Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Review: What Happened to Hannah

Summary: As a teenager, Hannah Benson ran away from home in order to save herself. Now, twenty years later, the past comes calling and delivers life-changing news: her mother and sister have passed away, leaving Hannah the guardian of her fifteen-year-old niece. 

Returning home to bitter memories and devastating secrets, Hannah must overcome her painful past to pave a future with her niece, the last best chance at a family for both of them. She begins to create a new, happier life with her niece and rekindles a relationship with Grady Steadman, one of the few people she’s ever called a friend. 

But she can’t forget what she cannot forgive, or lay to rest those ghosts that will not die. Will love and trust—and the truth—give her the strength to stand her ground and fight for what she deserves? -- William Morrow

WHAT HAPPENED TO HANNAH by Mary Kay McComas sounded like a book that I would normally love. It had an interesting female protagonist, a dysfunctional family, and lots of secrets. Many bloggers seemed to really like this novel; however, I thought it was just okay. I can't put my finger on the reason why I didn't appreciate WHAT HAPPENED TO HANNAH like I had hoped; and there definitely wasn't anything inherently wrong with this novel. All I can come up with is that I just didn't connect to the characters.

WHAT HAPPENED TO HANNAH tells the story of Hannah, a woman who has to return home and assume responsibility for her teenage niece after the deaths of her mother and sister. To complicate matters, Hannah hasn't been back to her hometown since she ran away twenty years ago. Not only is Hannah unfamiliar with taking care of a teen (or any child for that matter), she also has to deal with an ex-boyfriend who still cares about her as well as the secrets that she's been keeping from her troubled childhood.

I have dreaded writing this review because I know I won't be able to articulate my thoughts very well; and as a result, I've procrastinated for weeks. I feel it's a cop-out to say that the novel didn't resonate with me, but ultimately, that's about all I can say. Since WHAT HAPPENED TO HANNAH was such a character-driven novel with so much emotion, I feel like I needed to connect with Hannah to fully appreciate it. The novel started with a very unemotional (almost cold) Hannah and I just never warmed up that much to her despite all of the ways her character evolved throughout the course of the novel. I'm usually not this harsh about a character so maybe it was just my mood when I read this book?

Another slight issue that I had with this story was the secret of  "What Happened to Hannah?" I don't know if it was be design, but I pretty much figured out Hannah's story early on in the novel. I certainly don't think that I'm particularly astute, but there were so many hints that I wasn't surprised by events in her past. By the time the secret was ultimately revealed, I thought it was almost anti-climatic.

I'm sure I sound kind of negative in this review and I don't mean to bash WHAT HAPPENED TO HANNAH. This novel definitely isn't a book without some merit. In fact, I was very impressed with Ms. McComas' writing style. I thought she did a very good job of developing her characters and I liked how authentic they all were. I also thought she managed to effectively capture the dynamics of some pretty complex relationships.

Since my opinion of this novel is definitely different than most other readers, I highly recommend it for a book club discussion. I'd love to sit down with my friends and discuss Hannah's behavior. I have a feeling that this novel with resonate with most women much more than it did with me. There is a reading guide available with seven very interesting questions, but I think those questions might be just a starting point for many groups. Some of the themes you might want to explore include love, regret, second chances, hate, loss, and forgiveness.

While WHAT HAPPENED TO HANNAH didn't exactly "wow" me, I think I might be alone with that opinion. Fans of women's fiction and stories about dysfunctional families might want to give this one a try.

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

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Review: A Discovery of Witches

Summary: In a sparkling debut, A Discovery of Witches became the "it" book of early 2011, bringing Deborah Harkness into the spotlight and galvanizing fans around the world. In this tale of passion and obsession, Diana Bishop, a young scholar and the descendant of witches, discovers a long-lost and enchanted alchemical manuscript deep in Oxford's Bodleian Library. Its reappearance summons a fantastical underworld, which she navigates with her leading man, vampire geneticist Matthew Clairmont. Harkness has created a universe to rival those of Anne Rice, Diana Gabaldon, and Elizabeth Kostova, and she adds a scholar's depth to this riveting story of magic and suspense. -- Viking

I feel like I'm the last book blogger on the planet to read A DISCOVERY OF WITCHES by Deborah Harkness. It's not that this book wasn't on my radar -- I actually did two separate giveaways for it. It's just that I tend to shy away from vampire books. And A DISCOVERY OF WITCHES has been compared more than a few times to the Twilight series (which I also never got around to reading.) Despite the fantastic reviews as well as an assurance from one of my friends that I would like this book, I still kept procrastinating.

What finally made me decide to pick up this book is that it has to do with witches. And while I'm not a big vampire fan, I am very intrigued by witches and witchcraft. So I guess I figured I could tolerate some vampire stuff if there were witches involved. What really surprised me about A DISCOVERY OF WITCHES is just how much I enjoyed this book. I seriously liked it and I'm so glad that there is a sequel coming out -- actually this one is the first of a trilogy so I get two more books!

I probably don't need to summarize A DISCOVERY OF WITCHES too much because most everyone has already read it, but here's a very brief one nonetheless. Diana, the narrator is a scholar of 17th century chemistry as well as a descendent of witches. While conducting research at Oxford, she discovers a magical manuscript -- one that can unlock the secrets of her world. Despite trying to hide her magical powers for her entire life, Diana is thrown full force into the world of witches, daemons, and vampires. She even ends up falling in love with a very special (and sexy) vampire named Matthew. Throughout the course of this novel, Diana begins to learn about her past as well as her magical powers.

Since I don't read a lot of books in this genre, I don't really feel that I can be a valid critic of the novel. All I can really say is that everything about this novel just seemed to work for me. I actually looked forward to picking up the book after I set it down, and I definitely wasn't expecting that to be the case. I appreciated the characters, the suspense, and even the romance; and I loved how the story unfolded. The book just seemed to get better and better as the mysteries were revealed.

I think one of the best things that I can say about A DISCOVERY OF WITCHES is the quality of Ms. Harness' writing. I thought it was very good! Ms. Harkness brought a magical world to life with her vivid descriptions (and don't even get me started on all the talk of food and wine.) In fact, I loved the world and the characters that she created. Her creativity showing how the various supernatural creatures interacted was also a treat -- I loved the dynamics between the members of the Congregation. Finally, Ms. Harkness managed to weave a complex tale of suspense and intrigue that kept me on the edge of my seat and made not want to put down the book.

I was a bit surprised to find that there is a reading guide for A DISCOVERY OF WITCHES, although I really shouldn't be. While at first, I thought the book might just be a fluffy supernatural story, the book definitely became more complex as the secrets came to light. In addition, the characters were all extremely interesting, especially Diana and Matthew. Some of the themes you might want to explore include supernatural powers, love, family, forbidden love, and obligation/duty. I do have to warn you that many of the discussion questions deal with imagining yourself in a situation that existed in the book. They aren't all traditional questions about the book and its characters.

If you are a fan of vampires and/or witches (or even if you aren't like me), then I highly recommend A DISCOVERY OF WITCHES. But beware... the ending of this book is left very open-ended so if you decide to read it, you'll be forced into reading the next one too!

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

Monday, February 27, 2012

Review: So Damn Lucky

Summary: Lucky O’Toole—Head of Customer Relations at The Babylon, premier mega-resort on the Vegas Strip—thinks it’s just another night in Las Vegas. But then a magician pulls a disappearing act, right under Lucky’s nose. Is it a stunt? Or something worse?

