Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Review: Size 12 and Ready to Rock

Summary: Summer break . . . and the livin' ain't easy! 

Just because the students at New York College have flown the coop doesn't mean assistant residence hall director Heather Wells can relax. Fischer Hall is busier than ever, filled with squealing thirteen- and fourteen-year-old girls attending the first ever Tania Trace Teen Rock Camp, hosted by pop sensation Tania Trace herself—who just happens to be newly married to Heather's ex-boyfriend, heartthrob Jordan Cartwright. But the real headache begins when the producer of a reality TV show starring Tania winds up dead . . . and it's clear that the star was the intended victim.

Grant Cartwright, head of Cartwright Records, wants to keep his daughter-in-law (and his highest-earning performer) alive. So he hires his oldest son, black sheep of the family and private investigator Cooper Cartwright—who just happens to be Heather's new fiancé. Heather should leave the detecting to Cooper. But with a dorm full of hysterical mini-divas-in-training, she can't help but get involved. And after Tania shares a really shocking secret with her, this reality suddenly becomes more dangerously real than anyone ever anticipated. -- William Morrow

This summer just seems to be flying by for me. Case in point, it's already time for the final review in Book Club Girl's Meg Cabot Read-Along. This time I read SIZE 12 AND READY TO ROCK the newly released book in the Heather Wells Mystery series. Not to pat myself on the back or anything, but I'm a little proud of myself for completing this read-along given everything else going on this summer. It wouldn't be right to take total credit, however. Ms. Cabot made it very easy because she writes such fun and light books that are perfect for summer reading.

SIZE 12 AND READY TO ROCK finds Heather Wells caught up in another fine mess. This time it's summer, a time when the residence hall director should be able to relax. However, Heather quickly discovers that that won't be the case this summer because her ex-boyfriend's wife Tania Trace (who also happens to be a HUGE pop star!) is hosting a teen rock camp reality show in the dormitory. Heather less than thrilled to be in close quarters with Tania (and her husband Jordan) all summer, but she finds herself even more upset when the producer of the series is found dead.

When it's apparent that the murderer was really after Tania, the head of her record label (who also happens to be Jordan's father) hires his eldest son Cooper (who also happens to be Heather's secret fiance) as a bodyguard for Tania. (Things aren't near as confusing as they sound -- these characters appear in all of the books!) Cooper is fully equipped to handle both the protection and the sleuthing; however, Heather can't help but get involved. She has successfully solved a few murder mysteries in the past! Along the way, Heather has to manage some very spoiled teens and keep everyone (including herself safe), but she also discovers some very sensitive secrets about Tania.

I thought SIZE 12 AND READY TO ROCK was a hoot! Meg Cabot has done it again and managed to write a very entertaining murder mystery. I don't know if I'd say the mystery angle of this story was impossible to figure out, but it was an interesting whodunit with a few surprising twists. If I'm being entirely honest, I don't think I read the Heather Wells Mystery series for the murder mysteries. They are all about Heather and the surrounding cast of characters to me.

Heather is just a wonderful character and I love laughing with her. She's had some heartache along the way and she's no longer at the peak of her career. She used to be a big-time pop star, but her mother ran off with her money. She lost her record contract and her boyfriend. She's also a little bit chunky and currently works in a residence hall, but she's still determined to make the best of her life and she never lets these challenges get her down. I love her upbeat personality and perseverance and especially her self-deprecating humor!

By SIZE 12 AND READY TO ROCK, Heather is finally discovering that her luck might be changing. She's recently engaged to Cooper, the man of her dreams (who also happens to be her ex-boyfriend's brother and the son of her former record label owner) and she's discovered that she does make a difference with the students she encounters through her job. She also learns that her ex-boyfriend and his wife might not be as bad (or as shallow) as she though. And here's the big thing... she can successfully solve murders!

In addition to Heather, I also love her fiance Cooper. I love Heather's descriptions of him and he does pretty much seem like the ideal guy. Heck, he must be pretty darn nice if he can tolerate some of Heather's quirks! I also enjoyed seeing another side to Tania and actually discovering that she's got a lot more depth than she did in the first novel. And finally, I thought the teen girls who were participating in the reality show and their mothers were portrayed in a very funny way -- not that I really liked them very much though. All of the selfish characteristics of teen girls were magnified when they were all in close quarters competing for television time and a record contract, and the stage moms' behavior brought to mind some of the mothers on Toddlers and Tiaras.

The one sure-fire thing I can say about this series, and especially SIZE 12 AND READY TO ROCK, is that these books are very entertaining. While I love reading literary books that made me think, I also appreciate a light and breezy book every now and then. I've discovered this summer that Meg Cabot just might be my summer go-to source for chick-lit books.

So far, I've read the first and last books in this series, but I definitely intend to read the remaining ones. These books are just so much fun and perfect for summer reading, and I highly recommend them. Here's a little incentive for you... the first book in the series SIZE 12 IS NOT FAT is available as an e-book for only $4.99 and SIZE 12 AND READY TO ROCK is currently $7.99. You can read more about this promotion here.

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

Make sure you join us tonight at 7 p.m. ET for a live chat with Meg Cabot on Book Club Girl on Air.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Review: Dare Me

Summary: Since both girls were small, Addy Hanlon has always been Beth Cassidy's best friend and right-hand lieutenant. Beth calls the shots and Addy carries them out, a long-established order of things that has brought them to the pinnacle of their high-school careers. Now they're seniors who rule the intensely competitive cheer squad, feared and followed by the other girls - until the young new coach arrives.

Cool and commanding, an emissary from the adult world just beyond their reach, Coach Colette French draws Addy and the other cheerleaders into her life. Only Beth, unsettled by the new regime, remains outside Coach's golden circle, waging a subtle but vicious campaign to regain her position as "top girl" - both with the team and with Addy herself.

And then a suspicious suicide hits close to home, and the police investigation focuses on Coach and her squad. As Addy begins to suspect what really happened, the line between right and wrong grows blurrier, and she must decide where her loyalties truly lie-and how far is too far to go for someone you love.

The raw passions of girlhood are brought to life in this taut, unflinching exploration of friendship, ambition, and power. Award-winning novelist Megan Abbott, writing with what Tom Perrotta has hailed as "total authority and an almost desperate intensity," provides a harrowing glimpse into the dark heart of the all-American girl. -- Reagan Arthur

At last year's BEA, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to not only meet but talk to author Megan Abbott. I had just finished her novel THE END OF EVERYTHING -- you can read my review here; and I had quite a few questions for her about the ending of the story. I thoroughly enjoyed this book although I admit I was a bit creeped out by what occurred. Needless to say, I was anxious to see if her next novel would live up to my expectations.

DARE ME tells the story of a highly dysfunctional high school cheering squad -- and the term dysfunctional is pretty much a nice way to describe these girls! At its simplest, the novel focuses primarily on best friends Addy and Beth, and how their lives change with the arrival of their new coach Colette French. You might not be surprised to hear that there is a bit of jealousy involved as well as some vicious back-stabbing -- girls will be girls!

Former squad leader Beth finds herself in an entirely new situation when she doesn't exactly bond with Colette, while Addy becomes quite close to the coach namely because Colette gives her much-needed attention and guidance (although I have to tell you that the guidance she provides is NOT appropriate for a teacher to give a student!) Addy quickly realizes that she is in the difficult position of being caught between her best friend and the new coach; and she tries to balance these two important relationships in her life. Hint: she doesn't do a very good job of keeping Beth happy!

