Monday, October 31, 2011

Review: I am Half-Sick of Shadows

Summary: It’s Christmastime, and the precocious Flavia de Luce—an eleven-year-old sleuth with a passion for chemistry and a penchant for crime-solving—is tucked away in her laboratory, whipping up a concoction to ensnare Saint Nick. But she is soon distracted when a film crew arrives at Buckshaw, the de Luces’ decaying English estate, to shoot a movie starring the famed Phyllis Wyvern. Amid a raging blizzard, the entire village of Bishop’s Lacey gathers at Buckshaw to watch Wyvern perform, yet nobody is prepared for the evening’s shocking conclusion: a body found, past midnight, strangled to death with a length of film. But who among the assembled guests would stage such a chilling scene? As the storm worsens and the list of suspects grows, Flavia must use every ounce of sly wit at her disposal to ferret out a killer hidden in plain sight. -- Delacorte Press

Yes...I know it's Halloween, but I'm reviewing a Christmas book today -- see the green Santa hat on the skeleton. I figure if the stores are already stocked with holiday items and playing Christmas music, then I can start sharing some Christmas-themed books with all of you!

I'm almost embarrassed to admit that I haven't read a Flavia de Luce novel. THE SWEETNESS AT THE BOTTOM OF THE PIE by Alan Bradley has been near the top of my mystery pile and I never seem to get around to reading it with all of the new releases. So it wasn't until I received a copy of the latest Flavia novel I AM HALF-SICK OF SHADOWS as part of the Random House Early Bird Read that I finally discovered what all of the fuss was about. I can see why this series has been so popular with readers. It was positively delightful!

I just adored I AM HALF-SICK OF SHADOWS! My only regret is that I haven't yet read the first three books in the series. That's not to say that I AM HALF-SICK OF SHADOWS doesn't work as a stand-alone novel because it most certainly does. It just means that I enjoyed the story and the characters so much that I wish I had started at the very beginning of Flavia's adventures. Needless to say, I will be picking up THE SWEETNESS AT THE BOTTOM OF THE PIE in the very near future.

I had pretty high expectations when I picked up I AM HALF-SICK OF SHADOWS because I knew that THE SWEETNESS AT THE BOTTOM OF THE PIE was critically acclaimed, an award winner, and a best-seller; and I have to say that I AM HALF-SICK OF SHADOWS lived up to all of my expectations. I loved Mr. Bradley's writing style and I thought the mystery was a good one. However, what I adored most about this novel was Flavia. She is one fantastic character, and maybe even one of my favorite amateur sleuths to date!

For those of you who have not yet discovered the wonder of Flavia de Luce, I'll tell you a little bit about her. She's an remarkable tween girl who's extremely intelligent and loves chemistry and poisons. On one hand, she seems like an adult with her mature insight into crimes and her resourcefulness; but on the other hand, she seems like a pretty typical pre-teen girl... especially when it comes to her antagonistic relationship with her two older sisters and her naivete about social situations. She is truly one amazing sleuth and I absolutely love her insight as well as her wit. She just cracks me up -- especially when she concocted a chemical formula to "catch" Saint Nick in a sticky situation!

Another really fantastic thing about I AM HALF-SICK OF SHADOWS was the setting. I admit that I wasn't exactly thrilled that this book took place in the 1950s on Flavia's family estate in England. (I'm not sure why but it just seemed kind of stuffy.) But I must say, that I loved Buckshaw. Buckshaw definitely can to life in this story and in some ways, it was almost a secondary character. Buckshaw is in decay because Flavia's father can no longer afford to keep up with the repairs, so he allows a filming crew to rent the house and grounds. It ends up that Buckshaw is an ideal location for a holiday gathering of the town people as well as the murder of a famous actress.

I admit that I loved Flavia so much that the mystery was almost secondary to me. When I think back on this novel, though, I would say that the mystery was very intriguing. Since there were many people in the house for the filming and the charity performance of the stars, the entire population of the town and the film crew were suspects. Flavia quickly narrowed the list using her extremely insightful intuition, and she eventually solved the crime and even ensnared the suspects. The ending of the novel is action-packed and very entertaining!

I really can't rave enough about Flavia and her crime-solving capabilities. Highly recommended!

Thanks to the publisher for sending 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, October 30, 2011

Guest Review: The Lost Angel

Summary: New York Times bestselling author Javier Sierra returns with a heartpounding, apocalyptic thriller about mankind's most ancient desire—and the modern evil some will unleash to obtain it.

Every religion has a story for how our species came to mix with yours and was doomed to this planet. We are the sons of exiles. Cursed. Even man condemned us, blaming us for all the evils of the world. On the one hand you worshiped us, these beings who brought knowledge from the heavens. But you also feared us for what we might want in return. . . ."

In approximately seventy-two hours, a little-known Middle Eastern terrorist group plans to bring about the end of the world. Convinced that they are the descendants of angels, they believe they are on the verge of at last being returned to heaven. Central to their plan is the kidnapping of Martin Faber, an undercover American scientist whose research has led him to an extraordinary secret.

Martin's only hope for survival is his young wife, Julia Alvarez—a woman born with a rare psychic gift. But she must find the courage to save her husband, all while running from religious extremists and clandestine government agencies.

Sierra takes readers on an adventure across the world, from the summit of Mount Ararat to the high desert of New Mexico, from the monuments of Washington, DC, to the medieval city of Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Sierra spent years investigating scientific and historical mysteries related to mankind's efforts to engage directly with the Almighty.

The Lost Angel bears all the hallmarks of Sierra's erudite yet fast-paced brand of storytelling, combining historical fact and fiction with dazzling narrative feats. -- Atria

When I received a copy of THE LOST ANGEL by Javier Sierra, I took one look at the cover and passed it along to my dad, Booking Pap Pap. I assumed it was some type of thriller and I figured he'd appreciate it more than I would. However, I didn't take the time to read the description of the novel; and I'm not so sure that I would have given it to him had I realized that it was a little "out there." He usually enjoys books that are are more reality-based, but he gave it a chance anyway. Here are his thoughts:

THE LOST ANGEL by Javier Sierra is a most unusual religious thriller. The novel is about a group or religious fanatics who are convinced they are descendants of angels and feel the time is right for a return to Heaven. In order to accomplish this they must bring the world to the brink of extinction and utilize the psychic powers of Julia Alvarez and two rare stones she and her husband possess to accomplish their wishes. Julia’s husband, Martin Faber, a scientist who has researched communications with God, has been kidnapped by the group to lure Julia to the location of Noah’s Arc on Mount Ararat.

To complicate matters, the National Security Agency and the President of the United States, in addition to wanting to protect the U.S. citizens Faber and Alvarez, are also in pursuit of the stones. The United States apparently has had an interest in these stones since the time President Chester Arthur set up Operation Elias to control communications with any higher intelligence.

Author Javier Sierra takes the reader on a journey around the world while at the same time sharing his meticulous research of religion, mystical and historical facts. Along the way the reader is introduced to Sumerian King Gilgamesh, Elizabethan astrologer John Dee, Noah’s Arc, the Book of Enoch, the Arc of the Covenant, the Holy Grail, Jacob’s ladder, Mormon founder John Smith and Hopi Native Americans.

Even though the book is grounded in facts gleaned from Sierra’s detailed research I still found the premise of the book a stretch for my imagination. I also felt that there were too many characters to keep track of and the abundance of research shared with the reader sometimes slowed the story down. The author does include a glossary of Sierra’s research which is a very helpful reference tool to be used while reading the novel.

One technique used by Sierra that I found interesting was that Julie Alvarez spoke in the first person and all other characters spoke in the third person. For me, this helped emphasize Julie’s significance in the story. In general I thought the character development was weak and the personalities of the characters never materialized.

The novel comes to an interesting and somewhat surprising climax when all key participants come together at Mount Ararat and everyone witnesses the same thing but interprets it in different ways.

THE LOST ANGEL is a unique religious thriller with an interesting combination of facts and fiction. Even if the reader can’t “buy-in” to the idea of angels on earth, the immense research undertaken by Torres that serves as the basis of the novel will introduce the reader to many interesting facts about religion and history.

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

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Kid Konnection: Cute Picture Books

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 some very cute picture and board books.

