Friday, August 31, 2012

Review: All the Truth

Summary: One night can alter a life forever… 

Emma Greene enjoys living in rural solitude with her husband and five-year-old daughter, Maggie, far away from her college students in Jackson, Virginia. But late one night, with her husband away and her daughter upstairs in bed, some of Emma’s students trespass on her property. The ensuing confrontation changes Emma and Maggie’s life forever.

Nine years later, still plagued by nightmares from that evening, Maggie is living with her father in the same small town, and entering her first year of high school.  She develops problems in class when her math teacher, a strange and lonely woman, begins to exhibit an odd interest in her. 

In order to let go of the past, Maggie begins to piece together all the truth of what happened that night—and discovers a story of anger, guilt, and redemption. -- Berkley
I was very impressed with author Laura Brodie's last two books THE WIDOW'S SEASON and LOVE IN A TIME OF HOMESCHOOLING (you can read my reviews here and here), so when the author asked me if I were interested in reviewing her latest novel ALL THE TRUTH, I jumped at the chance! Ms. Brodie warned me that this book was very different from the other two that I've read; however, based on the description, I thought it sounded fantastic. And quite honestly, ALL THE TRUTH was more like my usual reading fare than her last two books, so I had a feeling that I'd enjoy it.

ALL THE TRUTH is a novel which shows how much a single event (more like a few minutes) can hugely affect lives. Emma, a college professor, lives a rather peaceful existence in rural Virginia. One evening while she is home along with her young daughter Maggie, she sees some of her students who have been partying nearby. When they show up at her house, Emma feels threatened so she confronts one of the guys. The exchange gets heated and Emma ends up reacting in a way that will forever change her life.. along with her daughter's and her husband's.

The story moves ahead nine years when Maggie is a freshman in high school. She is still living with her father -- in a new house but the same small town. Maggie is still experiencing nightmares about her mother's actions; and despite getting therapy, she can't seem to really get past that night. When Maggie's new math teacher takes an unusual interest in her, she begins to suspect the real identity of the woman; and this knowledge has devastating effects on Maggie. To fully heal from the events that occurred nine years earlier, Maggie has to come to terms with the truth of her mother's behavior.

I don't know if you noticed, but my summary of the novel is rather cryptic. That's because I was so afraid that I'd spoil the story! ALL THE TRUTH has a quite a few surprises for the reader, and I believe they are best left to be discovered by the reader. Having said that, it does make writing this review a bit challenging.

Overall, I really enjoyed ALL THE TRUTH and I was once again impressed with Ms. Brodie's writing skills. The story definitely held my interest, especially since there were some surprising twists; and the characters were well developed and very real. However, I think what I enjoyed most about this novel was that it addressed some sensitive issues and made me think.

One thing that I enjoyed about this novel was the setting -- a small college town in Virginia. I thought Ms. Brodie did an excellent job of bringing that atmosphere to life, and I especially liked how she showed the administrators' reactions to what happened that one night (hint: they had to protect the school and students!) Ms. Brodie actually teaches at a college in a small Virginia town, and it was evident that she captured not only what the college and town were like but also the political environment of the school.

In addition, I really appreciated how this novel delved into some women's issues, namely double standards. Based on how Emma was treated, I had to wonder if there was a bias towards her because she was a female teacher who had taught some "controversial" issues in the past. Furthermore, I definitely had some doubts about whether her actions would have been judged so harshly if she were a man instead of a woman!

And finally, I really enjoyed both the characters of Maggie and Grace. Maggie was such a wonderful teen and I really felt as if I got to understand her by the end of the novel. Naturally, my heart broke for her because she was such an innocent victim of... well, everything. However, I also appreciated seeing how she eventually became stronger and more able to cope with these events. And then there was Grace -- I found her to be incredibly interesting. Without giving too much away, her character brought to light many questions for me about guilt, personal responsibility, second chances, and redemption. I found Grace to be incredibly complex and I have to admit that I wasn't always sure how I felt about her.

ALL THE TRUTH would, without a doubt, make a great pick for your next book club. I wasn't able to find a link to the discussion guide on-line, but there is one included in the back of the book with twelve interesting questions. Of course, you could probably discuss the motivations of the characters for quite some time; however, there are some other themes that you might want to explore including instincts, honesty, guilt, fear, loss, healing, fresh starts, and redemption.

I most definitely recommend ALL THE TRUTH to fans of women's fiction. As you can see, this book touches upon some very serious topics and I have a feeling that almost every reader will take away some different from this novel.

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

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Review: Tigers in Red Weather

Summary: Nick and her cousin, Helena, have grown up sharing sultry summer heat, sunbleached boat docks, and midnight gin parties on Martha's Vineyard in a glorious old family estate known as Tiger House. In the days following the end of the Second World War, the world seems to offer itself up, and the two women are on the cusp of their 'real lives': Helena is off to Hollywood and a new marriage, while Nick is heading for a reunion with her own young husband, Hughes, about to return from the war.

Soon the gilt begins to crack. Helena's husband is not the man he seemed to be, and Hughes has returned from the war distant, his inner light curtained over. On the brink of the 1960s, back at Tiger House, Nick and Helena--with their children, Daisy and Ed--try to recapture that sense of possibility. But when Daisy and Ed discover the victim of a brutal murder, the intrusion of violence causes everything to unravel. The members of the family spin out of their prescribed orbits, secrets come to light, and nothing about their lives will ever be the same.

Brilliantly told from five points of view, with a magical elegance and suspenseful dark longing, Tigers in Red Weather is an unforgettable debut novel from a writer of extraordinary insight and accomplishment. -- Little, Brown

Another book that got a lot of buzz at this year's BEA was TIGERS IN RED WEATHER by Liza Klaussmann. Once again, I totally see why! This debut novel, which just happens to be written by Herman Melville's great-great-great-granddaughter, was a wonderful read; and it was one of my favorite books that I read on this year's beach vacation.

TIGERS IN RED WEATHER tells the story (well actually five individual's stories, but more on that later) of two cousins, Nick and Helena, and how they dealt with marriage, motherhood, and a tragedy. The book begins at Tiger House on Martha's Vineyard at the end of World War II with Nick and Helena looking forward to the endless possibilities that they have for their futures. Helena is moving to Hollywood to follow her future husband and Nick is anxiously awaiting the return of her husband Hughes from the war. However, things quickly change for both women -- Helena's husband ends up being Trouble (that's with a capital "T") and Hughes is merely a shell of the man he once was.

Fast forward about fifteen years when Helena and Nick are both again living at Tiger House with their children Ed and Daisy. They are hoping to restore some of those same feelings that they experienced at the end of the war; however, when Daisy and Ed discover the body of a woman who was brutally murdered, they quickly realize that those hopeful times are long in the past. After this summer, all of the family members lives are forever changed -- some more so than others; and long-time secrets are finally revealed (at least to the reader.)