When a teacher at the high school dies under suspicious circumstances, Addy finds herself right smack dab in the middle of the investigation... along with Colette and the cheering squad. As the mystery surrounding the death unfolds, Addy begins to question the veracity of her coach and she is torn between doing what is right and protecting those she loves.

I have to warn you that DARE ME might sound like it's geared towards pre-teens and teens, but let me assure you that this novel is most definitely for adults. In fact, as I was reading this novel, I almost thought the girls' actions came straight out of a horror movie because they were so dark and evil! While I thought I'd seen and heard a lot about just how cruel teen girls can be to each other, DARE ME brought this behavior to a whole new level. Beth should be pictured in a dictionary next to the term "mean girl."

I liked DARE ME, but I'm not so sure I'd say I loved it. In fact, I'm not sure I "liked" it quite as much as I did THE END OF EVERYTHING. Having said that though, it did evoke many of the same feelings and reactions that the first earlier novel did and I appreciated what Ms. Abbott set out to do. The story was dark and made me very uncomfortable, and I was certainly interested in discovering the events surrounding the death. Furthermore, I did enjoy Ms. Abbott's writing style as well as her character development; and I liked how well she brought a new (and feminine) twist to the hard-boiled/noir genre.

I'm sure it's for all of these reasons and more that Entertainment Weekly (my go-to source for books) gave it an A-. Unfortunately, I don't think I "enjoyed" this book enough to warrant that kind of rating. While I do agree with much of what they said and I did appreciate Ms. Abbott's writing, I can't say that this will go down as one of my favorite reads. I think the story was just too dark for me and the characters were just too edgy -- I quickly realized that I'm not "cool" enough for a book like this. As a mother to an almost teenage girl, I couldn't get past just how mean and destructive the girls were; and frankly, their behavior just freaked me out!

Despite my issues with the dark nature of this novel, I did think the mystery surrounding the character's death was fantastic. I wasn't exactly sure what happened to him, and I changed my mind quite a few times as I discovered more about the characters. There were a few interesting twists and turns thrown in and I felt as if the unfolding of the mystery was extremely well done.

There is no doubt that Megan Abbott has major writing skills and can weave a very dark and very unique story. I'm sure many readers will love this book, but it was just a little too scary for me!

Thanks to the publisher for providing 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.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Review: Beautiful Ruins

 Summary: The story begins in 1962. On a rocky patch of the sun-drenched Italian coastline, a young innkeeper, chest-deep in daydreams, looks out over the incandescent waters of the Ligurian Sea and spies an apparition: a tall, thin woman, a vision in white, approaching him on a boat. She is an actress, he soon learns, an American starlet, and she is dying. 

And the story begins again today, half a world away, when an elderly Italian man shows up on a movie studio's back lot—searching for the mysterious woman he last saw at his hotel decades earlier. 

What unfolds is a dazzling, yet deeply human, roller coaster of a novel, spanning fifty years and nearly as many lives. From the lavish set of Cleopatra to the shabby revelry of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Walter introduces us to the tangled lives of a dozen unforgettable characters: the starstruck Italian innkeeper and his long-lost love; the heroically preserved producer who once brought them together and his idealistic young assistant; the army veteran turned fledgling novelist and the rakish Richard Burton himself, whose appetites set the whole story in motion—along with the husbands and wives, lovers and dreamers, superstars and losers, who populate their world in the decades that follow. Gloriously inventive, constantly surprising, Beautiful Ruins is a story of flawed yet fascinating people, navigating the rocky shores of their lives while clinging to their improbable dreams. -- Harper

I have heard some pretty good things about Jess Walter, but for some unknown (and unfortunate) reason, I hadn't read any of his novels. All that changed a few weeks ago when I picked up BEAUTIFUL RUINS. All I can say is, "wow!" This novel was extremely special and I was blown away by Mr. Walter's writing skills. Now I'm absolutely kicking myself for waiting so darn long to read this author!

BEAUTIFUL RUINS is not easy to sum up in just a few sentences, so I'm going to wimp out and just say, "Read the publisher's summary at the beginning of this review." It's way better than anything I could ever put together. (I know because I tried and I discovered that I had written three very long paragraphs just describing the high points of the novel!) What I can tell you  is that there are a lot of characters (close to a dozen) and a lot of stories about them. In addition, the story covers a fifty year time period, goes back and forth between the present and the past, and takes place in such unique locations including the Italian coastline, Hollywood, Edinburgh, Seattle, and Idaho. I thought it was a very ambitious novel, but Mr. Walter amazingly made it all work.

I admit that I'm a bit overwhelmed trying to write this review. Not only did I have difficulties in writing a summary, but I'm also having a hard time trying to articulate what made this book so special to me. Of course, there are a number of fabulous things about BEAUTIFUL RUINS, but one thing that really stood out to me was the plot (or should I say plots?) of this novel. He brought together so many unique (and even zany) characters and stories, and the entire time I was reading, I couldn't believe how well it all worked. I continually wondered, "How in the world did he think of these people and their stories?"

And then there's his writing. What can I say, but... it's marvelous and original. I loved his prose and his descriptions of the settings, and I even thought his dialogue was spot-on. However, his characters and their actions were pretty remarkable in their own right. The characters he created were larger-than-life and certain to remain in my thoughts for a very long time -- I even appreciated his portrayal of Richard Burton. Furthermore, I loved how these characters just came to life -- they were all very real to me and I was interested in every single one of them.

Another truly great thing about BEAUTIFUL RUINS was how entertaining it was. I've already mentioned that I was captivated by the characters and their actions, but I didn't mention how hilarious this book was. There were numerous characters that were truly funny like Michael Deane the aging Hollywood producer and, of course, Richard Burton. However, I was also deeply affected by many of the characters and their lives. BEAUTIFUL RUINS encompassed so much about basic human nature and how we interact with each other. It also reminded me of how much our past actions can influence our future selves. What I just loved about this novel is that it made me think and feel -- truly feel; and that's not always the case when I sit down to read a book.

BEAUTIFUL RUINS would make a great book club pick. I can honestly say it's a unique story and I don't think my group has read anything like this in our almost ten year existence. I wasn't able to find a formal reading guide, but I have no doubt that every reader will want to talk about this story and its characters. Some of the themes that you might want to explore include all types of love, loss, addiction, career aspirations, disappointment, parent/child relationships, illness, and friendship.

I honestly can't recommend BEAUTIFUL RUINS enough! I adored this funny, yet touching, novel; and it's definitely going to be one of my favorite summer reads of 2012.

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

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Kid Konnection: From What I Remember...

Every Saturday, I host a feature called Kid Konnection -- a regular weekend feature about anything related to children's books. This week, I'm going to share with you a young adult book that I recently enjoyed at the beach.

Summary: Four teens have the misadventure of their lives in this ultimate summer read.

KYLIE: MEXICO? What a nightmare! I should be putting the finishing touches on my valedictorian speech. Graduation is TODAY! Wait! Is this a wedding band on my finger??

MAX: It all started with Kylie's laptop and a truck full of stolen electronics, and it ended in Ensenada. It was kind of hot, the way she broke us out like some chick in an action movie. But now we're stranded here, with less than twenty-four hours before graduation. 
WILL: Saving Kylie Flores from herself is kind of a full-time occupation. Luckily, I, Will Bixby, was born for the job. And when I found out she was stuck in Meixco with dreamy Max Langston, sure, I agreed to bring thier passports across the border. But there's no reason to rush back home right away -- this party is just getting started!
LILY: This CANNOT be happening. It's like some cruel job. Or a bad dream. I close my eyes, and when I reopen them, they're still there. Max and Kylie Flores, freak of the century. In bed together. If Kylie thinks I'm giving him up without a fight, she's dead wrong. -- Hyperion

Relatively speaking, I don't read a lot of young adult books. It's not that I don't enjoy books geared towards teens, I just think I've mainly been reading other types of books. I prefer adult books, but I also read a fair amount of middle grade books for my daughter and picture book and early readers for my son. Thankfully, Booking Daughter has never had the urge to read up -- she's been content with MG books. However, I'm realizing as she quickly approaches her thirteenth birthday that YA books might be more on my radar over the next few years. (Similarly, Booking Son is turning eight in the next few weeks, and I'm finding that he's interested in less and less picture books. As a mom, this is much harder to accept!)