Summary: Little Blue and Little Yellow are best friends, but one day they can’t find each other. When they finally do, they give each other such a big hug that they turn green! How they find their true colors again concludes a wonderfully satisfying story told with colorful pieces of torn paper and very few words. Leo Lionni launched his children’s book career in 1959 with Little Blue and Little Yellow, and this 50th-anniversary edition, complete with Lionni’s own explanation of how the book came to be, is sure to resonate with children today. -- Knopf

LITTLE BLUE AND LITTLE YELLOW by Leo Lionni is a wonderful children's classic. It was actually Mr. Lionni's first book (he wrote it in 1959 before board books were even invented!), and I'm extremely excited that it's being re-released as a board book. LITTLE BLUE AND LITTLE YELLOW was a New York Times Best Illustrated Book of that year, and I have to say that it's timeless. I found it to be positively delightful.

LITTLE BLUE AND LITTLE YELLOW tells the story of two friends who just happen to be blue and yellow blobs of paint. The loved to play with each other and had many different games; however, one day, they couldn't find each other. When they finally discovered each other again, they immediately hug and, of course, turn green. They eventually return to their own colors (and, therefore, recapture their identities) and teach young readers some valuable lessons!

I absolutely adore this fun little story, but the illustrations are outstanding too. They encompass everything I've come to know and love about a Lionni book. They are simple, yet bright and colorful, and sure to capture even the youngest one's attention. I especially enjoyed LITTLE BLUE AND LITTLE YELLOW because, not only was it a cute story about friendship, but it also introduces the concept of mixing colors.

A must-have for all children's book collections! Think Christmas or first birthday present, or possibly even a baby shower gift!

Summary: Author Lindsey Craig teams up with Arthur creator and bestselling artist Marc Brown in a toe-tapping farmyard dance-a-thon—perfect for toddler and preschooler read-alouds. As soon as the sun goes down, the animals are up! ("Sheep can't sleep. Sheep can't sleep. Sheep can't sleep 'cause they got that beat!") Before long, there's a giant farmyard dance party, complete with funny animal sounds. But what happens when all the racket wakes up Farmer Sue? Here's a colorful bedtime story that begs to be read aloud. -- Knopf

FARMYARD BEAT by Lindsey Craig and illustrated by Marc Brown is another cute book which is ideal for little ones. When the farmyard animals can't sleep, they have a big dance party. They all have so much fun that they eventually tire themselves out and fall asleep!

I thought FARMYARD BEAT was precious! Booking Son informed me that it was a baby book (and it definitely is geared towards younger kids), but we still giggled a bit when he read it to me. I think toddlers will most appreciate this book and I'm fairly confident that they will the cute story and the rhyming cadence. I also think they will enjoy making the various animal sounds with the reader.

My favorite part of FARMYARD BEAT is probably the illustrations by Marc Brown (of Arthur fame!) They are, of course, adorable, but they look a little bit different than most of Brown's books. You can see a slight resemblance to some of his other characters in the faces; however, these drawings have a more textured appearance -- almost a mixed media look. I'm probably not using the right "terms" so just look at the cover to get an idea of the patterns.

I highly recommend FARMYARD BEAT to toddlers and preschoolers -- it's a perfect bedtime story!

Summary: If you think YOU have a busy schedule, take a look at Ernestine Buckmeister's weekly calendar:

On Mondays she sculpts with Clay Lumpkin.
On Tuesdays she does water ballet with Miss Goldfisher.
On Wednesdays she knits with Mrs. Pearl Stitchem.
On Thursdays she takes tuba lessons with Mr. Oompah.
On Fridays she yodels with Little Old Lady Hoo.
On Saturdays she studies karate with Grand Master HiYa!
And on Sundays she practices yoga with Guru Prakash Pretzel

Her well-meaning, busy parents have packed her after-school hours, turning Ernestine into the over-scheduled poster child of today.

But Ernestine is about to opt out and do what no Buckmeister has ever done before: just PLAY. -- Flashlight Press

THE BUSY LIFE OF ERNESTINE BUCKMEISTER by Linda Ravin Lodding and illustrated by Suzanne Beaky was probably the book most geared towards Booking Son's age -- and probably the book that he most enjoyed out of these three stories. It was a very cute story, with adorable illustrations, but the real beauty of this book is the ultimate message. It's one to which most kids will relate, and it's definitely one to which most parents need to be reminded. Maybe I'm only speaking for my own family, but I have a feeling that we aren't alone!

THE BUSY LIFE OF ERNESTINE BUCKMEISTER tells the story of Ernestine, a young girl who is over-scheduled. She has activities every day of the week and is extremely tired... of everything. Her parents have the best intentions -- they definitely want the best for Ernestine; however, they fail to see that kids need to be kids. And Ernestine just wants some time to play!

This book resonated with Booking Son and I in a major way. In fact, when he started full day school this year, he was overwhelmed with his busy schedule and very tired. He didn't like anything -- school, karate, or soccer; and he was starting to act out. We decided that he needed to cut back on karate even though he loves it just so he could keep his sanity. It was a hard lesson, but a necessary one for us; and I do know it benefited him to have some down time.

After we read THE BUSY LIFE OF ERNESTINE BUCKMEISTER together, we discussed Ernestine's experiences and compared them to his own. He told me that he understood Ernestine and felt like her when she was sad because she didn't have time to play with her friends. It broke my heart, but we're trying to find some sort of mix between play and activities. I have a feeling that it's going to be a constant battle in today's society.

As a parent, I highly recommend THE BUSY LIFE OF ERNESTINE BUCKMEISTER. It has an important message, but it also provides the opportunity to open up communication between parents and children.

Thanks to the publishers and author 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, October 28, 2011

Review: Kidz Bop Halloween Party & Halloween Contest

Just yesterday, I received a copy of KIDZ BOP HALLOWEEN PARTY for review. It was absolutely perfect timing since Booking Son's Halloween party is taking place today. We immediately played the CD and it definitely got us in the Halloween spirit. (get it? spirit?) This CD contains some pretty famous Halloween songs in a continuous "spooky mix." All of the songs are kid-friendly and sung by kids.

The album contains the following songs:
Witch Doctor
Werewolves of London
The Addams Family
Monster Mash
Scooby Doo, Where Are You?
A Nightmare on My Street
Somebody's Watching Me
Purple People Eater
Time Warp
Ding Dong The Witch Is Dead
I Want Candy
This is Halloween
Spooky Sounds

KIDZ BOP HALLOWEEN PARTY is sure to be a hit with parents and kids alike! Check it out this Halloween!

And now for the "book" part of the post:

Harper Collins and LIESL & PO present "A Magical Halloween Super Contest"

Halloween may be full of ghosts and goblins, but it’s also the time for magic and friendship. LIESL & PO, a brand new book coming to you from our friends at Harper Collins, is full of adventures featuring two friends, a villain, and a box full of magical powers., the leading safe social network and video sharing site for kids and tweens, is scaring up some Halloween fun with Harper Collins and New York Times best-selling author Lauren Oliver, by launching the LIESL & PO Magical Halloween Super Contest.

Kids can get in the Halloween spirit now through November 7th by uploading a video explaining which power they'd most like to have and what they'd do with it. You could win a NOOK Color, $100 Amazon gift card, a copy of LIESL & PO and more awesome swag.

To find out more about LIESL & PO and other Harper Collins books, kids can "fan" the new Harper Collins Book of the Month Club! Fan page at where they can:

  • Read an entire new book every month for free
  • Watch author video Q&As, beginning with Adam Jay Epstein and Andrew Jacobsen, authors of THE FAMILIARS
  • Play cool new games
I'm really excited about the idea of a kids' book of the month club! Share this and the Magical Halloween Super Contest with the kids and tweens in your life.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Giveaway: A Pinch of Love

Summary: Rose-Ellen "Zell" Carmichael Roy doesn't cook, but she wears her late husband Nick's camouflage apron every day. That's her widow style. It's been more than a year since Nick's tragic death during a post- Katrina relief mission in New Orleans, but Zell can't bring herself to move on. Then, a postman's error spurs her to enter a baking contest in the hopes of donating the grand prize to the hurricane survivors in Nick's memory. After Zell's first attempt at baking goes embarrassingly awry, she meets Ingrid Knox-her motherless nine-year-old neighbor-and the two forge an unlikely friendship that will alter both their lives forever. -- Plume

Last year, I reviewed a delightful book called SIMPLY FROM SCRATCH by Alicia Bessette -- you can read my review here. Well, the publisher has just released the paperback under a new title. It's called A PINCH OF LOVE. Isn't that just a cute title and a cute cover?