As I mentioned earlier, I was very impressed TIGERS IN RED WEATHER. The characters, the writing, the story, and so on were all terrific in my opinion; and I couldn't turn the pages fast enough. One thing that stood out to me was how the story was told -- through the eyes of five different characters, Nick, Daisy, Helena, Hughes, and Ed. The novel was actually divided into five sections based on whose story was being told; and not only did I love getting to understand each character in this way, but I also loved how the author intermingled all of their stories to make one big story. I thought it was extremely well done!

Another appealing thing about TIGERS IN RED WEATHER were the characters themselves. I'm not sure that I had a particular character that resonated with me; and if I'm being entirely honest, I don't think I really loved any of them; however, I did find all of their stories to be fascinating. All five of these characters were deeply troubled individuals, all losing their innocence in one way or another; and it seemed like the worse off they were, the more interested in them I was. I probably should mention that there were times that I thought their stories might be filled with a little too much drama (especially Helena's story), but overall they worked for me and kept my attention.

I also really appreciated how this novel explored all sorts of family relationships -- from parent/child, to husband/wife, to cousin/cousin, etc. While many of these characters' interactions were fascinating, I think the author did an especially good job in showing the nuances of Nick and Hughes' marriage. After Hughes came back from the war a totally different man, Nick found herself trying to fill that void with casual affairs. Needless to say, their behavior, along with the guilt each one felt, did nothing to bring back the strength of their marriage. Their tense exchanges, as well as their ability to keep secrets, was emotional reading for me and at the same time horribly sad. Their troubles and pain just seemed so real.

One last thing I'd like to mention is that there is a slight murder angle of the story. I wouldn't call this a murder mystery by any stretch, the identity of the murderer is revealed before the end of the novel. Some readers might appreciate this aspect of the book so I wanted to mention it. However, I appreciated the murder for another reason -- I loved how this one event set so many others into motion.

TIGERS IN RED WEATHER would make an excellent book club pick. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to locate a formal reader's guide, but don't let that stop you from choosing this novel. There are so many things to discuss, namely the various characters' personalities and motivations as well as their relationships with each other. However, you will also want to delve into family dynamics, marriage, addiction, mental illness, secrets, parent/child relationships, infidelity, and the loss of innocence. Truly, this book is full of intriguing topics!

I highly recommend TIGERS IN RED WEATHER for fans of literary fiction and especially books about troubled families.

I received a copy of this novel at the BEA 2012.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Review: One Last Thing Before I Go & Giveaway

Summary: You don’t have to look very hard at Drew Silver to see that mistakes have been made. His fleeting fame as the drummer for a one-hit wonder rock band is nearly a decade behind him. He lives in the Versailles, an apartment building filled almost exclusively with divorced men like him, and makes a living playing in wedding bands. His ex-wife, Denise, is about to marry a guy Silver can’t quite bring himself to hate. And his Princeton-bound teenage daughter Casey has just confided in him that she’s pregnant—because Silver is the one she cares least about letting down. 

So when he learns that his heart requires emergency, lifesaving surgery, Silver makes the radical decision to refuse the operation, choosing instead to use what little time he has left to repair his relationship with Casey, become a better man, and live in the moment, even if that moment isn't destined to last very long. As his exasperated family looks on, Silver grapples with the ultimate question of whether or not his own life is worth saving.

With the wedding looming and both Silver and Casey in crisis, this broken family struggles to come together, only to risk damaging each other even more. One Last Thing Before I Go is Jonathan Tropper at his funny, insightful, heartbreaking best. -- Dutton

This has already happened to me a few times this summer, but I was still caught off guard when I discovered that there is yet another incredibly talented writer whose books I have yet to read. This time around it was Jonathan Tropper and his latest novel ONE LAST THING BEFORE I GO. This novel was getting some incredible buzz at this year's BEA, and I can certainly see why. I was seriously blown away by this book. And of course, now I want to read everything this man has ever written.

ONE LAST THING BEFORE I GO tells the story of Drew Silver, an aging ex rock star (well, the song was a one hit wonder, but still...) whose better days are pretty much behind him. He lives in an apartment complex primarily made up of divorced, middle-aged men, his ex-wife is marrying a great guy, and his teenage daughter, from whom is pretty much estranged, comes to him with the news that she is pregnant. As bad as these things seem, Silver actually has something even worse going for him -- his heart is "broken" and he needs emergency surgery to repair it. Without the surgery, he is sure to die. It seems like a no brainer, but Silver decides to forgo the operation and instead work on being a better father and a better man. You see, he just isn't sure that his life is all that worthy of saving!

As Silver works on making his life worthwhile, his family (including his ex-wife who is engaged to Silver's heart doctor!) try to convince him to have the surgery. Silver's pretty steadfast in his refusal; however, he does manage to take advantage of a second chance to make things right with his daughter.. and his ex-wife. But first, this family has to work through a lot of baggage from the past and they discover that it's not always easy.

I loved ONE LAST THING BEFORE I GO and it's definitely one of the best books I've read this year. Mr. Tropper is an amazing writer and I enjoyed his characters and his prose so much that I didn't want this book to end. (And that's really saying something when I have hundreds of books on my shelves that I'm dying to read!) Not only is his writing incredibly smart and witty (this book is seriously funny!), but he also managed to write about family and personal issues in a way that caused me to think.

There is no doubt that Silver is a dysfunctional human being. In fact, you could probably see him pictured next to the word in the dictionary. Quite frankly, he's a mess and a bit of a pig. But what struck me as odd about his character is that I loved reading about him... and I found myself getting emotionally attached to him. Heck, I even wanted him to just get the darn heart surgery! He is one of those characters that is so real and so funny that I guarantee he will remain in your thoughts long after you finish this novel.

In addition to Silver, I liked many of the characters in ONE LAST THING BEFORE I GO. The supporting cast of characters were perfect to surround (and feature) Silver, and I especially liked his daughter Casey. She was pretty smart (she got into Princeton) but she was also very funny, especially when it came to her dealings with her father. I had to laugh when she first came to Silver to tell her that he was pregnant. It wasn't because she felt close to him or really thought he could help her. Rather it was because she didn't want to disappoint any of the people in her life that she loved and respected! See what I mean?

Another thing I really enjoyed about this novel was how it explored a troubled family. There are few things I enjoy more than books about messed up families and ONE LAST THING BEFORE I GO certainly fit the bill. While many scenes in the book were about Silver and his interactions with his daughter, his ex-wife, and her fiance, this novel also explored the feelings of a few of Silver's friends -- the divorced men who lived in his apartment complex. I was so impressed with Tropper's insight and social commentary on broken families and the feelings surrounding divorce.

And finally, I appreciated how this novel made me think on so many levels. First of all, I loved that I had absolutely no idea what Silver was going to do about having the surgery. While he kept insisting that he wasn't having it, I still held out hope that he'd relent and at least do it for those he loved. I liked that for much of the book, I was kept hanging, and that the ending wasn't wrapped up neatly with a bow. In addition, I was extremely impressed with how Tropper incorporated some ideas about religion, faith, and even major milestones in our lives. But more importantly, it was just a well written book that was extremely smart. It touched upon some universal issues about family dynamics and life in general; and it made me think about how I live my life and how I'd spend my final days.