One young adult book that recently captured my interest is FROM WHAT I REMEMBER... by Stacy Kramer & Valerie Thomas. This novel about four teens who are on the brink of graduation and find themselves in some pretty interesting situations was very entertaining! Despite coming in at over 450 pages, I read this book in just a few hours one day at the beach and I couldn't put it down. I think that says a lot when a 43 year old woman is glued to a book that's not even geared towards her.

FROM WHAT I REMEMBER... tells the story of four teens -- Kylie, Max, Will and Lily. This crazy story begins when Kylie, the class good girl, wakes up in a strange bed next to Max, one of the most popular guys in school. She is even more shocked to find that they are in Mexico and both wearing wedding rings. All of this occurs within the first few pages of this book, and believe me when I tell you, that it was quite the beginning. Needless to say, I was hooked and had to know how these two teens ended up in this very unusual situation.

For the next almost 300 pages, the story is a flashback telling just how Kylie and Max ended up in bed together. Suffice it to say, that it's one wild and crazy ride -- literally.  It begins when Kylie's computer is stolen. Naturally, she freaks out because "everything" is on it (including her valedictorian speech) and, of course, she doesn't have a back-up. So what does she do? She and Max hop in the back of a truck of stolen electronics and end up in Mexico. Once they are there, Kylie and Max forge a new friendship (or should I say relationship?) and learn about Kylie's father's past.

In a neat twist, the story returns to the first section when Kylie and Max wake up together with wedding bands; and for the last 150 pages or so, Kylie and Max find themselves scurrying to get back in time for their graduation ceremony. As confusing (and fun) as this whole adventure has been for Kylie and Max, things get very complicated when Kylie's friend Will and Max's girlfriend Lily arrive on the scene. All four teens find themselves discovering new things about each other... and themselves; and there are quite a few good messages about love, family, and friendship.

I thoroughly enjoyed FROM WHAT I REMEMBER... and I can honestly tell you that it's a book that I would have devoured as a teen. (Heck -- I kind of devoured it as an adult!) The characters were interesting and I think many girls will find themselves relating to Kylie -- I know I would have. While the story itself is a bit outrageous when I think back on it, I didn't feel this way at all when I was reading it. The authors managed to create believable characters that I found highly entertaining. I loved how much humor was woven into this story.

In addition to being very entertaining, this book also delved into some serious issues that today's teens face. There were some universal themes like parent/child relationships, peer pressure, and cliques; however, there were also some more complex ones like homosexuality, prejudice, secrets, lost dreams, staying true to one's self, forgiveness, and autism. Because there were so many deep issues, I do think FROM WHAT I REMEMBER... would make for an interesting discussion book for teen book clubs or even mother/daughter ones.

The authors have prior experience in film and that was very apparent to me while I was reading this novel. First of all, every chapter began with a quotation from a famous film. The quote summed up something pertinent from the upcoming chapter and it was like a trip down memory lane for me since I had fond memories for many of these films. In addition, Kylie and Max threw out movie quotes regularly in their conversations. I loved their banter and especially their appreciation for movies. And finally, it was obvious to me that these two authors have a love of film because the entire story just seemed like it could be a movie. I wouldn't be surprised to see FROM WHAT I REMEMBER... on the big screen in a few years!

In summary, FROM WHAT I REMEMBER... is a very fun book that I suspect teens will love! I know I did!

Thanks to the author for providing a review 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, July 27, 2012

The Sweet Life E-Series

I wanted to share with you some exciting news for all of you Sweet Valley fans out there. This summer, St. Martin's Press is releasing six episodes in THE SWEET LIFE e-series. Starting July 15th, stories will be released every two weeks this summer for only $1.99 per story episode. Both long-time and new fans of this series will enjoy reading about Elizabeth and Jessica as they navigate their ways through some very interesting situations.

I hate to even admit this, but I think I was a little too old when the Sweet Valley books were first issued; and as a result, I wasn't familiar with all of Elizabeth and Jessica's escapades. However, that doesn't mean that I am not familiar with this hugely successful series and these two larger-than-life characters. I sincerely doubt that I will even go back and read the entire series, but I was curious to see what these new stories were like -- especially since they are geared towards adults.

I decided to start with THE SWEET LIFE #1 and I admit that I was a bit hesitant. These stories aren't really my usual reading fare and I was afraid that I wouldn't be able to follow the story since I definitely don't have much background on these characters. I was surprised to find that this first episode was actually entertaining -- not in the "OMG this is amazing literature" way, but more in a "guilty pleasure" way. This episode very much reminded me of a televised soap because it was filled with lots of drama, plotting, and back-stabbing; and it is ideal for an escape summer read.

This first story definitely ended with a cliffhanger (again, much like a soap) and it did make me want to continue reading the second episode -- LIES AND OMISSIONS. I am guessing that these short stories are very different from the books many of you remember from your childhood. The characters are very adult and not always nice. Having said that, I can definitely see the appeal of these characters and their actions; and I have a feeling that fans of this series will have a lot of fun with these six stories.

THE SWEET LIFE #1 begins three years after the events of Sweet Valley Confidential; Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield are back in Sweet Valley and inseparable once more. Things are looking up for both twins: Elizabeth is a star reporter at the LA Tribune with a popular blog, and Jessica’s PR career is on the fast-track. But while the professional lives of the Wakefield sisters are secure, their personal lives may be in jeopardy. Jessica, now a mother, finds that managing parenthood, marriage, and a job is harder than she expected, while Elizabeth and Bruce must face a scandal that could strengthen their bond…or tear them apart for ever. Meanwhile, life goes on in Sweet Valley. Families are made, hearts are broken, and…Lila Fowler is a reality TV star? Some things never change.

THE SWEET LIFE, LIES AND OMISSIONS: Jessica finds her marriage to Todd hanging by a thread. Meanwhile, Lila Fowler, reality TV star extraordinaire, embarks on a risky scheme that could win her fame but cost her everything. And the scandal rocking Sweet Valley deepens for Elizabeth and Bruce, who find themselves at odds when loyalty conflicts with the need for the truth. The Sweet Life #2: Lies and Omissions picks up right where the first episode leaves off, and the stakes get even higher!

THE SWEET LIFE, TOO MANY DOUBTS: Jessica finds her marriage to Todd in jeopardy after she makes a terrible mistake. Meanwhile, reality TV star extraordinaire Lila Fowler’s fame-seeking scheme backfires in the worst way. And the scandal threatening to tear Elizabeth and Bruce apart only gets worse when the District Attorney gets involved. The Sweet Life #3: Too Many Doubts races to a shocking ending that will leave readers clamoring for more!

THE SWEET LIFE, SECRETS AND SEDUCTIONS: Jessica, now a mother, is trying to reconcile a colossal mistake that may have cost her Todd forever. Meanwhile, reality TV star extraordinaire Lila Fowler’s in desperate straits after her fame-seeking scheme has unexpected repercussions. And Elizabeth and Bruce struggle to cope with the fallout of the scandal that’s torn them apart, made worse after Bruce makes a shocking decision. The Sweet Life #4: Secrets and Seductions turns up the heat as the serial speeds towards its explosive conclusion.

