Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Review: Home Front

Summary: In her bestselling novels Kristin Hannah has plumbed the depths of friendship, the loyalty of sisters, and the secrets mothers keep. Now, in her most emotionally powerful story yet, she explores the intimate landscape of a troubled marriage with this provocative and timely portrait of a husband and wife, in love and at war.

All marriages have a breaking point. All families have wounds. All wars have a cost. . . .

Like many couples, Michael and Jolene Zarkades have to face the pressures of everyday life---children, careers, bills, chores---even as their twelve-year marriage is falling apart. Then an unexpected deployment sends Jolene deep into harm’s way and leaves defense attorney Michael at home, unaccustomed to being a single parent to their two girls. As a mother, it agonizes Jolene to leave her family, but as a solider she has always understood the true meaning of duty. In her letters home, she paints a rose-colored version of her life on the front lines, shielding her family from the truth. But war will change Jolene in ways that none of them could have foreseen. When tragedy strikes, Michael must face his darkest fear and fight a battle of his own---for everything that matters to his family.

At once a profoundly honest look at modern marriage and a dramatic exploration of the toll war takes on an ordinary American family, Home Front is a story of love, loss, heroism, honor, and ultimately, hope.  -- St. Martin's Press 

Awhile back, I read a Kristin Hannah book called  WINTER GARDEN which I enjoyed very much -- you can read my review here. It was the first book that I had read by this author and I promised myself that I'd make an effort to read more of her novels. I appreciated the characters and the story, and I admit that it did tug on my heartstrings a bit. So it's now a year later, and Ms. Hannah's latest novel HOME FRONT is available. Based on the book's description, I had a feeling that I'd have a similar reaction to this book.

HOME FRONT tells the story of Jolene, a wife and mother of two who is suddenly deployed to Iraq to serve as a helicopter pilot. Jolene had a tough childhood and her devotion to the military was admirable. When Jolene joined the military at 18 years old, she had finally found a sense of belonging and her unit served as her "adopted" family. On one hand, she was anxious to serve her country because she felt an incredible sense of duty; however, on the other hand she had to leave her family for an entire year to face the front lines in a horrific war.

I'm sure it is a very difficult time for any family when a member has to leave to fight in a war, but Jolene's situation was especially dire. First of all, she was the mother of two daughters -- twelve and four years old -- and she was terrified that she might never return to see them grow up. Both girls desperately needed their mother, and it broke Jolene's heart to have to leave her tween daughter who would certainly be experiencing her fair share of change in the twelve months ahead. In addition, Jolene's husband Michael was dealing with some baggage of his own, namely the death of his father; and he wasn't exactly supportive of Jolene's obligation to the military. He was a very hands-off type of father and had no idea how much was involved in taking care of his two daughters. And to make things worse, Jolene and Michael's marriage was on the brink of disaster in the days prior to Jolene's deployment.

I was tempted to write another paragraph telling you what happens in the rest of the book (which is really the majority of the story); however, I think it's better if you experience Jolene and Michael's experiences without any teasers. Suffice it to say, that war is horrific and the damage it can do to both soldiers and their families is heartbreaking.

Ir probably goes without saying that HOME FRONT deals with some very heavy issues, and it wasn't exactly an easy read for me. That's not to say that Ms. Hannah's writing wasn't very good, because it was. I just had a hard time reading about the pain that this family experienced. As much as this story broke my heart (and made me tear up in quite a few places), I did appreciate how it explored so many universal themes of life including marriage, love, friendship, parenting, duty, and loss. And while the majority of us never have to experience what Jolene's family went though, I still think most readers will be able to relate to parts of these characters' lives.

HOME FRONT would make an excellent book club pick. There truly is so much to explore with the characters' relationships as well as their personal journeys. There is a reading guide available which touches upon many of the themes I mentioned earlier including marriage, love, and friendship. In addition to discussing the effects of war on families, you might also want to explore loss, grief, and healing.

As you can hopefully see, the messages in HOME FRONT are important ones, and I loved that this novel made me think about all of the sacrifices that soldiers and their families make for the rest of us.

Thanks to AuthorsOnTheWeb for providing a review copy of this novel.

Check out the video with helicopter pilot and mother, Warrant Officer Teresa Burgess, who was an advisor to Ms. Hannah for HOME FRONT:

Monday, January 30, 2012

Review: Defending Jacob

Summary: Andy Barber has been an assistant district attorney in his suburban Massachusetts county for more than twenty years. He is respected in his community, tenacious in the courtroom, and happy at home with his wife, Laurie, and son, Jacob. But when a shocking crime shatters their New England town, Andy is blindsided by what happens next: His fourteen-year-old son is charged with the murder of a fellow student.

Every parental instinct Andy has rallies to protect his boy. Jacob insists that he is innocent, and Andy believes him. Andy must. He’s his father. But as damning facts and shocking revelations surface, as a marriage threatens to crumble and the trial intensifies, as the crisis reveals how little a father knows about his son, Andy will face a trial of his own—between loyalty and justice, between truth and allegation, between a past he’s tried to bury and a future he cannot conceive.

Award-winning author William Landay has written the consummate novel of an embattled family in crisis—a suspenseful, character-driven mystery that is also a spellbinding tale of guilt, betrayal, and the terrifying speed at which our lives can spin out of control. -- Delacorte Press

This is one of those days when I'm really happy that I started Mystery Mondays. For those of you who don't know, I began reviewing a mystery/suspense/thriller once a week in the hopes that I'd challenge myself to read more of this genre. I have always loved a good thriller and I found that I wasn't reading many of them anymore, so I figured a weekly post would kind of "force" me to read more. And it's because of Mystery Monday that I picked up DEFENDING JACOB by William Landay.

A few months ago, I received an advance copy of this novel and I found the cover to be rather interesting. Instead of a "typical" book cover, the cover of DEFENDING JACOB contains a letter from the publisher raving about the book. The back cover details their national marketing campaign. So basically, I picked up DEFENDING JACOB knowing next to nothing about this book... except that the reading experience compares to that of PRESUMED INNOCENT. When I read this, I swore that I wouldn't make the comparison, but honestly, I can't help it. DEFENDING JACOB provided me with almost the exact same punch to the stomach that PRESUMED INNOCENT did. And yes, I think this novel is every bit as suspenseful and entertaining!

I kind of like that I knew very little about DEFENDING JACOB when I first picked it up, so I hesitate to give too much away in my review. I think the publisher's summary that I included above is pretty decent and doesn't include any spoilers. In a nutshell, DEFENDING JACOB is Andy Barber's story about his teenage son Jacob being charged with the murder of a classmate. It also shows the lengths parents are willing to go to protect their child.

DEFENDING JACOB has, without a doubt, a very intriguing mystery that I absolutely devoured. And don't even get me started on the ending -- it blew me away! I thought I knew exactly where this book was going on multiple occasions, but boy was I wrong! DEFENDING JACOB had quite a few twists and turns and most of them were on the last few pages of the novel.

Despite loving the suspense aspects of DEFENDING JACOB, I also appreciated some of the subtler aspects of the story. First of all, I loved how the author told this story. The novel is written in Andy's voice, along with snippets of some of Andy's testimony; and I think Andy is a fantastic narrator. I felt as if Andy were a very authentic character and I found him to be fascinating given his past baggage as well the way how he handled the investigation and courtroom proceedings.

I also liked how DEFENDING JACOB explored a family in crisis. This novel explored so many aspects of family life -- from secrets, to high stress situations, to a failing marriage, to discovering that your child might not be who you thought he was. Maybe it's because I'm a mother of a middle-schooler, but this book affected me deeply -- much more so than most thrillers. And I absolutely love how it made me re-think things about my life and how I'd react to certain situations.

I highly recommend DEFENDING JACOB to readers who love suspense and legal thrillers. Beware, though, when you pick up this novel, you better have a few hours to spend reading it. It's one of those books that you can't put down.

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.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Kid Konnection: Smile

Every Saturday, I host a feature called Kid Konnection -- a regular weekend feature about anything related to children's books. Today I'm going to review a middle grade graphic novel that was especially pertinent in our household this week.

