Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Review: Planet Middle School

Summary: A fresh story of heartbreak and hope from award-winning author Nikki Grimes

For twelve years, Joylin Johnson's life has been just fine, thank you very much. A game of basketball with the boys-especially her friend Jake-was all it took to put a smile on her face. Baggy jeans, T-shirt, and hair in a ponytail were easy choices. Then suddenly the world seemed to turn upside down, and everything changed at once. Her best girl friend is now flirting with her best guy friend. Her clothes seem all wrong. Jake is acting weird, and basketball isn't the same. And worst of all, there is this guy, Santiago, who appears from . . . where? What lengths will Joy go to-and whom will she become-to attract his attention? 

In short poems that perfectly capture the crazy feelings of adolescence and first crushes, award-winning author Nikki Grimes has crafted a delightful, often hilarious, hearttugging story. -- Bloomsbury Kids

At this year's BEA, Kathy/Bermudaonion picked up a middle grade book that caught my eye.  It was called PLANET MIDDLE SCHOOL by Nikki Grimes, and I was drawn to the book for a couple of reasons. First of all, the entire book was written in verse which I thought sounded kind of cool; and secondly, the novel is about a middle grade girl around the same age as Booking Daughter.

Thank goodness Kathy promised to share PLANET MIDDLE SCHOOL with me after she was finished with it because I was desperate to read it after her review. She just raved about it and told me that she was anxious to hear what Booking Daughter and I thought about it. I couldn't agree with the thoughts that Kathy expressed. PLANET MIDDLE SCHOOL is a fantastic book and I absolutely loved it!

PLANET MIDDLE SCHOOL tells the story of Joy, a young girl who is trying to figure out how to survive her tween years. She lives with her mother, father, and younger brother; and she also has two best friends KeeLee and Jake. She is a tomboy at heart and excels at basketball, but she is also discovering her more feminine side. PLANET MIDDLE SCHOOL is written in Joy's voice, but what makes it extra-special is that it is written in verse. I have read a few other books written in verse, and I've been surprised by how much I enjoy that style.

And that brings me to my next point... the writing in PLANET MIDDLE SCHOOL is fantastic. I am deeply impressed with Ms. Grimes prose and I think she did a wonderful job in creating some realistic and lovable characters. Of course, I adored Joy and loved her honestly; however, I also found myself appreciating Joy's mother and brother along with her sensible best friends. (I just wish I had surrounded myself with such valuable friends during my middle school years.) I also loved how Ms. Grimes managed to deal with some very important (and very real) tween issues with a sense of compassion while also keeping a sense of humor. I think it helped keep some of those all-consuming issues in perspective.

But at the heart of this book is Joy and what a great character she is. Even as a middle-aged woman, I could relate to her! Joy is experiencing much of what every middle grade girl has felt at some time. She's trying to accept her body and hormonal changes, while at the same time trying to figure out who she really is. She is dealing with the ups and downs of long-time friendships and also discovering her attraction for boys... and how those feelings can make her do some crazy things. Middle school years are full of so much change and I think Joy's character demonstrated them so well.

I enjoyed PLANET MIDDLE SCHOOL and I can't wait to share it with Booking Daughter. I'm so curious to see if she agrees with me about the honesty of this novel. While Booking Daughter is very different from Joy -- namely because she's not a tomboy, I am very interested to see if she will still relate to her. I have a feeling that she will. And I think that every girl or woman who reads PLANET MIDDLE SCHOOL will relate to Joy and fall in love with her character.

PLANET MIDDLE SCHOOL would be an excellent choice for a discussion book either in the classroom or for a book club. There is an excellent teacher's guide which has twenty discussion questions. In addition, there are some supplemental exercises which can help enrich the understanding of the book including writing and vocabulary assignments. Some of the topics you might want to further explore include friendships, parent/child relationships, honesty, staying true to one's self, physical changes, individual gifts, self-doubt, and confidence.

I just loved PLANET MIDDLE SCHOOL and I can't recommend it enough!

I received a copy of this book from Kathy/Bermudaonion who received it at the 2011 BEA.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Review: Falling for Me

Summary: Like most women, whether they’ve chosen the Fortune 500 career path or have had five kids by 35, Anna David wondered if she’d made the right choices. Then she came upon the book Sex and the Single Girl by Helen Gurley Brown, Cosmopolitan’s fearless leader from the mid-sixties to the late nineties. Immediately connecting with Gurley Brown’s unique message of self-empowerment combined with femininity, Anna vowed to use Sex as a lesson plan, venturing out of her comfort zone in the hope of overcoming the fears and insecurities that had haunted her for years. Embarking on a journey both intensely personal and undeniably universal, she becomes adventurous and spontaneous—reviving her wardrobe and apartment, taking French lessons, dashing off to Seville, and whiling nights away with men she never would have considered before. In the process, she ends up meeting the person really worth changing for: herself. -- William Morrow

I enjoy reading a good memoir now and then, so I decided to pick up a copy of FALLING FOR ME: HOW I HUNG CURTAINS, LEARNED TO COOK, TRAVELED TO SEVILLE, AND FELL IN LOVE by Anna David. I had never read a book by Anna David before, but I have always wanted to ever since learning that she was one of the original "Debs" from way back in 2007. I thought FALLING FOR ME sounded interesting, and it was also a story that couldn't be more different from my reality. I figured I could possibly learn something, or at the very least, live vicariously through Ms. David.

FALLING FOR ME is Ms. David's story about the time she spent trying to live her life according to the rules set out by Helen Gurley Brown in SEX AND THE SINGLE GIRL. I had, of course, heard of SEX AND THE SINGLE GIRL, but I wasn't familiar with Gurley Brown's specific messages. I found it very interesting to learn about this classic book and understand the powerful combination of self-empowerment and femininity... and I enjoyed seeing what advice withstood the "test of time."

This might sound awful, but when I picked up FALLING FOR ME, I wasn't sure that it was an ideal read for me. First or all, I was pretty sure that I wouldn't be able to relate to Ms. David. Secondly, I was afraid that this book would be too much like EAT, PRAY, LOVE -- and I couldn't even get through that book. And finally, I thought that I might be too much of a stick-in-the-mud to appreciate Ms. David's real life escapades of "Sex and the Single Girl." So at this point, you are probably asking why did I even bother to pick it up? I'm not really sure, but I was drawn to this book for some reason; and I'm really glad I read it.

I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed FALLING FOR ME. It was a very entertaining and enlightening read and I loved quite a few of the life lessons that Ms. David learned throughout her journey. While there is no doubt that Ms. David and I have led very different lives and I could never imagine myself embarking on her quest, I found myself really liking her. I admired so many things about her --  from her self-determination, to her desire to better herself, to her brutal honesty. But what really surprised me was that I discovered that Ms. David and I do have more in common than I ever would have thought. From reading about some of Ms. David's personal struggles and enlightenment in FALLING FOR ME, I actually found myself wanting to challenge myself and become a better person.

There were definitely some parts of the book that I related to more than others. Namely, I'm talking about the parts that weren't related to dating and sex. I have been with my husband since I was 20 years old so I didn't experience the kind of stuff that Ms. David did. I'm not even sure if I had stayed single into my thirties that I would have done some of the things that Ms. David did. However, while I was sometimes surprised by her behavior, I was also highly entertained by Ms. David's stories and especially the way she shared them. If I'm being entirely honest, I found myself laughing a lot -- even at times when the situation probably wasn't very funny to Ms. David.

I do think that FALLING FOR ME would make an interesting book club discussion. I'm pretty sure that my book club would appreciate it and I have a feeling that a lot of old stories might resurface during our conversation. There is a reading guide available with questions which delve into Ms. David's life as well as other ones that cause the reader to evaluate her own self. Some of the topics that you might want to explore include love, dating, relationships, friendships, fears, insecurities, choices, and self-discovery.

As I mentioned earlier, I do think one of the benefits of reading FALLING FOR ME is that it caused me to evaluate my own life and my choices. That alone is reason enough to pick up this book! But even more so, I was surprised by the depth of this memoir; and I recommend for any woman who has ever wondered about the path her life has taken.

Thanks to the author for providing a review copy of this book.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Review: The Gingerbread Bump-off

Summary: Not only will Phyllis Newsom's house be featured in the annual Christmas Jingle Bell Tour of Homes, she also has a Christmas Eve bridal shower and a New Year's Eve wedding to bake goodies for. But like her tasty treats, she rises to the occasion. 