THE SWEET LIFE, CUTTING THE TIES: From Francine Pascal, creator of Sweet Valley High and author of the New York Times bestselling Sweet Valley Confidential, comes the fifth novella-length installment of the groundbreaking, six-part, e-serial, The Sweet Life, continuing the adventures of beautiful blonde twins Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield and the gang from Sweet Valley

THE SWEET LIFE, BITTERSWEET: From Francine Pascal, creator of Sweet Valley High and author of the New York Times bestselling Sweet Valley Confidential, comes the sixth novella-length installment of the groundbreaking, six-part, e-serial, The Sweet Life, continuing the adventures of beautiful blonde twins Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield and the gang from Sweet Valley.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Review: The Age of Miracles

Summary: With a voice as distinctive and original as that of The Lovely Bones, and for the fans of the speculative fiction of Margaret Atwood, Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles is a luminous, haunting, and unforgettable debut novel about coming of age set against the backdrop of an utterly altered world. 

“It still amazes me how little we really knew. . . . Maybe everything that happened to me and my family had nothing at all to do with the slowing. It’s possible, I guess. But I doubt it. I doubt it very much.” 

On a seemingly ordinary Saturday in a California suburb, Julia and her family awake to discover, along with the rest of the world, that the rotation of the earth has suddenly begun to slow. The days and nights grow longer and longer, gravity is affected, the environment is thrown into disarray. Yet as she struggles to navigate an ever-shifting landscape, Julia is also coping with the normal disasters of everyday life—the fissures in her parents’ marriage, the loss of old friends, the hopeful anguish of first love, the bizarre behavior of her grandfather who, convinced of a government conspiracy, spends his days obsessively cataloging his possessions. As Julia adjusts to the new normal, the slowing inexorably continues. -- Random House 

It's pretty unusual for me to know nothing about a book when I begin reading it; however, that was exactly the case with THE AGE OF MIRACLES by Karen Thompson Walker. All I knew is that I had to read it because it was getting so much terrific buzz and it was on my list of must-reads for the summer. So I reserved it at my local library and waited a few weeks until it was available, and then I immediately dropped what I was currently reading and dug in!

THE AGE OF MIRACLES is eleven year old Julia's story about the "slowing" of the earth and how it affected her life. The "slowing" of the earth occurred out of the blue one morning when the rotation of the early began to slow down.. and it continued to gradually get slower every day. This "slowing" caused the days and nights to became longer, and it also affected the earth's gravitational force. As a result, the environment drastically changed, animals began to suffer, and people were divided in how best to handle the changes. While the rest of the world was trying to adapt to the "slowing," tween Julia was dealing with her own set of issues including her parents' troubled marriage, the breakup of an old friendship, and the strange behavior of her grandfather.

On the surface, I expected to love THE AGE OF MIRACLES; and for the first few chapters of this novel, it seemed like the story had the potential to be captivating. This novel is part science fiction, part literary fiction, and part coming-of-age (which I usually love!); and while I'm not usually drawn to books about the end of the world, I figured the eleven year old narrator would help offset the apocalyptic nature of the story. And initially, I did like Julia's voice and I thought the author did a great job of capturing the essence of an young girl; however, these feelings weren't enough to make me say that I enjoyed this novel as much as I had hoped.

I can pretty much say that THE AGE OF MIRACLES didn't live up to all of its hype for me, but I realize that I'm in the minority with these thoughts. While I did like this book and I appreciated the original premise of the story, something just fell flat for me in the execution. I liked Julia and her narrative, but I found the novel to be very quiet... almost too quiet. I kept waiting for something big to happen or even for a little action, and it just never occurred.

Despite feeling a little let down with this story, I did find quite a few things to like. As a mother to a twelve year old daughter, I found the character of Julia to be very real and honest. I couldn't help but love her! While the world was falling down around her and her mother was freaking out, she still was concerned about things that any normal tween girl would be like issues with her parents as well as her friends and buying her first bra. I appreciated that Julia remained relatively normal within this chaos and she represented to me that life does go on no matter what!

I'm the first to admit that I'm not really into science fiction and THE AGE OF MIRACLES is much, much more than just a science fiction story, but I actually appreciated the details about the "slowing." I thought the idea of this gradual "slowing" and how it was changing the world was so compelling, and I was very interested in seeing how people tried to cope with these changes. I actually found myself thinking about the resilience of individuals and how many manage to come together in times of tragedy.

And while I realize that this was Julia's story rather than one about the "slowing", I thought the split between the clock time followers and the "real-timers" was incredibly intriguing. The real-timers were perceived as a threat to the others and I felt as if there was so much potential with this idea to explore some of the inherent themes of human nature. The behavior of the people who were threatened showed just how irrational we can be when faced with something we don't understand.

Based on my thoughts in these last few paragraphs, it probably won't come as any surprise to you that THE AGE OF MIRACLES would make a very interesting book club pick. There is a reading guide with twelve terrific questions, and I'm certain that every reader will have some interesting insights into the events in this novel. Some of the themes that you might want to discuss (although they are a little scary in my opinion) include the end of the world and individuals' reactions to it. However, there are other themes including friendships, coming-of-age, marriage, parent/child relationships, denial, and deceptions that would be interested too.

While THE AGE OF MIRACLES didn't meet my expectations (which, in all fairness, were probably too high), I did appreciate it; and I liked how much it made me think about basic human nature. Recommended for fans of coming-of-age stories as well as science and literary fiction.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Review: The Sandcastle Girls

Summary: Over the course of his career, New York Times bestselling novelist Chris Bohjalian has taken readers on a spectacular array of journeys. Midwives brought us to an isolated Vermont farmhouse on an icy winter’s night and a home birth gone tragically wrong. The Double Bind perfectly conjured the Roaring Twenties on Long Island—and a young social worker’s descent into madness. And Skeletons at the Feast chronicled the last six months of World War Two in Poland and Germany with nail-biting authenticity. As The Washington Post Book World has noted, Bohjalian writes “the sorts of books people stay awake all night to finish.”

In his fifteenth book,
The Sandcastle Girls, he brings us on a very different kind of journey. This spellbinding tale travels between Aleppo, Syria, in 1915 and Bronxville, New York, in 2012—a sweeping historical love story steeped in the author’s Armenian heritage, making it his most personal novel to date.

When Elizabeth Endicott arrives in Syria, she has a diploma from Mount Holyoke College, a crash course in nursing, and only the most basic grasp of the Armenian language. The First World War is spreading across Europe, and she has volunteered on behalf of the Boston-based Friends of Armenia to deliver food and medical aid to refugees of the Armenian genocide. There, Elizabeth becomes friendly with Armen, a young Armenian engineer who has already lost his wife and infant daughter. When Armen leaves Aleppo to join the British Army in Egypt, he begins to write Elizabeth letters, and comes to realize that he has fallen in love with the wealthy, young American woman who is so different from the wife he lost. Flash forward to the present, where we meet Laura Petrosian, a novelist living in suburban New York. Although her grandparents’ ornate Pelham home was affectionately nicknamed the “Ottoman Annex,” Laura has never really given her Armenian heritage much thought. But when an old friend calls, claiming to have seen a newspaper photo of Laura’s grandmother promoting an exhibit at a Boston museum, Laura embarks on a journey back through her family’s history that reveals love, loss—and a wrenching secret that has been buried for generations. -- Doubleday

One of the books I was most looking forward to reading this summer was THE SANDCASTLE GIRLS by Chris Bohjalian. I have read quite a few of Ms. Bohjalian's novels and I've never been disappointed. I have always found that his stories are gripping and his characters very memorable; and in the case of THE SANDCASTLE GIRLS, both of these things were true. This novel about love and war was extremely moving and most definitely taught me a thing or two about the genocide of the Armenian people in the early 1900s.