Summary:  Raina just wants to be a normal sixth grader. But one night after Girl Scouts she trips and falls, severely injuring her two front teeth, and what follows is a long and frustrating journey with on-again, off-again braces, surgery, embarrassing headgear, and even a retainer with fake teeth attached. And on top of all that, there's still more to deal with: a major earthquake, boy confusion, and friends who turn out to be not so friendly.

This coming-of-age true story is sure to resonate with anyone who has ever been in middle school, and especially those who have ever had a bit of their own dental drama. -- Scholastic

I decided that this week was the perfect time to read SMILE by Rayna Telgemeier. I have been meaning to read it ever since reading Sandy's review, but when Booking Daughter and I were cleaning out her book shelves this past week, I thought it was the perfect time. Booking Daughter got her braces this week and I wanted to see if she could relate to this book.

Booking Daughter read this book almost a year ago -- long before the reality of braces hit -- but she assured me that her story was nothing like the author's. Thank goodness for her that she couldn't relate to most of the dental aspects of this book. SMILE tells the true story of Raina, a tween girl who severely injures her front teeth after a fall. I know little to nothing about dental accidents, but it seemed to me that she had an especially tough journey to repair her smile. It took four and half very long years to fix Raina's teeth, and I was amazed by her strength and courage.

I just adored SMILE and thought it was a very sweet coming-of-age story for tween girls. I loved that Raina's story was presented in a graphic novel format because it just seemed ideal for her story and her character -- Raina grew up to be a successful and award winning illustrator. I admit that Raina's retelling of her dental procedures had me squirming and probably not as sympathetic to Booking Daughter's complaints as I might have been prior to reading about the author's issues, but I definitely became thankful for the little problems that I've had with my teeth over the years. I'm not sure I could have gone through what Raina did -- especially as a tween girl when I felt as if my every move was under a microscope.

While the story was certainly an interesting one, I think I most adored Raina and her spirit. SMILE covered four and a half painful years in Raina's life, but it was about more than just her journey to a beautiful smile. This book also showed how Raina dealt with other tween issues such as her family, mean girls, friends, school, gym class, acne, and boys! It also showed how Raina's family lived through the 1989 San Francisco Earthquake. And it's for these reasons that I think SMILE is such a special book. The author told her very unusual story, but she made it so that all tween girls can relate.

I loved SMILE -- probably even more so that Booking Daughter. I recommend it to all tween girls... and their moms!

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, January 27, 2012

January 2012 Book Club Meeting

Next month, we will be reading IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS by Erik Larson. I have been wanting to read this one ever since BEA so I'm looking forward to it. Having said that, I'm a little worried about some of the reviews out there, but for the most part, they seem to be generally positive.

Summary: Erik Larson has been widely acclaimed as a master of narrative non-fiction, and in his new book, the bestselling author of Devil in the White City turns his hand to a remarkable story set during Hitler’s rise to power.

The time is 1933, the place, Berlin, when William E. Dodd becomes America’s first ambassador to Hitler’s Germany in a year that proved to be a turning point in history.

A mild-mannered professor from Chicago, Dodd brings along his wife, son, and flamboyant daughter, Martha. At first Martha is entranced by the parties and pomp, and the handsome young men of the Third Reich with their infectious enthusiasm for restoring Germany to a position of world prominence. Enamored of the “New Germany,” she has one affair after another, including with the suprisingly honorable first chief of the Gestapo, Rudolf Diels. But as evidence of Jewish persecution mounts, confirmed by chilling first-person testimony, her father telegraphs his concerns to a largely indifferent State Department back home. Dodd watches with alarm as Jews are attacked, the press is censored, and drafts of frightening new laws begin to circulate. As that first year unfolds and the shadows deepen, the Dodds experience days full of excitement, intrigue, romance—and ultimately, horror, when a climactic spasm of violence and murder reveals Hitler’s true character and ruthless ambition.

Suffused with the tense atmosphere of the period, and with unforgettable portraits of the bizarre Göring and the expectedly charming--yet wholly sinister--Goebbels,
In the Garden of Beasts lends a stunning, eyewitness perspective on events as they unfold in real time, revealing an era of surprising nuance and complexity. The result is a dazzling, addictively readable work that speaks volumes about why the world did not recognize the grave threat posed by Hitler until Berlin, and Europe, were awash in blood and terror. -- Crown

I reviewed IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS by Erik Larson a few days ago, and I have to say that this book will not be going down as one of my favorite reads of 2012. However, I was curious to see how my friends would feel about this book. Maybe I would be in the minority since I'm not a big fan of historical books?

So we met this week to discuss this book and I'm still not sure how everyone felt about it. I don't think anyone absolutely loved it and no one admitted that they hated it. So I guess I have to say that we all had a pretty similar reaction to it. It was an interesting read, but at the same time, it was a rather dry in certain spots.

I'm not sure that this book was the ideal discussion book for me group. Of course, we had no problem talking for 3+ hours, but it certainly wasn't about this book for the entire time. In fact, looking back, I don't think we spend all that much time talking about the characters or their actions. As is often the case when none of us are enthusiastic about the book, our conversation turned to more relevant topics including our schools and politics. And yes, we did keep things civilized (in case you were wondering.)

Next month, we will be reading THE TIGER'S WIFE by Tea Obrecht. February is actually my month to host book club so THE TIGER'S WIFE was my selection. I have read so many incredible things about this novel and the author, and I hope it lives up to my expectations. I admit I'm a bit worried because the initial feedback from my friends hasn't been overly positive. Not totally negative either, but I'm keeping my fingers crossed that at least a few of us will love it.

Summary: In a Balkan country mending from war, Natalia, a young doctor, is compelled to unravel the mysterious circumstances surrounding her beloved grandfather’s recent death. Searching for clues, she turns to his worn copy of The Jungle Book and the stories he told her of his encounters over the years with “the deathless man.” But most extraordinary of all is the story her grandfather never told her—the legend of the tiger’s wife. -- Random House

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Review: The Odds

Summary: Stewart O'Nan's thirteenth novel is another wildly original, bittersweet gem like his celebrated Last Night at the Lobster. Valentine's weekend, Art and Marion Fowler flee their Cleveland suburb for Niagara Falls, desperate to recoup their losses. Jobless, with their home approaching foreclosure and their marriage on the brink of collapse, Art and Marion liquidate their savings account and book a bridal suite at the Falls' ritziest casino for a second honeymoon. While they sightsee like tourists during the day, at night they risk it all at the roulette wheel to fix their finances-and save their marriage. A tender yet honest exploration of faith, forgiveness and last chances, The Odds is a reminder that love, like life, is always a gamble. -- Viking

A few years ago, I read and reviewed SONGS OF THE MISSING by Stewart O'Nan. It was the first novel that I had read by this author and I enjoyed it a great deal. I promised myself that I'd read more of this author's works, but for some reason, I didn't. Chalk it up to the saying, "Too many books, too little time." However, when I saw his latest novel THE ODDS: A LOVE STORY, I decided that it was time to give him another try. And boy am I glad he did.

THE ODDS tells the story of a couple whose marriage is on the brink. They are unemployed and broke and decide to take their meager savings and go to Niagara Falls on Valentine's Day weekend. They stay in the bridal suite, drink champagne, and sightsee by day; however, at night, they risk their remaining money on the roulette will. It's quickly apparent that this couple is desperate and more is at risk than just their savings.

I enjoyed THE ODDS a great deal and at times, I was blown away by Mr. O'Nan's writing. His prose is wonderful as are his storytelling abilities, but the real beauty of this novel was in Mr. O'Nan's insights. He not only managed to develop very authentic characters and fully develop their relationship (in a pretty short novel by the way), but he truly captured the essence of a marriage on the brink. Furthermore, I felt as if through Art and Marion's relationship, he showed so many of the universal themes of marriage. While I really have very little in common with Art or Marion, there were references to their everyday life and relationship that reminded me of my marriage or my parents' or even my grandparents' marriage.