Before the tour gets under way, Phyllis makes a gruesome discovery on her porch: someone has tried to kill her friend. As Santa's naughty list gets longer, Phyllis tries to catch a half-baked killer. -- Obsidian

Since I am now officially decorated for Christmas, I thought I'd kick back and read a fun little Christmas-themed cozy.  I decided to pick up THE GINGERBREAD BUMP-OFF by Livia J. Washburn, not because the cover was screaming Christmas, but rather because the back cover mentioned an "annual Christmas Jingle Bell Tour of Homes." I figured that this novel would work as a Christmas book, but I must say that the cover of THE GINGERBREAD BUMP-OFF reminded me more of a Thanksgiving feast.

THE GINGERBREAD BUMP-OFF was a fun little mystery and it definitely entertained me for a few hours yesterday afternoon. I'm not sure that I thought it was the best cozy that I've ever read, or that I even loved the characters, but it did help get me in the mood for Christmas. And I, of course, loved that it talked about food and even featured some recipes in the back of the book.

In THE GINGERBREAD BUMP-OFF, retired teacher and landlord Phyllis Newsom is asked to participate in the Jingle Bell Tour of Homes. Just minutes before the tour is scheduled to get underway, she hears a crash and discovers an unconscious body of her friend on her front porch. Someone had taken a ceramic gingerbread and cracked it over the victim's head. (I know, right -- "Gingerbread Bump-Off"-- I had to chuckle!) Since Phyllis is an old pro at solving mysteries, she decides to jump right in (with a little help from her man friend Sam) and find the culprit.

Overall, I just liked THE GINGERBREAD BUMP-OFF. There is absolutely nothing blatantly wrong with this story. I think I didn't relate much to the characters. For the most part, Phyllis and her friends were very likable; however, I didn't feel an affinity to them like I had hoped. It just seemed like something was missing from the characters and even the setting of the story. I guess it just lacked the charm that so many other cozies seem to have. Having said that, I definitely think there is an audience for these characters -- it just might not be me.

However, and this is a big however, I thought the mystery aspect of the story was above average. I enjoyed Phyllis' sleuthing and I thought the list of suspects was interesting. I liked how Phyllis' mind worked and how she eventually figured out who was responsible for the crime. I was fooled right along with Phyllis and I actually was pleasantly surprised with how the mystery was resolved. I do feel the mystery angle kept this book from just being a mediocre read for me.

THE GINGERBREAD BUMP-OFF is the sixth book in the Fresh-Baked Mystery series; however, it was the first one that I've ever read. It definitely worked as a stand-alone, but I do have to wonder if I wouldn't have enjoyed the book more if I had read at least one prior book in the series. It wasn't that the story was hard to follow, but it did take me a few chapters to figure out the relationships between the characters -- maybe it's because I wasn't expecting a bunch of senior citizens to be living in a big rental house. Despite my issues, I do think the author did a pretty good job of filling in the reader to some of the past events.

While I didn't love THE GINGERBREAD BUMP-OFF, it was a fun cozy that put me in the mood for the upcoming holidays. Recommended to fans of cozies and also to foodies.

Thanks to the publisher for sending 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.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Kid Konnection: Jim Henson: The Guy Who Played with Puppets

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 a very "timely" book!

Summary: Sesame Street and The Muppet Show introduced Jim Henson's Muppets to the world, making Kermit the Frog, Oscar the Grouch, and Big Bird household names. But even as a child in rural Mississippi, listening to the radio and putting on comedy shows for his family, Jim recognized the power of laughter to bring people together. On Sesame Street, Jim's Muppets transformed children's television by making learning fun for kids everywhere. A visionary, Jim always believed that puppets could reach a wider audience. In 1976, he proved it, drawing millions of family viewers to The Muppet Show. With his feature film The Dark Crystal and his Star Wars characters—including Yoda—Jim continued to push the boundaries of what was possible in puppetry until his death in 1990 at the age of 53.

Kathleen Krull, recipient of the Children's Book Guild 2011 Non-fiction Award and many other accolades, once again does what she does so well—illuminating the life of an important figure in history, art, and culture with her informative but approachable writing style. -- Random House

I'm pretty sure I mentioned this before on my blog, but I am a huge Muppets fan. I have fantastic memories of watching Sesame Street as a preschooler and then The Muppet Show as a pre-teen. In fact, I remember watching The Muppet Show with my family every week and looking forward to Miss Piggy and Kermit's banter. Even as an adult, I still look forward to seeing Muppet Vision 3D at Hollywood Studios each and every visit to Walt Disney World. I guess you could say I just love those furry critters.

So now that there is a new Muppet Movie out, I am beside myself with excitement. I am planning on taking both of my kids on Monday although they definitely aren't as excited as I am to see it. I, for one, can hardly wait. I even got more excited when I started reading all of the fantastic reviews. Entertainment Weekly and People Magazine both said that it's supposed to be really good. I'll let you know what we think sometime in the next few days.

Because the Muppets are now everywhere (they were even on Saturday Night Live last weekend), I figured that now is the perfect time to feature JIM HENSON: THE GUY WHO PLAYED WITH PUPPETS by Kathleen Krull. I received this book a few months ago, but Booking Son didn't pick this one out of his pile right away --  I guess he's not as big of a Kermit the Frog fan as his mom. However, after our parent-teacher conference last week, his first grade teacher suggested that we read more non-fiction together; and I immediately grabbed this picture book biography.

Booking Son and I rarely read non-fiction, but we both really enjoyed JIM HENSON. It was a wonderful book about a truly amazing man. Booking Son was thrilled to learn some Muppets facts such as how Kermit got his name and how Jim Henson made Kermit. While there were many other interesting tidbits, Booking Son was most impressed that Jim Henson helped design Master Jedi Yoda and some of the characters in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle movies.

JIM HENSON tells the life story of Jim Henson -- from his childhood to his death. I know that is probably obvious based on the title, but I appreciated that Booking Son could learn so much about Mr. Henson's childhood --  from his family, to the games he liked to play, to his vivid imagination. In fact, there were quite a few pages devoted to his younger years, and I think these parts made the man seem more real to Booking Son. When prompted, Booking Son could regurgitate almost everything about Mr. Henson's early years. It certainly made an impression on him.

The story continued to Jim Henson's college years (he majored in Home Economics) as well as the creation of his first puppets and his entry into local television. It followed his career to the days at Sesame Street, The Muppet Show, and his role in movie-making. However, I also really liked seeing some glimpses into his personal life, i.e. how he met his wife as well as his role as a father of four. The book ends with Mr. Henson's unexpected death and his beautiful funeral which was filled with butterfly puppets.

I just loved JIM HENSON: THE GUY WHO PLAYED WITH PUPPETS and so did Booking Son. We ended up discussing the book for quite a long time after we finished reading it together. However, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the gorgeous illustrations in this picture book by the husband and wife team of Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher. Each page was filled with their wonderful paintings of Mr. Henson's early life, his family, and of course, his puppets and Muppets.

JIM HENSON: THE GUY WHO PLAYED WITH PUPPETS is one of the best picture books that I've read this year. It is a very special book about a very special man, and I think you'll be touched with this inspiring story.

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

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, November 25, 2011

Q&A with Sue Monk Kidd & Giveaway

Summary: A special edition to commemorate the tenth anniversary of Sue Monk Kidd's multimillion-copy bestseller.

Award-winning author Sue Monk Kidd's first novel, The Secret Life of Bees, spent more than one hundred weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, has sold more than five million copies, and was made into a major motion picture featuring a star-studded cast. To celebrate the tenth anniversary of the book's debut, Penguin presents a beautiful special edition of this major literary triumph-a gorgeous book that women will share and pass on to their daughters for years to come. -- Penguin

I can hardly believe it! THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES is ten years old! I read this book when it first came out and again for my book club a few years later, and I still remember it like it was yesterday. I consider THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES to be one of my all-time favorite books and I'm thinking that it's almost time to share it with Booking Daughter.