While Lucky chases leads, someone is trying to put her off the scent. As if this wasn’t enough to ruin her day, Lucky’s relationship with The Big Boss is coming to a head—past hurts can no longer be denied. Of course, she is already on shaky emotional ground: Teddie, her live-in, has been touring with a young and lovely pop star. Paxton Dane, former coworker and would-be suitor, is still circling, hoping to find a chink in the armor of Lucky’s resolve. And then, there’s this French chef, who is proving to be too hot to handle….

Las Vegas expert Deborah Coonts thrills again with this third installment in her dazzling series focused on casino “fixer” Lucky O’Toole. -- Forge

I have anxiously been awaiting the release of SO DAMN LUCKY by Deborah Coonts, the third book in the Lucky O'Toole Vegas Adventure series. Since I thought the first two books in the series were terrific (my review of WANNA GET LUCKY? and my review of LUCKY STIFF), I couldn't wait for the third installment. These mystery books just epitomize everything that I love about escape reads. They have a spunky main character in Lucky O'Toole, a terrific setting in Las Vegas, a tad of romance, as well as some very interesting mysteries.

After reading a few chapters, I was pretty sure that I would have the same reaction to SO DAMN LUCKY as I did to the first two books; and for the most part, I did enjoy this novel. But.... I don't think it's my favorite of the three. While SO DAMN LUCKY still had all of the elements I appreciate in a fun mystery book, I felt as if the mystery aspect wasn't as strong in this novel. That's not to say that I didn't like the mystery of the disappearing magician. It's just that I didn't think it was as intriguing as the first two mysteries.

Prior to reading this novel, had you asked me what my favorite part of these books were, I think I would have said Lucky and her personal life. However, now I'm not so sure. I don't think I gave enough credit to the author and her talents for weaving a good mystery. I think what made the first two books really special to me was the blend between the mystery and Lucky's escapades. I just wish SO DAMN LUCKY had a little more parts about the complexities of the mystery and a little less about Lucky and her conflicted emotions about all of the guys in her life.

Now don't get me wrong. I still love Lucky and think that she is a fantastic character. I, once again, got caught up in her boyfriend issues (as well as her mommy and boss issues.) I also loved reading about the crazy people and situations that she encounters as head of customer relations at a casino. I can pretty much guarantee that you will crack a smile or two when you "meet" some of the characters that visit Lucky's casino. (Is a casino in Las Vegas a perfect setting for a mystery series, or what?)

By the end of SO DAMN LUCKY, Lucky, of course, manages to solve the "murder," but she doesn't have as much luck with her love life. She is still reeling from the pain of missing her boyfriend Teddie who has left to tour the world as a pop star, and she finds herself attracted to the sexy French chef who runs a restaurant in the casino and a private investigator who is patiently waiting for Lucky to realize his potential. The end of the novel was definitely left open-ended, so I guess that means that I will have to read the next book in the series. Oh darn!

While SO DAMN LUCKY wasn't my favorite book in this series, I still consider myself a big fan of Lucky and her adventures. If you enjoy cute (and sexy) mysteries, then I definitely recommend this entire series, but I do think it's best to start from the beginning even if this book could work as a stand-alone.

Thanks to FSB Associates for sending a review 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, February 25, 2012

Kid Konnection: Pretty Penny Cleans Up

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 a new picture book which teaches some valuable lessons for little ones.
Summary: The Sassy Pants concert is one week away, and Penny's best friend Emma has spent her whole allowance! It's Pretty Penny to the rescue, with another of her big ideas­­—La Perfect Pup Salon! Local pups will come away with such hilarious styles as the Punk and the Regal, and the girls will earn enough money for their tickets! And with Pretty Penny's Saving Setup, they'll save money for charity and for future needs, too!

Author-illustrator Devon Kinch has created a charming, stylish character with a signature look, just like such classic children's book figures as Madeline, Eloise, and Olivia. -- Random House

Last year, Booking Son and I read PRETTY PENNY SETS UP SHOP by Devon Kinch -- you can read our review here. We both enjoyed the story and, as a mom, I loved some of the messages about money management. Well now Penny is back in PRETTY PENNY CLEANS UP. This new picture book picks up right where the last one left off -- teaching kids the value of a dollar (or five!)

In PRETTY PENNY CLEANS UP, Penny and her friend Emma want to see their favorite band The Sassy Pants; and Emma doesn't have any of her allowance money left to purchase a $5 ticket. So, Penny realizes that they have to think of a plan. She decides that the girls will open up La Perfect Pup Salon for dogs and charge $5 for a doggie (or kitty) makeover.

Penny has learned a great deal about fiscal responsibility and she teaches Emma thing or two about what to do with the money they will earn. She explains the concept of the Pretty Penny Savings Setup which involves a saving box, a jar for sharing (or charity) money, and a purse for spending money. Great concepts for kids, right?

Penny and Emma find that the La Perfect Pup Salon isn't as easy to manage as they first hoped, but Iggy the adorable little pig comes to the rescue. Between the three of them, they clean up the salon and finish prepping the pets; and their salon is a huge hit. Of course, they also earn more than enough money to buy concert tickets; however, poor Iggy doesn't get any of the funds.

It's hard to argue with Penny's philosophy -- save some, share some, and spend some. It's actually one that we've tried to incorporate into our own children's lives... sometimes with more success than others. The book ends with a review of this idea, and the reader sees how each girl divides their earnings into the three separate areas. I especially liked that there was a little math involved in dividing up the amounts, and I even asked Booking Son to double check and make sure it all added up -- it did.

Overall, I think PRETTY PENNY CLEANS UP is a fun way to teach children about fiscal responsibility. Booking Son's only issue is that the books are kind of "girly," but I think the illustrations are adorable!

Thanks to the publisher for providing 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, February 24, 2012

Review: Bond Girl

Summary: When other little girls were dreaming about becoming doctors or lawyers, Alex Garrett set her sights on conquering the high-powered world of Wall Street. And though she's prepared to fight her way into an elitist boys' club, or duck the occasional errant football, she quickly realizes she's in over her head when she's relegated to a kiddie-size folding chair with her new moniker—Girlie—inscribed in Wite-Out across the back.

No matter. She's determined to make it in bond sales at Cromwell Pierce, one of the Street's most esteemed brokerage firms. Keeping her eyes on the prize, the low Girlie on the totem pole will endure whatever comes her way—whether trekking to the Bronx for a $1,000 wheel of Parmesan cheese; discovering a secretary's secret Friday night slumber/dance party in the conference room; fielding a constant barrage of "friendly" practical jokes; learning the ropes from Chick, her unpredictable, slightly scary, loyalty-demanding boss; babysitting a colleague while he consumes the contents of a vending machine on a $28,000 bet; or eluding the advances of a corporate stalker who's also one of the firm's biggest clients.

Ignoring her friends' pleas to quit, Alex excels (while learning how to roll with the punches and laugh at herself) and soon advances from lowly analyst to slightly-less-lowly associate. Suddenly, she's addressed by her real name, and the impenetrable boys' club has transformed into forty older brothers and one possible boyfriend. Then the apocalypse hits, and Alex is forced to choose between sticking with Cromwell Pierce as it teeters on the brink of disaster or kicking off her Jimmy Choos and running for higher ground.

Fast-paced, funny, and thoroughly addictive, Bond Girl will leave you cheering for Alex: a feisty, ambitious woman with the spirit to stand up to the best (and worst) of the boys on the Street—and ultimately rise above them all. -- William Morrow

Entertainment Weekly is still one of my go-to sources for books, so when they gave BOND GIRL by Erin Duffy an A-, I just knew I had to read it. Plus, they did a cute little feature on the book and author take also piqued my interest. I'd like to think it's because I was interested in the subject matter -- many years ago I was a finance major and worked in the finance industry for a short time, but I think it just sounded like a very entertaining book. I am so glad I picked up BOND GIRL. I absolutely loved it, and I think I even surprised myself with my reaction.