Mr. O'Nan chose to include with each chapter with a cute idea that I eventually began to really appreciate. He previewed each chapter by giving a teaser that gave the reader the odds of something happening. For example, the first chapter begins with "Odds of a U.S. tourist visiting Niagara Falls: 1 in 195." I thought the statistics were kind of interesting, but It began to take on a bigger meaning for me. The theme of "odds" was obviously a prevalent one throughout this book, but as Art and Marion's story evolved, I really began to see how "odds" play a huge deal in our lives. Almost everything we do, from love to marriage to careers to parenting, is a risk; and sometimes we will win, but sometimes we will lose.

I was really impressed with how THE ODDS made me feel when I was reading it. For such a small novel, it really packed a powerful punch. This novel gave me so much detail into Art's and Marion's troubled marriage that I almost felt like a voyeur while reading it. It was an incredibly honest look at a couple whose lives were rapidly unraveling, and my heart broke for their pain. I loved how this novel explored their desperation and hopelessness, and I actually came to feel close to them. And there was no doubt that I was holding out hope for a miracle.

Needless to say, I think THE ODDS would make an excellent discussion book. There is a reading guide available which has ten terrific questions about the novel. Some of the themes you might want to explore include (obviously) love and marriage, but you also can explore the finer details of Art and Marion's relationship -- both the past and the present. In addition you might want to discuss desperation, adultery and secrets.

At its heart, THE ODDS was a love story and one that will remain in my thoughts for a very long time. With Valentine's Day rapidly approaching, I think THE ODDS pays an honest tribute to the institution of marriage -- both the good times and the bad; and I highly recommend this novel!

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

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Book Club Booster Giveaway: The Art of Fielding

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

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

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

A few months ago, I couldn't stop raving about THE ART OF FIELDING by Chad Harbach. I loved this book! I even found myself telling everyone it was one of my favorite books of 2011. Not only did it entertain me, but it also gave me a lot to think about. You can read more about my excitement here. And Téa Obreht, author of THE TIGER'S WIFE, calls THE ART OF FIELDING "an intricate, poised, tingling debut. Harbach's muscular prose breathes new life into the American past-time, recasts the personal worlds that orbit around it, and leaves you longing, lingering, and a baseball convert long after the last page." 

It probably won't come as any surprise to you, but I think THE ART OF FIELDING is the perfect book club selection. There is a very good reading guide available which delves into so many of the issues that I wanted to discuss after reading this novel. Some of the themes include family, expectations, pressure, friendship, teamwork, romantic relationships, change, love, commitment, monomania, perfections, sacrifice, and competition. If you’d like to know more about THE ART OF FIELDING and Chad Harbach, you can check out Facebook.com/TheArtofFielding or read a digital excerpt.

Thanks to the fine folks at Hachette, I am excited to be participating in a wonderful giveaway opportunity. Ten blogs are hosting a Book Club Booster where you can win up to 10 copies of THE ART OF FIELDING for your book club. And it gets even better! One of the winning groups will get a chance to Skype (or get a call-in) with the author, Chad Harbach. The winner will be chosen through a random digital draw and contacted by the publisher to set up the meeting.

Can I tell you how jealous I am of this opportunity? I briefly spoke with Mr. Harbach at last year's BEA and I was fascinated by what he had to say about his novel. I can only imagine how fun a chat with him might be.

To enter the Book Club Booster giveaway, just fill out the form below February 6th at 11:50 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!

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Review: In the Garden of Beasts

Summary: Erik Larson has been widely acclaimed as a master of narrative non-fiction, and in his new book, the bestselling author of Devil in the White City turns his hand to a remarkable story set during Hitler’s rise to power.

The time is 1933, the place, Berlin, when William E. Dodd becomes America’s first ambassador to Hitler’s Germany in a year that proved to be a turning point in history.

A mild-mannered professor from Chicago, Dodd brings along his wife, son, and flamboyant daughter, Martha. At first Martha is entranced by the parties and pomp, and the handsome young men of the Third Reich with their infectious enthusiasm for restoring Germany to a position of world prominence. Enamored of the “New Germany,” she has one affair after another, including with the suprisingly honorable first chief of the Gestapo, Rudolf Diels. But as evidence of Jewish persecution mounts, confirmed by chilling first-person testimony, her father telegraphs his concerns to a largely indifferent State Department back home. Dodd watches with alarm as Jews are attacked, the press is censored, and drafts of frightening new laws begin to circulate. As that first year unfolds and the shadows deepen, the Dodds experience days full of excitement, intrigue, romance—and ultimately, horror, when a climactic spasm of violence and murder reveals Hitler’s true character and ruthless ambition.

Suffused with the tense atmosphere of the period, and with unforgettable portraits of the bizarre Göring and the expectedly charming--yet wholly sinister--Goebbels,
In the Garden of Beasts lends a stunning, eyewitness perspective on events as they unfold in real time, revealing an era of surprising nuance and complexity. The result is a dazzling, addictively readable work that speaks volumes about why the world did not recognize the grave threat posed by Hitler until Berlin, and Europe, were awash in blood and terror. -- Crown

You might be a little surprised to see that I'm reviewing IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS by Erik Larson. Usually when there is a nonfiction/history book review on this blog, it's written by Booking Pap Pap. However, my long-time book club decided to read IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS this month, and I have to admit that I wasn't thrilled -- especially after a few warnings from some fellow bloggers.

So I guess you could say that I was pleasantly surprised by IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS. That's not to say that I loved this book by any means, but I didn't dislike it as much as I thought I would. In fact, I can even say that this book is probably really good. I'm just pretty sure that I wasn't the target audience. I'm not the biggest fan of history books; and while I am interested in WWII, this book just seemed a little too detailed and dry for my taste. My dad said that's how these books are and maybe that explains why I rarely pick one up! What can you really expect from someone who prefers to learn history through fiction?

Despite my reluctance, I did find much of IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS to be very educational. The story of Dodd and his family, as well as what was happening in Germany prior to WWII, is interesting to say the least. As I read this book, I was continually bothered by the notion that the United States did know what Hitler was doing in Germany, and at times, I was outraged by our inability to do something... anything. But this book also make me think a great deal. I'm not making excuses for anyone because there is no doubt in my mind that the United States could have gotten involved much earlier, but I think it's easy for me to judge the errors of everyone involved using hindsight and holding them to today's standards. I'm sure the decisions to act (or not to act) were very involved and complicated, yet I still have to wonder why it took us so long to stop Hitler.

I think one of the biggest reasons that I didn't love this book was that I didn't really like many of the characters. It goes without saying that the Nazi leaders and their actions were despicable, but I really wanted to like Dodd and his family. I admit that Dodd's daughter Martha was slightly entertaining because of her promiscuity with lots of men, but I soon got tired by her drama and escapades. And as far as Dodd goes, I felt nothing for him until the very end of the book. However, I think by that point, I was already a little tired of him.

I am still willing to give Ms. Larson's book THE DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY as try because I have heard wonderful things about that book. (Of course, I've also heard great things about this one so maybe I'm not the best judge.) I was most definitely impressed with Mr. Larson's ability to tell this story, but I will say that it did take me awhile to get used to Mr. Larson's writing style. Once I did, the book flowed for me and became much easier to read but I felt like I really had to work to get through the beginning. In addition, the amount of research Mr. Larson did while writing IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS was extraordinary. It was apparent on every page and in every footnote just how thoroughly he examined this subject matter.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Review: The Starlite Drive-In

Summary: When human bones are discovered on the grounds of the old Starlite Drive-in, only Callie Anne Benton knows the identity of the victim who mysteriously disappeared thirty-six years ago. 

It’s the sweltering summer of 1956 when a handsome drifter named Charlie Memphis arrives at the Starlite to help Callie Anne’s injured father run the theater. Both she and her mother, Teal, fall for Memphis’s rugged style and gentlemanly manners, but Callie Anne’s father—bitter in his role as caretaker for the rural drive-in and his agoraphobic wife—doesn’t like the drifter’s increasing interest in Teal. 