To mark the tenth anniversary of award-winning author Sue Monk Kidd’s debut novel, Penguin is offering a special edition of THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES. Included in this book are "Sue Monk Kidd’s intimate reflections on conceiving and writing the novel and on the effect its vast community of readers has had on her life. This new and gorgeous edition of an extraordinary, powerful story will be a keepsake women will share and pass on to their daughters for years to come."

I think this book makes a perfect gift for a special woman in your life... or even yourself.

To celebrate the release of the Tenth Anniversary of THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES, Sue Monk Kidd has put together a very interesting Q&A based on ten questions from her Twitter followers.

1. Why did you feel the need to write a romantic portion in The Secret Life of Bee? In your imagination, did anything ever come of that?

I could answer that I put everything into Bees but the kitchen sink, that is, everything the story could naturally hold—coming of age, the mother-daughter bond, race, sisterhood, the feminine divine, death, abandonment, forgiveness, the search for belonging—so why not a little romance, as well? But I did have a larger reason. Lily’s experience of ‘first love’ with Zach is in the story because she’s white and he’s black. The novel is set in 1964. I was about Lily’s age at the time, and where I lived, interracial romance was as taboo as it got. Putting that taboo into the novel gave me yet another way to explore the complex history of racial divide. And hopefully, it gave the reader another way to experience the pain of racial separation and cruelty. There’s a scene in the book in which Lily and Zach wrap their arms around each. What happens next is best described by Lily: “He unwound his arms and said, ‘Lily, I like you better than any girl I’ve ever known, but you have to understand, there are people who would kill boys like me for even looking at girls like you.’ “ He was right. In the end, I agree with novelist Margaret Atwood who said, “Good writing takes place at intersections, at what you might call knots, at places where the society is snarled or knotted up.” Lily’s and Zach’s romance is one of those knots. The question also asks whether anything ever came of Lily and Zach’s romance in my imagination. Surprisingly it did, but I’ll get to that in my answer to question 8.

2. What has surprised you the most about how people responded to The Secret Life of Bees? Did you expect it to be so popular?

Beside the fact that so many people responded, I would say my biggest surprise has been the diversity of the book’s readers. It is read by 90 year olds and 12 year olds, by women and men, by Americans, Chinese, Brazilians, Germans, as well as people who speak 32 other languages. I couldn’t have imagined it in a million years. When the novel was first published, I had three pragmatic hopes: first, that the book would find a modicum of respect in the literary world; second, that my publisher had not been overly optimistic in commissioning a first printing of 68,000 copies; and third, that my family and friends, who might possibly number as many as 500, if I really stretched it, would read my book along with 67,500 other people who were not related to me and who had no idea who I was. In my mind, these seemed to be very large hopes. After all, Bees was a debut novel by an unknown author. Indeed, early on, some of my events drew so few people they might have been canceled were it not for store employees who rallied from behind the counters to fill seats. Gradually, however, actual customers showed up, and a quaint and vintage form of social networking called Word-of-Mouth kicked in, slower than Electronic Virus, but like the Pony Express, very reliable. Thanks to the goodness of readers, my pragmatic hopes were eventually realized, and then some. Today, no one feels more incredulous about the novel’s popularity than I. The only proper response is gratitude, and that I feel every day.

3. Have you ever been to a church service like the one at the Boatwright's house? If so, where? I want to go.

In The Secret Life of Bees, August refers to her religious affiliation as “Orthodox Eclectic.” Lily is not sure what it is, only that it’s not like the Baptists and Methodists. As Lily says, “We didn’t have many Orthodox Eclectics back in Sylvan.” The church service that the sisters held in the pink house is an eclectic blend, for sure. It’s a fusion of black politics, old time gospel religion, Catholicism, and feminine spirituality. To answer your question: No, I’ve never attended a service like that. It all sprang from my imagination, but I suspect I was creating something I’d like to attend. The service was organized around the icon of a Black Madonna. She had an oral history that could be traced back to the time of slavery, so naturally her story is recited during the service. That is followed by a conga line. I’m not sure why, except the women felt a lot of exuberance hearing the story and needed to get up and dance. The service also includes a ritual in which the women press their hands to the Black Madonna’s heart. Her icon embodies ideals of feminine strength, power, autonomy, love, and consolation, and by touching her heart, the women are connecting with these qualities in themselves. I should also mention the service featured big hats. Again, that may be because I’ve always wanted to attend a service where everybody wore elaborate hats, kind of like a royal wedding.

4.How did you come up with the names for the sisters?

I named one of the sisters August for the unremarkable reason that I’d always wanted to give that name to a character. With her named, I then began to try out names for the other two sisters. Everything I came up with sounded wrong. Their proposed names seemed too mundane, or too forgettable, or too incompatible with the era and the culture, etc. Then one day, I happened to hear my mother refer to my three great aunts: Aunt Rose, Aunt Lily, and Aunt Violet. I immediately knew the Boatwright sisters would have a similar sort of threefold naming. But not flowers, months. Thus, came August, May, and June.

5. What was your inspiration for the book?

When I was growing up, bees lived inside a wall of our house— an entire hive-full of them, that is to say, 50,000 or so. They lived with us, not for a summer, but for eighteen years. Occasionally, they squeezed through cracks in the wall and flew about. My mother, genius that she is, turned the room into a guest bedroom. Over the years, I more or less forgot about the bees, until one evening when my husband, Sandy told our dinner guests about the first time he visited my home and was put in the guest bedroom. He was awakened in the middle of the night to find bees flying about the room. His telling of this rather unique part of my family history coincided with a new desire I harbored to write fiction. I began to picture a girl lying in bed, while bees slipped through crevices in her bedroom wall and flew laps around the room. The image stuck in my head. It caused me to ask: Who is this girl? What does she want as she lies there, watching the bees fly around? I decided the character in my head was a 14 year old motherless girl named Lily Owens. What she wanted was her mother, along with all a mother might imply, namely love and home. So, we could say the book was inspired by a memory, that turned into an image, that sparked questions I felt compelled to answer.

6. Why did Lily never tell August about the bees in her room at the peach farm? And who placed the paper bag in the attic?

In ten years, I’ve not been asked either of these questions. In fact, I don’t even know the answer to the first one. Why didn’t Lily tell August about the bees in her room on the peach farm? I have no idea—it just never occurred to me. I’m suddenly thinking this could’ve been an oversight. Where were you, asker, when I was writing this? I could have used a prompt back then. Who placed the paper bag in the attic? Fortunately, I did think of this. I did not spell out the answer in the story because I liked the subtlety of inference. In my mind, it was T.Ray, Lily’s father, who placed the bag containing his wife’s possessions in the attic. He was both wounded and embittered by her leaving, and while he had wiped out all traces of Lily’s mother in the house, he couldn’t quite throw these last remnants of her away: her white gloves, a photograph of her leaning against a car fender, and the wooden picture of black Mary that would lead Lily to the Boatwright sisters.

7. Are any of the Boatwright sisters modeled after people you know or have met in your own life?

I did not model August or May or June on any one individual person, but I was drawing on recollections of growing up in the fifties and sixties around a number of African American women in Georgia. No doubt I borrowed some traits and qualities from these women, along with their manner of talking. Each Boatwright sister, then, may possess a small mix of features from numerous women, but they also possess features that spring straight from my imagination. Most characters are a combination of conjuring and remembering.

8. Will there be a sequel for your amazing book which my class is currently reading, The Secret Life of Bees?

When I finished the book, I was sure that I would never revisit the story. I didn’t want to risk tampering with the world I’d created. I felt that way for years. Then in 2008, while watching the film adaptation of Bees of the first time, I had a kind of moment. It came during a scene near the end in which Zach gives Lily his dog tag and they share a first kiss. The dialogue is very close to that in the book: “We can’t be together now,” Zach says, “but one day, after I’ve gone away and become somebody, I’m gonna find you, and we’ll be together then.” Watching this, I really wanted to know how that might play out. How would things turn out for these two? I would still like to know. So, maybe I’ll just write it one of these days.