BOND GIRL tells the story of Alex, a young woman fresh out of college who goes to work in bond sales at a very prestigious firm on Wall Street. Alex had dreamed her entire life of working on Wall Street and she managed to get her "ideal" job, but she had no idea just how challenging it would be. Not only did she have to learn a whole new world of real life finance (which is very different from what you learn in college), but she also had to learn to adjust to the culture of the industry. And this is where the book got very interesting for me. Poor Alex had her work cut out for her from dealing with her male co-workers, to the insane demands of her boss, to dodging a big client's sexual advances to having an affair with a co-worker (a definite no-no!)

You might be thinking that BOND GIRL sounds a little bit like THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA; however, instead of taking place in the magazine industry, it takes place in the world of finance. You'd be right, but I have to say that BOND GIRL was much, much better! I thought this book was so well done; and as a result, so entertaining. The writing was very good and the book gave readers an interesting insight into the world of Wall Street; however, I think what made this book so special was the protagonist Alex. She was a fantastic character and I couldn't help but root for her. In addition, I just loved her voice -- she was extremely honest and also very funny.

It was apparent that the author, Erin Duffy, had some some insider knowledge into the world of finance and banking. I'm sure parts of this novel were exaggerated to make it more interesting (or at least I'm hoping that's the case), but I swear many of the stories sounded as if they could have been. real. I laughed so hard at some of her boss and co-workers' action, and I was constantly in awe of the sheer excess and waste. There is no doubt that the finance industry is an entirely different world than what most of us have experienced!

But BOND GIRL wasn't all fun and games. The book definitely had some substance. Of course, we all look back at the excess and cringe; and the book did explore the economic downturn and what eventually happened to many of the company's employees. But, I appreciated how the novel delved into Alex's psyche. At first, Alex was willing to do whatever it took (no matter how degrading) to be successful in her job; however, throughout the novel, she matured into a strong woman. She reassessed her goals and priorities and even learned to expect more from relationships. In so many ways, BOND GIRL was a coming-of-age story for Alex... and that's probably one of the reasons I loved it so much.

I have a feeling at the end of the year, I might look back at BOND GIRL as one of my favorite reads. Highly recommended!

Thanks to the publisher for sending a copy of this wonderful novel!

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Review: Bridge of Scarlet Leaves

Summary: In this poignant and evocative novel by acclaimed author Kristina McMorris, a country is plunged into conflict and suspicion—forcing a young woman to find her place in a volatile world.

Los Angeles, 1941. Violinist Maddie Kern’s life seemed destined to unfold with the predictable elegance of a Bach concerto. Then she fell in love with Lane Moritomo. Her brother’s best friend, Lane is the handsome, ambitious son of Japanese immigrants. Maddie was prepared for disapproval from their families, but when Pearl Harbor is bombed the day after she and Lane elope, the full force of their decision becomes apparent. In the eyes of a fearful nation, Lane is no longer just an outsider, but an enemy.

When her husband is interned at a war relocation camp, Maddie follows, sacrificing her Juilliard ambitions. Behind barbed wire, tension simmers and the line between patriot and traitor blurs. As Maddie strives for the hard-won acceptance of her new family, Lane risks everything to prove his allegiance to America, at tremendous cost.

Skillfully capturing one of the most controversial episodes in recent American history, Kristina McMorris draws readers into a novel filled with triumphs and heartbreaking loss—an authentic, moving testament to love, forgiveness, and the enduring music of the human spirit. -- Kensington

I have read and enjoyed quite a few WWII historical novels over the years, so when I saw that Kristina McMorris had a new book out called BRIDGE OF SCARLET LEAVES that not only takes place during World War II but that also explores the Japanese relocation camps, I was pretty excited to check it out. Last year around this same time, I reviewed her novel LETTERS FROM HOME (which also took place during World War II) and was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it. I was curious to see if her second book would have the same affect on me.

Overall, I did enjoy the BRIDGE OF SCARLET LEAVES and it was much what I had expected. I'm not sure that I liked it quite as much as LETTERS FROM HOME, but it was pretty darn close. In fact, I could definitely tell that BRIDGE OF SCARLET LEAVES was written by the same author because there were many similarities to the prior novel. Not only did both books center around World War II (albeit in entirely different areas), but there was also a strong romance storyline; and the writing was still very strong especially as it pertained to the character development.

Usually I'm not a big fan of books with a lot of romance; however, Ms. McMorris does a good job of balancing all of the story lines. There is definitely an element of love and passion in this novel but it's not over-the-top. It's just very sweet and honest. However, I think the real appeal of this novel is the character development (I felt the exact same way about LETTERS FROM HOME.) Ms. McMorris has a gift for creating very complex, yet likable characters; and I appreciate the relationships she formed between each of them.

In BRIDGE OF SCARLET LEAVES, I found that I liked all of the main characters and I was rooting for each of them in one way or another. I enjoyed seeing how much each one of them matured and/or evolved throughout the story. Even the characters that appeared to be the most damaged eventually realized the errors of their ways and were able to find some semblance of happiness. That's not to say that BRIDGE OF SCARLET LEAVES wasn't heartbreaking at times. (It is a book about a war.) It's just that this book demonstrated the importance of love, family, and support; and I was left with a general feeling of hope after I finished it.

Probably one of my favorite things about this novel is that it explored a side of World War II that is not usually found in the books I've read -- Japanese internment camps. I have read a little about this situation in our country and there is no doubt that it was a very sad (and embarrassing) time. I appreciated that the author gave readers some insight into this time period and it was apparent that she not only did a great deal of research of the subject, but that it was one that was near and dear to her heart.

BRIDGE OF SCARLET LEAVES would make a great book club selection. There is a good reading guide with fourteen thought-provoking questions as well as recipes in the back of the book which would be perfect for serving at your meeting. Some of the topics that warrant further discussion include the symbolism of the title, love, family, honor, redemption, survival, devotion, culture differences, and the prejudice. In addition, the author has a page on her website devoted to book clubs. She offers ideas for themed meetings including mock telegram invitations, clothing suggestions, and music and food ideas.

I definitely recommend BRIDGE OF SCARLET LEAVES if you are a fan of women's or WWII fiction. Thanks to the author for providing a copy of this novel.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

February 2012 Book Club Meeting

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

This month, we read THE TIGER'S WIFE by Tea Obrecht. It was my month to host the meeting and I wasn't exactly sure what to expect at our meeting. As I read this novel, I was pretty sure that at least a few of my friends would hate it, but I was still hoping that we could have an interesting discussion,

It ended up that we only had half of our members in attendance. I was a little bummed because I was looking forward to hearing everyone's thoughts about this very unique novel. Plus, I had made a Raspberry Brownie Chocolate Trifle and I didn't want leftovers! I have to be honest when I tell you that I wasn't sure how I felt about THE TIGER'S WIFE. There were parts of it that I really enjoyed and then there were other parts that I didn't like quite as much; and I know I didn't totally "get" the entire novel. Our small group of four was definitely split with one really liking it, two thinking it was interesting, and one not really liking it much at all.

We ended up talking about the book for about a half hour and that was probably enough for us. I chose not to use the reader's guide because our discussion seemed to be going along fine without it. I actually think we covered about half the questions on our own anyway. While I'm still not entirely sold on this book, I did appreciate it more after our discussion.