A PINCH OF LOVE tells the story of Zell, a young widow who is trying to cope with the loss of her husband. When she enters a baking contest in the hopes that she can donate the grand prize to the victims of Katrina, she finds some new friends and she also discovers some important things about herself. It is a sweet story that will touch your heart, and I love how it explored grief. It will also make a terrific book club pick!

Thanks to the publisher, I have a copy of A PINCH OF LOVE to share with one lucky reader. To enter, just fill out the form below before November 9th at 11:59 p.m. ET. I will randomly select and notify the winner the following day. This contest is open to those of you with U.S. addresses only.

Review: U is for Undertow

Summary: Eyewitness testimony is notoriously unreliable. Even more so when Kinsey Millhone's only lead is a grown man dredging up a repressed childhood memory-of something that may never have happened... -- Berkley

It's been some time now since I've read a book by Sue Grafton, but I remember reading them fairly religiously in my younger years. And then for some reason, I stopped reading them. I can't really say why because I always remember enjoying these books. I guess they just fell victim to the idea that "there are too many books and too little time" and I began reading more literary fiction. Nonetheless, in my quest to read more mysteries this year, I thought I'd read the latest Kinsey Millhone book, U IS FOR UNDERTOW. I figured it would be a good refresher for me because I wanted to get ready for Ms. Grafton's new book which is coming out in a few short weeks. 

I am so glad that I decided to read U IS FOR UNDERTOW because I absolutely loved it. It truly was a treat to read and made me appreciate how good the Kinsey Millhone books are. I'm kind of glad that I took a step back from this series for a few years because I think the break made me enjoy this novel even more. Since I am reading quite a few mysteries for Mystery Monday, I feel as if I'm a decent judge of mysteries; and I have to say that U IS FOR UNDERTOW was highly entertaining.

In fact, I actually forgot how well written Ms. Grafton's books are; and this novel made me realize how much I have missed Kinsey and her escapades. Kinsey is just a terrific character and I love her personality. She is smart, diligent, and even a little cynical; and she is also extremely honest. I just love her as a narrator. In U IS FOR UNDERTOW, Kinsey is asked to help a man who thinks he is a witness to a 21 year old crime. His family has pretty much written him off as unreliable and his story is suspect because he was only six years old at the time of the crime; however, Kinsey takes on his case because she feels that there might be more to his memories than meet the eye.

Of course, Kinsey digs deep into the background of the murder and eventually solves the mystery. However, the case was certainly a complex one with lots of twists and turns for Kinsey. As a reader, I appreciated how Ms. Grafton decided to tell this story. There were the "Kinsey" first person narrative chapters which explored the case through Kinsey's eyes, but there were also flashback chapters about many of the main characters/suspects. While I do love Kinsey and her insightful views on life, I also really liked the chapters that took place in the past and provided some much-needed background information on the crime. Both types of chapters were extremely interesting and worked well together towards the ultimate conclusion of the mystery.

In addition to the murder mystery part of U IS FOR UNDERTOW, I also liked that there was a side story about Kinsey and her personal life. These snippets allowed me to see a more warm and compassionate side of Kinsey that isn't always readily apparent. I enjoyed seeing all of the important players in her life, like her landlord Henry, Rosie the bar owner and her cop friends, make appearances in the story; however, I also really liked seeing how Kinsey was dealing with some issues from her dysfunctional childhood.

I'm sure many of you are already fans of Ms. Grafton's, but just in case you haven't read any of the books in this series, you are definitely missing out. I highly recommend U IS FOR UNDERTOW as well as the entire series. (And don't be intimidated by the number of books in this series. You can read as many or as few as you want and you can read them in any order!) There is a obviously reason why Ms. Grafton has had so much success with this series.

Giveaway alert: To celebrate the upcoming release of V IS FOR VENGEANCE, Penguin is graciously giving away three sets of the paperback versions of books Q, R, S, T, U and a copy of V IS FOR VENGEANCE to three lucky winners. To be entered, just leave a comment on all ten blogs participating in Sue Grafton’s Blog Tour (US and Canada only). You can read also read teasers from V IS FOR VENGEANCE at each stop!

And now for sneak preview #10 from the new Kinsey Millhone novel V IS FOR VENGEANCE:

I trotted into the empty lane and scanned the straightaway that shot to the far end of the garage, where a shadowy two-lane ramp curved up to the street level above. The space was illuminated by a series of flat fluorescent fixtures mounted against the low concrete ceiling. There was no sound of running footsteps. Cars entered and departed at regular intervals. Ingress was impeded by the need to push a button and wait for an automated ticket to emerge from the slot. Egress was governed by the need to surrender that same ticket on exiting, pausing long enough for the attendant to check the date-and-time stamp to see if parking fees were due. To my right was the nearest exit, a short upward incline that spilled out onto Chapel Street. The sign posted at the top read WATCH FOR PEDESTRIANS. NO LEFT TURN. As I waited, two cars passed me, one coming down the ramp, the other on its way up. I gave the departing driver a quick look, but she wasn’t the woman I was looking for.

I heard a car engine spark to life. I squinted and tilted my head as I tried to track the sound to its origin. In the artificial light of the garage with its gloomy acres of concrete, it was almost impossible to pinpoint. I turned and looked behind me, where twenty feet away, I caught the wink of red taillights and a white flash of backup lights. A black Mercedes sedan accelerated out of the slot, swung sharply, and careened backward in my direction. The younger woman had an arm over the front seat, zeroing in on me, the car zigzagging as she corrected her aim. The rear of the Mercedes fishtailed and bore down on me with surprising speed. I leaped between two parked cars, banging my shin against the front bumper of one. I stumbled and toppled sideways, extending my right hand in hopes of breaking my fall. I went down on one shoulder and then staggered to my feet again.

The woman rammed the gear into drive and took off with a chirp of her tires. Of necessity, she slowed at the kiosk, handing over her ticket while I limped gamely after her with no hope of catching up. The attendant glanced at her ticket and waved her on, apparently unaware that she’d just tried to run me down. The traffic arm lifted and the woman sent me a satisfied smile as she sailed up the ramp and hung a left at the street.

Wincing, I stopped and leaned over, putting my hands on my knees. I realized belatedly that my right palm was badly scraped and bleeding. My right shin throbbed and I knew I’d be nursing a nasty bruise and a knot along the bone.

I looked up as a man approached and handed me my shoulder bag, eyeing me with concern. “Are you all right? That woman nearly hit you.”

“I’m fine. Don’t worry about it.”

“You want me to notify mall security? You really ought to file a report.”

I shook my head. “Did you catch the license plate?”

“Well, no, but she was driving a Lincoln Continental. Dark blue, if that helps.”

I said, “Good call. Thanks.”

As soon as he was gone, I pulled myself together and went in search of my car. My shin throbbed and the palm of my hand stung where grit was embedded in the wound. I’d gained precious little for the price I’d paid. So much for the eyewitness account. I’d already identified the black Mercedes. It was the plate number I’d missed. Shit.

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

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Wondrous Words Wednesday - October 26, 2011

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

YOU ARE MY ONLY by Beth Kephart

icosahedron - "At the kitchen table, my  mother has left my day's work behind -- the cardboard from the backs of paper pads, the pencil, the string, the ruler, the hole punch, the dulled-down blade of the old X-Acto knife, the stuff, she says, of an icosahedron." (p.1)

icosahedron: a solid figure having 20 faces.

What new words did you discover this week? 

Review: Bedbugs

Summary: Alex and Susan Wendt are the perfect couple in search of the perfect brownstone-and they find their dream house in the heart of Brooklyn Heights. Sure, the landlady is a little eccentric, and the handyman drops some cryptic remarks about the previous tenants. But the rent is so low, it's too good to pass up!

Big mistake: Susan soon discovers that the brownstone is crawling with bedbugs . . . Or is it? She awakens every morning with fresh bites, but neither Alex nor their daughter Emma has a single welt. Exterminators search the property and turn up nothing. Neighbors insist the building is clean. Susan fears that she's going mad-but as the mysteries deepen, a more sinister explanation presents itself: She may literally be confronting the bedbug problem from hell.

An understated horror story filled with loving references to Rosemary's Baby and other classic tales of urban paranoia, Bedbugs will keep your skin crawling into the wee hours of the night. -- Quirk

If you are a regular follower of Booking Mama, you might have be a bit surprised to find a review for BEDBUGS by Ben H. Winters. Maybe you even did a re-take! I'm certainly not a person who reads a lot of horror -- or pretty much any horror books for that matter; however, I decided to take a chance on this book. First of all, it got some pretty good reviews. Secondly, I thought I'd try to read more books that fit the Halloween season. And lastly, I thought the subject matter was pretty scary to me -- bedbugs, so I figured it might hit closer to home than some other scary stories!