9. Lily was made to kneel on grits. Did this ever happen to you? How much of the story is autobiographical?

The book had not been out very long when I discovered that some readers hold to the idea that when a novelist writes fiction, she is writing surreptitiously about her own life. During the last ten years, countless strangers have consoled me on my wretched childhood. For the record, my childhood was not like Lily’s. Unlike her, my mother did not die when I was four. She is alive, well, and living in Georgia. At no time did she desert me. Indeed, she was once presented a Mother of the Year award. Likewise, my father is nothing like T.Ray. He, too, is alive and well in Georgia and no doubt wants me to make it abundantly clear that he never once forced me kneel on grits, and that he is well aware Shakespeare’s first name is not Julius. I can further attest that I did not break anyone out of jail or ever run away from home. Now, to muddy the water: Lily and I do have similarities. We both grew up in houses with bees in the wall. We both come from tiny Southern towns. And there are other small resemblances, too, but while Lily’s life is a little like mine around the edges, at heart, it is nothing like mine.

10. In Traveling with Pomegranates we got a glimpse into your Bees writing process. Which piece of the storyline was most challenging to write?

There really wasn’t a particular story line in Bees that was harder to write than another. If I had to choose one, I might say the most challenging story line was Lily’s relationship with her father, T. Ray. I do know this, however: the hardest part of Bees to write was the beginning. There was just so much to be accomplished in a short space of time, and it must not look as if you’re trying to accomplish anything. In the opening of Bees, I was trying to introduce Lily, reveal her character and motivation, set up the problems and agendas of the story, and describe the setting, all while keeping the action and plot moving along. The first 30-40 pages took me a disproportionate amount of time to write compared to the rest of the book. The beginning was the uphill part. Then there was a long plateau in the middle. And the end was the downhill part. Saying that my ending went “downhill” could be a poor choice of words, but you know what I mean.

Giveaway alert: I have a copy of The Tenth Anniversary Edition of THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES to share with one lucky reader. To enter, just fill out the form below before Friday, December 15th at 11:59 p.m. ET. I will randomly select and notify the winner the following day. This contest is open to those of you with U.S. addresses only. Good Luck!

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving

I'm taking a little break from reading today. Actually, I've been taking a lot of breaks from reading lately, but that's another story. Today, our family will be doing an early dinner at my parents' house. I'll be bringing homemade cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, cranberry bread, pumpkin chocolate chip muffins (egg and dairy-free!) and Pecan Pie Squares. My sister and her family and my grandparents will also be there.

Then, less than three hours later, we'll be eating another Thanksgiving dinner with my husband's side of the family. The thought of two meals kind of makes me a little queasy, but I'll try to pace myself. HA! HA! If you know me and food, then you know how funny that is. What really matters is that we are able to spend the day with so many loved ones.

And Friday... Well it's BLACK FRIDAY and the women in my family do some shopping. We all agree that there is nothing we need, but we love the hustle and bustle of the shopping season. What can I say? It's a tradition!

I hope all of you have a wonderful Thanksgiving. Make sure you count your many blessings!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Review: A Mango-Shaped Space

Summary: Mia appears to be the most normal kid in her family. Her younger brother keeps a chart of all the hamburgers he's eaten. Her older sister dyes her hair a different color every week. But Mia knows she is far from ordinary, She is keeping something from everyone: sounds, numbers, and letters have color for her. When school trouble finally forces Mia to reveal her secret, she feels like a freak. She embarks on an intense journey of self-discovery, and by the time she realizes she has isolated herself from everyone who cares about her, it's almost too late. She has to lose something very special in order to find herself. -- Little, Brown

If you follow my blog, then you know that I'm a huge fan of middle grade author Wendy Mass. I've read and reviewed quite a few of her books over the years. In fact, I count a few of her books (like THE CANDYMAKERS and JEREMY FINK AND THE MEANING OF LIFE) as some of my all-time favorite tween reads. I was even fortunate enough to meet Ms Mass awhile back when she was touring for THE CANDYMAKERS.

It's evident that our current mother/daughter book club agrees because we've already read three of Ms. Mass' novels for our discussions and we've only been meeting for a little over a year. I think it's safe to say that we all consider her one of our favorite writers. So when our November hosts announced that they wanted to read A MANGO-SHAPED SPACE, I was thrilled! I had not read this book before, but it has always been on my "list" and I had heard so many wonderful things about it.

So last week (when I was in a major reading rut), I decided to put aside the very long book that I was reading and pick up A MANGO-SHAPED SPACE in preparation for our monthly meeting. And, I just have to tell you that it was exactly what I needed to escape from the world for a few hours. A MANGO-SHAPED SPACE did not disappoint and I just loved this book! (But that's not a surprise considering Wendy Mass wrote it!)

A MANGO-SHAPED SPACE tells the story of Mia, a tween who has been keeping a pretty big secret. She has synesthesia -- a condition where she sees color for letters, sounds and numbers. As she reveals her secret, she begins to feel very isolated from her family and friends. In addition, she begins to learn about her condition, and at the same time, meet people who understand her. However, when Mia loses something very special to her, she realizes what really matters in her life.

I hardly even know where to start discussing the book because there are just too many wonderful things about it. First of all, I loved Mia and I enjoyed being introduced to synesthesia. I had read another middle grade book in which the character had the same condition (THE NAME OF THIS BOOK IS SECRET), but I didn't really "get" it until I read A MANGO-SHAPED SPACE. I am just fascinated by synesthesia and this novel actually encouraged me to do a little research into it. It is a fascinating phenomenon!

As interesting as this book was, I loved it for many other reasons. First and foremost, I loved that this book explored so many relevant tween issues. While most kids do not have conditions as drastic as synesthesia, I have no doubt that they will relate to Mia. I'm willing to bet that most tweens do feel very different from their peers and I think many are probably keeping secrets from their families and friends -- just like Mia. This book also explore family relationships, especially mother/daughter ones, as well as the ups and downs of tween friendships. In addition, it delves into loss and grief which many children experience for the first time during their tween years.

In many ways, A MANGO-SHAPED SPACE was a coming-of-age novel -- and I do love coming-of-age stories. Throughout the course of the novel, Mia was on a personal journey to discover herself. At times she appeared caught up in herself (even at the expense of others) and I so think tweens can understand those feelings. I also loved how much Mia evolved by the end of this story (and I chose to think she even continued to grow ever after the last page!) Mia learned to embrace her gift (and differences) while at the same time appreciating others. It's a valuable lesson in growing up, and I liked that this novel gave an honest look at the difficulties in the pre-teen years.

Needless to say, I thought A MANGO-SHAPED SPACE was a wonderful book club pick. There are a number of things to discuss and our girls did a great job touching upon many of them. There is an excellent educator's guide which is a great tool to enhance your reading, and there's even some thought-provoking discussion questions. Some of the topics you might want to explore include friendship, secrets, family dynamics, crushes, self-awareness, honestly, grief and loss.

A MANGO-SHAPED SPACE is a very special middle grade novel. I adored it and can't recommend it enough!

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

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Giveaway: This is Teen Books Giveaway

I am so excited about this three book giveaway from This is Teen and it's just in time for the holidays. You can win copies of THE ELEVENTH PLAGUE by Jeff Hirsch, iBOY by Kevin Brooks, and UNDERDOGS by Markus Zusak (yes -- the author of THE BOOK THIEF!). Unfortunately, I haven't had a chance to read any of these books yet, but I think they all look terrific.. and I'm sure that any young adult would appreciate adding these to their collection!

For those of you who aren't award of This is Teen, you are definitely missing out. This is Teen has some fabulous books and their website is a great resource for young adult books. Just to give you an idea of the wonderful books that they promote, here's a few: BEAUTY QUEENS, The HUNGER GAMES books, The SHIVER Trilogy, and many, many more. The This is Teen community was created so readers can connect with their favorite authors, books, and each other. Make sure you "like" their Facebook page so you can keep up-to-date on the new releases!
Now back to the awesome giveaway! Here's a little bit of information about each book:

Summary: In an America devastated by war and plague, the only way to survive is to keep moving.

In the aftermath of a war, America's landscape has been ravaged and two thirds of the population left dead from a vicious strain of influenza. Fifteen-year-old Stephen Quinn and his family were among the few that survived and became salvagers, roaming the country in search of material to trade for food and other items essential for survival. But when Stephen's grandfather dies and his father falls into a coma after an accident, Stephen finds his way to Settler's Landing, a community that seems too good to be true, where there are real houses, barbecues, school, and even baseball games. Then Stephen meets strong, defiant, mischievous Jenny, who refuses to accept things as they are. And when they play a prank that goes horribly wrong, chaos erupts, and they find themselves in the midst of a battle that will change Settler's Landing forever. -- Scholastic

Summary: What can he do with his new powers — and what are they doing to him?