Stay tuned because I still plan on writing a review over the next few days... assuming I can articulate my thoughts.

For March, we will be reading BEST KEPT SECRET by Amy Hatvany. I am extremely excited about this selection because I read this book a few months ago and loved it. You can read my review here. I was really surprised by how much this book affected me and I'm curious to see if any of my friends have a similar reaction.

Summary: Cadence didn't sit down one night and decide that downing two bottles of wine was a brilliant idea.

Her drinking snuck up on her - as a way to sleep, to help her relax after a long day, to relieve some of the stress of the painful divorce that's left her struggling to make ends meet with her five-year old son, Charlie.

It wasn't always like this. Just a few years ago, Cadence seemed to have it all—a successful husband, an adorable son, and a promising career as a freelance journalist. But with the demise of her marriage, her carefully constructed life begins to spiral out of control. Suddenly she is all alone trying to juggle the demands of work and motherhood.

Logically, Cadence knows that she is drinking too much, and every day begins with renewed promises to herself that she will stop. But within a few hours, driven by something she doesn't understand, she is reaching for the bottle - even when it means not playing with her son because she is too tired, or dropping him off at preschool late, again. And even when one calamitous night it means leaving him alone to pick up more wine at the grocery store. It's only when her ex-husband shows up at her door to take Charlie away that Cadence realizes her best kept secret has been discovered….

Heartbreaking, haunting, and ultimately life-affirming,
Best Kept Secret is more than just the story of Cadence—it's a story of how the secrets we hold closest are the ones that can most tear us apart. -- Washington Square Press

Giveaway: Thomas the Tank Engine Books

Random House Children’s Books has some exciting new for all of you Thomas &Friends fans out there! They are launching an all-new website for their hugely popular Thomas & Friends brand. The new site allows readers to easily search for their favorite type of Thomas title, including hardcover, Paperback, Board Book, E book, Coloring & Activity, Novelty, Step Into Reading, Little Golden Book or Movie / DVD tie-in.

In addition, there are other fun features including a library of Thomas & Friends printables, a video section with trailers of the Thomas movies, and a “What’s New” page that allows readers to quickly discover the latest Thomas titles.

EASTER ENGINES - Step into Reading 

Summary: Thomas is rolling down the Easter rails in this step 2 leveled reader that will introduce children to reading—and the exciting world of Thomas & Friends! 

MAKING TRACKS! - Activity Book 

Summary: Help the engines of Sodor be really useful by fixing tracks with Thomas, making deliveries with Harold, and much, much more. With three chunky double-sided crayons, a die-cut handle, and sturdy write-on/wipe-off pages, this interactive board book is a must-have for little boys ages 3-7 who love Thomas & Friends.


Summary: In the new direct-to-DVD movie Misty Island Rescue, the engines of Sodor are building a new Search and Rescue Center—and finding Thomas the Tank Engine is their first rescue mission! Boys, ages three to six, will enjoy this handsome jacketed-hardcover storybook, which captures all of the fun, mystery, and thrills of Thomas’ newest adventure.


Summary: Special deliveries, railway repairs, and daring rescues—it's all in a day's work for Thomas the Tank Engine, and this 8x8 storybook with flaps lets little boys ages 3-7 join in the adventures.

OFF THE RAILS! - Coloring and Activity Book 

Summary: Thomas is rolling full speed ahead and off the page in this new coloring and activity book! Little boys ages 3-7 will come face to face with their favorite Thomas & Friends characters as they color the 3-D images and then view them with a pair of 3-D glasses.

DAY OF THE DIESELS - Little Golden Book

Summary: The devious diesels of Sodor are up to no good, and Thomas must set things right! The successful Thomas & Friends movie Day of the Diesels is retold in the classic Little Golden Book format that young boys ages 2-5 will love.

Giveaway alert: I have a set of these fantastic Thomas books for one very lucky reader courtesy of Random House Children's Books. To enter, just fill out the form below before March 6th 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!

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Review: The Darlings & Giveaway

Summary: A sophisticated page-turner about a wealthy New York family embroiled in a financial scandal with cataclysmic consequences. 

Now that he's married to Merrill Darling, daughter of billionaire financier Carter Darling, attorney Paul Ross has grown accustomed to New York society and all of its luxuries: a Park Avenue apartment, weekends in the Hamptons, bespoke suits. When Paul loses his job, Carter offers him the chance to head the legal team at his hedge fund. Thrilled with his good fortune in the midst of the worst financial downturn since the Great Depression, Paul accepts the position.

But Paul's luck is about to shift: a tragic event catapults the Darling family into the media spotlight, a regulatory investigation, and a red-hot scandal with enormous implications for everyone involved. Suddenly, Paul must decide where his loyalties lie-will he save himself while betraying his wife and in-laws or protect the family business at all costs?

Cristina Alger's glittering debut novel interweaves the narratives of the Darling family, two eager SEC attorneys, and a team of journalists all racing to uncover-or cover up-the truth. With echoes of a fictional Too Big to Fail and the novels of Dominick Dunne, The Darlings offers an irresistible glimpse into the highest echelons of New York society-a world seldom seen by outsiders-and a fast-paced thriller of epic proportions. -- Pamela Dorman

I am a pretty big fan of the Pamela Dorman imprint, so it probably goes without saying that I was very excited to receive THE DARLINGS by Cristina Alger. Ms. Dorman's books never seem to disappoint and I always know I'm in for some quality writing. THE DARLINGS was no exception. This fast-paced novel tells the story of a very wealthy New York family that finds themselves caught up in a huge financial scandal (think Bernie Madoff proportions) and the fallout associated with it.

After I read the first 50 or so pages of THE DARLINGS, I was pretty sure that I was going to love this novel. I could see that the author had an insider's view into high society as well as the financial world, and I thought she did a remarkable job of bringing both the setting and the characters to life. I continued to read and enjoy this book, and if I'm being entirely honest, I didn't want to put it down; however, I'm not sure that I'd go so far as to say that I loved it. I appreciated THE DARLINGS and I enjoyed it a great deal, but I don't think it will go down as one of my top reads of 2012.

Having said that, THE DARLINGS is a very good book and there are many excellent things about it. First and foremost, I thought the author did a wonderful job in creating and developing realistic characters. While this novel was about the 2008 financial crisis and the events leading up to it, the book focused on the characters and their motivations. Despite being a finance major in college, I don't enjoy reading about all the details that went into the 2008 financial crisis; and I thought the author gave just enough historical information to allow the reader to understand it without getting bogged down. She wisely chose, instead, to focus on how the various characters each dealt with the pending crisis.

And what a special cast of characters lived within the pages of THE DARLINGS. I was fascinated by so many of them, and I actually thought each and every one seemed as if they could really exist. What I found unique about reading this novel is that I was interested in what happened to each one. That's not to say that I necessarily liked every character because there were some that just oozed greed, but I was riveted to the book, nonetheless, to see their behavior as well as the consequences. I found it intriguing to see how certain individuals chose to play the blame game, while others followed their hearts no matter how difficult it would prove to be.

Another thing I really enjoyed about THE DARLINGS was the writing of the novel. I've already mentioned just how fantastic I thought the character development was, but I was also very impressed with Ms. Alger's writing style. I thought her prose and the dialogue was very polished, and I loved the pacing of the story. The book starts out with a bit of a mystery which definitely piqued my interest. And then the rest of the novel unfolded at an extremely fast pace. In fact, most of the story took place within just a few days.