BEDBUGS tells the story of Alex and Susan Wench, two New Yorkers who are trying to find an ideal apartment. When they discover an amazing property in Brooklyn Heights, that they can actually afford, they jump at the chance. However, the saying, "When it's too good to be true, it probably is," should have been running through their heads. Within weeks, Susan thinks that their apartment is infested with bedbugs, but the exterminator (who is one of the best) can't find any evidence. Susan becomes obsessed with the idea of bedbugs and even begins to go crazy trying to prove the existence of bedbugs. It isn't until the very end of the novel that Susan realizes what is really going on in her apartment, and it's even worse than what she imagined!

I guess I'd say that I enjoyed BEDBUGS; or at least, I appreciated the story and how it affected me. I don't know if I truly "enjoyed" the novel since it made me very uncomfortable, and I'm still not entirely sure that I'm the right audience for horror books. However, if the author's intent was to make me absolutely crazy as I read it, then I guess I'd say that this book was a success. I was almost miserable with itchiness and I felt as if there were bugs crawling all over me as I read the entire second half of the novel. I can't really say that I liked the feeling of bedbugs in my hair, but I do think my reactions says something about the author and his ability to write a convincing story.

BEDBUGS was a very scary story to me and I would probably best describe it as a psychological thriller. It certainly messed with my mind since I felt bugs creeping on me for days. One of the reasons I probably appreciated the story was that the book did read like a relatively normal novel until the very end when it got pretty creepy and strange. While the ending was very fast-paced and extremely suspenseful, I did have to suspend reality to buy everything that occurred. I'm sure that's normal for a book of this genre, but I will say that the parts of the novel that read more "normal" were a heck of a lot scarier for me. I could almost relate to Susan's paranoia at times, and my heart certainly went out to her. (How in the world do you ever get rid of them?)

As far as the writing goes, I thought it was pretty good. I wasn't exactly expecting literature with amazingly complex characters, so I was pleasantly surprised that there was some deeper thoughts and feelings to the characters. I especially thought Susan was a fairly well-developed and I appreciated seeing her fall into a world of madness. I also thought the author did a decent job of exploring the effects of Susan's mental breakdown on her ability to be a wife and mother.

While I'm not someone who watches many horror movies either (I've probably seen one or two in my entire life), I could totally see BEDBUGS as a movie. Maybe it's because having bugs that won't go away is one of my worst nightmares, but I have a feeling that since bedbugs are a very real issues for lots of people, this movie would have a pretty vast potential audience. Added to that, the characters are interesting and the ending is pretty darn suspenseful. I would love to see BEDBUGS hit the big screen, but in all honesty, I don't know if I could sit through the story with real, visual images. I probably wouldn't be able to get the story out of my mind for days, if not weeks.

If you are a fan of scary books or are looking for something to get you in the mood for Halloween, then I suggest BEDBUGS. I hope it scares you as much as it scared me!

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

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Review: The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt

Summary: For her graduation from high school in 1920, Frankie Pratt receives a scrapbook and her father’s old Corona typewriter. Despite Frankie’s dreams of becoming a writer, she must forgo a college scholarship to help her widowed mother. But when a mysterious Captain James sweeps her off her feet, her mother finds a way to protect Frankie from the less-than-noble intentions of her unsuitable beau. 

Through a kaleidoscopic array of vintage postcards, letters, magazine ads, ticket stubs, catalog pages, fabric swatches, candy wrappers, fashion spreads, menus, and more, we meet and follow Frankie on her journey in search of success and love. Once at Vassar, Frankie crosses paths with intellectuals and writers, among them “Vincent” (alumna Edna St. Vincent Millay), who encourages Frankie to move to Greenwich Village and pursue her writing. When heartbreak finds her in New York, she sets off for Paris aboard the S.S. Mauritania, where she keeps company with two exiled Russian princes and a “spinster adventuress” who is paying her way across the Atlantic with her unused trousseau. In Paris, Frankie takes a garret apartment above Shakespeare & Company, the hub of expat life, only to have a certain ne’er-do-well captain from her past reappear. But when a family crisis compels Frankie to return to her small New England hometown, she finds exactly what she had been looking for all along. 

Author of the New York Times Notable Book Jackie by Josie, Caroline Preston pulls from her extraordinary collection of vintage ephemera to create the first-ever scrapbook novel, transporting us back to the vibrant, burgeoning bohemian culture of the 1920s and introducing us to an unforgettable heroine, the spirited, ambitious, and lovely Frankie Pratt. -- Ecco

In the past few months, I have really been trying to accept less pitches for books. I already have a basement full and I just don't seem to be reading at the same pace as last year. However, when I received an email about the new novel THE SCRAPBOOK OF FRANKIE PRATT: A NOVEL IN PICTURES by Caroline Preston, I couldn't help but jump at the chance. THE SCRAPBOOK OF FRANKIE PRATT is just that... a full color novel in the form of a scrapbook.I was definitely intrigued by the concept and I was a little curious to see if an actual story could be told entirely in the form of a scrapbook.

And just in case you're wondering, THE SCRAPBOOK OF FRANKIE PRATT is most certainly a novel; and a very good one at that. This unique book told the story of Frankie's life from her high school years, to her college years, to her time spent in Greenwich Village, to her days in Paris, and then finally to the time she returned home. There were descriptions of Frankie's life as well as the places she lived; and most impressively, Frankie managed to be a very well-developed character. I was actually blown away by the entire reading experience. This is definitely a one-of-a-kind read -- and a must-read at that.

THE SCRAPBOOK OF FRANKIE PRATT is in one word...amazing! The book really, truly looks like a scrapbook of a young woman's life; and it also does a remarkable job of telling a story. I admit that I wasn't expecting quite as much from this novel. Each and every page of this book has full-color vintage memorabilia in addition to Frankie's journaling entries. I don't know what I appreciated more about this novel --the collection of interesting scrapbook pieces or the story of Frankie's life.

Frankie was just a fabulous character and I felt as if I got to know her extremely well through her scrapbook. She was an ambitious women in the early 1920s; and due to her family's circumstances, she appeared to be trapped in her small hometown rather than being able to attend college. When her mother "finds a way" to get the tuition money (hint: it involves a romantic fling with a questionable character), Frankie heads to Vassar college and experiences a very different life. She meets all types of women, including Edna St. Vincent Millay, and even some interesting young men. She also grows up a lot!

After graduation, Frankie heads to Greenwich Village to try her hand at writing based on "Vincent's" recommendation. She learns just how hard it is to make it in New York City as a young woman in the 1920s, and eventually heads over to Paris on the S.S. Mauritania. She makes a go of it in Paris -- even meeting up again with her first love -- until she has to return home to help take care of her mother. Through all of her adventures, Frankie eventually realizes that home truly is where the heart is! In so many ways, THE SCRAPBOOK OF FRANKIE PRATT is a very special coming-of-age story.

THE SCRAPBOOK OF FRANKIE PRATT is one of those books that you could read over and over again. In fact, after I finished it, I went back to the beginning and started skimming all of the images again. I think my first go-through was more about the story of Frankie's very interesting life. While later, I appreciated all of the memorabilia that Ms. Preston managed to arrange so creatively in the book. Reading THE SCRAPBOOK OF FRANKIE PRATT might have ruined historical fiction for me because it such a fun way to experience learning about past events!

There is no doubt that Ms. Preston spent an incredible amount of time and effort into finding just the right memorabilia, and I was incredibly interested in looking at all of the items. Evidently, she spent a lot of time on ebay! I loved seeing the 1920s advertisements and photographs, but it was just as much fun reading about Frankie's impressions and seeing her thoughts and dreams in her "own handwriting." THE SCRAPBOOK OF FRANKIE PRATT is a book that will appeal to all types of readers and all age ranges, and I already have a list of people with whom I want to share this novel!

Just check out this video to get a closer look at THE SCRAPBOOK OF FRANKIE PRATT and tell me that it doesn't look fantastic!

I really can't say enough about THE SCRAPBOOK OF FRANKIE PRATT. It was an intriguing story with a loveable main character. Plus the format was unlike anything I've ever seen. I absolutely loved it and it's a book that should not be missed!