Before the attack, Tom Harvey was just an average teen. But a head-on collision with high technology has turned him into an actualized App. Fragments of a shattered iPhone are embedded in his brain. And they're having an extraordinary effect on his every thought.

Because now Tom knows, sees, and can do more than any normal boy ever could. But with his new powers comes a choice: To avenge Lucy, the girl he loves, will he hunt down the vicious gangsters who hurt her? Will he take the law into his own electric hands and exterminate them from the South London housing projects where, by fear and violence, they rule?

Not even his mental search engine can predict the shocking outcome of iBoy's actions. -- Scholastic

Summary: Before The Book Thief, Markus Zusak wrote a trilogy of novels about the Wolfe Brothers: The Underdog, Fighting Ruben Wolfe, and Getting the Girl. Cameron and Ruben Wolfe are champions at getting into fights, coming up with half-baked schemes, and generally disappointing girls, their parents, and their much more motivated older siblings. They're intensely loyal to each other, brothers at their best and at their very worst. But when Cameron falls head over heels for Ruben's girlfriend, the strength of their bond is tested to its breaking point.

We're proud to present these novels together for the first time, and to be introducing American readers to
The Underdog, never before published in the United States. Fans of The Book Thief won't want to miss reading the novels that launched Markus Zusak's stellar career. -- Scholastic

Thanks to the fine folks at This is Teen Books, as well as Big Honcho Media, I have a set of these three books -- THE ELEVENTH PLAGUE, iBOY, and UNDERDOGS to share with one lucky reader. To enter, just fill out the form below before Monday, December 5th at 11:59 p.m. ET. I will randomly select and notify the winner the following day. This contest is open to those of you with U.S. addresses only. Good luck!

Monday, November 21, 2011

Review: V is for Vengeance

Summary: A woman with a murky past who kills herself-or was it murder? A spoiled kid awash in gambling debt who thinks he can beat the system. A lovely woman whose life is about to splinter into a thousand fragments. A professional shoplifting ring working for the Mob, racking up millions from stolen goods. A wandering husband, rich and ruthless. A dirty cop so entrenched on the force he is immune to exposure. A sinister gangster, conscienceless and brutal. A lonely widower mourning the death of his lover, desperate for answers, which may be worse than the pain of his loss. A private detective, Kinsey Millhone, whose thirty-eighth-birthday gift is a punch in the face that leaves her with two black eyes and a busted nose. 

And an elegant and powerful businessman whose dealings are definitely outside the law: the magus at the center of the web. 

V: Victim. Violence. Vengeance. -- Putnam

After reading and reviewing U IS FOR UNDERTOW by Sue Grafton a few weeks ago, I was very excited to pick up Ms. Grafton's latest release V IS FOR VENGEANCE. It had been years since I read a Kinsey Milhone series, but I was quickly reminded of how much I enjoyed these books... and why they continue to be such a best-selling mystery series. I love Kinsey and I think Ms. Grafton is a marvelous storyteller.

So it was with very high expectations that I picked up V IS FOR VENGEANCE. And maybe they were just a little too high. I absolutely adored U IS FOR UNDERTOW and I was expecting more of the same with V IS FOR VENGEANCE. I enjoyed V IS FOR VENGEANCE, and it did include many of the things that I've come to know and love about Sue Grafton books; however, the pace of the book (especially the first half) was just a little slow for me. In fact, I felt as if the book was longer than it needed to be.

There were quite a few storylines going on in V IS FOR VENGEANCE, and while they did come together eventually, I don't know if I'd go so far as to say that I was satisfied with how they were resolved. I enjoyed some of the stories very much, but there were others that just didn't hold my interest. Occasionally, I didn't really understand how the storylines were related or even why I was reading about certain characters. The mystery was intriguing though, but I just didn't think the plot was woven as tightly as some other Kinsey Milhone mysteries.

I am a huge fan of Kinsey and I really enjoyed the chapters of the book that featured her. I love her voice and her insights and I can definitely say that my favorite parts of the novel were the scenes with Kinsey. One of the things that I most enjoyed about U IS FOR UNDERTOW was that I got to see a more personal side of Kinsey. I really wanted this book to continue with that -- or at least give me some more insight into Kinsey. Sadly, it didn't.

Having said all that, I don't want it to come across that V IS FOR VENGEANCE wasn't a fun read because I did enjoy it. Ms. Grafton managed to weave a pretty impressive mystery in this novel. I didn't see where she was going with the different stories and characters, and I was surprised by how some things eventually played out. And there was that whole mobster and organized crime element which sucked me right in! There is no doubt that Ms. Grafton is a master at writing mysteries, and I wouldn't hesitate to read more of her books. She always keeps me entertained with both her characters and her crimes.
If you are a fan of Kinsey Milhone's or Sue Grafton's, then I wouldn't hesitate to recommend V IS FOR VENGEANCE.

Thanks to the publisher for providing a review 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, November 20, 2011

Review: Eleven Madison Park

Summary:  Eleven Madison Park is one of New York City's most popular fine-dining establishments, and one of only a handful to receive four stars from the New York Times. Under the leadership of Executive Chef Daniel Humm and General Manager Will Guidara since 2006, the restaurant has soared to new heights and has become one of the premier dining destinations in the world.

ELEVEN MADISON PARK: THE COOKBOOK is a sumptuous tribute to the unforgettable experience of dining in the restaurant, where the latest culinary techniques are married with classical French cuisine. The book features more than 125 sophisticated recipes, arranged by season, adapted for the home cook, and accompanied by stunning full-color photographs by Francesco Tonelli. ELEVEN MADISON PARK is sure to be one of the most talked-about cookbooks of 2011. -- Little Brown

ELEVEN MADISON PARK THE COOKBOOK by Daniel Humm and Will Guidara is a pretty impressive cookbook. It is an over-sized book with a stark white cover and silver text, and it weighs a ton (not literally, of course, but it is really heavy!) I guess that quality of the cookbook fits with the reputation of the restaurant Eleven Madison Park. This restaurant has received so many accolades -- from a four star rating from the New York Times, to the James Beard Foundation's Outstanding Restaurant Award for 2011, to one of the World's 50 Best Restaurants according to San Pellegrino's list.

I was blown away by ELEVEN MADISON PARK THE COOKBOOK for a number of reasons. There is no doubt that this is one special cookbook. However, I am going to be totally honest with you here. As impressive as this cookbook was to me, it's not one that I will be using on a day-to-day basis. In reality, it's most likely one from which I will never make a single recipe. But it sure is a beautiful cookbook to explore for food lovers like me.

As intimidated as I was by the recipes in this cookbook, I felt a little better after reading the first few pages of this cookbook. There is a section entitled "How to Use This Book" which states:

...the question that has come up most frequently is "Will people actually be able to cook from this book?

The simple answer is yes-ish.

If you never cook, this is probably a book that should stay on your coffee table. Many recipes require a significant time commitment, a certain level of skill, a reasonably equipped kitchen, and a healthy dose of persistence."

With that being said, I don't think I'll be attempting any of these recipes any time soon. So I'll just have to share with you some of my thoughts about ELEVEN MADISON PARK THE COOKBOOK:

The first part of the cookbook is used to introduce the executive chef Daniel Humm and the general manager Will Guidara. There is also some history about the restaurant which I found very interesting. Needless to say, I'm now dying to visit Eleven Madison Park. I'm sure it's a once in a lifetime culinary experience!

Then it was on to the recipes for me! The cookbook is divided into sections by the seasons -- Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter. There are a wide variety of recipes for each season as well as absolutely amazing photographs. It probably goes without saying that recipes are pretty frou-frou (or at least for my family's tastes) and some are extremely time consuming and labor intensive. But the pictures speak louder than the words -- and these dishes look wonderful.

I did find a few recipes that I would be willing to try and probably able to make, although ELEVEN MADISON PARK won't ever be my go-to cookbook. Even if I did attempt to make a recipe from this cookbook, I have a feeling that I would be disappointed because they is absolutely no way that my finished product would look anything like the restaurant's. The presentation is exquisite!