A disastrous turn of events changes their lives forever, and it’s up to the grown-up Callie Anne to unlock the secret of the decades-old mystery. 

Told through the voice of Callie Anne, a whip-smart tomboy reminiscent of Scout Finch, The Starlite Drive-in is a vivid snapshot of 1950s America. A compelling novel infused with hope, tragedy, and suspense, Callie Anne’s story will strike a chord with readers both young and old. -- Harper

I probably would have been drawn to the novel THE STARLITE DRIVE-IN by Marjorie Reynolds based on the description alone, but when I heard it being compared to my all-time favorite book TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, I just knew I had to see for myself. THE STARLITE DRIVE-IN is part coming of age, part murder mystery, and part romance; and it has recently been re-released in paperback.

I should know by now not to get my hopes up that a novel will live up to TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, and I've actually decided that it's not even fair to make that comparison. I don't want to say that I didn't enjoy THE STARLITE DRIVE-IN because it was a good read with interesting characters; however, it wasn't TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. But really, that's no surprise. What I can say is that I appreciated this novel and especially the coming-of-age aspects of the story. (I am still a sucker for a good coming-of-age tale!)

THE STARLITE DRIVE-IN had a wonderful character in Callie Anne, a tween girl who lives with her parents at a drive-in theater. Her family life is a bit of a mess. Her father is busy with running the drive-in and dealing with his injury and her mother is afraid to leave the house. When a handsome stranger comes into their lives to help Callie Anne's dad maintain the drive-in, Callie (and her mother) are quite smitten with him. However, Callie Anne's dad is extremely jealous of the affect he is having on his wife. As the summer begins to heat up, so do emotions and tensions among the characters.

I adored Callie Anne and thought she was a perfect narrator for this story! Having a daughter the exact same age, I could relate to her. Callie Anne was dealing with some out-of-the-ordinary issues with her parents, and my heart just broke for her. But it was the coming-of-age parts of the story that really appealed to me. I loved how the author capture the essence of a tween girl. She did a great job showing all of the changes that are taking place in a young girl as well as showing all of the conflict that Callie Anne faced as she tried to figure out these changes.

In addition to Callie Anne, I thought many of the other characters in this novel were very interesting. While I didn't exactly like Callie's father, I found him to be intriguing. I also enjoyed the drifter Memphis and I appreciated that I (like Callie) wasn't quite sure to make of him. In addition, I liked Callie's love interest (even if I did think he was too old for her!) and I especially liked seeing Callie Anne's reaction to him. And finally, I found Callie's mother to be an extremely complex character. If was interesting to see how her relationship with Memphis gave her the courage to not only leave the house but to stand up to her domineering husband.

Another aspect of this novel that I enjoyed a great deal was the setting. The book took place in the mid 1950s and I thought Ms. Reynolds' did a very good job of establishing the feel of this time period. Her descriptions of the drive-in as well as the small town brought this story to life for me. I could picture each scene in this novel perfectly, and I appreciated the fine details Ms. Reynolds included.

I chose to feature THE STARLITE DRIVE-IN as part of Mystery Monday because the book begins with the discovery of human remains. So technically, this novel is a mystery. Although I do have to say that the mystery angle of the novel isn't its strongest part -- I much preferred the character development. I think most readers will figure out pretty early on what happened and who's to blame. There are a few twists in the story that add a little bit of intrigue, but those readers who are expecting a true mystery might be disappointed.

THE STARLITE DRIVE-IN was selected by the American Library Association as one of the Ten Best Books of the Year for Young Adults, and I can honestly say that it didn't dawn on me that this book has YA crossover appeal until I read that.  However, the more I think about it, the more I do think that's the case. I will be passing this one along to Booking Daughter! THE STARLITE DRIVE-IN has also been optioned as a film and I do think it would make a good one!

I wasn't able to find any discussion questions for THE STARLITEI have no doubt that book clubs would find plenty to talk about between the pages of THE STARLITE DRIVE-IN.

Overall, I enjoyed THE STARLITE DRIVE-IN. It was definitely an enjoyable read, and I recommend it to fans of YA as well as women's fiction.

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.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Kid Konnection: Bunheads

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 review an entertaining young adult book that definitely would have captured my interested as a teen.

Summary: On-stage beauty. Backstage drama. 

As a dancer with the ultra-prestigious Manhattan Ballet Company, nineteen-year-old Hannah Ward juggles intense rehearsals, dazzling performances and complicated backstage relationships. Up until now, Hannah has happily devoted her entire life to ballet.

But when she meets a handsome musician named Jacob, Hannah's universe begins to change, and she must decide if she wants to compete against the other "bunheads" in the company for a star soloist spot or strike out on her own in the real world. Does she dare give up the gilded confines of the ballet for the freedoms of everyday life? -- Poppy

When I was about Booking Daughter's age, I read a book called MAGGIE ADAMS DANCER over and over again. I absolutely loved this novel about a teen girl who was dealing with the issues that ballerinas faced including weight concerns and competition between the dances. This novel still remains in my thoughts as one of my very favorite tween reads, and I suspect that I even dreamed about what it would be like to be a ballerina. A few years ago, I stumbled across a used copy of this book and I was so excited because I could share it with Booking Daughter.

So when I heard about the new novel BUNHEADS by Sophie Flack, I immediately wanted to read it. First of all, the book description reminded me a bit of MAGGIE ADAMS DANCER so my curiosity was piqued. However, BUNHEADS was written by a woman who actually danced with the New York City Ballet for nine years. I figured I'd get an insider look at a dancer's life from someone who actually knew the inner workings of a major ballet company.

BUNHEADS is Sophie Flack's debut novel and I think it's a strong start. I enjoyed this story and the characters, and maybe it's the tween in me, but I liked all of the drama surrounding the dancers. The competition between the dancers was as intense as I imagined, yet I found it difficult to comprehend how early these girls (and boys) started devoting their life to their craft. Their dedication to dance is admirable and I thought BUNHEADS showed this extremely well.

I truly felt as if the author of BUNHEADS captured the essence of how a major dance company works. I loved getting a glimpse at the personalities of the teachers and dancers as well as seeing their day-to-day schedules. I had no idea that even after dancers performed all day at the studio, many of them go to gyms and yoga classes to continue their workouts. In addition, I knew that there was pressure on the girls to stay thin, but it broke my heart when Hannah began to develop (at 19 years old nonetheless) and had to bind her chest to appear flatter.

While I enjoyed getting a look into how a major ballet company works, there were other things I enjoyed about this book. First of all, I really liked Hannah and even though I have almost nothing in common with her, I found that I could relate to her. She seemed like a pretty authentic character to me and I respected her devotion to dance. She moved away from her parents at a very young age to train as a ballerina and she basically gave up her "normal" life for the opportunity to perform. What I most appreciated about her character, though, was when she began to get a taste of a life outside of dance; and I really liked how BUNHEADS explored Hannah's conflict and ultimate decisions.

Another thing I enjoyed about BUNHEADS was that it took place in New York City. Even though Hannah spent most of her waking hours at the company, she did get to explore New York a little as she began to realize a life outside of dancing. With the help of a friend, Hannah began to actually notice some of the wonderful things that the city has to offer.

I'm debating about whether I should share BUNHEADS with Booking Daughter. I do think she'd enjoy it, but there are some adult issues in the novel. There is a fair amount of underage drinking, although I don't know that I'd go so far as to say that it was glamorized. There were also some mentions of sex and homosexuality but I felt as if these references were pretty tame. When I keep in mind that Hannah was a 19 year old girl and not a tween, I think this book was a relatively clean read.

I enjoyed BUNHEADS a great deal and I think young girls, and especially dancers, will agree.

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

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, January 20, 2012

World Book Night

Over the past few weeks, I heard about an exciting idea called World Book Night. Many of you probably already know about this event, but I thought I'd share a little bit about it just in case.

World Book Night will take place on April 23, 2012 across the U.S., UK and Ireland. During this event , 50,000 people, named as “book givers,” will each be giving away 20 books from a select list with a goal to have 1,000,000 people across the United States celebrating reading. Most of the publishing, bookstore, library, author, printing, and paper communities are behind this effort with donated services and time.