I can think of few books as interesting to discuss as ONE LAST THING BEFORE I GO. I wasn't able to find a reading guide yet, but I'm sure there will be one available in the near future. Some of the themes you might want to explore include family dynamics, divorce, self-worth, second chances, redemption, forgiveness, religion, faith, friendship, mortality, parenting, and sacrifice. As you can clearly see, so many of the topics explored in this novel are universal to every reader and certain to generate discussion!

Trust me on this one: ONE LAST THING BEFORE I GO is a must-read book!

I received a copy of this novel at this year's BEA.

Giveaway alert: I have a copy of ONE LAST THING BEFORE I GO to share with one very lucky reader. To enter, just fill out the form below before Tuesday, September 4th 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, August 28, 2012

Review: Wallflower in Bloom

Summary: From the acclaimed bestselling author of Must Love Dogs comes a winning and witty new novel about a woman who emerges from the shadow of her overbearing family and finds herself “dancing with the stars.” 

Deirdre Griffin has a great life; it’s just not her own. She’s the around-the-clock personal assistant to her charismatic, high-maintenance, New Age guru brother, Tag. As the family wallflower, her only worth seems to be as gatekeeper to Tag at his New England seaside compound. 

Then Deirdre’s sometime boyfriend informs her that he is marrying another woman, who just happens to be having the baby he told Deirdre he never wanted. While drowning her sorrows in Tag’s expensive vodka, Deirdre decides to use his massive online following to get herself voted on as a last-minute Dancing with the Stars replacement. It’ll get her back in shape, mentally and physically. It might even get her a life of her own. Deirdre’s fifteen minutes of fame have begun. 

Irresistible and offbeat, Wallflower in Bloom is an original and deeply satisfying story of having the courage to take a leap into the spotlight, no matter where you land. -- Touchstone

It's been years since I've read a novel by Claire Cook, but I remember appreciating how she wrote breezy books that also touched upon some serious issues. So when the opportunity came to read her latest book WALLFLOWER IN BLOOM, I jumped at the chance. Just the cover alone drew me in, but the premise of the novel was appealing too -- a story about a woman who is finally discovering who she really is!

WALLFLOWER IN BLOOM tells the story of Deirdre a 30-something woman who is working as a personal assistant to her famous self-help/New Age guru brother Tag. While she is very competent at her job, she feels like she's always living in the shadow of her famous sibling... and her "perfect" sister too. When she learns that her on-again/off-again boyfriend is settling down with another woman, she decides to comfort her pain with alcohol... and I mean lots of alcohol. In her drunken stupor, she manages to use her savvy social media skills to get herself voted in as a last-minute replacement on Dancing with the Stars. It's when she goes to Los Angeles and ditches her personal assistant job that Deirdre has the opportunity to "bloom" and she ends up discovering just how special she truly is.

Overall, I enjoyed WALLFLOWER IN BLOOM. It was a very quick read and ideal for a summer afternoon, and I appreciated the book for what it was; however, I wouldn't go so far as the say I loved it. It was a cute story that entertained me for a few hours, and sometimes, that's just what I want from a book. It had a fun cast of characters and some very funny scenes, and it was a heartwarming story about an underdog (of sorts.)

One thing that made WALLFLOWER IN BLOOM special was the character of Deirdre. I don't know about you, but I think it's essential in a book like this one (part chick lit/part women's fiction) to really like the main character. With Deirdre, that wasn't a problem for me. I was definitely rooting for her to "come out of her shell" and do well in the dance competition; and I couldn't help but love her inner spirit and her self-deprecating humor.

In addition, I enjoyed that this book gave me a little inside look into life at Dancing with the Stars. I am not a regular viewer of the television show, but I have seen quite a few episodes (and it does suck me right in!) I liked all of the backstage gossip about the spray tans and the stretchy costumes, and it was fun to see how they transformed Deirdre into a glamorous dancer.

And finally, I appreciated the overall message of the story -- that it's never too late to put yourself out there and be who you really are! Deirdre had devoted her entire life to blending into the background, especially when it concerned her brother Tad; and she didn't allow herself to shine. Once she headed to LA, she was able to shed this persona and discover her inner beauty. Furthermore, Deirdre even realized how much of a passive role she took in other relationships including the one with her sometime boyfriend. I loved seeing how much Deirdre evolved throughout this novel and how she became much more independent and confident.

Because WALLFLOWER IN BLOOM touches upon some serious issues that many women face, I think it would make for a very fun book club discussion. There is a reading guide available which touches upon some of the issues I mentioned in my review including sibling relationships, self-help, self-pity, friendships, and independence. There are also some interesting ideas for enhancing your discussion like food and dance suggestions.

WALLFLOWER IN BLOOM is a delightful story about one woman's quest to discover who she really is, and it was a very fun read. I definitely recommend it to fans of chick lit and light women's fiction!

Thanks to She Reads for providing a review copy of this novel. WALLFLOWER IN BLOOM was the August selection for their new book club. You can read more about it here.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Review: Pies and Prejudice

Summary: When the going gets tough, Ella Mae LaFaye bakes pies. So when she catches her husband cheating in New York, she heads back home to Havenwood, Georgia, where she can drown her sorrows in fresh fruit filling and flakey crust. But her pies aren't just delicious. They're having magical effects on the people who eat them--and the public is hungry for more.

Discovering her hidden talent for enchantment, Ella Mae makes her own wish come true by opening the Charmed Pie Shoppe. But with her old nemesis Loralyn Gaynor making trouble, and her old crush Hugh Dylan making nice, she has more than pie on her plate. and when Loralyn's fiancé is found dead--killed with Ella Mae's rolling pin--it'll take all her sweet magic to clear her name. -- Berkley Prime Crime

I haven't featured a cozy for Mystery Mondays for quite some time. While I do enjoy the occasional cozy, there have been just so many amazing mysteries and thrillers released this summer that I've been neglecting my usual pile of go-to comfort mysteries. One book that caught my eye, though, was PIES AND PREJUDICE by Ellery Adams -- who doesn't love pies? This book is the first novel in the Charmed Pie Shoppe Mystery, and I thought it was fun!

PIES AND PREJUDICE begins when Ella Mae returns to her childhood home after she catches her husband cheating on her.. with two women! When Ella Mae left Havenwood, Georgia, for Manhattan, she couldn't wait to put her past behind her; however, things have changed and Ella Mae needs the comfort of her mother and aunts. With their help, Ella Mae opens a pie shop and discovers that her pies have a magical effect -- the people eating the pies experience the same feelings that Ella Mae had while making them.

Things in Havenwood aren't exactly perfect for Ella Mae though. Rather, her life in this simple town become complex very quickly. Her high school enemy Loralyn begins to provoke her, her ex starts sending some letters asking for her forgiveness, and her childhood crush Hugh starts showing her some attention. Just when you think it can't get much worse for Ella Mae, Loralyn's fiance is discovered dead and the weapon is Ella Mae's rolling pin. Ella Mae finds herself trying to keep her new pie business afloat while also trying to solve this mystery and save herself from prison.