Another really interesting part of ELEVEN MADISON PARK was the section that showed "A Day in the Life" of the restaurant. These pages gave an hour-by hour (actually half hour-by-half hour) account of what occurs each and every day in the restaurant as the workers prepare for the customers. I was kind of surprised to learn that it's a 24 hour operation by the time you take into account the prep, service, and cleanup.

If you enjoy looking at cookbooks (and for those of you out there like me, you know exactly what I mean), then I highly recommend ELEVEN MADISON PARK THE COOKBOOK. This is truly one of the highest quality cookbooks that I've even seen, and I think it would make a terrific holiday gift for the food lover in your life.

This cookbook was a win on Twitter -- and it was autographed!

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, November 19, 2011

Kid Konnection: Honey-themed 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 two fun picture books that reference "honey" and honeybees.

Summary: Every morning, Fred climbs three flights of stairs—up to his rooftop in Brooklyn, New York—and greets the members of his enormous family: "Good morning, my bees, my darlings!" His honeybee workers are busy—they tend the hive, feed babies, and make wax rooms. They also forage in flowers abloom across Brooklyn . . . so that, one day, Fred can make his famous honey, something the entire neighborhood looks forward to tasting. Lela Nargi's beautifully written story—accompanied by Kyrsten Brooker's collage-style illustrations—offers an inside look at the life of an endearing beekeeper and the honey-making process. -- Schwartz and Wade

A few months ago, I saw a review for THE HONEYBEE MAN by Lela Nargi and illustrated Krysten Brooker on She is Too Fond of Books' blog, and I had a feeling that Booking Son and I would enjoy this book. THE HONEYBEE MAN tells the story of Fred, a beekeeper who lives in Brooklyn (of all places!) It is filled with lots of facts (and just enough fiction) to make it an educational and very fun picture book.

I just loved THE HONEYBEE MAN, probably more so than Booking Son although he did enjoy it. Since I knew next-to-nothing about honeybees and the making of honey, I was actually really "into" this story. I appreciated learning about a beekeeper, but I also loved how the story was written. It was informative and poetic at the same time. For example, the author gave detailed descriptions about making honey; and then she juxtaposed the busy bees and their hives with the bustling crowds in Brooklyn. It was a great mix of fact and fiction.

As I mentioned earlier, THE HONEYBEE MAN was just chock full of interesting facts. Even the end papers are filled with diagrams of bees, bee stingers, hives, the waggle dance and much more. There is also a section at the end of the book which gives "some amazing facts about honey, honeybees, and beekeepers." I can't even begin to tell you how much I learned from this picture book.

But this book was also a bit whimsical. Fred was a daydreamer and allowed himself to imagine his bees (and himself) flying over New York City in search of nectar. He so wishes he could talk to and understand his bees. However, the book eventually returned to the business of making honey. I just loved how Fred thanked his bees for the honey and then shared it with all of his neighbors.

I thought it was interesting to learn that the author wrote THE HONEYBEE MAN because she was inspired by two apiarists who live in Brooklyn. Evidently, urban beekeeping is a growing trend (who knew?) and I love that Ms. Nargi wrote a story about such a sweet apiarist.

THE HONEYBEE MAN is a must-read picture book for elementary age children. It's a perfect introduction to bees and beekeeping as well as the making of honey, and I think it's ideal for the classroom.

Summary: A little girl is on her way to gather berries, berries to make jam when she gets home. A little bee is on its way to gather nectar, nectar to make honey for her honeycomb. Their meeting in the same berry patch shines a gentle light on a common childhood fear from two points of view. This picture book provides a sweet way to convey even to the youngest child the importance of understanding and respecting all creatures. -- Tricycle Press

JAM & HONEY by Melita Morales and illustrated by Laura J. Bryant is another cute picture book. It's geared for a younger audience than THE HONEYBEE MAN, probably three to five years old, but it still has a very special message. The book begins with a young girl who is picking berries so she can make jam. She comes across a honeybee who is gathering nectar and she immediately becomes very afraid that the bee will sting her. She decides to stay still so the bee won't bother her. Part two of the book tells the same story; however, this time, it's through the eyes of the honeybee. The bee is equally afraid of the little girl and determines that there are enough vines for the both of them. Both the girl and the bee gather what they need to make jam and honey respectively.

As a mom, I really liked what JAM & HONEY set out to do -- teach children to understand other living creatures. Both the girl and the bee were initially afraid of each other, but they realized the value in staying out of each other's way. In addition, I think this book reinforces the importance in respecting others -- even when you might fear them.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the illustrations. They are just adorable. Both the little girl and the bee are quite cute, and I can't stop smiling about the expressions on the girl's face when she sees the bee. The pictures most definitely enhanced the story!

Highly recommend for preschoolers!

Thanks to the publishers for sending copies of these books.

If you'd like to participate in Kid Konnection and share a post about anything related to children's books (picture, middle grade, or young adult) from the past week, please leave a comment as well as a link below with your name/blog name and the title of the book! Feel free to grab the little button too!

Friday, November 18, 2011

Guest Review: Targets of Opportunity

Summary: In Targets of Deception, which suspense master Robert K. Tanenbaum called "a fast-paced thriller," Jeffrey Stephens introduced CIA agent Jordan Sandor, whom bestselling author Steve Alten praised as "terrific." Now Sandor is back, playing for bigger stakes and facing deadlier challenges. 

Whisked from his Manhattan town house to a gabled CIA safe house in Virginia, Sandor faces off with a top terrorist agent from Iran's Revolutionary Guard. In exchange for protection from his own side, Ahmad Jaber is offering the CIA explosive information: word of a secret, unholy alliance forged among operatives in the Middle East, a ruthless South American, and Kim Jong-Il's North Korea. Jaber claims not to know specific details, only that the strike will target the heart of America. 

The fanatics stage a stunning diversion in the Caribbean, mercilessly downing a passenger jet and unleashing an assault on a French intelligence installation. Sandor, however, has already moved in a different direction. Leveraging Jaber's infor-mation, he assembles a small strike force to penetrate North Korea. The team knows they will not all return, but the intel they gather will be vital to American security. What they ultimately discover plunges Sandor into a frantic race against time, struggling to defeat a shadowy figure—a master terrorist with a plan of destruction so perfectly disguised that even with the new knowledge he has gathered, Sandor cannot guess where or how he will strike. 

As a storm rages in the Gulf of Mexico, word comes that two submarines have penetrated U.S. waters. With the U.S. military hampered by the hurricane, Sandor turns to a few daring U.S. Navy SEALs to duel with the enemy they cannot see . . . for now they know only that there are two nuclear weapons aimed at a target of opportunity whose destruction would change the world order forever. 

Brilliantly conceived, electrifyingly paced, Targets of Opportunity captures a terrifying twenty-first century reality: terrorists can—and will—try as many times as they need to attack the United States. For the brave men and women who defend our country, failure is not an option. -- Gallery

It's been awhile since we've heard from Booking Pap Pap, but I'm happy to say he's back. He and I have both been distracted from our reading this past week in light of the news surrounding our alma mater. He did manage to find some time to escape from the Internet, though, and read TARGETS OF OPPORTUNITY by Jeffrey S. Stephens. Here are his thoughts:

TARGETS OF OPPORTUNITY by Jeffrey Stephens is a story about a creative attack on the United States initiated by an alliance of North Korean, Venezuelan and Iranian terrorists.  The author takes the reader from a safe house in Virginia to North Korea, Iran, the French West Indies, the Gulf of Mexico and Washington D.C.  This story has a high level of action that includes the downing of a passenger jet, an assault on an intelligence complex in the Caribbean, the defection of a member of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, a kidnapping of a North Korean government official, a category three hurricane and a nuclear weapon attack in the United States.  There’s even an opportunity to involve the Navy SEALs.      

The lead character is a likable CIA agent named Jordan Sandor who displays all the typical characteristics of the hero agent – fearless, brash, insubordinate, attracted to women and trained to kill.  His task is to determine where and when the terrorist attack will take place and how to stop it.   He pieces the plan together after interrogating the Iranian defector, leading a dangerous mission into North Korea and investigating the attacks in the Caribbean.  He, of course, is front and center in the heroics involved to stop the attack.