THE SANDCASTLE GIRLS tells the story of two very interesting women separated by almost one hundred years. Elizabeth is a recent college graduate who has volunteered with the Friends of Armenia to help distribute aid to the refugees from the Armenian genocide. While working in the war-torn country, she's sees some horrific things, but she also manages to find some goodness in a young and widowed Armenian man named Armen. When Armen leaves to join the British Army, Elizabeth keeps in touch with him through letters and hopes for the day when they might be reunited.

The novel also features Laura a novelist who lives in present day New York who is researching her Armenian family's background. Despite not giving too much thought to her Armenian heritage, when a friend shares that she saw a newspaper photograph of her grandmother, Laura is driven to learn more and delves deep into her family's past and their secrets.

For those of you familiar with Mr. Bohjalian's writing, you will certainly know what I mean when I say this book encompassed everything I've come to know and love about his stories. I found the entire book to be very interesting especially since I knew little about the Armenian genocide, and the characters he created were so complex. In addition, I loved how he presented the stories of these wonderful women. The novel went back and forth between 1915 and the present, and I was impressed with how he tied in Elizabeth's stories to her letters that Laura was reading.

I do have to warn you that while THE SANDCASTLE GIRLS is an extremely powerful book, it's not one that's always easy to read. This novel deals with the horrors of war and genocide, and parts of it made me very uncomfortable. I will tell you that, at times, I was sick in my stomach reading about the atrocities and the more vile aspects of human nature -- much like I feel when reading books about the Holocaust.

However, this book wasn't all depressing. It also demonstrated the goodness, beauty, and resilience of individuals. Elizabeth and Armen's love story was wonderful and deeply touched my heart; and Laura's quest to learn about her family also made me appreciate how linked we are to our past. There were other minor characters who also demonstrated the true goodness in people by the help they gave to those in need or the chances they took to save them. In fact, the characters in THE SANDCASTLE GIRLS made me appreciate the sacrifices that my ancestors made not only for themselves and their survival, but also for their future generations.

It was obvious to me that Mr. Bohjalian did a thorough amount of research on the Armenian genocide and the effects it had on the refugees and survivors. His descriptions of the horrors were incredibly vivid, and there were many passages that remain in my thoughts because they described the tragedies of war so well. However, it was also apparent that this subject matter was one that was near and dear to his heart. Mr. Bohjalian (note the -ian at the end of his name) chose to write this book about his Armenian heritage at a perfect time since the centennial of the genocide is approaching.

I can think of few books I've read recently that would be more interesting to discuss that THE SANDCASTLE GIRLS. Naturally, there is a reading guide available with fourteen questions; and I found them to be quite intriguing. Some of the topics you might want to explore include the effects of war, love, loss, grief, motherhood, family, loyalty, revenge, immigration and assimilation, the oppression of women, and man's ability to survive. There are probably ten more themes I could list, but I think you get the idea. This novel is perfect for book clubs!

I adored THE SANDCASTLE GIRLS. While it wasn't always an easy read, I do think it's an important novel and one that I highly recommend.

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

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Review: Where We Belong

Summary: The author of five blockbuster novels, Emily Giffin, delivers an unforgettable story of two women, the families that make them who they are, and the longing, loyalty and love that binds them together

Marian Caldwell is a thirty-six year old television producer, living her dream in New York City. With a fulfilling career and satisfying relationship, she has convinced everyone, including herself, that her life is just as she wants it to be. But one night, Marian answers a knock on the door . . . only to find Kirby Rose, an eighteen-year-old girl with a key to a past that Marian thought she had sealed off forever. From the moment Kirby appears on her doorstep, Marian’s perfectly constructed world—and her very identity—will be shaken to its core, resurrecting ghosts and memories of a passionate young love affair that threaten everything that has come to define her. 

For the precocious and determined Kirby, the encounter will spur a process of discovery that ushers her across the threshold of adulthood, forcing her to re-evaluate her family and future in a wise and bittersweet light. As the two women embark on a journey to find the one thing missing in their lives, each will come to recognize that where we belong is often where we least expect to find ourselves—a place that we may have willed ourselves to forget, but that the heart remembers forever. -- St. Martin's Press

I spent part of last week at the shore and was fortunate enough to read some very good books. One of those was WHERE WE BELONG by Emily Giffin. I definitely consider myself a big fan of Ms. Giffin's books, and while I haven't loved each and every one, I know I can depend on her for a fun beach read. In the case of WHERE WE BELONG, though, I have to say that it will probably go down as one of my favorites.

WHERE WE BELONG tells the story of Marian Caldwell a 36 year old woman whose life is seemingly perfect. She has a dream job as a television producer and a great boyfriend who just happens to be the head of the network; however, her life turns upside down late one night when a teenage girl shows up on her doorstep. Marian gets the shock of a lifetime when she realizes that the girl is Kirby, the child she gave up for adoption almost eighteen years ago.

Needless to say, Marian's almost too-perfect life is turned upside-down as she tries to deal with the existence of Rosie in her life and the painful reminder of a the young love affair she had with Rosie's dad. Meanwhile, Kirby is also working through things as she comes to terms with her birth mother and birth father as well as her current family situation. As these two women get to know each other, they also begin learning valuable things about themselves and those they love.

WHERE WE BELONG was just an overall terrific story and I think it's an ideal summer read. As is almost always the case with an Emily Giffin book, the characters were wonderful. I loved both Marian and Kirby, and I appreciated how authentic they seemed to me. Both Marian and Kirby were pretty complex women and I liked how they worked through their issues -- sometimes more easily than others. Furthermore, I loved how each one of them brought something special to the other one's life. While it's probably more obvious to refer to this novel as a coming-of-age story for Kirby because of her age, I actually thought both women matured a lot by the end of the book and realized some valuable life lessons about love, loss, and family.

One thing that stood out to me was how Ms. Giffin decided to tell Marian's story. While most of the story took place in the present day and went back and forth between Marian and Kirby's lives, there were also flashbacks to Marian's past -- the time when she fell in love for the first time, discovered that she was pregnant, and decided to give up the baby for adoption. Initially, I didn't love Marian as a character; however, as I learned more about her painful past and her difficult decisions, I became much more compassionate towards her and eventually really, really liked her. Of course, her words and actions towards Kirby's parents went a long way in helping her cause too. She treated them with the respect they deserved and I loved her for that!

WHERE WE BELONG would make for an interesting selection for book clubs who appreciate women's fiction. There is a link to a reading guide on the author's website, but it appears that it's not working at this time. Since I can't actually see the questions, I can only guess about the topics they cover; however, there are so many issues in this story that I'm sure I'll touch upon some of them here. Your group might want to talk about adoption -- both as a mother and a child, the role of adoptive parents, family dynamics, love, relationships, first love, dishonesty, choices, and forgiveness. Believe me... there is a lot of potential discussion points in this novel.

I enjoyed WHERE WE BELONG a great deal. It was an entertaining read with terrific characters, but it also managed to touch me heart. I know Emily Giffin fans won't be disappointed with her latest novel, and I also think fans of women's fiction will appreciate this one.