PIES AND PREJUDICE was definitely cute. I don't know that I'd say it's the best cozy mystery I've ever read, but it was entertaining; and I appreciated that many of the descriptions were about pies! There were all sorts of pies mentioned in the book from sweet ones, to fruity ones, to savory ones; and I liked that the author included some recipes in the back of the book for various pies like Banana Puddin', Shoofly Pie, Pancetta and Gruyere Tart, and even a pie crust and egg wash.

In addition, I thought was special that there was a little magic thrown into the story. I'm not usually a big one for the supernatural stuff, but I found it worked in this story and made it a little different from so many of the other cozy food mysteries. In addition, I liked the cast of characters, especially Ella Mae and her quirky aunts; and Ella Mae's arch nemesis is just plain nasty -- which could be a lot of fun in future books.

Another thing that I appreciated about PIES AND PREJUDICE is that I was able to start this series from the very beginning. That hasn't been the case with most of the cozies I've read this year. It's always fun to see how the characters are from the get-go, and I look forward to seeing where they go in the future. I am especially interested in seeing what's in store for Ella Mae and her love interest Hugh.

Finally, I was pleasantly surprised by the mystery angle of PIES AND PREJUDICE because it was a little more complex than I was expecting from a cozy about magical pies. Since the murder victim was actually an equine veterinarian, the mystery revolved around the wealthy horse racing and breeding community. I thought this angle was interesting and gave the author plenty of opportunity to showcase both the good and bad aspects of horse community.

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, August 26, 2012

Guest Review: Leonardo and the Last Supper

Summary: Milan, 1496 and forty-four-year-old Leonardo da Vinci has a reputation for taking on commissions and failing to complete them. He is in a state of professional uncertainty and financial difficulty. For eighteen months he has been painting murals in both the Sforza Castle in Milan and the refectory of the convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie. The latter project will become the Last Supper, a complex mural that took a full three years to complete on a surface fifteen feet high by twenty feet wide. Not only had he never attempted a painting of such size, but he had no experience whatsoever in painting in the physically demanding medium of fresco.

For more than five centuries the
Last Supper has been an artistic, religious and cultural icon. The art historian Kenneth Clark has called it 'the keystone of European art', and for a century after its creation it was regarded as nothing less than a miraculous image. Even today, according to Clark, we regard the painting as 'more a work of nature than a work of man'. And yet there is a very human story behind this artistic 'miracle', which was created against the backdrop of momentous events both in Milan and in the life of Leonardo himself.

Leonardo and the Last Supper, Ross King tells the complete story of this creation of this mural: the adversities suffered by the artist during its execution; the experimental techniques he employed; the models for Christ and the Apostles that he used; and the numerous personalities involved - everyone from the Leonardo's young assistants to Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan who commissioned the work. Ross King's new book is both a record of Leonardo da Vinci's last five years in Milan and a 'biography' of one of the most famous works of art ever painted. -- Walker Books

My dad has read a few non-fiction books by Ross King and really enjoyed them, so when I saw LEONARDO AND THE LAST SUPPER  at this year's BEA, I immediately knew it was a book that he'd want to read. Here are his thoughts:

In LEONARDO AND THE LAST SUPPER, Ross King not only tells the reader about da Vinci’s painting of The last Supper but places the story in the context of the political and social turmoil that encompassed Italy in the late fifteenth century. 

In 1495, when da Vinci received the commission from the Duke of Milan to paint a religious scene on the wall of the refectory (dining room) of a Dominican monastery in Milan, he was 43 years old and had no major art works to his credit. In fact da Vinci’s career was at a low point and he had an unfavorable reputation that centered on his lack of desire to meet deadlines or to complete projects, his obsession with detail and his habit of being distracted by his interest in other things such as architecture and military weapons. Da Vinci was actually not pleased with this commission and expressed that in a letter to the Duke of Milan. 

The painting of a mural was not a likely assignment for da Vinci. He had never painted anything as large as this (fifteen feet high by twenty-nine feet wide) and he had never painted in fresco, a very difficult technique that required the artist to work quickly – a requirement not in line with da Vinci’s style. 

King takes the reader through the three years it took da Vinci to complete The Last Supper with an interesting discussion of the unique paint application technique utilized by da Vinci in lieu of fresco. King also presents the reader with a very colorful portrait of da Vinci describing him as a vegetarian and his typical clothes as pink tights and a purple tunic. He also shares some very interesting background stories about da Vinci’s life including his family, his religious beliefs and his relationship with Giacomo, a young lad he took on as an assistant. The author gets very detailed in discussing the various meanings of items in the painting such as colors, facial expressions and hand gestures, the significance of the particular food items displayed and even the meaning of a spilled salt shaker on the table. King takes a look at these items from a religious, secular and political viewpoint and explains some of the various interpretations of the painting throughout history. 

King debunks some of the more popular conspiracy theories such as those presented in The da Vinci Code about Mary Magdalene and the age-old stories about da Vinci’s models for Christ and the apostles. King even discusses the possibility that da Vinci included at least one self-portrait in the painting. In fact, King’s stories are much more fascinating than any of the conspiracy theories. 

LEONARDO AND THE LAST SUPPER is a terrific mix of biography, art history and Italian political history. I did feel that the book bogged down somewhat when King went into great detail about other paintings of the time and the invasion and occupation of Italy. These, however did not detract from the marvelous stories about The Last Supper. I have also enjoyed other Ross King works such as Brunelleschi’s Dome and Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling and definitely consider LEONARDO AND THE LAST SUPPER as outstanding as these. 

Thanks to Booking Pap Pap for his review. I received a copy of this book at the 2012 Book Expo America.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Kid Konnection: Star Wars Origami

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 "one of the coolest books ever" according to my husband and son!

Summary: Kids love origami—and what could be cooler than transforming a piece of paper into Boba Fett, Princess Leia, Yoda, or R2-D2? And not just any paper, but custom-designed paper illustrated with art from the movies. Star Wars® Origami marries the fun of paper folding with the obsession of Star Wars. Like The Joy of Origami and Origami on the Go, this book puts an original spin on an ancient art. And like Star Wars® Scanimation® and Star Wars® Fandex®, it’s a fresh take on Star Wars mania.

Chris Alexander is a master folder and founder of the popular website, and here are 36 models, clearly explained, that range in difficulty from Youngling (easy) to Padawan (medium), Jedi Knight (difficult), and Jedi Master (tricky!). A front section introduces origami definitions and basic folds. Bound in the back is the book’s unique folding paper, two sheets for each figure. Illustrated with original art, it makes each creation—the essential lightsabers, the Death Star, and much more—true to the movies.