You can sign up at http://www.us.worldbooknight.org/about-world-book-night/register-as-a-2012-giver by February 1st to apply to be a “book giver.” You can see the complete list of titles that includes books from author faves Jodi Picoult, Michael Connelly, Stephen King, Barbara Kingsolver and Junot Diaz at: http://www.us.worldbooknight.org/wbn2012-the-books. There are adult as well as young adult titles available.

I think this is a great way to spread your love of reading! I'm heading over to the site to learn more about being a volunteer and I hope you'll join  me.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Guest Review: The Silent Oligarch

Summary: In a world where national borders shrink to insignificance in the face of colossal wealth and corporate power, The Silent Oligarch offers a new kind of hero to combat a new kind of crime. Drawing on his decade of experience at the world's largest corporate intelligence firm-where the wealthy buy the justice they want and the silence they need-Chris Morgan Jones leads us down into the unvarnished realities of our time in the grand tradition of John le Carré. Bearing news from a world hidden behind closed doors, The Silent Oligarch effortlessly creates a new genre in its wake. 

Deep in the Russian Ministry of Natural Resources sits a nondescript bureaucrat named Konstantin Malin. He draws a nominal government salary but from his shabby office controls half the nation's oil industry, making him one of the most wealthy and feared men in Russia. His public face is Richard Lock, a hapless money launderer bound to Malin by marriage, complacency, and greed. Lock takes the proceeds of his master's corruption, washes them abroad, and invests them back in Russia in a secret business empire. He knows little about Malin's true affairs, but still he knows too much. 

Benjamin Webster is an investigator at a London corporate intelligence firm. Years before, as an idealistic young journalist in Russia, Webster saw a colleague murdered for asking too many hard questions of powerful people; her true killers have never been found. Hired to ruin Malin, Webster comes to realize that this shadowy figure might have ordered her gruesome death, and that this case may deliver the justice he has been seeking for a decade. 

As Webster peels back the layers of Malin's shell companies and criminal networks, Lock's colleagues begin dying mysteriously, police around the world start to investigate, and Malin begins to question his trust in his increasingly exposed frontman. Suddenly Lock is running for his life- though from Malin or Webster, the law or his own past, he couldn't say. 

Leading us into a world we can know little about, The Silent Oligarch is the brilliant overture of a major new literary talent.  -- The Penguin Press
After reading reviews for THE SILENT OLIGARCH by Chris Morgan Jones, I'm kind of wishing I hadn't passed it along to Booking Pap Pap. However, it seems like he enjoyed it. Here are his thoughts:

THE SILENT OLIGARCH is Chris Morgan Jones’ first novel. It is a thriller about money laundering, front men and a Russian Oligarch. His previous experience in an international business intelligence agency appears to serve as a basis for the novel’s plot.

Richard Lock is the front man for the Russian Minister of Natural Resources, Konstantin Malin and is responsible for setting up a complicated array of shell companies to launder money for Malin.

Aristotle Tourna, a Greek magnate who is of the same ilk as Malin, is convinced he was cheated in an acquisition of a company from Malin. He files a law suit and hires a London based business intelligence firm to gather information in an attempt to destroy Konstantin Malin. Benjamin Webster, with previous experience as a journalist covering the gas and oil industry in Russia, is chosen by his company as the lead investigator. Webster is motivated by a long ago unsolved murder of a colleague who asked too many questions in her investigation of certain Russian oil and gas transactions.

Webster’s investigation takes him to London, Moscow and Berlin where he creates significant problems for Lock. As he delves deeper into the case, Webster and his family are threatened, one of Lock’s colleagues dies in an apparent suicide and Lock is put under the watch of body guards assigned by Malin. When Lock can no longer withstand the pressure from Webster, Malin and law enforcement officials from several countries, he decides to run.

The crux of the novel is the interplay between Webster and Lock and their dealings with their personal demons.

Richard Lock is certainly conflicted. Should he return to Russia and hope all is forgotten or should he attempt to separate himself from Malin and return to his wife and daughter in London? Can he trust Webster?

Benjamin Webster has his own issues. Is his investigation responsible for the death of Lock’s business associate and is he putting Lock at risk?Is his desire to solve the murder case of his reporter friend overshadowing his decision making on the case? Is finding justice worth the danger he has created?

THE SILENT OLIGARCH hits on the very timely topic of Russian corporate corruption as Jones combines politics, business and crime in an exciting novel. The story moves along smoothly with sufficient action to keep the reader interested right up to the unusual ending. This is a very good first novel by Chris Morgan Jones. I recommend it to anyone who enjoys a good international thriller.

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

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Review: Salvage the Bones

Summary: A stunning new voice from the Gulf Coast delivers a gritty but tender novel about family and poverty in the days leading up to Hurricane Katrina.

A hurricane is building over the Gulf of Mexico, threatening the coastal town of Bois Sauvage, Mississippi, and Esch's father is growing concerned. A hard drinker, largely absent, he doesn't show concern for much else. Esch and her three brothers are stocking food, but there isn't much to save. Lately, Esch can't keep down what food she gets; she's fourteen and pregnant. Her brother Skeetah is sneaking scraps for his prized pitbull's new litter, dying one by one in the dirt. Meanwhile, brothers Randall and Junior try to stake their claim in a family long on child's play and short on parenting.

As the twelve days that make up the novel's framework yield to their dramatic conclusion, this unforgettable family-motherless children sacrificing for one another as they can, protecting and nurturing where love is scarce-pulls itself up to face another day. A big-hearted novel about familial love and community against all odds, and a wrenching look at the lonesome, brutal, and restrictive realities of rural poverty, Salvage the Bones is muscled with poetry, revelatory, and real. -- Bloomsbury

SALVAGE THE BONES by Jesmyn Ward has won numerous awards including the 2011 National Book Award for Fiction. So when I was offered the opportunity to receive a copy of this novel, I jumped at the chance. Despite reading quite a few books each year, it seems like I rarely read "award-winning" ones; and I decided that I needed to see for myself just how good SALVAGE THE BONES was.

I can honestly say that SALVAGE THE BONES was an excellent novel. The writing is nothing short of spectacular and the story is intense. But does that mean that I enjoyed reading this novel? That's an entirely different question. I appreciated this novel and what I think it accomplished, but it was a very difficult read for me. I'm still teetering as to my overall opinions/feelings about this book. I think my opinion is that it was a great piece of literature, but I'm not sure I liked it all that much. Does that even make sense?

SALVAGE THE BONES tells the story of Esch and her family in the twelve days leading up to Hurricane Katrina. Even without the pending storm, Esch's family life isn't great. Her mother died during childbirth and her father is an alcoholic who is not really involved in his children's lives. Esch and her three brothers try to fend for themselves and do the best they can, but their situation is extremely sad. As the storm approaches, Esch's family is trying to stockpile food, prepare their house, and basically just survive despite very bleak odds.

I could rave about the writing in SALVAGE THE BONES like so many other reviews, but suffice to say that Ms. Ward is an extremely talented writer. I can't really add anything that hasn't already been said about this book, so I'm going to discuss how this novel affected me. SALVAGE THE BONES was a very difficult read for me and it made me extremely uncomfortable. I would think that my reaction wasn't that dissimilar from other readers, but I'm not sure I liked how this book made me feel. It delved into so many subjects that are  extremely painful for me to think about including a dysfunctional family, teen pregnancy, alcoholism, dog fighting and extreme poverty.

It's strange, but I can read books about brutal murders (and other disturbing things) and they don't affect me like SALVAGE THE BONES did. I guess that's a testament to the author. She created a very sad, but real, family, and then showed how they struggled each and every day. By choosing to show their plight in the twelve days leading to Hurricane Katrina, she showed an even more desperate picture of their lives; and it just broke my heart and made me want to weep.