I hesitate to even mention this, because I know it's most likely just me, but I did have a problem with the amount of characters in this novel. On the one hand, I liked seeing how this scandal affected everyone from the Darling patriarch, to his wife, to his daughters, and even to the secretaries/administrative assistants. I was impressed with how the author managed to incorporate all of their stories into this novel; and for the most part, I was able to keep everyone straight. However, the way the author only gave snippets of so many of the characters' lives also disappointed me a bit. For example, one of the early chapters in THE DARLINGS introduces the youngest Darling daughter and her husband. The reader gets a brief look at their relationship and their attempts to conceive, but for the rest of the novel, they rarely appear. I do understand what the author set out to do with all of the characters, but I was left wanting more information about some of their lives. As I said before, I'm sure it's just me...

THE DARLINGS would make an excellent discussion book for book club who appreciate analyzing characters. There isn't a formal reading guide posted yet, but here's the link

THE DARLINGS is a very intriguing book about how a crisis can affect a family who seemingly has it all. I definitely recommend it for fans of literary fiction.

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

Giveaway alert: I have a copy of THE DARLINGS to share with one lucky reader. To enter, just fill out the form below before March 7th at 11:59 p.m. ET. This contest is open to those of you with U.S. and Canada mailing addresses only. Good luck!

Monday, February 20, 2012

Review: The Bedlam Detective

Summary: From a basement office in London’s notorious Bethlehem Hospital, Sebastian Becker investigates wealthy eccentrics whose dubious mental health may render them unable to manage their own affairs. His interview with rich landowner Sir Owain Lancaster, whose sanity has been in question since a disastrous scientific adventure in the Amazon killed his family and colleagues, coincides with the disappearance of two young local girls. When the children are found slain, Lancaster claims that the same dark forces that devastated his family have followed him home. It is not the first time that children have come to harm in his rural countryside town, though few are willing to speak of incidents from the past. Becker must determine whether this mad nobleman is insane and a murderer, or if some even more sinister agency is at work.

Struggling on his small salary, and with unexpected help from a son who needs special care, Becker and his wife make sacrifices so Becker can stay on the case after an innocent man is convicted of the crime. The answers he seeks may be found with the assistance of the local investigator and a young suffragette who fled Arnmouth, but couldn’t flee the horrors she encountered there. 

From dank asylums to the lush and treacherous Amazon, through the makeshift studios of the early film industry and a traveling fair of freaks and illusions, Sebastian Becker’s search for answers brings him face to face with madmen and monsters, both imagined and real. Confronting immense danger in his hunt for the truth, he will explore murder, tragedy, and the tempestuous depths of his own mind. -- Crown

Prior to reading THE BEDLAM DETECTIVE, I wasn't familiar with author Stephen Gallagher, but you better be sure that he now has my attention.  He is a screenwriter, director and author of fourteen novels; and I was very impressed with his latest one. THE BEDLAM DETECTIVE wasn't a typical mystery read for me, but I am certainly glad that I picked it up. I thought it was a terrific book, and a great example of what a historical mystery should be.

One of my favorite things about THE BEDLAM DETECTIVE was the writing. In my opinion, this novel was very well written. There were times when I re-read sections because the prose just stood out to me. I also thought Mr. Gallagher did a great job in bringing the setting to life; and by that, I mean the small English town as well as London and the Amazon. I thought the amount of details was perfect and they gave me enough information to appreciate the time period without getting bogged down. Finally, I loved the pacing of this book. The story moved back and forth between the past and present almost effortlessly, and I thought the story unfolded in such a way that it made me very excited to discover the resolution to the mystery.

Another great aspect of THE BEDLAM DETECTIVE was the mystery itself. I found the mystery of who killed the two young girls to be incredibly intriguing, and I appreciated that the story evolved into a psychological suspense one as much as a traditional whodunit. The protagonist Sebastian Becker was originally visiting the small English town to determine whether Sir Owain was of sound mind when the murders took place. Quite naturally, Sir Owain became a suspect and I appreciated seeing how Becker not only had to determine if Owain was mad, but also if he were involved in the crimes.

I was also extremely impressed with how the novel concluded. I've already mentioned that I couldn't put down this book, and the author did a wonderful job of keeping me riveted to the story. As the story reached its climax, I was very surprised by the turn of events and the situation that Becker found himself in. I thought the ending had a few nice twists and turns; and I guess I was surprised by the culprit, but in some strange way, it all made sense.

There are quite a few highlights from THE BEDLAM DETECTIVE from the writing, to the mystery, to the surprise twist at the end. All were truly so well done; however, I think I most appreciated the character development. Sebastian Becker was just a great character, and I thought the author did a wonderful job in making him someone that I truly cared about. At its heart, this novel was a mystery, but it was most definitely a literary mystery. There was much about Sebastian's family life, especially his relationship with his wife and son, that made this novel so much deeper than a typical mystery. In fact, I look forward to seeing more of Sebastian in future novels.

I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed THE BEDLAM DETECTIVE. If you are a fan of literary or historical mysteries, then you won't want to miss this novel.

Thanks to the publisher for sending 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. 

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Kid Konnection: Isabella Girl on the Go & Class 2K12 Scarlet

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 a new picture book and share the latest 2K12 book release.

Summary: Isabella is a girl who knows how to make the ordinary extraordinary. A day in the backyard takes Isabella all around the world! From the Great Wall to the Great Pyramids, and from Big Ben to Chichen Itza. From being an artist in Paris to a defender of liberty on the shores of the United States, Isabella tries it all! Join Isabella on her adventure and discover that the far corners of the world are closer than you may think. And being anything you want to be is all about dreaming what's possible. -- Sourcebooks Jabberwocky

ISABELLA GIRL ON THE GO by Jennifer Fosberry and pictures by Mike Litwin is a cute little picture book which shows just how imaginative one little girl can be. In ISABELLA GIRL ON THE GO, Isabella spends the day playing outside in her own backyard. She pretends that every day things like her sandbox are
extraordinary places like the desert and pyramids of Egypt. In just one afternoon, Isabella uses her creativity to visit amazing places all over the world. Isabella ends her playtime back in her own house and realizes that it's the most wonderful place to be.

I thought ISABELLA GIRL ON THE GO was a very fun (and educational) children's book. Kids will appreciate the book, but parents and teachers will too. Isabella explores many famous landmarks including the Pyramids of Giza, the Eiffel Tower, the Great Wall of China, Chichen Itza, Big Ben, and the Statue of Liberty. There is even a section in the back-of-the-book called “Places That Changed the World” which features descriptions of all the places Isabella visits.

I also want to mention just how cute the illustrations are in this book. They have bright colors and I love how drawings of Isabella is incorporated into her dreams. For example, I thought it was precious that Isabella's face appeared on the Statue of Libery. I think the pictures perfectly complement Isabella's creativity. In addition, I liked the use of bold and italics types as well as some of the whimsical fonts.

ISABELLA GIRL ON THE GO is a followup book to the widely praised MY NAME IS NOT ISABELLA which has been awarded the National Parenting Publications Gold Award, the Gold Moonbeam Children’s Book Award, the Silver ForeWord Book of the Year Award for Picture Books, the Gold Independent Publisher Book Award, and the Amelia Bloomer List. It also shows how fun it is to dream, but in this book, Isabella imagines all the things she can be when she grows up.

Booking Son and I both enjoyed this book and I can't wait to share it with his teacher.

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

A few weeks ago, 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 A.C. Gaughen author of SCARLET to describe her book in just a few words; and here's what she had to say:

Scarlet is a skilled thief, hiding in the shadows of Robin Hood's infamous band, but she has a secret she's spent her life hiding from. A secret only Sir Guy, the man sent to kill Robin Hood, knows.