Star Wars Origami includes a foreword by Tom Angleberger, author of the New York Times bestsellers The Strange Case of Origami Yoda and Darth Paper Strikes Back, and is scheduled to be published at the same time as Angleberger’s upcoming book, The Secret of the Fortune Wookiee. -- Workman

STAR WARS ORIGAMI: 36 AMAZING PAPER-FOLDING PROJECTS FROM A GALAXY FAR, FAR AWAY... by Chris Alexander is the perfect gift for the Star Wars fan in your life. I just happen to have two that actually live with me, and they were blown away by this book. This book contains step-by-step instructions for preparing 36 different Star Wars origami projects including a Yoda, a Darth Vader, the Death Star, a Millennium Falcon, and even a Han Solo.

The foreword of the book is written by Tom Angleberger, author of THE STRANGE CASE OF ORIGAMI YODA. Normally, I wouldn't mention who wrote the foreword of a book; however, I'm a huge fan of his middle grade novels -- my review. In addition, I was lucky enough to meet him at last year's BEA and he actually gave me an origami Darth Vader that he made.

I had great plans that I was going to make some Star Wars origami projects and take photos to go along with this post. Needless to say, things didn't work out quite like I had planned. I sat down with this book and began by reading the basic origami instructions. The author begins with general origami definitions, symbols and basic folds. These seemed fairly simple and clear to me, so I decided to pick a project.

The paper-folding projects in this book are all amazing and I had a great time looking at how each one was prepared! I pretty much decided that they all looked too difficult for my abilities, but since they are classified by difficulty, I decided that I could probably do a Youngling one -- those are considered the easiest. The next levels are Padawan (medium), Jedi Knight (difficult) and Jedi Master (tricky!) See, everything about this book is awesome!

Rather than using the patterned paper that is provided in the back of the book (oh yeah, did I mention that this book not only has instructions but also the coolest Star Wars paper ever?), I decided to try it with regular paper first. I had a feeling that origami might not be my thing. It's a good thing I did this or I would have ruined some very nice paper. Origami is hard... even at the Youngling level.

Having said that, I know I could make some of the easier items in this book if I stuck with it. Furthermore, I have no doubt that most kids (ages 9 and up) could figure it out with few problems. The instructions in this book are good... very good, in fact. I just think I'm a little slow to figure things like this out and I didn't want to wait to post my review until I acquired some origami skills.

In addition to the instructions and the patterned paper, there are also a few other things in STAR WARS ORIGAMI that will appeal to Star Wars fans. First of all, there are descriptions of the famous characters and ships prior to the origami directions. There are also a few Star Wars quizzes and trivia thrown in to test your Star Wars knowledge.

Finally, I want to mention that Chris Alexander, the creator of all things Star Wars origami, has a great website that you have to visit. He has posted some of his Star Wars origami creations with instructions. While you don't actually have the very cool Star Wars patterned paper that comes with this book, there are still some fun projects using just regular paper.

Despite my lack of origami skills, I am still saying that STAR WARS ORIGAMI is a fantastic book. Highly recommended for Star Wars fans and anyone who wants to learn (or build upon) origami skills.

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, August 24, 2012

Review: And When She Was Good

Summary: Perennial New York Times and nationally bestselling author and acclaimed multiple–prize winner Laura Lippman delivers a brilliant novel about a woman with a secret life who is forced to make desperate choices to save her son and herself. 

When Hector Lewis told his daughter that she had a nothing face, it was just another bit of tossed-off cruelty from a man who specialized in harsh words and harsher deeds. But twenty years later, Heloise considers it a blessing to be a person who knows how to avoid attention. In the comfortable suburb where she lives, she's just a mom, the youngish widow with a forgettable job who somehow never misses a soccer game or a school play. In the state capitol, she's the redheaded lobbyist with a good cause and a mediocre track record. 

But in discreet hotel rooms throughout the area, she's the woman of your dreams—if you can afford her hourly fee. 

For more than a decade, Heloise has believed she is safe. She has created a rigidly compartmentalized life, maintaining no real friendships, trusting few confidantes. Only now her secret life, a life she was forced to build after the legitimate world turned its back on her, is under siege. Her once oblivious accountant is asking loaded questions. Her longtime protector is hinting at new, mysterious dangers. Her employees can't be trusted. One county over, another so-called suburban madam has been found dead in her car, a suicide. Or is it? 

Nothing is as it seems as Heloise faces a midlife crisis with much higher stakes than most will ever know. 

And then she learns that her son's father might be released from prison, which is problematic because he doesn't know he has a son. The killer and former pimp also doesn't realize that he's serving a life sentence because Heloise betrayed him. But he's clearly beginning to suspect that Heloise has been holding something back all these years. 

With no formal education, no real family, and no friends, Heloise has to remake her life—again. Disappearing will be the easy part. She's done it before and she can do it again. A new name and a new place aren't hard to come by if you know the right people. The trick will be living long enough to start a new life. -- William Morrow

While I haven't read everything that Laura Lippman has every written (because it's a heck of a lot of books), I do consider myself a fan. I have enjoyed both her Tess Monaghan books and her stand-alones, so there was never any doubt in my mind that I would pick up her latest novel  AND WHEN SHE WAS GOOD. What did catch me by surprise was that AND WHEN SHE WAS GOOD wasn't really a mystery or suspense novel -- so I didn't want to use it for Mystery Monday. Rather, it was a story about a strong-willed woman and her secrets.

AND WHEN SHE WAS GOOD tells the story of Heloise Lewis, a single, working mom who lives in suburban Maryland, who is just trying to do her best for son Scott. Heloise comes across as a grieving widow and dedicated mom who also has a very successful career as a lobbyist. However, things aren't what they seem when it comes to Heloise. First of all, she runs a successful prostitution ring. Secondly, she's not really a widow. Thirdly, her son's father is in jail for murder because Heloise secretly informed the police about his guilt. Needless to say, she has a lot of secrets and the list of deceptions could on and on. But one's things for sure, Heloise tries to keep a low profile, both personally and professionally, so she can keep herself and her son safe.

And then, Heloise discovers that her secret life might not be so secret. When another local madame is found dead, the police want to talk to Heloise to see if she knows anything. In addition, her loyal accountant is suddenly asking some very interesting (and pointed) questions; and her friend who is a policeman tells her that she needs to be on the lookout for danger. And last but certainly not least, she learns that her son's father (who doesn't even know he has a son) might be released from prison. Needless to say, Heloise's already complicated life is becoming even more complicated. The real question is: Can Heloise reinvent herself once again before all of her secrets catch up with her?

AND WHEN SHE WAS GOOD definitely had a different feel to me than Lippman's other books; however, I still really enjoyed it. I appreciated that there were still elements of crime and suspense woven into the story, and I liked the plot twists and even the ending.What I really appreciated, though, was how this novel featured a very strong character in Heloise. Goodness knows, Heloise had a rough childhood and an even rougher adulthood; however, she showed that she was a survivor. I enjoyed how she continually had to reinvent herself, and it was through her intelligence and wits that she was able to pull off everything.