WHERE WE BELONG is also available as an audio book and I'm certain I would have enjoyed it just as much in this format. Here's a clip from the audio version!

Thanks to SheKnows Book Club and the publisher for providing a review copy of this novel.

You can read more about WHERE WE BELONG and the SheKnows Book Club here.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Giveaway: A Second Wind & Poster

Summary: As the descendant of two prominent French families and director of one of the world’s most celebrated champagne houses, Philippe Pozzo di Borgo was not someone in the habit of asking for help. Then, in 1993, right on the heels of his wife being diagnosed with a terminal illness, a paragliding accident left him a quadriplegic.

Passing his days hidden behind the high walls of his Paris townhouse, Philippe found himself the modern equivalent of an “untouchable”—unable to reach out to others, as others were afraid to reach out to him. The only person who seemed unaffected by Philippe’s condition was someone who had been marginalized his entire life—Abdel, the unemployed, uninhibited Algerian immigrant who would become his unlikely caretaker. In between dramas and jokes, he sustained Philippe’s life for the next ten years.  

A Second Wind, the basis for the major motion picture The Intouchables, is the inspiring true story of two men who refused to ask for help, and then wound up helping each other. -- Atria

On May 25th, The Intouchables, which is based on the book A SECOND WIND by Philippe Pozzo di Borgo, was released in theaters. This movie tells the uplifting story of an 'extreme sports' enthusiast turned quadriplegic who enlists an inner city man as his caretaker. I haven't had a chance to see the movie yet, but after watching the trailer, my interest is definitely piqued.

Thanks to the fine folks at the Weinstein Company, I have a copy of A SECOND WIND plus the movie poster to share with one lucky reader. To enter, just fill out the form below before July 29th 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!

Review: Criminal & Giveaway

Summary:  Karin Slaughter’s new novel is an epic tale of love, loyalty, and murder that encompasses forty years, two chillingly similar murder cases, and a good man’s deepest secrets.

Will Trent is a brilliant agent with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. Newly in love, he is beginning to put a difficult past behind him. Then a local college student goes missing, and Will is inexplicably kept off the case by his supervisor and mentor, deputy director Amanda Wagner. Will cannot fathom Amanda’s motivation until the two of them literally collide in an abandoned orphanage they have both been drawn to for different reasons. Decades before—when Will’s father was imprisoned for murder—this was his home. . . .

Flash back nearly forty years. In the summer Will Trent was born, Amanda Wagner is going to college, making Sunday dinners for her father, taking her first steps in the boys’ club that is the Atlanta Police Department. One of her first cases is to investigate a brutal crime in one of the city’s worst neighborhoods. Amanda and her partner, Evelyn, are the only ones who seem to care if an arrest is ever made.

Now the case that launched Amanda’s career has suddenly come back to life, intertwined with the long-held mystery of Will’s birth and parentage. And these two dauntless investigators will each need to face down demons from the past if they are to prevent an even greater terror from being unleashed.

A masterpiece of character, atmosphere, and riveting suspense,
Criminal is the most powerful and moving novel yet from one of our most gifted storytellers at work today. -- Delacorte

This review is something new for me -- it's a "combination review" for CRIMINAL by Karin Slaughter. This is the very first book where I read the physical hardcover and listened to some of the audio as well. I think I picked a great book to try this new way of reading for me because CRIMINAL was superb -- in both formats.

CRIMINAL is a pretty complex story, and as a result, I'm having a hard time summing up the novel in just a few sentences -- you're probably better off reading the publisher's summary above. For those of you familiar with Ms. Slaughter's books, CRIMINAL is another book in the Will Trent series. Since I loved this book and the characters so much, I'm now dying to go back and read the entire series!

Will Trent is a great investigator whose childhood is a bit of a mystery. In fact, Will himself is a bit of a mystery. He is currently working for the Georgia Bureau of Investigations, married to Angie a fellow officer that he's known almost his entire life, and in love with a pediatrician named Sara; however, he's very secretive about his past. I thought he was an incredibly interesting guy and was dying to learn more about him!

In CRIMINAL, Will's father, a convicted murderer, is now out of jail; and a young college girl goes missing. Will's pretty sure that the crime is too similar to his father's past to be a coincidence. When Will's boss Amanda Wagner decides to keep him from working on the missing girl case, he becomes extremely curious about her motives. As Will and Amanda each work towards solving this crime, they are both reminded of many painful experiences from their pasts. It's a amazing story of murder, intrigue, racism, and deception; and I was riveted to the story.

CRIMINAL takes place in present day Atlanta, but it also has many flashbacks to almost forty years earlier when Amanda was a young pup in the police force. While I enjoyed the present-day parts about Will and his struggles to come to terms with his past and his future (as well as the case of the missing college girl), I absolutely adored the flashback scenes which told the story of Amanda and her friend Evelyn and their first real case. Ms. Slaughter brought to life the Atlanta police department in the 1970s when women and blacks were definitely treated as inferiors; and she did an amazing job with her descriptions and stories. It was evident to me that she did a huge amount of research on the subject matter. (Note: The author has a great website with additional content on Atlanta during the 1970s.)

I can't rave enough about what a remarkable storyteller Karin Slaughter is. It's been awhile since I've read one of her books and I'm not sure I realized just how special she is. I mentioned earlier that CRIMINAL is a complex mystery story, one with lots of twists and turns, but it's also a well-written novel. By that I mean the setting was fully brought to life and the characters were extremely well developed. I have such a huge appreciation for the complexity of Will Trent and Amanda Wagner, but I also liked how she brought to life many of the secondary characters as well. Will's wife Angie was a piece of work (but fascinating in her own right) and I liked Evelyn with her difficulties balancing a family and a career in the early years of "equal rights." Amanda's father was another interesting one and definitely represented the good ole boy network, and I could go on and on about the mental state (and motivations) of Will's father. All of these characters gave me some things to ponder, and I think that says a lot about the quality of their development.

CRIMINAL isn't for the faint of heart, but I mean that in the very best of ways. This novel has describes in gory details the actions of a very twisted and demented man, and I dare you to find a reader that isn't a bit freaked out by this monster. However, this story also shows the extent individuals will go to protect their loved ones... so in that way, it was a heartwarming story as well. CRIMINAL most definitely played with my mind and my emotions and I was deeply affected by the characters and their stories.

The audio version of CRIMINAL was read by Kathleen Early and I thought she did a fine job. I don't know if I was blown away by her performance, but it was consistently good; and I wouldn't hesitate to listen to another book narrated by her. I have to admit that I was initially surprised by her even tone and pitch, but I quickly became used to her voice and it became one with the characters in my mind.

Obviously, I am a big fan of CRIMINAL and I do think it would make an outstanding book club selection. My group rarely (if ever) reads thrillers/suspense novels, but I'm almost certain we would agree that this is a wonderful book with many things to discuss. There is a reading guide available which has nine interesting questions. Some of the themes you might want to explore include the roles of women, misogyny, parenthood, race relations, honestly, self acceptance, discrimination, ethics, and protecting those we love.

Overall, I highly recommend CRIMINAL in either the audio or print format -- you really can't go wrong with either version. I thought this novel was full of drama and suspense, and I highly appreciated the character development. Karin Slaughter has once again outdone herself with this book!

Thanks to AuthorsOnTheWeb for providing a copy of this novel and to AudioGo for providing an audio copy.

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.

Giveaway alert: Thanks to AuthorsOnTheWeb, I have copies of the hardcover edition of CRIMINAL to share with two lucky readers. To enter, just fill out the form below before July 29th at 11:59 p.m. ET. I will randomly select and notify the winners the following day. This contest is open to those of you with U.S. and Canada addresses only. Good luck!