I thought the overall character development was very good, starting with Jordan Sandor who, despite being a trained killer, shows feelings for members of his team who were captured in North Korea as well as for the woman who led him out of North Korea.  He also displayed a keen sense of humor that seemed to fit the action very well.  Adina, the Venezuelan mastermind high up in the Chavez government, was ruthless and trusted no one with the complete details of his plan.  The Iranian agent, Ahmad Jaber, a cold blooded killer in the name of Allah, shares his information piece by piece as he extracts favors for his knowledge.  He shows a softer side when he is rejoined with his wife who he abandoned in Iran to defect. 

Author Jeffrey Stevens provides a realistic touch to the story line by developing a plot that takes into account the current world political environment and displaying his knowledge of current weapons possibly available to terrorists.  He also adds an interesting bit of knowledge about U. S. security measures. 

TARGETS OF OPPORTUNITY, although a little long at 422 pages, is a realistic, face paced suspense thriller about international terrorism that anyone interested in this genre will enjoy.     

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

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Review: Fathermucker

Summary: A day in the life of a dad on the brink: Josh Lansky—second-rate screenwriter, fledgling freelancer, and stay-at-home dad of two preschoolers—has held everything together while his wife is away on business . . . until this morning’s playdate, when he finds out through the mommy grapevine that she might be having an affair. What Josh needs is a break. He’s not going to get one. -- Harper

As someone who doesn't always consider herself the "typical" stay-at-home mom, I thought I might be entertained by the new novel called FATHERMUCKER by Greg Olear. FATHERMUCKER tells a day-in-the-life of Josh, a stay-at-home dad of two young children -- Roland who is four and Maude who is three. He deals with the typical parental responsibilities and even handles the playdates with the other mommies; however, his life is turned upside-down when one of the moms tells him that his wife is having an affair.

I enjoyed FATHERMUCKER and thought it was a pretty funny book. At times, I thought it was uncanny how much I had in common with Josh, primarily with how it felt to be a stay-at-home mom to preschoolers (it isn't always a cakewalk!) And I loved that there is at least one other person out there (albeit a fictional one) who has counted down the hours until the children's bedtime. If nothing else, FATHERMUCKER made me feel like less of a bad parent.

Since my kids are long past their preschool years, I found much of FATHERMUCKER to be absolutely hilarious! I'm not sure that I would have the exact same reaction had I read this book when I was caught up in the day-to-day struggles of being a parent to a preschooler. I can now laugh at the temper tantrums, the poopie incidents, the disastrous playdates, the playground gossip, and the competitive moms; but at the time, I remember feeling like an inept parent. I appreciated that FATHERMUCKER allowed me to see that many of my feelings were normal (or at least somewhat normal.)

However, because Josh was a stay-at-home dad, his thoughts and feelings did sometimes differ from mine -- it's that whole "men are from Mars, women are from Venus" thing. I loved getting some insight into a man's view of this very difficult job. I wasn't surprised by how many feelings Josh and I shared about being a parent and loving our children, but I was a little surprised to get inside a man's mind especially when it came to his thoughts about the other moms.

And Josh was definitely a unique character -- one that will remain in my thoughts for some time. While I couldn't always relate to him, I did respect his parenting and how much he loved his family. I also enjoyed learning about his insecurities -- both as a parent and a husband. And I thought his fantasy world (i.e. the scenes/scripts he wrote about his wife and other men) were both hilarious, and at the same time, touching.

There were many very funny scenes in FATHERMUCKER, but one of my absolute favorite parts of the novel was not a humorous one. It was when Josh was talking about his son Roland's autism. It occurred at the beginning of Part 2 of the book, and was titled Asberger's: A Chronology. The author juxtaposed snippets about the history of autism with Roland's actual behavior. I couldn't help but be affected by the information (or lack thereof) about autism, and it really caused me think about all of the families out there who have to handle these challenges on a daily basis.

Another good thing about FATHERMUCKER was Mr. Olear's writing -- it was very good. He has a fabulous sense of humor and a unique ability to capture the thoughts and feelings of stay-at-home parents. I thoroughly enjoyed his insights into parenting, but I also thought his views on marriage and love were pretty perceptive (although I admit that sometimes it seemed like he was trying to hard to be smart and witty.) In many ways, I thought FATHERMUCKER was a microcosm about life in general. It covered both the good and bad of life as well as the highs and lows, and the novel did it with covering just a single day in the life of a man. Pretty impressive!

Parents, both mothers and fathers alike, will relate to much of FATHERMUCKER, and that's why I think it would make for an interesting book club pick. There is a reading guide which delves into some of the topics I've already mentioned in my review. Some of the other themes that you might want to explore include parenting, love, marriage, infidelity, trust, friendship, self-esteem issues, masculinity, and autism. In addition, there are quite a few literary devices used in the novel which warrant some discussion including the choice of title, the comparison of parenting to war, the use of music references, and the comparison of Josh and his wife's relationship to that of Josh Duhamel and Fergie.

FATHERMUCKER is a very entertaining look at life and especially parenting. I recommend it to anyone who is a mother or a father or anyone who enjoys a books about family life!

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

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Wondrous Words Wednesday - 101 Words to Sound Smart

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.

Summary: Millions of people around the world communicate better thanks to Mignon Fogarty, akaGrammar Girl, whose top-rated weekly grammar podcast has been downloaded more than 40 million times. Now she’s turning her attention to improving our vocabulary—one smart word at a time.

Are you often stumped for the perfect way to say or write something? Do you find yourself using the same words over and over? Grammar Girl to the rescue! This handy reference guide contains 101 words that will enhance your writing, adding nuance, subtlety, and insight. Using these words in speeches, you'll sound confident and articulate--a skill that will benefit you for years to come.

Full of clear, straightforward definitions and fun quotations from historic luminaries such as Leonardo da Vinci and Charlotte Bronte as well as contemporary notables such as Dave Eggers and Rowan Atkinson, this highly-useable guidebook gives you the ability to speak and write eloquently at any occasion, setting you up for a lifetime of success.  -- St. Martin's Griffin

When I received an email asking if I was interested in taking a look at GRAMMAR GIRL'S 101 WORDS TO SOUND SMART by Mignon Fogarty, I immediately jumped at the chance. While I'm not a regular participant in Bermudaonion's Wondrous Words Wednesday, I do love the feature and I thought this book would be perfect to review as part of it.

GRAMMAR GIRL'S 101 WORDS TO SOUND SMART is a very cute little book and a perfect stocking stuffer! Each page of the book highlights a different word -- 101 in all. The words are listed in alphabetical order starting with abjure and ending with zeitgeist. There is a detailed definition (sometimes listing more than one meaning) as well as the origin of the word. In addition, there is a quotation for each word so the reader can see how to properly use the word.

I won't list all of the 101 Words to Sound Smart as part of Wondrous Words Wednesday (although it's tempting!), but I was surprised by how many of the words were familiar to me. Having said that, I might not be using them correctly or even using them at all in my writing (or speaking for that matter.) However, I do think I learned a lot of new words by looking through this book. Now the challenge is to actually use them in my day-to-day interactions...

In addition to reading the definitions of the words, I also enjoyed the author's introduction. She explains the challenges she faced in selecting just 101 words and admits that the words in this book are just the beginning. I can vouch for her when I say that if you are using these 101 words regularly, then your friends will think you're pretty darn smart.

Every reader will get something different from 101 WORDS TO SOUND SMART. Some will learn a few (or many) new words, while others will discover some more effective words that they can use to better get their points across. The author clearly states in the introduction that,"sometimes the five-dollar word really does add a nuance that you can't get with a shorter word. In many cases, the words in this book provide extra layers of meaning over more common, similar words."

And now to a brief list of the words that I found interesting:
  • bowdlerize -- to "clean up" a manuscript by deleting or changing offensive words and passages, to expurgate or prudishly censor
  • jejune -- uninteresting, or something that provides no mental nourishment
  • Occam's razor -- a phrase that means the simplest solution is usually the right one
  • sclerotic -- a belief, person, or system that has become hardened, unresponsive, or rigid over time
I thought GRAMMAR GIRL'S 101 WORDS TO SOUND SMART was a very fun book... and it also taught me a thing or two! Recommended for the aspiring writer in your life!

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

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Review: Star Wars: The Blueprints

Summary: Star Wars: The Blueprints brings together, for the first time, the original blueprints created for the filming of the Star Wars Saga. Drawn from deep within the Lucasfilm Archives and combined with exhaustive and insightful commentary from best-selling author J. W. Rinzler, the collection maps in precise, vivid, and intricate detail the very genesis of the most enduring and beloved story ever to appear onscreen.