I also really appreciated that Lippman focused on Heloise's love of her son as the reason why she was driven to so much deception. Talk about the power of motherly love! Heloise wasn't a bad person, or at least she didn't see herself that way (nor did I); however, she felt as if she were forced into many of her actions because of her desire to keep her son safe. Sadly, she really didn't have a lot of choices available to her without family support and an education. While Heloise's behavior might have been a drastic example of the lengths a mother will go to protect her child, I do think many women will be able to relate to her and her feelings toward Scott.

Finally, I appreciated that this novel explored the concept of moral ambiguity. I was a bit surprised by a few of my reactions to Heloise and her behavior because I'm usually a "by-the-book" type of girl. However, this novel clearly showed that life isn't black and white -- instead it's more of a dirty grey. It's probably obvious that the character of Heloise definitely crossed the line when it came to right and wrong, but I found myself being able to justify her actions (sometimes, not all of the time.) In addition, because Ms. Lippman did such a great job of presenting the legal and ethical complexities associate with prostitution and lobbying, I actually started thinking about these issues. (I've pretty much come to the conclusion that I have no idea what the "right" answers are.)

I was a little surprised that I couldn't find a reading guide for AND WHEN SHE WAS GOOD because I do think it would make for an interesting book to discuss. Not only is Heloise a fascinating character, but there are some other themes which warrant further discussion. Some of the topics you might want to explore include parent/child relationships, motherly love, sacrifice, deception, lies, secrets, good versus evil, prostitution, lobbying, and other moral ambiguities.

AND WHEN SHE WAS GOOD was definitely an entertaining read for me as well as one that caused me to think. I highly recommend it to fans of Lippman and readers who enjoy in-depth character studies of strong women.

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

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Review: Cinderella Ate My Daughter (Audio)

Summary: Pink and pretty or predatory and hardened, sexualized girlhood influences our daughters from infancy onward, telling them that how a girl looks matters more than who she is. Somewhere between the exhilarating rise of Girl Power in the 1990s and today, the pursuit of physical perfection has been recast as a source—the source—of female empowerment. And commercialization has spread the message faster and farther, reaching girls at ever-younger ages. 

But, realistically, how many times can you say no when your daughter begs for a pint-size wedding gown or the latest Hannah Montana CD? And how dangerous is pink and pretty anyway—especially given girls' successes in the classroom and on the playing field? Being a princess is just make-believe, after all; eventually they grow out of it. Or do they? Does playing Cinderella shield girls from early sexualization—or prime them for it? Could today's little princess become tomorrow's sexting teen? And what if she does? Would that make her in charge of her sexuality—or an unwitting captive to it? 

Those questions hit home with Peggy Orenstein, so she went sleuthing. She visited Disneyland and the international toy fair, trolled American Girl Place and Pottery Barn Kids, and met beauty pageant parents with preschoolers tricked out like Vegas showgirls. She dissected the science, created an online avatar, and parsed the original fairy tales. The stakes turn out to be higher than she—or we—ever imagined: nothing less than the health, development, and futures of our girls. From premature sexualization to the risk of depression to rising rates of narcissism, the potential negative impact of this new girlie-girl culture is undeniable—yet armed with awareness and recognition, parents can effectively counterbalance its influence in their daughters' lives. 

Cinderella Ate My Daughter is a must-read for anyone who cares about girls, and for parents helping their daughters navigate the rocky road to adulthood. -- HarperAudio

I've had a few friends that told me I needed to read CINDERELLA ATE MY DAUGHTER by Peggy Orenstein. In fact, they insisted that this book is a must-read for every woman who has a daughter. I was worried that I was a little late to the game since my daughter is now a teenager, but I decided better late than never, right? Now, I'm not so sure!

I decided to listen to CINDERELLA ATE MY DAUGHTER during my morning runs. So every day at 6:00, I started my workout and listed to Peggy Orenstein talk about how much damage we are doing to our young daughters. I found much of what she had to say fascinating and I thought she made some excellent points; and as a result, I came back from my run feeling very inadequate. The first few days I listened to this book, I'd come home and tell my husband all of the things I'd done wrong with our daughter -- allowing her to play dress-up in Disney Princess clothes, letting her watch the Disney Princess movies, buying toys that were pink and girly, etc. I was actually kind of depressed because I believed that I permanently damaged my girl and there wasn't much I could do to change it. She could end up with feelings of inadequacy, get an eating disorder, become promiscuous, and much worse!

And then after a few days of beating myself up, I began to get a little frustrated... maybe even angry. First of all, it was a little late to be beating myself up for what I did when she was a preschooler. I did the best I could do and I believe that she's a good kid and will turn out okay. And secondly, I love Disney and princesses and pink and I don't think that makes me a bad person or less of a strong woman. I understand where the author was coming from, and I do think much of what she said is true.. just not all of it!

I think she might have gone overboard with some of her extreme examples, and as a result, I began questioning a few of her points. For example, I was a little surprised by some of her statements about the Disney princess movies and their overall messages. I never even considered some of her ideas (and actually chuckled at a few of them), and I do think there are valid counterarguments that could be made about her analysis of princesses and their motives.

Having said that, much of what Ms. Orenstein talks about in this book is very true. She makes some excellent points about the merchandising and marketing to our girls. I also think her insights into the potential problems that teen girls can face was spot on. There are many other very serious issues that she addressed,  and her research seemed to be very thorough. I commend her for bringing these concerns to the surface and generating awareness and discussion. And basically, that's what I've taken away from this book. It's important for me to be aware of how "things" might affect my daughter and be on the lookout for pitfalls, so I can protect her (or at least try!)

Ms. Orenstein was the narrator of CINDERELLA ATE MY DAUGHTER and it honestly was the natural choice. Because she is so knowledgeable about this subject matter, it would have been strange for anyone to read her words. In addition, she brought to the book her passion (and her sarcasm); and I think she did a great job.

I am sure Ms. Orenstein would have issues with my parenting style, but there are all different ways to bring up a daughter. I have always told my daughter she can be whatever she wants to be and I've encouraged her to embrace her beauty... both inner and outer. I've also encouraged her to embrace her girliness... if that's what she wants. You see, I think it's cool to be a girl because we have so many options -- if you want to wear pink and ruffles, wear pink and ruffles; if you want to be a tomboy, be a tomboy; if you want to be a doctor or lawyer (or anything!), be that; if you want to be a working mom, be a working mom; and if you want to be a stay-at-home mom, be a stay-at-home mom!

Needless to say, CINDERELLA ATE MY DAUGHTER was an emotional read for me, but I think that says a great deal about the power of this book. I can't remember the last time I talked about and thought about a book this much. Definitely recommended for mothers and fathers of young girls!

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

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Review: The Snow Child

Summary: Alaska, 1920: a brutal place to homestead, and especially tough for recent arrivals Jack and Mabel. Childless, they are drifting apart--he breaking under the weight of the work of the farm; she crumbling from loneliness and despair. In a moment of levity during the season's first snowfall, they build a child out of snow. The next morning the snow child is gone--but they glimpse a young, blonde-haired girl running through the trees.