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Review: Livrada e-book Gift Cards

I just recently discovered a pretty cool gift-giving idea for the book lover in your life. It's called Livrada and it's a great way to give a personal e-book gift card. Rather that just a generic gift card to purchase any old book, Livrada allows people to buy a gift card for a specific book -- and the card looks like the actual cover of the book.

Livrada launched these cards on July 15th in ALL Target stores. Initially, they are offering six New York Times best selling titles:

Fifty Shades of Grey
The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest
State of Wonder
Gone Girl
Charles Street
Odd Thomas

I was fortunate enough to receive a gift card for a copy of GONE GIRL -- one of my favorite books of 2012. It was extremely simple to download the book for my Kindle. All I had to do was go to the Livrada website, type in my email address and the PIN on the back of my card, select my device (Kindle or Nook), and click on the Redeem button. It was really that easy!

Livrada plans on adding more books and genres as well as additional devices (including the iPad) in the near future. To learn more about Livrada, take a peek at the Prezi presentation overview.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Kid Konnection: Gold Medal Summer

Every Saturday, I host a feature called Kid Konnection -- a regular weekend feature about anything related to children's books. This week, I'm going to share with you a book that's extremely timely since the Summer Olypics are only a few days away.

Summary: Joey Jordan loves gymnastics: the thrill of performing a backflip on the beam, the cheers of the audience when she sticks a landing. But even with all her talent and style, she's never quite made it to that gold medal stand. 

Now big changes shake up Joey's life in and out of the gym. Joey wants to break out some daring new beam and floor routines--but she'll have to defy her strict coach to do it. Her best friend, Alex, is thinking about quitting gymnastics for good. And an old friend named Tanner just moved back to town, and he's suddenly gotten very, very cute. Can Joey handle all the challenges coming her way, and make her gold medal summer happen at last? 

Drawing on her real-life experience as a competitive gymnast, acclaimed novelist Donna Freitas delivers both a terrific gymnastics story and a classic novel about stretching some limits, bending the rules, and finding your balance. -- Scholastic

When GOLD MEDAL SUMMER by Donna Freitas arrived on my doorstep, I immediately had flashbacks to my childhood. I grew up loving to watch the Olympics and one of my absolute favorite sports was women's gymnastics. I had fond memories of watching Nadia and Mary Lou, and I can assure you that GOLD MEDAL SUMMER would have been a book that I would have devoured as a girl.

As it happens to be, I enjoyed it quite a bit as a middle-aged mom too! I sat down late one night a few days after the U.S. Gymnastics Trials and picked up GOLD MEDAL SUMMER; and I didn't put it back down until I finished it. It is a middle grade book so it's not especially long -- it comes in at about 230 pages-- and it's a very easy read. I think even tween girls who are reluctant readers won't be intimidated by this book, and I suspect that all types of girls will be drawn to Joey and her story.

GOLD MEDAL SUMMER tells the story of Joey a young teen girl who aspires to be a star gymnast. She's never been the best -- that would be her best friend Alex, but she desperately works to get better and better even if it means sacrificing what "normal" teen girls get to do. Not only does Joey feel as if she isn't good enough at the gym, but she also feels that way at home. Joey's sister is now a retired gymnast, but only after achieving National Champion status; and her parents don't even attend her competitions.

Like many girls in their early teens, Joey finds that she's facing many drastic changes in her life. Her best friend wants to quit gymnastics, she is attempting some new routines behind her coach's back, and she also finds that she has a major crush on the very cute Tanner. Joey has figure out what her priorities are and decide if she has what it takes to make it as a world-class gymnast.

I know I would have loved GOLD MEDAL SUMMER as a young girl. It had the gymnastics angle, friendship issues, family problems, and even a little bit of sweet romance. But I'm pretty sure that Joey was what would have made this book extra-special to me. While I have never been even the slightest bit good at any sport, I could still relate to Joey (and I think all girls will be able to do this!) What tween or teen girl can't relate to the insecurities associated with change?

In addition, the issues Joey had with Alex and her family are universal to girls and I think her relationship with Tanner will appeal to them as well. And GOLD MEDAL SUMMER also delves into some mean girl and bullying issues that, unfortunately, will ring true for many readers. What I appreciated as a mother is that not only did the book tackle some of these difficult issues, but it showed how Joey was able to find the self-confidence to handle them. Needless to say, I thought there were some very good messages in this novel!

The author, Donna Freitas, was actually a competitive gymnast; and I think her experiences gave another level of credibility to the story. There were numerous references to famous gymnasts as well as routines and moves, and I think she did a great job of making Joey's gymnastic life real to today's girls. I have a friend whose daughter is a competitive gymnast and I can't wait to share this book with her and hear her opinion.

Booking Daughter couldn't wait to read this book especially after watching the U.S. Gymnastics Trials. I had a feeling she was going to like this one, and I was right! Here are her thoughts:

I really enjoyed GOLD MEDAL SUMMER. I first thought the book would be a quick read, but the more I read, I realized that it was more complicated. The main character, Joey, has to deal with changes including problems with friends, her family, and boys. The main reason I liked this book is because I could relate to Joey. Joey isn't the best person on her gymnastics team, and she wants to someday win. I am not the best person in my dance class, but I also want to be good and I try hard to be my best.

Booking Daughter and I both recommend this to middle grade girls who enjoy realistic fiction. It's the perfect tie-in book to the Summer Olympics!

Thanks to the publisher for providing a review 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, July 20, 2012

Guest Review: Strindberg's Star

Summary: A multilayered international thrill ride at breakneck pace, reminiscent of The Rule of Four

The Arctic, 1897: Nils Strindberg crashes his hydrogen balloon during the mysterious Andrée Expedition to the North Pole.

Germany, 1942: Gruesome and inexplicable experiments are performed on concentration camp prisoners.

Sweden, present-day: Cave diver Erik Hall finds a dead body wearing an ancient ankh, buried deep in an abandoned mine. Religious symbol expert Don Titelman seeks out Erik to study the ankh—but finds Erik dead. Don is the prime suspect, and soon he’s being chased across Europe to escape a secret society that will do anything to get their hands on the ankh. . . .

In this international bestseller, each of these fascinating strands weaves together to create a mind-blowing cross-genre thriller that includes arctic explorers, a secret railroad network, Norse mythology, Nazis, and ancient symbols—and a shocking secret that’s been hidden for centuries. -- Viking

When I heard all of the buzz surrounding STRINDBERG'S STAR by Jan Wallentin , I thought it might be a book that my dad would enjoy. STRINDBERG'S STAR is an international bestseller with rights sold in 20 countries so far, and it has riveted readers in Sweden, Germany, and France (where it has sold over 900,000 copies and reached #2 on the bestseller list). Telemoustique (Belgium) described this book as “a masterful novel of adventure, part 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, part Rule of Four, and [part] The Da Vinci Code. So I figured it would be right up his alley. Little did I know that it took a turn to the strange... and not something that my dad would normally pick up!

Here are his thoughts:

STRIDBERG’S STAR by Swedish author Jan Wallentin begins quite calmly as amateur diver Erik Hall, while diving in a flooded shaft of an abandoned mine, discovers a well preserved corpse grasping an ancient ankh. Hall instantly becomes a media novelty and attracts the attention of Don Titelman, a noted expert in religious symbols. When Hall is found murdered, Titelman becomes the prime suspect. After his arrest, attorney Eva Strand appears at the police station and volunteers to represent him in this criminal matter. In an odd development, Titelman and Strand are taken to the German Embassy in Sweden for questioning. After a lengthy interrogation they are imprisoned in the Embassy wine cellar. They somehow escape and begin a journey across Europe to avoid both the police and a ruthless German secret society that has a keen interest in acquiring the ankh and its companion piece, a star.