There is a terrific website devoted to the novel. You will find more about the book including information on Robin Hood, the book trailer, and music written especially for the novel.

Ms. Gaughen been madly in love with writing since she was in kindergarten. Not kidding-some of her earliest memories revolve around books and writing, like reading in front of the class, reading with her mother, and writing a story in first grade that was so funny (it dealt with a gorilla finding someone naked in the shower, and was, sadly, the culmination of her humor writing skills) it got her kicked out of class. Which was also the first and last time for that.

No that's a lie. In third grade she got detention for ripping bark off a tree.

She knows, she's a rebel.

From there, it was a long road. she wrote all through middle school and starting submitting novels (She hopes she still have those very kind, gentle rejection letters somewhere) when she was thirteen. ACK you have no idea how bad those novels looked. All through high school she was writing in a notebook instead of taking class notes (explaining the less than perfect GPA). It was always novels for her-the first time she seriously wrote short stories was at the end of her college career, to get into her graduate program, and it felt awkward and weird.

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, February 17, 2012

Review: Charlotte au Chocolat

Summary: Like Eloise growing up in the Plaza Hotel, Charlotte Silver grew up in her mother's restaurant. Located in Harvard Square, Upstairs at the Pudding was a confection of pink linen tablecloths and twinkling chandeliers, a decadent backdrop for childhood. Over dinners of foie gras and Dover sole, always served with a Shirley Temple, Charlotte kept company with a rotating cast of eccentric staff members. After dinner, in her frilly party dress, she often caught a nap under the bar until closing time. Her one constant was her glamorous, indomitable mother, nicknamed "Patton in Pumps," a wasp-waisted woman in cocktail dress and stilettos who shouldered the burden of raising a family and running a kitchen. Charlotte's unconventional upbringing takes its toll, and as she grows up she wishes her increasingly busy mother were more of a presence in her life. But when the restaurant-forever teetering on the brink of financial collapse-looks as if it may finally be closing, Charlotte comes to realize the sacrifices her mother has made to keep the family and restaurant afloat and gains a new appreciation of the world her mother has built. 

Infectious, charming, and at times wistful, Charlotte au Chocolat is a celebration of the magic of a beautiful presentation and the virtues of good manners, as well as a loving tribute to the author's mother-a woman who always showed her best face to the world. -- Riverhead Books

I'm not entirely sure that it was just one thing that made me pick up CHARLOTTE AU CHOCOLAT: MEMORIES OF A RESTAURANT GIRLHOOD by Charlotte Silver. I do enjoy the occasional memoir and I adore books with food as a main theme, but I think it was Beth Fish Reads' feature that pushed me over the edge. After reading her teaser, I was hooked and I just knew I was in the mood for book like this.

I don't want to say that I was surprised by how much I enjoyed CHARLOTTE AU CHOCOLAT, but I kind of was. I figured I'd like this story about a young girl growing up in her mother's restaurant, but I was pleasantly surprised by how charming it was. I sat down to read a few chapters and ended up finishing it in one sitting. It was a quick read, but it was also an interesting story; and of course, I loved all the gorgeous descriptions of food.

One thing that really stood out to me about CHARLOTTE AU CHOCOLAT was the author's honestly in writing her story. I loved her voice and it just warmed my heart to see how she fondly remembered the restaurant. There is no doubt that her childhood was a bit different than most kids' -- she spent all of her time away from school at a gourmet restaurant dressed in petticoats, but she seems to appreciate in many ways the unique things she experienced as a result of her mother's career.

However, Ms. Silver's childhood was far from happy, or at least that's how I perceived it. She writes about her parents' divorce and the effect it had on her. She also mentions that she spent much of her childhood at the restaurant just waiting, and she missed out on many of the things that "normal" kids experiences. She also shares that while Upstairs at the Pudding was a glamorous restaurant that catered to the rich and famous, it wasn't always profitable. Charlotte's mother was constantly struggling to keep not only the restaurant afloat while also fighting to keep her lease on the building. And her dedication to the restaurant often left Charlotte alone and wanting for her mother's attention.

At it's heart, this book was a touching remembrance of a restaurant from the past. Charlotte's memories of her childhood at Upstairs at the Pudding just jumped off the pages of this book with her vivid descriptions of both the decor and the food. The details surrounding the appearance and smell of each dish was incredible; and even though I probably wouldn't even try most of the dishes, I appreciated the beauty of the presentation.  I loved seeing how Ms. Silver viewed the restaurant as a young girl, and I thought she did an amazing job of capturing the essence of her younger self.

But it was how the author paid tribute to her mother that really made this book special to me. When Charlotte's father leaves, her mother decides to take over the entire restaurant -- both the management and the cooking. Charlotte not only looks back fondly on the restaurant, but she also reminisces about how much her mother sacrificed to keep the restaurant going. Charlotte's mother seemed like an incredibly strong woman (albeit absent a lot from Charlotte's life), and I appreciated that Charlotte chooses to focus on the positive things that her mother taught her.

I highly recommend CHARLOTTE AU CHOCOLAT for readers who enjoy touching memoirs or food-themed books. It's a sweet story that will touch your heart as it did mine.

Check out this cute little book trailer for CHARLOTTE AU CHOCOLAT:

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

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Guest Post: Christine Blevins & Giveaway

I am so happy to welcome Christine Blevins, author of THE TURNING OF ANNE MERRICK to Booking Mama. THE TURNING OF ANNE MERRICK is a historical fiction book set during the Revolutionary War. I haven't had a chance to read this novel yet, but I think it sounds terrific.

Ms. Blevins has taken time from her busy touring schedule to write a fantastic guest post about the food aspects of her novel. I'm not sure I'm crazy about the types of food they ate during the 1700s, but I am fascinated by the amount of research Ms. Blevins conducted to write her novel.

The Taste of Revolution

Because I find so much pleasure in cooking and eating, I tend to feature period comestibles and cooking techniques in my novels. These types of delicious historical tidbits are among the most fun to research, and it is always such a delight to try and weave the tastiest of them into the story.

While writing THE TURNING OF ANNE MERRICK I would easily get lost learning about Iroquoian techniques for cooking indigenous woodland ingredients, like the snack “chips” made from the innerbark of a white pine the Oneidan scout Neddy made for Jack Hampton. It was fascinating to find out how soldiers like Titus Gilmore prepared standard but ingenious Army rations like Pocket Soup – compared to the elaborate meals prepared in the “French Style” and served in the highest quality silver, china and crystal by British General Burgoyne in the middle of a wilderness warzone.

Though most goodwives might write down and keep a collection of her receipts, published cookbooks of the period were few and far between. One of the best sources I used is considered the first American cookbook. With the ponderous title of AMERICAN COOKERY, or THE ART OF DRESSING VIANDS, FISH, POULTRY AND VEGETABLES, and THE BEST MODES OF MAKING PASTES, PUFFS, PIES, TARTS, PUDDINGS, CUSTARDS and PRESERVES, and ALL KINDS OF CAKES, FROM THE IMPERIAL PLUMB TO PLAIN CAKES. ADAPTED TO THIS COUNTRY, AND ALL GRADES OF LIFE by Amelia Simmons, it was first published in 1796.

When I read these recipes, not only can the ingredients and preparations seem odd (and sometimes gross) the recipe “prose” quite often brings a smile to my face. I am always struck by the quaint and descriptive terminology used – a stew is “simmered softly”, and one should “milk your cow directly into” the syllabub. Without standardized measurement 18th century cooks relied on “handfuls” and “pinches”, or very often, the recipe didn’t even bother with exact amounts.