This little girl, who calls herself Faina, seems to be a child of the woods. She hunts with a red fox at her side, skims lightly across the snow, and somehow survives alone in the Alaskan wilderness. As Jack and Mabel struggle to understand this child who could have stepped from the pages of a fairy tale, they come to love her as their own daughter. But in this beautiful, violent place things are rarely as they appear, and what they eventually learn about Faina will transform all of them. -- Reagan Arthur

This month, my book club read THE SNOW CHILD by Eowyn Ivey. Considering that I co-host the Reagan Arthur Books Challenge with Kathy/Bermudaonion, you might think that this novel was a re-read for me. But you'd be very wrong. Despite seeing some great reviews for THE SNOW CHILD, I wasn't all that interested in the premise. It just seemed a little to "magical" for my tastes. As a result, reading the book was not a priority for me and it kind of got lost in the shuffle.

So when my friend announced that we'd be reading THE SNOW CHILD for August, I was pretty happy. You see, I knew that I should read it, but I needed a little push to actually read it. Now, I am the first to admit that I shouldn't have waited so long to pick up this novel. It was a beautifully written story that definitely entertained me.

THE SNOW CHILD tells the story of Jack and Mabel, a couple who picks up and moves to Alaska to run a farm after they both decide that they need a fresh start. Jack and Mabel have been dealing for years with infertility, and it's starting to catch up with them. Mabel is severely depressed and lonely, and the couple is slowly starting to drift apart. One evening, after the first snow of the season, Jack and Mabel decide to build a snow child. The next morning they wake up to find that the snow has melted, but that there is now a little girl running around their farm.

At first, Jack and Mabel aren't quite sure what to make of things; however, they both accept her as real when they learn that the other one also sees her. Eventually the girl, whose name is Faina, decides that she trusts Jack and Mabel enough to enter their home and eat with them; and she even begins to visit every winter. Jack and Mabel finally experience joy in their bleak lives, and they soon begin to love Faina as if she were their very own daughter.

After Faina enters the picture, so many of Jack and Mabel's problems seem to go away. For example, food mysteriously shows up on their doorstep when they are hungry and animals suddenly seem to appear when Jack is out hunting. In addition, Jack and Mabel make friends with their closest neighbors which not only helps them with their loneliness but also with getting the planting completed. However, Faina also manages to cause some upheaval with a few of her actions and eventually causes a great deal of pain to those who love her the most.

I enjoyed THE SNOW CHILD a great deal. I'm not sure I'd say I loved it, but I did appreciate it. There is absolutely nothing inherently wrong with the novel. In fact, I could rave about the gorgeous writing, the creativity and the emotion in the story. Rather, I think what kept me from loving THE SNOW CHILD it is just my personal taste. I'm not a big fan of magical realism or fantasy (or pretty much anything that requires me to use my imagination!)

Having said that, I thought THE SNOW CHILD was an extremely well written novel. I was impressed by so many things that Ms. Ivey did with this book. First of all, I loved how she incorporated the fable of The Snow Child into this story. Mabel used to read this story as a child, and she wanted to believe that Faina was her very own Snow Child. Similarly, I liked how she also juxtaposed Faina's story with The Snow Child story from Mabel's childhood. In addition, I liked how the author left so much of the story up to the reader's personal interpretation. I know I was pretty sure about a few things that took place in this story, and then I got to book club and discovered that my friends all had different thoughts. Learning this actually made me appreciate the novel even more!

I did find this story to be entertaining and even thought-provoking and I always appreciate these things, but what made THE SNOW CHILD stand out to me as the actual writing. Ms. Ivey's prose was so eloquent. I adored her descriptions of Alaska and I honestly had a chill the entire time I read about the brutally cold weather. But I also could visualize the farmland, their house, and even the clothes that Mabel made for Faina. Furthermore, I was blown away by how Ms. Ivey managed to evoke so much emotion in her words. Mabel was so desperate and lonely and I could feel her pain. I absolutely loved how real Mabel was to me and I think her character might be the reason that I enjoyed this book as much as I did.

I thought THE SNOW CHILD was a great selection for our book club. As I mentioned earlier, we had some very differing views, or maybe I should say interpretations, of what happened in the book. (I was definitely in the minority if that tells you anything, but I'm still not totally convinced that I'm wrong!) I loved how we discussed what happened (or could have happened) along with the magical elements of the story. There is a reading guide available, but we didn't even need to use it. Some of the topics that you need to explore include loneliness, friendship, marriage, infertility, family, love, loss, grief, and parenting. In addition, there are quite a few symbols to analyze as well as different ways to interpret Faina and her actions.

Overall, THE SNOW CHILD was a gorgeous read and I recommend it to fans of magical realism, fairy tales, and literary fiction.

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

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Review: The Roots of the Olive Tree

Summary: Meet the Keller family, five generations of firstborn women—an unbroken line of daughters—living together in the same house on a secluded olive grove in the Sacramento Valley of Northern California. 

Anna, the family matriarch, is 112 and determined to become the oldest person in the world. An indomitable force, strong in mind and firm in body, she rules Hill House, the family home she shares with her daughter Bets, granddaughter Callie, great-granddaughter Deb, and great-great-granddaughter Erin. Though they lead ordinary lives, there is an element of the extraordinary to these women: the eldest two are defying longevity norms. Their unusual lifespans have caught the attention of a geneticist who believes they hold the key to breakthroughs that will revolutionize the aging process for everyone. 

But Anna is not interested in unlocking secrets the Keller blood holds. She believes there are some truths that must stay hidden, including certain knowledge about her origins that she has carried for more than a century. Like Anna, each of the Keller women conceals her true self from the others. While they are bound by blood and the house they share, living together has not always been easy. And it is about to become more complicated now that Erin, the youngest, is back, alone and pregnant, after two years abroad with an opera company. Her return and the arrival of the geneticist who has come to study the Keller family ignites explosive emotions that these women have kept buried and uncovers revelations that will shake them all to their roots. 

Told from varying viewpoints, Courtney Miller Santo's compelling and evocative debut novel captures the joys and sorrows of family—the love, secrets, disappointments, jealousies, and forgiveness that tie generations to one another. -- William Morrow

I was so looking forward to reading THE ROOTS OF THE OLIVE TREE by Courtney Miller Santo. The description was definitely appealing to me -- a story about five generations of women who live on an olive grove; and I had even read an early blogger review which just raved about the novel. By all accounts, I really thought this book would be one that I'd enjoy. You know how I love books about strong women and dysfunctional families!

THE ROOTS OF THE OLIVE TREE follows five generations of women, Anna, Bets, Callie, Deb, and Erin. (I could keep their names straight because they were in alphabetical order beginning with "A.") All five women live in the same house with the 112 year old Anna being not only the matriarch, but the glue that keeps the family together. The Keller family is typical in many ways; however, it also has one very unique quality. As evidenced by Anna and even Bets, these women seem to have an ability to defy normal life spans.

