane is somewhat of a maverick and a large headache to his handlers. Cochrane reminded me of James Bond without the smoothness.

Cochrane is teamed up with a CIA Special Ops unit to track down the world’s most wanted terrorist, Magiddo, an Islamic Revolutionary Guard officer who’s planning a major attack against the West. Cochrane’s plan is to use a beautiful woman from Magiddo’s past to lure him into a trap. Of course, Cochrane becomes attracted to the woman. Cochrane quickly finds that Magiddo is a formidable adversary that leads him on a chase through several European capitals to New York City where the story ends in dramatic fashion. To add more intrigue to the novel, the hunt becomes personal for Cochrane when he discovers that Magiddo was responsible for an agent’s death many years ago that resulted in a very tragic time for a young Will Cochrane.

SPYCATCHER has all the elements of a good spy thriller including exotic locations, a beautiful woman, shadowy cloak and dagger spies, fast paced action, an obvious villain, several plot twists and plenty of brutality for the reader that likes that feature of a spy thriller. Dunn takes a refreshing approach to his Islamic terrorist, now the standard “bad guys” in the latest thriller novels. He identifies them as such and then avoids constantly telling the reader about their religious and political beliefs. One unrealistic element of an otherwise realistic book is that Cochran continually suffers seemingly life-threatening injuries only to return to the chase after a short recovery period.

If you like an easy to read, action packed spy thriller with a surprise ending then I think you will enjoy SPYCATCHER. This is a very good first effort by Matthew Dunn.

Thanks to the publisher for sending a copy of this novel and to Booking Pap Pap for his review.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Review: The Taker

Summary: On the midnight shift at a hospital in rural Maine, Dr. Luke Findley is expecting another quiet evening of frostbite and the occasional domestic dispute. But the minute Lanore McIlvrae—Lanny—walks into his ER, she changes his life forever. A mysterious woman with a past and plenty of dark secrets, Lanny is unlike anyone Luke has ever met. He is inexplicably drawn to her . . . despite the fact that she is a murder suspect with a police escort. And as she begins to tell her story, a story of enduring love and consummate betrayal that transcends time and mortality, Luke finds himself utterly captivated.

Her impassioned account begins at the turn of the nineteenth century in the same small town of St. Andrew, Maine, back when it was a Puritan settlement. Consumed as a child by her love for the son of the town's founder, Lanny will do anything to be with him forever. But the price she pays is steep—an immortal bond that chains her to a terrible fate for all eternity. And now, two centuries later, the key to her healing and her salvation lies with Dr. Luke Findley.

Part historical novel, part supernatural page-turner,
The Taker is an unforgettable tale about the power of unrequited love not only to elevate and sustain, but also to blind and ultimately destroy, and how each of us is responsible for finding our own path to redemption. -- Gallery Books

I have read some pretty terrific reviews about THE TAKER by Alma Katsu from a few book bloggers whose opinions I respect. Plus this book got a starred review from Booklist. So when I keep hearing great things about a novel, my curiosity gets piqued and I can't help but want to read it. However, in the case of THE TAKER, I had some reservations. I'm not usually a huge fan of books with supernatural elements and THE TAKER definitely has some of those. And If I'm being entirely honest, the whole premise of the story just doesn't sound like one that I would normally be attracted to. Still, I decided to see what all the fuss was about...

And guess what? I actually liked THE TAKER. In fact, I liked it a lot; and I couldn't have been more surprised by my reaction. Now I'm not entirely sure that I'm the best judge of whether this book is a outstanding in its genre, but I can say that I was highly entertained by it. I was pretty much hooked from the get-go and I thought the excitement in the story didn't let up. I was blown away by the ending and can honestly say that I didn't see it coming! Is it going to be one of my very favorite books of 2011? Probably not. However, I had a fantastic time reading it and I thought it was a real page-turner. And I can see that fans of this genre will absolutely adore it.

I'm not exactly sure how to describe THE TAKER. On one hand, it was a paranormal suspense-type thriller, but it was also part historical fiction. I think I probably enjoyed the historical fiction elements a bit more than the supernatural ones (but that's just because I do have issues with buying supernatural aspects of stories), but I did appreciate how well-done the paranormal scenes were. I guess I'd go so far as to say that they were pretty believable and I didn't have many issues with suspending reality while reading.

The story was told in chapters that alternated between the present and the past, and I thought the author did a fabulous job of establishing the story and then gradually revealing the details. While I found the present day story to be intriguing, I found the real strength of this novel to be in the flashbacks. I liked how the author captured the feel of the small Maine community in the early 1800, and I think I was already hooked on the story and the characters by the time the supernatural stuff started occurring! I also thought Ms. Katsu did a wonderful job of creating the mystique and mystery surrounding the story that takes place in Hungary (it was really the Hungarian Territory) in 1349 too.

I've seen THE TAKER described as a love story, but I might have to disagree a bit with that classification. While THE TAKER definitely explored some "romantic" relationships between characters, I felt it was much more intense than a love story. The "love" explored in this novel was obsessive and intense, and it was unlike any love story that I've ever read. In addition, the relationships in this book were incredibly violent and sexual (sometimes to the point of violence.) In fact, I was sort of uncomfortable reading quite a few scenes so I don't recommend this novel to the faint of heart. Overall, I guess I'd say that THE TAKER wasn't exactly a love story, but there is a 200 year old love affair that explores deep feelings of betrayal and jealousy.

One thing I found very interesting about my reaction to THE TAKER is that I didn't really like any of the characters. Rather, I pretty much disliked all of them. I wanted to like Lanny and I really tried, but again and again, I was turned off by her intense jealousy. And as far as the vampire types go... they were all pretty awful. What I will say about the characters in this story is that they are extremely complex, and I guess part of the appeal of this story is in their inherent darkness.

THE TAKER would make an very interesting book club pick -- definitely not my group's normal fare. There is a reading guide available which explores some intriguing topics. In addition to delving into the characters' psyches, there are plenty of other things to discuss including love, rage, jealousy, unrequited love, violence, hedonism, choices, and magic.

I definitely recommend THE TAKER to fans of paranormal stories, but I also recommend it to those of you who find it outside of your reading comfort zone. Who knows? Like me, you just might find that you really enjoyed it!

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