One of the truly outstanding things about SALVAGE THE BONES was how the author created the tension surrounding the approaching storm. The story became more frantic as Katrina came closer to shore and I felt as if the pace of the novel similarly increased. Personally, I know I was reading the novel at a faster pace as the story neared its climax. This might sound weird, but I noticed that I was shaking as I read this book. It is one very powerful story!

I have to warn readers that SALVAGE THE BONES isn't for the faint-hearted. I felt as if much of this novel was raw and gritty, and it was brutal in its honesty. I don't know what affected me more -- what the family was doing to keep afloat or the dog-fighting scenes. Ms. Ward has a skill for bringing characters and scenes to life and it's because of her outstanding ability to describe even the smallest detail. Having said that, her descriptions of the dog-fighting were extremely graphic, and I have a feeling that animal lovers should brace themselves before picking up this book.

SALVAGE THE BONES would make an outstanding book club selection. There is so much to discuss from the writing, to the characters, to the effects of Hurricane Katrina on its victims. Some of the other topics you might want to explore include grief, loss, teen pregnancy, alcoholism, family dynamics, and love. This novel would be fascinating to talk about, but it probably won't be the "funnest" meeting that you'll ever attend.

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

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Review: Come In and Cover Me

Summary: When Ren was only twelve years old, she lost her older brother, Scott, to a car crash. Since then, Scott has been a presence in her life, appearing as a snatch of song or a reflection in the moonlight. Now, twenty-five years later, her talent for connecting with the ghosts around her has made her especially sensitive as an archaeologist. More than just understanding the bare outline of how our ancestors lived, Ren is dedicated to re-creating lives and stories, to breathing life into those who occupied this world long before us. Now she is on the cusp of the most important discovery of her career, and it is ghosts who are guiding her way. But what do two long-dead Mimbres women have to tell Ren about herself? And what message do they have about her developing relationship with a fellow archaeologist, the first man to really know her since her brother's death? Come In and Cover Me is the moving story of a woman learning to let go of the past in order to move forward with her own future. 

Written with the same warmth and depth of feeling that drew readers to The Well and the Mine, Phillips's debut, Come In and Cover Me is a haunting and engrossing new novel. -- Riverhead

I'm not usually a big fan of ghost stories (or anything else supernatural), but I was drawn to the description of
COME IN AND COVER ME by Gin Phillips. Plus I had heard some great things about Ms. Phillips writing and especially this book. Since I also find anything related to archaeology to be interesting, I figured why not give this book a try? I told myself that the ghost aspect of the story could be okay for me if it was done really well, but for some reason, I was still slightly reluctant.

And I know I shouldn't judge a book by its cover, but this one didn't appeal to me at all. After reading this book, I realized why this particular cover was chosen (and it is very appropriate to some of the novel's themes), but I can honestly say that I wouldn't have looked twice at this book if it were on a store's shelves.

Maybe it was my initial negative attitude, but I didn't love COME IN AND COVER ME. I discovered that I did like COME IN AND COVER ME, but I wasn't blown away by this novel like some readers. There were parts of this novel that were really, really good; and then there were other parts that I just didn't appreciate quite as much. COME IN AND COVER ME had a very unique premise and I most definitely appreciated that. It was part ghost story, part archaeological history, part romance, and part self-discovery; and it had a very interesting (and complex) character in Ren.

I've been trying to put my finger on why this book didn't work as well for me as I had hoped, and I can honestly say that it wasn't because of the ghost story -- I actually enjoyed that part a great deal. I think one of my issues is that I felt as if the novel were a little disjointed. The writer used a variety of flashback scenes to explain both Ren's past as well as the Mibres women's stories, and I am torn as to how effective they were. On one hand, I appreciated getting the backgrounds of the characters and they flashbacks did work to move the story along; however, I also felt that there was a lot of jumping around with the different stories.
Having said that, I still enjoyed COME IN AND COVER ME, and there were a lot of positives to this novel. First and foremost, I was extremely impressed with just how unique the story was. I can honestly say that I've never read a book quite like this one and it was interesting to see how the different storylines came together. I also discovered that Gin Phillips is a quality writer and I thought her prose was a treat to read. I liked Ms. Phillips' character development, especially of Ren; and even though I didn't always love Ren, I still found her thoughts and actions to be fascinating.

Another thing I truly appreciated about this novel was that I learned a great deal about an ancient civilization. Since Ren was on an archaeological dig and studied the Mibres, there was a great deal of information about this culture. I had never even heard of the Mibres prior to reading COME IN AND COVER ME; and as a result, I found so much of this story to be interesting. It's apparent that Ms. Phillips did a tremendous amount of research to write this novel.

COME IN AND COVER ME would make a very good book club pick. Because Ren is so complex, a group could spend an entire evening just dissecting her emotional baggage. There is a reading guide available which poses some fantastic questions. Some of the themes you might want to explore include the study of other civilizations, grief, female companionship, parent/child relationships, the past, communities, and love. You can also talk about the use of ghosts as metaphors in this story as well as the role of storytelling in different societies.

I am really torn on my feelings about COME IN AND COVER ME. I liked many aspects of the story, but for some reason, I just didn't love it. I do think I'm probably in the minority on this one, and therefore, I recommend it to fans of women's fiction.

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

Monday, January 16, 2012

Review: The Look of Love

Summary: The Associated Press calls her “one of the most talented storytellers around.” Now, New York Times bestselling author Mary Jane Clark brings readers a delicious new mystery. 

Piper Donovan accepts when the owner of Elysium, an exclusive spa and plastic surgery center, offers her an all-expenses-paid trip to Los Angeles to create a dazzling and unique wedding cake. The job also gives Piper the time and distance she needs to sort out her feelings for handsome FBI agent Jack Lombardi. 

The ultra-luxurious spa caters to the rich and famous in need of a little “refreshing”—a nip here, a tuck there, a little Botox, a little detox. Nestled in the Hollywood Hills, Elysium seems picture-perfect: the grounds, the staff, even the guests. But no sooner does Piper arrive than a guest is brutally murdered in one of the private bungalows. Someone, it seems, wants to make sure Elysium’s beautiful director, Jillian Abernathy, never gets to walk down the aisle. Piper soon discovers that beneath the glamorous surface of this idyllic oasis lies an ugly truth—and a cold-blooded plan for murder. -- William Morrow

THE LOOK OF LOVE by Mary Jane Clark is the second book in the Piper Donovan Mystery series, and I have to tell you that I think I liked this one as much as the first novel TO HAVE AND TO KILL (you can read my review here.) I won't go so far as to call these books literary mysteries -- they definitely fall more into the cozy category -- but I do think they are a great way to spend a few hours. In fact, I might go so far as to say that the Piper Donovan mysteries might be some of my favorite new cozies.

THE LOOK OF LOVE picks up right where TO HAVE AND TO KILL left off. That's not to say that this novel can't work as a standalone because it does, but I admit that I am excited that there is a cozy series that I've started reading from the very beginning. That's pretty unusual for me lately! At the end of TO HAVE AND TO KILL, Piper had designed a gorgeous wedding cake for her friend... as well as solving a murder. Because her cake design was featured in so many popular magazines, Piper was offered a job to make a wedding cake in Los Angeles at a ritzy spa and resort. Since Piper is also a struggling actress in addition to being a cake decorator, she figures she can use her spare time on the trip to do some auditioning.

Piper's customer, Jillian, is the manager of the spa (and daughter of the spa owner.) Jillian has already postponed her marriage after her cleaning lady Esperanza is the victim of a brutal acid attack. It appears that the attacker mistook Esperanza for Jillian and the acid was really meant to disfigure Jillian. While Esperanza is rehabbing at the spa, she begins to remember some details of the attack. Unfortunately she mentions this to one of the employees, and she is soon murdered.

So once again, Piper finds herself right smack dab in the middle of a murder mystery. So not only is she making a wedding cake for Jillian (or is she?) and auditioning for a commercial, she is also trying to solve the murder of Esperanza. But even that's not enough for Piper. She also hooks up with an investigative reporter to do a sting operation on a very creepy spa employee who does a "secret" facial treatment which requires him to put the clients to sleep. Of course, Piper saves the day as well as solving Esperanza's murder; however, she also gets herself into some pretty risky situations.