Star Wars: The Blueprints gives voice to the groundbreaking and brilliant engineers, designers, and artists that have, in film after film, created the most imaginative and iconic locales in the history of cinema. Melding science and art, these drawings giving birth to fantastic new worlds, ships, and creatures.

Most importantly, Blueprints shows how in bringing this extraordinary epic to life, the world of special effects as we know it was born. For the first time, here you will see the initial concepts behind such iconic Star Wars scenes as the Rebel blockade runner hallways, the bridge of General Grievous's flagship, the interior of the fastest hunk of junk in the Galaxy, and Jabba the Hutt's palace. Never before seen craftsmanship and artistry is evident whether floating on the Death Star, escaping on a speeder bike, or exploring the Tatooine Homestead. 

Star Wars: The Blueprints is a limited edition. Only 5,000 hand-numbered English language copies will be available.

Star Wars: The Blueprints: 15.5" wide by 18.5" tall (39.4 cm wide by 47 cm tall, 336 pages, 10 gatefolds, more than 250 featured blueprints, more than 500 photographs and illustrations, hand-numbered title page, 22 pounds (10 kg) 

Cloth case: Custom-dyed cloth material case with debossed foil stamping detail on spine and cover, 19" wide by 2.625" deep by 22.125" tall (48.3 cm wide by 6.7 cm deep by 56.2 cm tall)

Certificate of Authenticity: Signed by Epic Ink President Andrew S. Mayer -- Epic Ink

I rarely feature a book that I haven't read here at Booking Mama. However, I had to make an exception for a new book called STAR WARS: THE BLUEPRINTS. As much as I would have loved to receive a review copy of this book, I can understand why I didn't. STAR WARS: THE BLUEPRINTS is a limited edition with only 5000 of these books being made. It also retails for around $500, so it's not exactly feasible for the publisher to provide review copies.

Despite not seeing the actual book, I do feel like I can speak to the absolute awesomeness of this book. I did receive a package with copies of the actual blueprints. My husband and son (who are both HUGE Star Wars fans) were positively gaga over them (although they wouldn't appreciate me using the term "gaga" to describe them!) My husband just had to show them to his co-worker (also another big Star Wars fan) and my son wants them framed for his room. These blueprints are rather impressive -- even to a "normal" Star Wars fan like me.

Here's a list of some of the blueprints which appear in this 336 page book:
• The Millennium Falcon
• Droids, including R2-D2
• The Y-wing and the X-wing starfighters
• The Rebel Blockade Runner
• The Cantina
• The Death Star
• The Ewok forest, the battle of Hoth and much more!

STAR WARS: THE BLUEPRINTS is no ordinary coffee table book. It is a cloth covered volume which is housed in a cloth-lined clamshell case. In addition, there are more than 500 photos and illustrations and ten 45” x 18” gatefolds. Each copy is individually numbered and also comes with a certificate of authenticity. I'm sure this book would provide countless hours of entertainment and I can only imagine how exciting a book like this must be for a true Star Wars fan.

Just to give you more of an idea of STAR WARS: THE BLUEPRINTS, I want to share with you the book's trailer:

Although the $500 price is a bit steep for many of us, I do think true Star Wars Collectors will find that STAR WARS: THE BLUEPRINTS is well worth the cost. I just wish I had a spare $500 sitting around so I could treat my guys to this for Christmas!

Monday, November 14, 2011

Review: With a Name Like Love

Summary: When Ollie’s daddy, the Reverend Everlasting Love, pulls their travel trailer into Binder to lead a three-day revival, Ollie knows that this town will be like all the others they visit— it is exactly the kind of nothing Ollie has come to expect. But on their first day in town, Ollie meets Jimmy Koppel, whose mother is in jail for murdering his father. Jimmy insists that his mother is innocent, and Ollie believes him. Still, even if Ollie convinces her daddy to stay in town, how can two kids free a grown woman who has signed a confession?  Ollie’s longing for a friend and her daddy’s penchant for searching out lost souls prove to be a formidable force in this tiny town where everyone seems bent on judging and jailing without a trial. -- FSG

This isn't a typical Mystery Monday post. In fact, the book I'm about to review usually would appear as part of my Saturday Kid Konnection post because it's a middle grade novel. However, I chose to feature it today because the story actually contains a bit of a mystery. I thought it might be fun to do something a little different than my usual cozy or thriller, and WITH A NAME LIKE LOVE by Tess Hilmo is certainly a book worth talking about.

WITH A NAME LIKE LOVE tells the story of Ollie, a 13 year old girl whose father, the Reverend Everlasting Love, is a traveling evangelist. Her family is constantly on the move, only staying a few days in each town -- just long enough for a three day revival. Ollie's life with her five sisters is fairly routine until they arrive in Binder where she meets Jimmy Koppel, a boy whose mother in in jail for murdering his father. Ollie is drawn to Jimmy and desperate to stay in town and help him. She asks her father for some assistance in helping Jimmy's mother, and both Ollie and her father work together to convince the entire town that she is innocent of the crime.

I thought WITH A NAME LIKE LOVE was a wonderful middle grade novel. It encompassed so many of the things I look for in a good book -- an intriguing story, well developed characters, and beautiful writing. And it didn't hurt that it was a coming-of-age novel -- you know how I love those types of books. It has already received starred reviews from Booklist, School Library Journal, and Kirkus, so it's obvious that I'm not alone in my praise of this story. WITH A NAME LIKE LOVE is, indeed, a very special book.

Probably the first thing that jumps out to me about WITH A NAME LIKE LOVE is the character of Ollie. She is such a special character and I absolutely loved her! Ollie is at a pretty rough age, thirteen years old, a time when there are so many changes for a girl; and when you add that she is moving every three days, Ollie is definitely feeling out of sorts. She is desperate for some sort of permanence -- a home with running water, a regular school, and most importantly, friends; so when she meets Jimmy, she pleads her case to stay in town a little longer.

I could really relate to Ollie and I think many tween girls will agree. She is sincere and honest and so sweet, but she was also a little bit vulnerable. As a child, I moved a great deal (nothing like Ollie though) and I remember how hard it was to make new friends and fit in at new schools -- and I was only moving every year or two. My heart just broke for Ollie, but I loved that she was such a strong girl who tried to assume the best in people (although it was really hard for her with some of the mean townspeople!) I especially admired her for her sense of responsibility, her courage, and for doing the "right thing."

In addition to Ollie, there were some other fabulous characters in this novel -- like Jimmy! He was another character that broke my heart, and I couldn't believe the pain and abuse that he experience as a young child. I also adored Ollie's parents, especially her father, who felt as if he had a calling to save lost souls. His faith and love were quite inspiring. And I can't forget the older woman who took in Ollie's family, Mrs. Mahoney. She was another person who had experienced some loss in her life but still managed to be a kind and non-judgmental person.

As a mother, I loved so many of the themes in this novel. It was a heartwarming story about some very special (and strong) individuals. Maybe it's because of everything that's happened concerning Penn State in the past week, but WITH A NAME LIKE LOVE really resonated with me. This novel showed the importance of doing the right thing and the power an individual can have. It is a message that I feel needs to be stressed over and over again to our young people.

And because I am reviewing this book as part of my Mystery Monday feature, I should probably mention the mystery angle of the novel. It is fairly obvious to anyone reading this novel that Jimmy's mother is definitely not the murderer that the town has painted her to be. Ollie initially suspects that Jimmy has murdered his father; however, when he denies it to her, she is forced to reconsider. Through some wonderful insights and intuition, Ollie begins to realize who the murderer is; and she uses some creative tricks to prove her case. The resolution of the mystery isn't exactly shocking, but it is still interesting and satisfying.

WITH A NAME LIKE LOVE would make an excellent pick for a mother/daughter book club. There is a reading guide available which delves more deeply into many of the topics I've already mentioned. There are some before and after activities as well as discussion questions, activities, and a dialectical journal. Some of the themes you might want to discuss include families, faith, courage, home, responsibility, friendship, and truth.

I thoroughly enjoyed WITH A NAME LIKE LOVE and I highly recommend it to tween and adults alike.

Thanks to Blue Slip Media 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.