Wallentin utilizes many techniques typically found in a thriller novel. The reader will find conspiracy, mysticism, secret societies, Nazis, spooky cemeteries on a rainy night and of course a few Russians. Devices such as a photographic memory, psychic powers, super physical strength, and high-tech computer skills all play significant roles in the story.

Within the 447 page novel, Wallentin mixes historic fact with fiction to the point where it is hard to separate the two. He utilizes the 1887 Andree Expedition, a balloon flight to the Arctic as his premise to the original discovery of the ankh and star. I discovered that Strindberg was a photographer on the failed expedition. He also interjects historic facts about World War II along with stories of Nazi occult activity and horrid experiments on Holocaust victims. Wallentin utilizes real locales such as Ypres, France, Flanders Fields and Wewelsburg Castle and real people such as Strindberg and Himmler.

Sometimes the author expects the reader to believe too much in this chase for the ankh and star. For example, it seems that a get-a-way vehicle is always available for Titelman whether it’s a car with the keys intact, a secret train car or a helicopter. The clue solving capabilities of Titelman and Strand are a real stretch.

This is a novel where every character is unlikeable. Main character, Don Titelman, is a drug addict and alcoholic who carries his supply of pills at all times for quick relief. He failed as a medical doctor and took up a career as an expert on society symbols and myths. His life is tremendously impacted by the stories of Nazi horrors shared by his Jewish grandmother. As the novel progresses, you will soon realize that attorney Eva Strand is a very strange woman. Titelman’s sister, Hex, a loner, is a computer hacker and lives under an abandoned railroad station. Erik Hall is greedy and selfish. Elena possesses psychic powers that are utilized for evil. Other characters are deeply disturbed and are part of diabolic secret societies or are conspiring from other angles to acquire the ankh and star for selfish purposes.

STRINDBERG’S STAR is a mixture of many genres. At the beginning it’s a crime story that quickly turns into a thriller novel as Titelman and Strand are chased across Europe and lastly it delves into the supernatural. Although the supernatural is not my favorite genre, I will admit the novel had an element of a thriller that kept me interested right up to the very unusual ending that involved a mysterious underworld. If you’re a fan of the mysterious and the occult you might enjoy STRINDBERG’S STAR.

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

For those of you interested, there is a reading guide available for STRINDBERG'S STAR. It sounds like this book covers a lot of ground and there might be some interesting points for discussion.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Review: You Take It From Here

Summary: Just because you’d give your best friend everything doesn’t mean she has to take it. 

On the heels of a divorce, all Danielle Meyers wants is her annual vacation with sassy, life-long best friend, Smidge—complete with umbrella cocktails by an infinity pool—but instead she’s hit with the curveball of a lifetime. Smidge takes Danielle to the middle of nowhere to reveal a diagnosis of terminal cancer, followed by an unusual request: “After I’m gone, I want you to finish the job. Marry my husband. Raise my daughter. I’m gonna teach you to how to be Smidge 2.0.”  

As Danielle wrestles with this major life decision, she finds herself torn between being true to her best friend’s wishes and being honest with herself. Parenting issues aside, Smidge’s small-town Louisiana world is exactly the one Danielle made sure to escape. Danielle isn’t one for playing the social butterfly, or being the center of attention. And when your best friend tries to set you up on a date night with her husband, it might be time to become the bossy one for a change. 

In the spirit of Beaches and Steel Magnolias, You Take It from Here is an honest, hilarious, and heartbreaking novel that ultimately asks: How much should we sacrifice for the ones we love the most? -- Gallery

I'll be the first to admit that when I read the first three paragraphs of the description for YOU TAKE IT FROM HERE by Pamela Ribon, I wasn't entirely sure I wanted to read this book. While a part of me was tempted by the story, I just had a feeling that it might be a little over-the-top. A book about a dying woman whose last wish is for her best friend to basically replace her as a wife and a mother, seriously? However, that last little paragraph sealed it for me when it mentioned that YOU TAKE IT FROM HERE is "in the spirit of Beaches and Steel Magnolias." I love it when a book can move me like those movies did, so I figured I would take a chance.

I am happy to say that I really enjoyed YOU TAKE IT FROM HERE. In case you're wondering, was the comparison to Beaches and Steel Magnolias accurate? My answer is a resounding, "YES!" As was the case with both of those movies, this book touched my heart over and over again and I most definitely sobbed. I even managed to read this entire book in one sitting so that says something about how much I was pulled into this story.

YOU TAKE IT FROM HERE tells the story of two long-time best friends, Danielle and Smidge. Danielle is fresh off of a divorce and can't wait for her yearly vacation with Smidge; however, their fun soon takes a quick 180 degree turn when Smidge announces that her cancer is back.. and it's terminal. As if that isn't shocking enough for Danielle, Smidge makes one last request of her. She asks Danielle to take over her life as a mother and wife. Of course, Danielle loves her very spunky friend and wants to help, but can she really just assume Smidge's life as well as drop everything she's ever worked for?

If you are a frequent follower of my blog, then you already know how much I adore books that focus on the beauty of female friendships. And that was one of my absolutely favorite things about YOU TAKE IT FROM HERE -- that it showed the ups and downs of Danielle's and Smidge's friendship. I loved how these two women interacted with each other, and their dedication to their friendship was incredibly heart-warming. Having said that, I'm pretty sure that I would never ask my best friend to take over my life after I died; and I'm almost positive that I'd never step in for one of my best friends if she were dying. But, oh how I envied these two women for having such a strong relationship and even considering the sacrifice for each other.

Another wonderful thing about YOU TAKE IT FROM HERE was the writing. I had never read anything by Ms. Ribon before, but since finishing this novel, I've been trying to get my hands on more of her books -- one was even selected as an Oprah.com Book Club pick. I loved how easy this book was to read. The prose was simple, yet powerful; and there is no doubt that Ms. Ribon has major skills for writing with emotion. What did surprise me about this book, though, was how much humor Ms. Ribon infused into this story. Smidge was a piece of work -- you might even say bossy, and Danielle's reactions to her were definitely worthy of some smiles.

There are many other marvelous things about YOU TAKE IT FROM HERE, but the last thing I'm going to mention is the character development. I absolutely adored both Danielle and Smidge, and I even found that I could relate to both of them. When I initially started reading this book, I thought Smidge was overbearing and a little crazy, but by the end of this book, I truly understood her and her motives. Maybe it's because Smidge and I are both moms to teen daughters, but this novel really made me think about what I'd want for my daughter if I only had a few months to live. Because both of these characters were so real to me, I became much more vested in their stories and ultimately I felt as if both of them were my friends. (Or maybe it's just that I wanted to be part of their friendship so badly!)

I'm sure you can already tell, but YOU TAKE IT FROM HERE would make a fantastic book club selection. There is a reading guide available with fourteen thought-provoking discussion questions. Many of these questions deal with Smidge and Danielle's personalities as well as their friendship. However, there are other themes including parenthood, divorce, relationships, love, sacrifice, secrets, and commitment.

I enjoyed YOU TAKE IT FROM HERE a great deal, and I recommend it to those of you who did love Steel Magnolias and Beaches... and even Terms of Endearment. (Sorry for not being more original.) It is a beautiful story about what it means to be a best friend and it's guaranteed to touch your heart.

Thanks to Rare Bird Lit for providing a review copy of this novel.