The founders would have a hard time recognizing most of the food and drink we 21st century Americans consume. Here is a sampling of what you might find to eat and drink once you climbed out of your time travel machine in 1777:

Start your evening with a nice rum punch – the mother of all cocktails!
Take five to eight ounces of dark rum or Brandy, as you wish, and put it to twenty-four ounces of fresh cool water, add to it the juice of 1/2 lemon and two or three tablespoons of the best refined sugar. (If you are close to the West Indies, Muscavado or Havana brown sugar can be used) If you please, grate in some nutmeg. This makes about a quart of a most delicate, fine, pleasant & wholesome liquor.

Who can resist a recipe that begins with the words “Take a large rattlesnake…”?

Snake Stew
Take a large rattlesnake— skin, gut, and wash it until clean; cut into pieces no longer than the two joints on your finger. Set meat into a clean pot and put to them a gallon of water. Season well with a handful of salt, a blade or two of mace, whole pepper black and white, a whole onion stuck with six or seven cloves, a bundle of sweet herbs, and a nutmeg. Cover the pot and let all stew softly until the meat is tender, but not too much done. Pick the meat out onto a dish. Strain the pot liquor through a coarse sieve. Return the meat; cut carrots into coins and add with peeled Irish potatoes. Take a piece of butter as big as a walnut and roll in flour. Put into pot with one cupful each of catchup, and sack; Stew till thick and smooth and send to the table speckled with minced parsley.

Got cow? Then you got dessert!
To make a fine Syllabub from the Cow
Sweeten a quart of cider with double refined sugar, grate nutmeg into it, then milk your cow into your liquor, when you have thus added what quantity of milk you think proper, pour half a pint or more, in proportion to the quantity of syllabub you make, of the sweetest cream you can get all over it.

After much research, the Liberty Tea and Snake Stew recipes were written by Christine Blevins. The Snake Stew recipe appears in THE TURNING OF ANNE MERRICK as a device for hiding the a secret message sent from Anne Merrick to Jack Hampton, and written between the lines in invisible ink.

Author Christine Blevins writes what she loves to read – historical adventure stories. THE TURNING OF ANNE MERRICK is the second in a 3-book series set during the American Revolution, and the companion book to THE TORY WIDOW. A native Chicagoan, Christine lives in Elmhurst, Illinois, along with her husband Brian, and The Dude, a very silly golden-doodle. She is at work finishing the third novel inspired by a lifelong fascination with the foundations of American history and the revolutionary spirit.

Christine’s website

Giveaway alert: Bayberry Candle Bundle – pleasant smelling, these are the perfect candles to light your table. A bayberry candle burned to the socket bring Lucks in the home, food in the larder, and Gold to the pocket.

To enter to win the Bayberry Candle Bundle and a copy of THE TURNING OF ANNE MERRICK, just fill out the form below before Wednesday, February 19th 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!

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Review: A Wrinkle in Time

Summary: Fifty years ago, Madeleine L’Engle introduced the world to A Wrinkle in Time and the wonderful and unforgettable characters Meg and Charles Wallace Murry, and their friend Calvin O’Keefe. When the children learn that Mr. Murry has been captured by the Dark Thing, they time travel to Camazotz, where they must face the leader IT in the ultimate battle between good and evil—a journey that threatens their lives and our universe. A Newbery Award winner, A Wrinkle in Time is an iconic novel that continues to inspire millions of fans around the world. This special edition has been redesigned and includes an introduction by Katherine Paterson, an afterword by Madeleine L’Engle’s granddaughter Charlotte Jones Voiklis that includes photographs and memorabilia, the author’s Newbery Medal acceptance speech, and other bonus materials. -- FSG

I know it's hard to believe but I don't think I've read A WRINKLE IN TIME by Madeleine L'Engle as a pre-teen. Looking back, I think I was a lot like Booking Daughter -- reading books all of the time but leaning towards the more fun or fluffy books. I'm sure I only read science fiction or fantasy when I absolutely had to, and I probably didn't appreciate that genre very much. I realize I'm a little late to the game, but I finally sat down a few days ago and read A WRINKLE IN TIME; and I'm absolutely kicking myself for not experiencing it as a kid. I absolutely adored this book!

Yesterday was the 50th Anniversary of the book's publication, and it still is every bit as popular today as it was back then. So, what more can I say about A WRINKLE IN TIME than has already been said by people much smarter and more eloquent than I? In fact, I feel a bit intimidated by trying to "review" this classic novel. Rather I think I will just share just a few my thoughts about this outstanding story.

Although I'm very sad that I didn't experience this novel when I was a tween, I am one hundred percent sure that I wouldn't have appreciated A WRINKLE IN TIME as much as I do as an adult. Maybe I wasn't a very intuitive reader back then, but I know I would have missed many of the subtleties (and in my opinion, best parts) of this story. There is no doubt that I enjoyed the suspense parts of this story when Meg, Charles Wallace and Calvin were trying to find Mr. Murray, but I most loved Meg and the overall messages in this novel.

First of all, what girl wouldn't love the character of Meg? Even though I am old enough to be Meg's mother, I totally related to her; and I know I would have related to her even more as a tween/teen. Meg is just a remarkable character for so many reasons. Not only does she have those normal teen feelings of insecurity, but she is also short tempered and impatient. I adored how she turned her "weaknesses" into strengths rather than allowing herself to fail because of them; and I think she's a great hero and an extremely positive role model.

And I hardly know where to begin when discussing the messages in A WRINKLE IN TIME. There are so many powerful and beautiful messages; and, while many are definitely universal, I think that some are special because of how they will resonate with individual readers. I was surprised by just how spiritual this book was, and I loved the life lessons that Meg learned throughout the course of this novel, especially as they pertained to good versus evil. All of the themes in this novel are valuable ones to readers of all ages and I don't think we can ever hear too many times about the power of love and hope.

What amazes me (and probably what makes A WRINKLE IN TIME such an iconic story) is that the story and the messages are as timely today as they were 50 years ago when the story was first published. I appreciate the land of Camazotz and what it teaches us about the importance of independence and free thinking. And I think The Dark Thing, which represents all things evil, is one of the most powerful symbols that I've ever encountered in my reading. In a time when we are facing so much despair including wars, economic crises, and poverty, it's a wonderful reminder that it is possible to overcome darkness with love.

But it was the feeling that I had when I finished the last page of A WRINKLE IN TIME that made this book so very special to me. I just felt all warm inside! I loved that this book shows that we can defeat The Dark Thing in our world by following our passions, and that with love, all things are possible.

Thanks to Big Honcho Media for providing a review copy allowing me to be part of the 50 Years, 50 Days, 50 Blogs Celebration Tour. Make sure you check out the other stops on the tour tour or the A Wrinkle in Time Facebook page .

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Review: Outside the Lines

Summary: When Eden was ten years old she found her father, David, bleeding out on the bathroom floor. The suicide attempt led to her parents’ divorce, and David all but vanished from Eden’s life. Since childhood, she has heard from him only rarely, just enough to know he’s been living on the streets and struggling with mental illness. But lately, there has been no word at all. 