I enjoyed the mystery, but I do admit that I figured out the culprit pretty early on. That didn't affect my enjoyment of the novel though. Maybe because of this, I thought the side stories in THE LOOK OF LOVE made it special. One thing I really liked were the references to the Monastery of Angels and their homemade pumpkin bread. The Monastery of Angels is indeed a real convent and they do make and sell pumpkin bread! Another thing I really liked about this novel was the side story about the young woman who had three botched nose jobs. Ms. Clark used this character (and a few others) to show the value our culture places on appearances. That's certainly true in Los Angeles, the setting of this novel, where cosmetic surgery and Botox are almost second nature.

And lastly, I do have one slight complaint about the story. Piper's potential love interest Jack didn't have a big enough role. At the end of TO HAVE AND TO KILL, it seemed as if Piper and Jack might be ready to admit their feelings toward each other. Goodness knows, they certainly had some chemistry. However, this novel begins with Piper needing a break from their "relationship." As a result, Jack wasn't in very many scenes, and the ones he was in were without Piper. The ending of the book did satisfy me, but I am curious to see what happens between Piper and Jack in the third book.

Overall, I enjoyed THE LOOK OF LOVE a great deal. It was a fun way to spend a few hours and escape from the drudgery of my work around the house.

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.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Kid Konnection: Class 2K12 Never Eighteen

Every Saturday, I host a feature called Kid Konnection -- a regular weekend feature about anything related to children's books. This week, I'm not going to do a book review -- life has just been too crazy with getting a new floor in my kitchen. So instead, here's the next installment of ...

Last week, I introduced this new feature on Kid Konnection. For those of you who missed it, here's the scoop:

Throughout 2012, I will be featuring many of the authors from the Class of 2K12. For those of you who aren't familiar with the Class of 2K12, it's a group of middle grade and young adult authors who have books being released some time during 2012. You can learn more about the authors and their books here. (And while you are visiting the blog, make sure you sign up for their mailing list. You are going to want to stay informed because there will be many opportunities to win some fantastic prize packs!)

You might notice that I used the word interview in the previous sentence, and that's because I didn't really interview the authors. Rather, I asked each author to do one simple thing:

Describe your book in 200 characters or less.

I asked Megan Bostic author of NEVER EIGHTEEN (which will be available on January 17th) to describe her book in just a few words; and here's what she had to say:

Seventeen-year-old Austin Parker will probably never see his eighteenth birthday, let alone the end of the year. In the short time he has left, he’s decided he needs to help the people he loves live—even though he never will. 

There is a terrific website devoted to the novel! You will find more about the book including character information, specifics about the sites mentioned in the story, and even the inspiration for the book. In addition, there is a list of discussion questions for book clubs.

Megan (that’s with a long “e”) Bostic is a mere human trying to find her place in the universe and an all-around great girl. Despite the rain and gray (she’s truly solar powered) making her extremely angsty, she’s lived in the Pacific Northwest her whole life, and still does, with her two crazy beautiful girls.

She thrives on the challenges faced in her journey to publication and has documented it vlog style. You can find her Chronicles of an Aspiring Writer on Youtube.

Her writing process she lovingly calls “organized chaos”. She writes on her laptop at the kitchen table next to the sliding glass door so she can absorb as much sun as she can. The “organized” part of the process mostly takes place in her head and involves the beginning and the end of her work in progress. The “chaos” part is pretty much how she sits down and writes with reckless abandon, not stopping to fix, revise, edit, or even breathe until she’s done.

When not writing, Megan is usually chauffeuring her teenage daughters and their friends, watching her girls play soccer, watching movies and TV shows on Netflix, hanging out with friends, spending time at the ocean, or walking the Narrows Bridge.

Megan loves the color black, monkeys, and is a notorious Facebook addict. She’s a proud member of The Class of 2K12 and the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. You can also find her on Twitter, Goodreads, Jacketflap, and anywhere else cool authors hang out.

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, January 13, 2012

Review: Love, Accidentally

Summary: From the author of The Opposite of Me and Skipping a Beat, an original eBook that shows whom we fall in love with may be the biggest -- and happiest -- accident of all. 

Ilsa Brown wasn’t expecting a little, injured dog to lead her to the love of her life. But within months of their first meeting on a street corner in L.A., she and Grif, the dog’s owner, are engaged. Things between them are so blissful that Ilsa is stunned by the tension that erupts during their visit to Chicago to meet his parents, where she discovers that Grif’s old girlfriend, Elise, is still woven into his family. What Ilsa needs to know before she can walk down the aisle is whether Elise is still in Grif’s heart, too.

Featuring a character from Sarah Pekkanen’s original eBook short story All Is Bright, Love, Accidentally is surprising and heartfelt. It’s a story about taking chances and choosing hope, and discovering what it means to love someone—and to let go of someone you love. -- Washington Square Press

I am a big fan of Sarah Pekkanen and her writing. She is not only one of the sweetest authors I've had the pleasure of meeting, but she is also a terrific writer. One thing that I appreciate about her is that she doesn't make me wait an entire year for a new story. Instead, she offers her original short story eBooks to tide over her fans. Her latest release is called LOVE, ACCIDENTALLY.

LOVE, ACCIDENTALLY tells the story of Ilsa Brown a veterinarian who just happens to meet a "dream" guy Grif when his dog is accidentally hit by a car. They immediately fall in love and become engaged; however, Ilsa begins to doubt Grif's feelings when she learns that his ex-girlfriend is still involved with his family. And if that isn't enough, Ilsa also discovers that her sister's marriage is in trouble and she begins to project their issues on her relationship with Grif.

LOVE, ACCIDENTALLY is a cute and quick read and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I'm not usually a big fan of romance stories, but I found this one to be entertaining. Cynics might say that the ending was a bit predictable (and maybe it was), but that didn't stop me from having a big grin on my face as I finished it.

One of the main reasons I enjoyed LOVE, ACCIDENTALLY so much were the characters. Ms. Pekkanen always has the ability to create very real characters in all of her stories. She also makes them so darn likable. In the case of LOVE, ACCIDENTALLY, I adored both Ilsa and Grif; and I so wanted them to end up together.

Sometimes life just calls for a comfort read and LOVE, ACCIDENTALLY certainly fits the bill.

LOVE, ACCIDENTALLY is available for most eReaders for $.99.

Thanks to the author for providing me a review copy of this short story.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Review: The Discovery of Jeanne Baret

Summary: The year was 1765. Eminent botanist Philibert Commerson had just been appointed to a grand new expedition: the first French circumnavigation of the world. As the ships’ official naturalist, Commerson would seek out resources—medicines, spices, timber, food—that could give the French an edge in the ever-accelerating race for empire.

Jeanne Baret, Commerson’s young mistress and collaborator, was desperate not to be left behind. She disguised herself as a teenage boy and signed on as his assistant. The journey made the twenty-six-year-old, known to her shipmates as “Jean” rather than “Jeanne,” the first woman to ever sail around the globe. Yet so little is known about this extraordinary woman, whose accomplishments were considered to be subversive, even impossible for someone of her sex and class.
When the ships made landfall and the secret lovers disembarked to explore, Baret carried heavy wooden field presses and bulky optical instruments over beaches and hills, impressing observers on the ships’ decks with her obvious strength and stamina. Less obvious were the strips of linen wound tight around her upper body and the months she had spent perfecting her masculine disguise in the streets and marketplaces of Paris.
Expedition commander Louis-Antoine de Bougainville recorded in his journal that curious Tahitian natives exposed Baret as a woman, eighteen months into the voyage. But the true story, it turns out, is more complicated.

The Discovery of Jeanne Baret, Glynis Ridley unravels the conflicting accounts recorded by Baret’s crewmates to piece together the real story: how Baret’s identity was in fact widely suspected within just a couple of weeks of embarking, and the painful consequences of those suspicions; the newly discovered notebook, written in Baret’s own hand, that proves her scientific acumen; and the thousands of specimens she collected, most famously the showy vine bougainvillea.