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

Monday, October 24, 2011

Review: How to Party with a Killer Vampire

Summary: Party planner Presley Parker's new gig is the star-studded wrap party for a horror film. The location is a graveyard-conveniently, because the night of the bash, a tabloid journalist is murdered. -- Obsidian Mystery

I have quite a few mysteries stashed in my basement, but I decided to pick up HOW TO PARTY WITH A KILLER VAMPIRE by Penny Warner. Not only was I intrigued by the title and the description, but I thought it would be an ideal mystery book to feature one week before Halloween! I'm not always the biggest fan of Halloween and the scary things that come with it, but I thought a cute cozy might help get me in the mood.

And HOW TO PARTY WITH A KILLER VAMPIRE was very cute although I hesitate to use the word cute when describing a book about a murder (or two!) This novel is part of the Party Planning Mystery series and I admit the Martha Stewart side of my personality was curious about a cozy with a party planner for an amateur sleuth. Plus the book promised party planning tips, and that really appealed to me!

In HOW TO PARTY WITH A KILLER VAMPIRE, party planner Presley (love that name!) is putting together a huge wrap party for a locally filmed horror movie... in a cemetery. I'm sure you can begin to imagine all of the creative party ideas that are offered throughout the pages of this book since the party is vampire-themed. Prior to the party a young man is found dead, apparently from a particularly nasty fall when he hit his head on a tombstone. No one really thinks too much about it until an annoying member of the paparazzi  is found murdered on the night of the party. Presley begins to suspect something is awry with two dead bodies, and she uses her investigative skills to try to solve the murder(s)!

I enjoyed HOW TO PARTY WITH A KILLER VAMPIRE and it was definitely a fun read for this time of year. I thought the mystery was compelling (as far as cozies go) and I really liked Presley. I don't know about you but I really have to like the main character to fully appreciate these stories. I not only like Presley's personality, but I also liked her smarts as well as her dedication to her mom who was suffering from Alzheimer's. In addition, Presley's chemistry with her love interest/crime scene cleaner also made this book fun. He was an ex-policeman who was extremely knowledgeable about everything, and he also seemed pretty hot!

Another thing that made HOW TO PARTY WITH A KILLER VAMPIRE special were the party planning tidbits at the beginning of the chapters. They offered some great ideas (my mind was churning for my son's upcoming Halloween party at school) and the last section of the book -- How to Host a Killer Vampire Party -- was very informative too. The author, Penny Warner, definitely knows a thing or two about throwing parties based on her creative (and easy) ideas. In fact, I would say that this Party Planning Mystery was a winner and I wouldn't hesitate to pick up more books in this series (If I counted correctly, this is the fourth book in the series.)

If you are looking for a cute read that's perfect for this time of year, then I recommend HOW TO PARTY WITH A VAMPIRE KILLER.

Thanks to the publisher for sending 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, October 23, 2011

Review: Sandra Lee Money Saving Meals & Round 2 Recipes

Summary: In Money Saving Meals and Round 2 Recipes, Sandra Lee helps readers save more money than ever before one meal at a time, as she does in her highly popular Food Network show.

These dishes are easy, quick-scratch style, and include dishes such as Slow Cooker Short Ribs, Grilled Pork Chops with Peach Salsa, Chicken Tacos with Cucumber Salsa, Beanless Beef Chili, S’mores Pudding Parfait, and much more.

Each recipe combination offers money-saving pricing and total savings for delicious healthful, quick, easy meals so that readers see what they save with every dish. The savings, and your repertoire of tasty, effortless meals, quickly add up on cooking. In these budget-conscious times, Sandra’s Money Saving Meals truly hits home, offering “the maximum joy with the minimum kitchen and grocery shopping stress.” -- Hyperion

If you follow my blog at all, then you know I absolutely adore cookbooks. I am always on the lookout for recipes that are quick and easy, yet also healthy. So when I read the sub-title of SANDRA LEE MONEY SAVING MEALS & ROUND 2 RECIPES: 149 EASY QUICK-SCRATCH RECIPES YOUR FAMILY WILL LOVE!, then I decided that it definitely warranted a further look. Not only were the recipes being billed as "easy", but they were also supposedly "money-saving." Two huge pluses in my book!

If I'm being entirely honest with you, I haven't always been the biggest fan of Sandra Lee. I like her show and I love many of her entertaining ideas, but I've been a little bit disappointed with some of her cookbooks in the past. Many of the recipes are easy (which I love!), but they also tend to have a lot of pre-packaged ingredients. I'm the first to tell you that I don't always cook or eat healthy; however, I do my best to use as many fresh ingredients as possible. As a result, I don't think I've picked up one of Ms. Lee's cookbooks in some time.

So I was curious to check out MONEY SAVING MEALS AND ROUND 2 RECIPES because it does state right on the cover that the recipes are "quick-scratch." (Those words are music to my ears!) And I will say that this cookbook is much improved over some of her older ones as far as I'm concerned. I was pleasantly surprised that almost all of the recipes used fresh ingredients, and the recipes were actually pretty easy to prepare. Having said that, some of the recipes (like the one I tested) aren't all-together healthy. But that's not what this book claims to be. Plus, many of the recipes are perfect for entertaining; and who wants to cook low-fat and healthy for guests -- they just might not come back!

The format of this cookbook is a little different from other cookbooks. It is divided into sections based on recipes for an entire meal. For example, there is a chapter for "Big Easy Dinner" and one for "Feeding a Crowd." There are about 25 different meal/entertaining ideas from Mexican themed dinners to holiday ones, and I can confidently say that they are all relatively simple and inexpensive to prepare.

Now this is what makes this book even more different -- there are "Round 2" options for each meal. By that, I mean that Ms. Lee advises you to save part of one recipe and use it another meal or another course. While I think this is a fantastic idea, I'm not sure that I'm geared towards this concept (I know....) You almost have to make the entire meal to take advantage of these savings, and I usually like to pick and choose the sides, desserts, appetizers, etc. So if I had an "issue" with this cookbook, it's that some of the recipes weren't exactly stand-alone -- they depended on making a prior dish. Not a big deal, but I would have liked to have seen some other options.

There is also another very nice feature of MONEY SAVING MEALS AND ROUND 2 RECIPES. Since it is geared towards those of you who like to save a penny or two when cooking, there are also cost breakdowns for each ingredient in every recipe. So you can get an idea of what the entire meal costs to prepare or just a portion of it. I probably don't pay too much attention to the total costs, but maybe I should!

There were many recipes that I was interested in trying; however, I decided to make something I thought was appropriate for this time of year -- the Pumpkin Mousse. It came from the chapter called "A Bountiful Harvest" and was one of five different ideas for a Thanksgiving Dinner. (If you are interested, here are the other four recipes: Roasted Turkey Breast with Spicy Herb Oil, Golden Raisin and Walnut Stuffing, Baked Mashed Potatoes,  and Pumpkin Pie Martini. There are also two Round 2 recipes -- Turkey Soup and Fried Potato Cakes.) The pumpkin mousse was extremely easy to prepare and tasted amazing -- of course, it was not low-fat after I added 2 cups of heavy cream! I will be serving it to friends this weekend and I look forward to their reactions.

Now here's the fun part. I saved two tablespoons of the pumpkin mixture (pre-heavy cream) to use to make the Pumpkin Pie Martini. I've never had a Pumpkin Pie Martini, but it sounds wonderful with half-and-half, pumpkin, spices, sparkling water and vanilla vodka!

If you are a fan of Sandra Lee's or someone who is always on the lookout for inexpensive, easy and healthy meals, then I highly suggest checking out MONEY SAVING MEALS AND ROUND 2 RECIPES.

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, October 22, 2011

Kid Konnection: Home for the Holidays

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 another cute middle grade book from one of Booking Daughter's and my favorite series.

Summary: This Christmas season, join the girls of the mother-daughter book club for a variety of holiday-themed adventures! Becca, Megan, Emma, Cassidy and Jess have plenty of reading material to bring on their trips, too, because the book club is tackling the Betsy-Tacy series before their next meeting on New Year's Eve.

But unfortunately, nothing goes quite as planned for any of the girls. On a Christmas cruise with their families, Megan and Becca fight over the dashing son of the ship's captain. Cassidy and her family fly back to California to visit Cassidy's sister Courtney... but when the West Coast causes homesickness for their former life in Laguna Beach, the family begins to question what state they should call home. And a disastrous sledding accident causes both Emma and Jess to completely change their holiday plans.