Now in her thirties, Eden decides to go look for her father, so she can forgive him at last, and finally move forward. When her search uncovers other painful truths—not only the secrets her mother has kept from her, but also the agonizing question of whether David, after all these years, even wants to be found—Eden is forced to decide just how far she’ll go in the name of love. -- Washington Square Press

Last summer, I read BEST KEPT SECRET by Amy Hatvany. I absolutely loved this book and I truly was blown away by Ms. Hatvany's writing -- you can read my review here. But it was more than just the story that amazed me. I appreciated how this book made me think about parenting and alcoholism, and it even made me question my initial thoughts about the characters. I love it when a book can affect me so deeply.

So when I opened the mail a few weeks ago and discovered that Ms. Hatvany has another novel out called OUTSIDE THE LINES, I couldn't wait to read it. The description of the book appealed to me, but I admit that I was worried about being disappointed. I truly loved BEST KEPT SECRET and I feared that OUTSIDE THE LINES would pale in comparison.

I definitely wouldn't say that OUTSIDE THE LINES paled in comparison to BEST KEPT SECRET; however, I will say that I think BEST KEPT SECRET was a stronger novel. Not a lot stronger, but I guess that novel just resonated with me more than this one -- maybe it was because it explored both a mother's weakness and her love. Having said that, I enjoyed OUTSIDE THE LINES very much; and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to fans of women's fiction.

While I didn't find the storyline and characters in OUTSIDE THE LINES to be quite as interesting as the ones in BEST KEPT SECRETS, I still appreciated what Ms. Hatvany accomplished in this novel. OUTSIDE THE LINES tells the story of Eden a woman who last saw her father David when she was only ten years old. After battling mental illness and disappointing his family for years, David lost his will to live. Unfortunately, a very young Eden was the one to discover him after a suicide attempt. Needless to say, even as an adult, Eden was still reeling from her relationship (or lack thereof) with her father. She decides that she had to find him so she can have some sense of closure.

One of the things I adored about this book was the character of Eden. For the most part, she was very likable (notice I didn't say very smart!) I felt as if the author did a wonderful job of developing her character, both the good and the bad aspects; and I thought her thoughts and actions were very believable. In addition, I appreciated the character of David. I won't go so far as to say that I liked him. I had a very hard time accepting what he put this family through... even if he couldn't help himself. But I did find that he seemed very real to me and that his voice was authentic.

Another strong thing about OUTSIDE THE LINES was the format of the story. The book was written in both Eden's and David's voices which really allowed me to understand both characters. This was especially important to me when it came to David's character because he was very difficult to like. In addition, I liked that there were flashbacks to Eden's childhood. These chapters helped me to understand why Eden so desperately needed some closure with her father. All of the transitions between the chapters just flowed and worked really well for me.

I really enjoyed OUTSIDE THE LINES -- from the story, to the characters, to the way the author presented the story. However, I think I most appreciated how this novel explored mental illness. Once again, I was almost surprised by my reaction to this story. Of course, my heart went out to Eden and her mother for having to deal with David's episodes and abuse; however, I also felt sympathy towards David. Because there are chapters in this story written in David's voice, I got an inside look at a mentally ill person and it definitely wasn't pretty. At times, I got so angry at David for his behavior and selfishness; however, I think Ms. Hatvany gave me a unique perspective to mental illness. I no longer will question why someone suffering from one of these diseases doesn't just try to get better or allow his family to help him. I learned that it's not that simple.

OUTSIDE THE LINES deals with some very heavy issues and isn't always an easy read. However, I am impressed with how the author balanced the serious parts of this novel with some lighter ones. Despite dealing with homelessness, alcoholism, cancer and mental illness, there are also some happy and even funny aspects to this story. Eden is a very likable character and I enjoyed her relationships with her best friend and brother. I also liked her budding romance and chemistry with Jack, a great guy who runs a homeless shelter. While I found this book to be heartbreaking in many ways, I also loved that it showed the power of love and hope.

OUTSIDE THE LINES would make an excellent book club selection. I get excited just thinking about all of the potential topics to discuss. There is a reading guide

I just adore Amy Hatvany's writing style and I consider myself one of her biggest fans. I can't wait to see what she writes next! Highly recommended!

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

Monday, February 13, 2012

Review: Wild Thing

Summary: It's hard to find work as a doctor when using your real name will get you killed. So hard that when a reclusive billionaire offers Dr. Peter Brown, aka Pietro Brnwa, a job accompanying a sexy but self-destructive paleontologist on the world's worst field assignment, Brown has no real choice but to say yes. Even if it means that an army of murderers, mobsters, and international drug dealers-not to mention the occasional lake monster-are about to have a serious Pietro Brnwa problem.

Facing new and old monsters alike, Dr. Brnwa's story continues in this darkly funny and lightning-paced follow up to Josh Bazell's bestselling debut. -- Reagan Arthur

If there was one book that I was really looking forward to reading this year, it was WILD THING by Josh Bazell. I loved Mr. Bazell's bestselling novel BEAT THE REAPER -- you can read my review here; and I was so excited when I learned that he was writing a sequel. BEAT THE REAPER was one of the most original and compelling (and not to mention hilarious) books that I had ever read. So needless to say, I had some very high expectations when I sat down to read WILD THING.

Unfortunately, my experience reading WILD THING wasn't exactly what I was hoping for. I really wanted to love this book, but I just couldn't. Most of the things that I loved about BEAT THE REAPER just kind of worked in this novel. Mr. Bazell's writing style and sense of humor was very reminiscent of his prior book, and the footnotes were back (thank goodness.) But, I just don't think the suspense/thriller aspect of WILD THING was as strong as I was expecting.

On the plus side, WILD THING had a very similar feel as BEAT THE REAPER, both in the narrator's voice as well as the structure of the story. The main character Pietro Brnwa was still pretty much the same old guy; and I still appreciated his sense of humor and wisecracking comments. And I absolutely love how the entire story is supplemented with footnotes. These footnotes are extremely entertaining and often times very funny, and I think this writing style is one of the things I most appreciated about this book.

However, there were a few things about WILD THING that just didn't work for me. As I mentioned earlier, I wish the suspense aspects of the story were as good as they were in BEAT THE REAPER. It might be unfair to make comparisons, but I was just waiting for the story to get really good... maybe something like the shark scene in BEAT THE REAPER? And this book just never got there for me. I hate to say this because I really wanted to like this book, but I was disappointed in the general storyline.

In addition, I felt as if the author was using this book as a way to get across Pietor's (or maybe his own) personal political agenda. There is a pretty long Appendix and Sources section at the end of the novel which document the resources Mr. Bazell used to support his characters' views. While I was very impressed with many of the author's arguments and it's clear that he is both well informed and passionate about his views, I just don't know that all of it belonged in this novel. It's not that I had any major issues with the things that he said. Rather, I just thought it detracted from the overall quality of the story.

WILD THING is a sequel to BEAT THE REAPER and you might be wondering if it works as a standalone novel. My initial reaction is that I highly recommend reading BEAT THE REAPER first because it's just a terrific book, and I do think it's helpful to know Pietro's background. However, I guess you could read WILD THING first if you were so inclined. Mr. Bazell does give a few teasers into his character's past without providing any real spoilers, but I think WILD THING works better if you are "in" on all of the past references.

While I do admit that I am drawn to Pietro and his actions in some strange (you might say twisted) way, I have to warn readers that WILD THING isn't for the faint-of-heart. There is sex, violence, and plenty of swear words (and even a few objectionable terms for women and their body parts!) I am rarely bothered by foul language, but this book even shocked me a little bit. I would definitely classify it as raunchy in some places.

I very well might be alone with my thoughts on WILD THING, and I truly hope it was just my mood when I read this book. It's not that I didn't find some redeeming things about this novel, but I was just hoping for so much more.

Thanks to my local library for sharing 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.