Ridley also richly explores Baret’s awkward, sometimes dangerous interactions with the men on the ship, including Baret’s lover, the obsessive and sometimes prickly naturalist; a fashion-plate prince who, with his elaborate wigs and velvet garments, was often mistaken for a woman himself; the sour ship’s surgeon, who despised Baret and Commerson; even a Tahitian islander who joined the expedition and asked Baret to show him how to behave like a Frenchman.

But the central character of this true story is Jeanne Baret herself, a working-class woman whose scientific contributions were quietly dismissed and written out of history—until now. Anchored in impeccable original research and bursting with unforgettable characters and exotic settings,
The Discovery of Jeanne Baret offers this forgotten heroine a chance to bloom at long last. -- Broadway

I should start this review by stating that I rarely read nonfiction books. I almost always pass them right to Booking Pap Pap, but THE DISCOVERY OF JEANNE BARET: STORY OF SCIENCE, THE HIGH SEAS, AND THE FIRST WOMAN TO CIRCUMNAVIGATE THE GLOBE by Glynis Ridley appealed to me. Maybe it was the book's description about a woman who impersonated a man so she could sneak on a ship and collect botanical samples from around the world... in the 1760s. However, I think it's mostly that the pitch I received from the publisher was just too darn good to pass up. His excitement over this story really came through in his email.

I have to say that I don't think I quite appreciated THE DISCOVERY OF JEANNE BARET like I had hoped. That's not to say that the book wasn't good. I think it's just that I'm not a big fan of most nonfiction history books. I have little patience for a lot of historical details, and as a result, I've decided that this might not be the best genre for me. (I'm honestly starting to wonder if I'm intelligent enough to read these types of books.)

I guess my major issue with this book is that it was very fact-based and filled with tons of details about Ms. Baret's life and times. Most of you are probably saying, "Well, isn't that what you'd expect?" And you're absolutely right! However, where the book got a little tedious to me wasn't in the parts about her life as much as it was in the parts about the science of the times. When I look back at the novel, I was very interested in learning about the challenges Ms. Baret faced, and I thought the descriptions of her life aboard the ship were fascinating. I just admit that I'm not that interested in botany.

And ultimately, I have realized that it's entirely my fault for not appreciating THE DISCOVERY OF JEANNE BARET as much as I should have. Ms. Baret's life story is nothing less than fascinating. She truly was hundreds of years ahead of her time and I was continually amazed by her strength and resilience. Ms. Baret also was a true heroine as well as an important figure in science, and it's just so unfortunate that she wasn't given the credit she deserved (until now!)

I am the first to tell you that I'm probably not the best judge of quality history books; however, I think THE DISCOVERY OF JEANNE BARET is one. This book is extremely well written and I thought Ms. Ridley did a great job of presenting Ms. Baret's story. Furthermore, the author did a remarkable job of researching this subject. That's evident in the amount of details she provided not only about Ms. Baret, but also about the condition of the world in the mid 1700s. Ms. Ridley also managed to present some entirely new ideas about Ms. Baret's life, and she should be commended for sharing this heroine's story with readers.

BARET, I did find the second half of the book to be quite interesting. I am definitely glad that I learned about Ms. Baret's fascinating story. Recommend for fans of history and/or science books.

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

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Review: American Dervish

Summary: Hayat Shah is a young American in love for the first time. His normal life of school, baseball, and video games had previously been distinguished only by his Pakistani heritage and by the frequent chill between his parents, who fight over things he is too young to understand. Then Mina arrives, and everything changes.

Mina is Hayat's mother's oldest friend from Pakistan. She is independent, beautiful and intelligent, and arrives on the Shah's doorstep when her disastrous marriage in Pakistan disintegrates. Even Hayat's skeptical father can't deny the liveliness and happiness that accompanies Mina into their home. Her deep spirituality brings the family's Muslim faith to life in a way that resonates with Hayat as nothing has before. Studying the Quran by Mina's side and basking in the glow of her attention, he feels an entirely new purpose mingled with a growing infatuation for his teacher.

When Mina meets and begins dating a man, Hayat is confused by his feelings of betrayal. His growing passions, both spiritual and romantic, force him to question all that he has come to believe is true. Just as Mina finds happiness, Hayat is compelled to act -- with devastating consequences for all those he loves most.

American Dervish is a brilliantly written, nuanced, and emotionally forceful look inside the interplay of religion and modern life. Ayad Akhtar was raised in the Midwest himself, and through Hayat Shah he shows readers vividly the powerful forces at work on young men and women growing up Muslim in America. This is an intimate, personal first novel that will stay with readers long after they turn the last page. -- Little Brown

I adored AMERICAN DERVISH by Ayad Akhtar so much that I'm afraid it's spoiled everything else I read these past few days. I just couldn't get enough of this book and I was actually sad to see it end. I had heard that there was a lot of buzz for this book -- BEA, Entertainment Weekly, and a few others; but I honestly might have appreciated it even more than I was expecting. I know it's still really early in 2012, but I have no doubt that AMERICAN DERVISH will go down as one of my top reads of the year. I loved it that much!

So you might be wondering just what made this book so special; and I can't easily point to just one or two things to discuss in this review. Suffice it to say that, for me, it was the entire reading experience. The writing was fantastic and the characters were so memorable; but it was the way this book made me think so much about life that made it superb. Rarely does a book affect me like this AMERICAN DERVISH did. In fact, I can't stop raving about it to all of my friends.

I mentioned that the writing in AMERICAN DERVISH was very good and I can't stress that enough. I can hardly believe that this is Mr. Akhtar's debut novel (and I hope he continues to write more!) The book dealt with some extremely complex issues, and yet, the book was incredibly easy to read. I think that's a credit to the author because not only was the pacing of the book just about perfect, but the prose and dialogue were spot-on. It also helps that he created an amazing character in Hayat!

And that brings me to my next point.. the characters in AMERICAN DERVISH (and particularly Hayat) were so real to me and they are still popping up in my thoughts almost a week after I finished the novel. I can't go so far as to say that I truly liked any one of them all of the time, but they all contributed to making this novel truly amazing.

Not surprising, the character that has most remained in my thoughts is Hayat. Hayat was a remarkable narrator for this story, and I was blown away by how well Mr. Akhtar brought this boy to life. I loved his naivete as well as his honesty, and it truly was a treat to see how he evolved into a young man. I was fascinated by his devotion to the Muslim faith, and the ways he interpreted the teachings. In addition, I appreciated seeing how the author juxtaposed Hayat's spiritual awakening with his sexual one. It was all just so well done!

If I were summing up this novel is just a few words, the first thing that would pop in my brain would be a coming-of-age story of a Muslim boy in America. At it's heart, I do think that's what AMERICAN DERVISH is. And because I do love coming-of age stories so much, this novel appealed to me from the get-go. However, AMERICAN DERVISH was much more than that to me too. This book touched upon so many important themes that are relevant in today's society. I could go on and on about many of the ways this novel made me think, but I'll just throw a few out there to show you how much this novel affected me.

AMERICAN DERVISH made me aware of the following:
  • Muslim beliefs
  • Growing up Muslim in America
  • Cultural differences
  • The different ways individuals can interpret the Quran (or any religious teaching)
  • How an individual can interpret religious doctrine differently depending on their age or what they are experiencing in their life
  • Male and female relationships
  • What a dervish is and how they were a recurring theme in this novel
  • And many, many more....
It's because of these reasons and many more that I think AMERICAN DERVISH would make an excellent book club pick. Of course, there is a reading guide with an interesting author interview as well as ten discussion questions. I always like taking a peek at the questions, but I have to tell you that I think this guide is particularly outstanding. I love, love, love these questions and I am anxious to discuss some of them with friends. (Now to just get someone to pick this novel for our book club in the near future!)

As if you can't already tell, I adored AMERICAN DERVISH! Just do me a favor and trust me on this one. I don't think you'll regret it.

I received an ARC of this novel at the 2011 BEA.