Between squabbles, injuries, and blizzards, everything seems to be going wrong. Will the girls be able to find their holiday spirit in time for Christmas? -- Simon and Schuster

A few years ago, our mother-daughter book club was fortunate enough to receive a call from Heather Vogel Frederick as part of our discussion of  THE MOTHER-DAUGHTER BOOK CLUB. You can read more about our terrific meeting here. Ms. Frederick was amazing with the girls and she definitely gained some huge fans in our group. Booking Daughter and I already considered ourselves major groupies of The Mother Daughter Book Club series, and we have read each and every book as soon as we could get our hands on it.

For those of you who aren't familiar with this series, you are sure missing out. Just kidding -- kind of! The Mother Daughter Book Club series follows the lives of five very different girls and their mother daughter book club. The first book begins with the girls entering middle school, and the following books pretty much track a calendar year. So after the fifth book, the girls are part-way through high school and beginning to turn into amazing young women. The reader follows the girls through their typical (and not-so-typical) lives, and I can't help but think that every tween who reads these books will relate to one of the girls... or at least know someone who is like one of the characters.

These books are wonderfully clean and sweet (and maybe a little bit innocent) and they are exactly what I love for Booking Daughter to read. They deal with many problems, including friendship and frenemy ones; and the last books even start dealing with boy issues. They are kind of like tween chick-lit, but with some awesome messages.

And as much as I love these books for all of the reasons I mentioned above, what really makes them extra-special to me is the book club angle. In each of the novels, the girls are reading books for their book club. These books always seem to relate to what going on in the girls' live, and there are interesting tidbits about the books and the authors. For example, in the first book, the girls and their moms read LITTLE WOMEN since they live in the same town that Louisa May Alcott was from. Of course, there are lots of "natural" tie-ins for each character and their mothers. Other books featured such classics as ANNE OF GREEN GABLES and PRIDE AND PREJUDICE.

One of the highlights of our discussion with Ms. Frederick was that she gave us the scoop on the fifth (and I think final) book  in the series HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS. While I was trying to process that I would only be able to read one more of these wonderful books, something quickly brought me out of my funk. She mentioned to our group that HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS was going to be based on the Betsy-Tacy books. My friends tell me I started to do a little happy dance and I might have even squealed! I so love the Betsy-Tacy books!

HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS was very similar to the other four books in this series. Of course, I loved it, but Booking Daughter didn't think it was her favorite. She said it was just different to her, and when I asked to explain, she said that the book didn't cover the entire year of school like the other ones. She was right, but that didn't affect my appreciation of the novel. It was still sweet and I enjoyed seeing how the characters grew; and if I'm being entirely honest, I couldn't see much past how much I loved all of the Betsy-Tacy references. HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS really focused on how timely and relevant these books still are. I also think I was especially affected by the characters because I was afraid it was the last time I'd get to see inside their lives.

In HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS, the girls all seemed to be having some issues. Call it hormones, jealousy, or the stress of the holidays, but none of the girls seemed to be exactly on their game. There were lots of tension between the girls -- even the ones who were best friends; and I felt as if the pettiness was all very real (although I do live with a 12 year old girl!) Of course, there were lots of ups and downs, but the girls eventually came around and realized what was important in their lives -- their families and friendships. Now you see why I love these books so much and I love that Booking Daughter devours them too!

If you have a tween girl in your life (or you are still one in your heart!), then I highly recommend HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS and the entire Mother Daughter Book Club series.

I received an electronic copy of this book through Simon and Schuster's Galley Grab.

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, October 21, 2011

Guest Review: Five Chiefs

Summary: When he resigned last June, Justice Stevens was the third longest serving Justice in American history (1975-2010)--only Justice William O. Douglas, whom Stevens succeeded, and Stephen Field have served on the Court for a longer time.

In Five Chiefs, Justice Stevens captures the inner workings of the Supreme Court via his personal experiences with the five Chief Justices--Fred Vinson, Earl Warren, Warren Burger, William Rehnquist, and John Roberts--that he interacted with. He reminisces of being a law clerk during Vinson's tenure; a practicing lawyer for Warren; a circuit judge and junior justice for Burger; a contemporary colleague of Rehnquist; and a colleague of current Chief Justice John Roberts. Along the way, he will discuss his views of some the most significant cases that have been decided by the Court from Vinson, who became Chief Justice in 1946 when Truman was President, to Roberts, who became Chief Justice in 2005.

Packed with interesting anecdotes and stories about the Court, Five Chiefs is an unprecedented and historically significant look at the highest court in the United States. -- Little, Brown

It's time for another great review from Booking Pap Pap! This time, he's discussing the book FIVE CHIEFS: A SUPREME COURT MEMOIR by John Paul Stevens.

FIVE CHIEFS, a memoir by John Paul Stevens, is an interesting and informative account of his time as a Supreme Court justice. Stevens was nominated to the Court by President Ford in 1975 and served until 2010 when he retired at age 90. Only William Douglas, the man Stevens replaced, and Stephen Fields served longer. 

FIVE CHIEFS is primarily a discussion of the office of the chief justice. Stevens briefly discusses the first twelve chief justices in the first chapter, covering the period from 1789 to 1946. He concludes this chapter by opining as to the five best chief justices from this twelve without really explaining why.

After describing the duties of the chief justice, Stevens then proceeds to discuss his experiences with the next five chief justices. He first met Chief Justice Fred Vinson when he served for one year as a clerk for Associate Justice Wiley Rutledge. Vinson was selected as chief justice by President Truman in 1946 and served until his death in 1953.

Next in line was Earl Warren who was named to the position of chief justice by President Eisenhower in 1953 and served until he retired in1969. Stevens contact with Justice Warren occurred when he argued a case before the Supreme Court in 1962.   

Stevens served as an associate justice under Warren Burger, William Rehnquist and John Roberts, Jr.  Warren Burger was appointed by President Nixon in 1969 and served until 1986 when he retired to serve as chairman of the Commission of the Bicentennial of the Constitution. William Rehnquist, an associate justice from 1972, was named to the chief justice post by President Reagan in 1986 and served until his death in 2005. Stevens served as the acting chief justice until John Roberts, Jr. was appointed by President George W. Bush later in 2005.

Justice Stevens provides both praise and criticism of each chief justice. It’s clear that of the chief justices he served under, he thought more highly of Roberts than he did of Burger or Rehnquist. Regarding associate justices he served with, his highest praise went to Thurgood Marshall and his highest criticism was directed toward Clarence Thomas.  

Stevens goes on to describe several key cases that each Supreme Court chief justice encountered during his tenure and provides some opinions on the decisions in those cases. Some of the more significant cases he commented on include racial segregation, one person-one vote, gender based discrimination, abortion and capital punishment. Stevens mentions the Bush/Gore recount issue without expressing any opinion of the outcome except that he considered the whole affair frivolous.  

Stevens writes about the dignity in the Supreme Court emphasizing that in spite of differing opinions among the judges a harsh word was never uttered. He also mentions several times the phrase “first among equals” to describe the chief justice. Even though the chief justice had responsibilities over the associate judges he had an equal vote in deciding cases. Stevens shares interesting stories on such items as the changes in the Court procedures over the years, stripes on Rehnquist’s robe sleeves, the rearrangement of the conference room, pre-trial handshakes, coffee breaks, holiday parties, spittoons and some of the unusual duties of the associate judges. It’s clear that Stevens enjoyed his time on the Court. In all Stevens makes some interesting historical points, injects some funny stories and addresses a lot of legal points - in some instances too much legalese for me.

I would recommend FIVE CHIEFS to anyone who has a specific interest in the Supreme Court. It is not a “tell all” story but a memoir presented in a most gentlemanly style.

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

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Review: If Jack's In Love

Summary: A Crime in the Neighborhood, told with the deadpan humor of Nick Hornby-a wonderful novel about a boy genius whose brother may, or may not, be a murderer.

It's 1967. Jack Witcher is a twelve-year-old boy genius living in a Virginia suburb at an address the entire neighborhood avoids. Jack's father has lost his job-again-and he's starting fights with other fathers. Jack's mother, sweet but painfully ugly, works as a cashier at a local market. Jack's older brother is a long-haired, pot-smoking hippie.

If all of that isn't bad enough, Jack's brother suddenly becomes the main suspect in the disappearance of the town's golden boy. And to make matters even worse, Jack is in love with the missing boy's sister, Myra. Mr. Gladstein, the town jeweler and solitary Jew, is Jack's only friend; together, they scheme to win Jack Myra's love. But to do that, Jack must overcome the prejudices, both the town's and his own, about himself and his family. -- Amy Einhorn

IF JACK'S IN LOVE by Stephen Wetta was one of the books that I was most excited to bring home with me from this year's BEA. I was hooked from the minute I read the book's description and it just sounded like an ideal book for me -- part Southern fiction/part coming-of-age. Plus (and this is a big one!), it's an Amy Einhorn book which, if you've ever read any of books from that imprint, then you know what I'm talking about. Needless to say, my expectations were pretty darn high for this novel.

IF JACK'S IN LOVE was a wonderful read and I think it did live up to my high expectations. I don't know if I'd go so far as to say that it's my favorite book of 2011, but it's very, very good; and it definitely warrants all of the attention it has received. It has earned a starred review from Publishers Weekly along with raving blurbs from Katrina Kittle, Pete Dexter, and Timothy Schaffert. It's also been compared to (do I dare say it?) TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. There is quite a bit of fuss surrounding this story and I can say confidently that there should be (although no book touches TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD in my opinion!)

IF JACK'S IN LOVE encompassed everything I look for in quality books -- an interesting storyline, well developed characters along with some fantastic writing. It's almost hard to believe that it's Mr. Wetta's debut novel. At times, I was blown away by Mr. Wetta's prose and there is no doubt that he is a marvelous storyteller. I sincerely hope he's got another book in the works because I definitely want to read it!

There is just so much positive to say about IF JACK'S IN LOVE that I'm having a hard time narrowing it down for the purpose of writing my review. Suffice it to say that this book is a winner. I loved the writing and the plot; however, I think I'm going to focus on the character development in my review. When I reflect back on this novel, I can't stop thinking about the various characters and their actions. And if I were discussing this novel with my friends, I would most definitely want to talk about this unique cast of characters.  

Needless to say, all of the characters in IF JACK'S IN LOVE were very interesting to me -- even the ones that were difficult to like. I adored Jack (but more on him later!), but I also loved Mr. Gladstein, the Southern town's lone Jew. The interactions between Mr. Gladstein and Jack were some of my favorite scenes from the novel, and they provided some very funny moments. I was so glad to see that Jack had someone who not only appreciated him, but also provided some much-needed guidance. 

And then there were the characters that I had a hard time appreciating, namely Jack's father and brother. I just couldn't stand them and I found myself very angry with them for how they treated Jack. I tried to be sympathetic to their plight, but I guess I'm just not a big enough person because I wanted them to get what they deserved. Having said that, I still found myself thinking about them a great deal and analyzing their actions; and there is no doubt that they made the story intriguing!

What I think I most appreciated about this novel, though, was the character of Jack. I absolutely, positively adored him; and I have no doubt that he is one of the reasons why this book resonated with me as much as it did. The story was told in Jack's voice, and I thought Mr. Wetta did a wonderful job of capturing the thoughts and feelings of a young boy. But Jack's character was so much deeper than that. Jack had been dealt a pretty difficult hand in the game of life, but he managed to play it the best way he could. He was so smart and wise (way beyond his years) and he was also extremely brave. However, it was the brutal honesty in which Jack told the story that made him (and therefore the novel) really stellar in my opinion.

If you can't already tell, I think IF JACK'S IN LOVE would make a wonderful book club selection. I honestly can't stop thinking about Jack (and the other characters) and I would love to talk about them with my friends over a glass of wine or two! I wasn't able to find a reader's guide, but I don't think it would be hard to come up with some topics for discussion. Some of the themes that I'd explore include parent/child relationships, jealousy, trust, secrets, honesty, love, obligation, friendships, and first love.

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

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Review: Ready Player One

Summary: At once wildly original and stuffed with irresistible nostalgia, READY PLAYER ONE is a spectacularly genre-busting, ambitious, and charming debut—part quest novel, part love story, and part virtual space opera set in a universe where spell-slinging mages battle giant Japanese robots, entire planets are inspired by Blade Runner, and flying DeLoreans achieve light speed.

It’s the year 2044, and the real world is an ugly place.

Like most of humanity, Wade Watts escapes his grim surroundings by spending his waking hours jacked into the OASIS, a sprawling virtual utopia that lets you be anything you want to be, a place where you can live and play and fall in love on any of ten thousand planets.

And like most of humanity, Wade dreams of being the one to discover the ultimate lottery ticket that lies concealed within this virtual world. For somewhere inside this giant networked playground, OASIS creator James Halliday has hidden a series of fiendish puzzles that will yield massive fortune—and remarkable power—to whoever can unlock them.

For years, millions have struggled fruitlessly to attain this prize, knowing only that Halliday’s riddles are based in the pop culture he loved—that of the late twentieth century. And for years, millions have found in this quest another means of escape, retreating into happy, obsessive study of Halliday’s icons. Like many of his contemporaries, Wade is as comfortable debating the finer points of John Hughes’s oeuvre, playing Pac-Man, or reciting Devo lyrics as he is scrounging power to run his OASIS rig.

And then Wade stumbles upon the first puzzle.

Suddenly the whole world is watching, and thousands of competitors join the hunt—among them certain powerful players who are willing to commit very real murder to beat Wade to this prize. Now the only way for Wade to survive and preserve everything he knows is to win. But to do so, he may have to leave behind his oh-so-perfect virtual existence and face up to life—and love—in the real world he’s always been so desperate to escape.

A world at stake.
A quest for the ultimate prize.
Are you ready? -- Crown

By all accounts, READY PLAYER ONE by Ernest Cline should not have been a book that I'd ever pick up. It's basically a science fiction/dystopian book about video games, and I don't read much science fiction (or dystopian for that matter) and I am definitely not a gamer. However, I read some fantastic reviews of READY PLAYER ONE all over the blogosphere; and my favorite go-to entertainment source, Entertainment Weekly magazine, featured it as part of The Must List... so I decided to see what all the fuss was about.

And guess what? I loved READY PLAYER ONE and I couldn't have been more surprised by my reaction! This book was unlike anything I've ever read before and I honestly couldn't put it down. I started it one morning while waiting for Booking Daughter at the orthodontist and I don't think I can up for air for a day or two. It was that much fun! My only regret is that I didn't listen to it on audio because Sandy said that it was amazing.

READY PLAYER ONE takes place in 2044 when the good ole' USA ain't so good anymore. The economy has tanked and most everyone's standard of living has taken a drastic nosedive. Resources are scarce and one of the few ways that people have to escape is through a virtual on-line world called OASIS. OASIS is an incredibly complex video world where people can play games, meet others, attend school, and much, much more. The concept of OASIS is kind of "out there," but it's also just real enough to resonate with me.

Like many others, Wade Watts has little hope. That is until the creator of OASIS dies and leaves one last huge video game. He has some hidden some clues within OASIS and the first person to solve them will win an incredible fortune. When Wade discovers the answer to the first clue, he finds himself suddenly caught up in the rush to win the game and earn the ultimate prize. However, there are other individuals (some not-so nice) who are close behind Wade in solving the clue; and Wade finds himself in a fight not only for the prize, but also for his life.

READY PLAYER ONE was definitely not what I was expecting. Yes, it did have lots of references to video games and it was technically science fiction; however, this book will appeal to all types of readers. There are pop culture references that were a lot of fun, but this novel also had interesting concepts about the future, some mystery and intrigue, a little romance, and lots of suspense. I think it's safe to say that there was something for everyone.

Since the creator of OASIS was born around the same time I was (and therefore a child of the 80s), there were tons of pop-culture references that I absolutely loved. To get inside the creator's mind, Wade became an expert on all things from the 1980s. It was so much fun to read about the video games as well as the music, television and movies from that time period. It was kind of like a trip down memory lane for me!

In addition to the fun cultural references, I enjoyed READY PLAYER ONE because it was so clever. I mentioned before that this book was unlike anything I've ever read and that's certainly the case. In fact, I would love to see this novel brought to the big screen! I could go on and on about how smart this book is, but I think it's best to experience it yourself. What I will say is that I definitely appreciated the creative depiction of the futuristic United States. Unfortunately, much of the dismal world he created rang a little too close to home for me -- i.e. the lack of resources, the increased crime, the dependency on virtual worlds, etc.

And my review wouldn't be complete if I didn't mention how much I adored Wade. He was a fantastic character and one that will remain in my thoughts for a very long time. Not only did I find him to be very likable, but I also loved his intelligence, resourcefulness, and courage. Wade was just a wonderful narrator for this story! He provided countless funny moments for me with his sharp wit and his remarkable insight into individuals. And I absolutely adored how vulnerable he became when it fell in love with another girl whom he met on his quest. I couldn't help but root for him and I desperately wanted him to win the grand prize -- he so deserved it!

I feel as if I have only touched upon a few of things that I loved about READY PLAYER ONE in this review, but I truly think you should experience this book for yourself. It's an amazing ride, full of action and suspense; and it's so darn original and smart! I can't recommend it enough!

Thanks to Wunderkind PR for providing a review copy of this book.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Review: Cross Currents

Summary: Thailand's pristine Ko Phi Phi island attracts tourists from around the world. There, struggling to make ends meet, small-resort owners Lek and Sarai are happy to give an American named Patch room and board in exchange for his help. But when Patch's brother, Ryan, arrives, accompanied by his girlfriend, Brooke, Lek learns that Patch is running from the law, and his presence puts Lek's family at risk. Meanwhile, Brooke begins to doubt her love for Ryan while her feelings for Patch blossom. 

In a landscape where nature's bounty seems endless, these two families are swept up in an approaching cataclysm that will require all their strength of heart and soul to survive... -- New American Library

A few years ago, I reviewed a wonderful book called DRAGON HOUSE by John Shors. When the author recently contacted me to read his latest novel called CROSS CURRENTS, I jumped at the chance. CROSS CURRENTS takes place on Thailand's Ko Phi Phi island in the days leading up to the catastrophic tsunami in late 2004. It tells the story of a struggling Thai family who owns a small resort and the mysterious American Patch who is helping them maintain their property. When Patch's brother Ryan (and his girlfriend Brooke) arrive on the scene to help Patch with some legal troubles, things become very complicated for both families.

I found CROSS CURRENTS to be a very good read. Maybe it's because I enjoy books about the complexities of family life, but I thoroughly enjoyed seeing how both sets of family members interacted with their own families other as well as with each other. I thought Mr. Shors did a terrific job of featuring the relationship between Patch and Ryan -- all those confusing feelings of love and jealousy; and I appreciated  that their interactions seemed pretty authentic. There was a great deal of tension between both Patch and Ryan from the moment that Ryan arrives on the scene; however, when Patch finds himself falling for Ryan's girlfriend Brooke, their relationship definitely begins to fall apart.  While both characters and their actions were far from perfect, I found that I could understand (and even relate a little bit) to each of them.

In addition to enjoying the dynamics between Patch and Ryan, I also enjoyed seeing how the Thai family related to each other. Lek and Sarai had a strong marriage based on mutual love and respect despite facing continual poverty and other hardships. I was amazed by the amount of work they did just to feed their family. I also loved the attitudes of their children and Sarai's mother. The entire family was filled with so much inner strength and they were able to find happiness in each other. Their outlook on their lives was truly inspiring to me.

Another thing I enjoyed about CROSS CURRENTS is that brought to life Ko Phi Phi Island for me. I loved reading about the beauty and tranquility of the island along with how special its inhabitants were. And that is a huge testament to Mr. Shors. It is apparent that he loves this country and has visited it many times to be able to capture it in such a memorable way. His prose and descriptions were beautiful and I almost felt as if I were visiting this exotic location as I read the novel.

Like many of you, I saw so many devastating images of the tsunami and my heart just broke for the people of Thailand. CROSS CURRENTS managed to bring it all back to me. This book's ending is extremely difficult to read, yet it is also uplifting in one of those "individuals can be amazing in times of tragedy" ways. This island was destroyed and there was so much loss, but many people still held onto some semblance of home. There is no doubt that this novel will break your heart and make you appreciate the life you have.

CROSS CURRENTS would make a wonderful selection for a book club discussion. There is even a reading guide in the back of the book with fifteen thought-provoking questions. In addition, there is an interesting interview with Mr. Shors where he discusses his inspiration for the novel. Some of the themes you might want to explore at your meeting include your reactions to the Indian Ocean tsunami, the relationships between locals and tourists in Thailand, cultural differences, love, family, obligation, devotion, happiness, tragedy, sacrifice, beginnings, and challenges. There is definitely a great deal to discuss about these very unique characters, and I am sure you will come up with many more topics.

I enjoyed CROSS CURRENTS a great deal and I loved that it gave me some things to think about. If you are interested in books about exotic locations or ones with complex family dynamics, then I recommend checking out CROSS CURRENTS.

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

Monday, October 17, 2011

Review: Damage Control

Summary:  Maggie Silver is solidly middle class, with a mortgage to pay and an ill mother to support. She is doing her best to scramble up the ladder at an elite PR firm in Southern California whose clients include movie stars and famous athletes. Now, Maggie tackles her toughest client yet: Senator Henry Paxton, a distinguished statesman who also happens to be the father of Anabelle, Maggie's estranged best friend from high school.

Senator Paxton's young female aide has been found murdered, and Maggie must run damage control to prevent the scandal from growing. Thrown back into the Paxtons' glamorous world, Maggie is unexpectedly flooded with memories from the stormy years in high school when her friendship with Anabelle was dramatically severed after a tragedy that neither of them has been able to forget. As Maggie gets further embroiled in the lives of the Paxtons, she realizes that the ties of her old friendship are stronger than she thinks. 

Riveting and suspense-filled, Damage Control examines our craving for celebrity and spectacle, and how far the bonds of friendship can stretch before they break forever. -- Scribner

I mentioned last Monday that I'm finding myself a little bored with cozies, so I decided to mix things up a bit for Mystery Monday. This week, I read DAMAGE CONTROL by Denise Hamilton. DAMAGE CONTROL was still a mystery, but I'd probably classify it as more of a psychological thriller along with some L.A. Noir. The novel has already been awarded starred reviews from Library Journal and Publishers Weekly, and it was just what I needed to get out of my mini mystery reading slump.

DAMAGE CONTROL tells the story of Maggie, a woman who is working at a prestigious PR firm in Los Angeles during the day and taking care of her sick mother at night. Her life is seemingly normal (except for her fondness of Adderall -- it just helps her focus, right?) until she is asked to take on a client with whom she has ties from her past. Senator Paxton is the father of her former best friend, Annabelle, and when his young (and attractive) aide is found suspiciously murdered, Maggie is knee-deep in helping write the "spin" on the situation. But she also quickly discovers that she has to deal with some very complicated memories from her teenage years.

I was immediately drawn into DAMAGE CONTROL from the very start. I found Maggie to be an extremely interesting, and I liked that she was so flawed. I also appreciated that she was a very well-developed character. Rather than just being about the mystery of who murdered Senator Paxton's aide and Maggie's attempt to solve the crime, DAMAGE CONTROL delved into some pretty complex issues. For example, Maggie's dependency on Adderall as well as her problems with dealing with her sick mom (and also just the normal mother-daughter issues of living with your mom as an adult) added other dimensions to her character.

However, it was Maggie's reaction to her her present conflicting with her past that really made the book stellar in my opinion. I loved how the author portrayed the present-day Maggie with then teenage one, and I thought she did an especially good job of delving into the complexities of Maggie and Annabelle's friendship. I think Ms. Hamilton also did a terrific job of featuring this blend of present and past by the way she told this story. In DAMAGE CONTROL, there were flashbacks to the past and they were just so well done. The timing of their appearances seemed almost perfect, and I loved the pace of how both stories (and the secrets) unfolded.

It wouldn't be a mystery book without a mystery, and I thought the mystery of who killed Senator Paxton's aide was a pretty good one. It most definitely kept me guessing, and I have to admit that I suspected quite a few people and quite a few different scenarios until the final one was revealed. Was I totally surprised? Not really, but there were enough twists that I felt as if I were being manipulated by the author. And for that reason, I enjoyed the mystery a great deal.

In addition to the murder mystery, there were some other side stories (mysteries, if you will) that also kept me guessing. A few of these stories had to do with Maggie's past and her relationship with Annabelle and her family; however, there were also lots of unanswered questions about Maggie's employer and her love interests. As I was reading DAMAGE CONTROL, I had absolutely no idea about whom I could and couldn't trust. Believe me when I tell you that I switched back-and-forth in my opinions of almost every character at least twice. I would definitely say that DAMAGE CONTROL played some major mind games with me and I absolutely loved all of the suspense.

If you are looking for a good suspense novel with some interesting twists, then I highly recommend DAMAGE CONTROL.

Thanks to the publisher for sending 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.