When a geneticist comes to both interview and research this family, Anna isn't so sure she wants somebody digging into their personal lives. She believes that there are some things better left hidden. As the doctor delves into their world with the hopes of finding the key to their longevity, it becomes obvious that each of these five women have secrets that they don't want known. Their desire to keep their secrets causes much emotion, tension, and even heartache; and, as a result, their home life is filled with a great deal of drama.

I would love to tell you how special THE ROOTS OF THE OLIVE TREE was to me. Unfortunately, it didn't really work. While I loved the premise and was sure that the novel would resonate with me (until recently, I was the third generation out of four of first born women/girls in our family), I was definitely left wanting for more. I had some issues with the character development and the dropped (or unexplained) story lines; however, I think the biggest disappointment was that I didn't end up getting to know, or even care about, the individual characters. And in a novel like THE ROOTS OF THE OLIVE TREE, I think liking and/or understanding the characters is essential to my enjoyment of the story.

THE ROOTS OF THE OLIVE TREE wasn't a very long novel, just under 300 pages; and I have to wonder if the author didn't try to do too much with the story in that number of pages. Initially, I liked that the story was told in third person showing the different viewpoints of these five women, but I also felt like there just wasn't enough detail about each woman and her history. While each one of them had a pretty interesting background story, I never truly got to know any of them well enough to understand their actions, nevertheless feel compassion towards them.

In addition, I felt as if the transitions between characters was a little confusing (but that could just be me.) It took me quite a few chapters to even get the characters and their issues straight; and once I did, I discovered that I wasn't all that interested in any of their stories (except Anna -- I loved her!) That might sound rather harsh (especially for me), but these women were so petty to each other that I couldn't get past it. I know families have issues, and when you take into account this was a family made up of women, there is going to be the potential for drama. However, these women were so bitter and their lack of real communication got under my skin.

That's not to say that there weren't some redeeming qualities to THE ROOTS OF THE OLIVE TREE. I did think the author had a way with words and some of her prose was often times very eloquent. In fact, I truly appreciated her descriptions of the olive groves as well as how she used the olives and the trees as symbols throughout the story. I also appreciated that she explored some unique ideas about aging. I'm assuming that she did some research on the subject matter, and some of the concepts that were presented definitely piqued my interest.

THE ROOTS OF THE OLIVE TREE would probably make for an interesting book club discussion. I'm sure there will be some big fans of this book who would disagree with everything I've said, so there is an opportunity for some interesting debate. I wasn't able to find a formal discussion guide, but there is a lot of things to discuss concerning family dynamics. In addition, you might want to explore mother/daughter relationships, love, marriage, genes, dementia, responsibilities, secrets, jealousy, faith, forgiveness, and redemption.

While THE ROOTS OF THE OLIVE TREE wasn't my cup of tea, I have a feeling that this book will appeal to many female readers. It's in a unique look at dysfunctional families and the strength of women.

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

Monday, August 20, 2012

Review: Broken Harbor

Summary: The mesmerizing fourth novel of the Dublin murder squad by New York Times bestselling author Tana French

Mick "Scorcher" Kennedy, the brash cop from Tana French’s bestselling Faithful Place, plays by the book and plays hard. That’s what’s made him the Murder squad’s top detective—and that’s what puts the biggest case of the year into his hands.

On one of the half-built, half-abandoned "luxury" developments that litter Ireland, Patrick Spain and his two young children are dead. His wife, Jenny, is in intensive care.

At first, Scorcher and his rookie partner, Richie, think it’s going to be an easy solve. But too many small things can’t be explained. The half dozen baby monitors, their cameras pointing at holes smashed in the Spains’ walls. The files erased from the Spains’ computer. The story Jenny told her sister about a shadowy intruder who was slipping past all the locks.

And Broken Harbor holds memories for Scorcher. Seeing the case on the news sends his sister Dina off the rails again, and she’s resurrecting something that Scorcher thought he had tightly under control: what happened to their family one summer at Broken Harbor, back when they were children.

With her signature blend of police procedural and psychological thriller, French’s new novel goes full throttle with a heinous crime, creating her most complicated detective character and her best book yet. -- Viking

I have finally experienced the wonder of Tana French! I know, I know. It's taken me way too long to read one of her novels, and now that I've finished BROKEN HARBOR, I want to read every single one of her books! She is, like, totally amazing!

BROKEN HARBOR tells the story of Mick Kennedy, a Dublin homicide cop, who, along with his rookie partner Richie, end up with a huge murder case. A family of four who lives in Broken Harbor, a half-finished luxury resort neighborhood, is found brutally attacked -- the father and two children are dead, while the mother is hanging on for her life. Of course, the primary suspect is the husband; however, Kennedy and Richie begin to notice that there are a few unexplained occurrences like a half dozen baby monitors, holes in the walls, missing files from the family computer, and signs of an intruder. Pretty crazy, right?

In the meantime, all of this investigating at Broken Harbor is bringing back memories for Kennedy from his troubled childhood; and his kid sister Dina, who isn't the most stable of individuals in normal times, is close to going over the edge with all the talk of Broken Harbor. Kennedy must deal with his family responsibilities and also discover who's responsible for these gruesome murders. It's an extremely complex case that even has Kennedy questioning his killer instincts.

BROKEN HARBOR is the fourth novel of the Dublin Murder Squad series (I think I have two of the other ones- yay!), and it totally works as a stand-alone. So, what I'm saying, is if you are like me and haven't read a French book yet, you can start with her latest and then go back and catch-up. There were definitely a few references to Kennedy's past (he appears in FAITHFUL PLACE), but they were pretty vague and I suspect that they weren't major spoilers.

What can I really say about BROKEN HARBOR that hasn't already been said (and said better!) I absolutely loved this book and I think it even exceeded my expectations. Tana French is a skilled storyteller and had my brain reeling the entire time I read her novel. I had absolutely no idea where she was going to take me, but I certainly knew I wanted to be along for the ride!

There are so many outstanding things about BROKEN HARBOR that I hardly know where to start. I adored the mystery aspect of the novel. There were so many twists that I could hardly keep them straight, and I honestly wasn't sure who was trustworthy. In addition, I loved seeing learning about the crime and the suspects through Kennedy and his partner's eyes while they were working the crime. And as far as endings go, I can guarantee that you will be shocked with the outcome of this novel for quite a few reasons. Even if you think you have an inkling of where this one is going, I bet you don't!

Another really special thing about BROKEN HARBOR was the character development. I found Kennedy to be such an honest and real character, and I know that's a testament to Ms. French's writing. There is no doubt that Kennedy was complex (and not always likable!), but he just seemed to genuine; and I loved him for that. What really impressed me, though, was how well the author balanced all aspects of Kennedy's life -- from his talent as a police detective, to his training skills with his rookie partner, to his personal life with his sister, etc. This novel wasn't just about Kennedy solving a crime; and that's was brought it to the next level for me.

I loved how Kennedy went about finding the murderer in BROKEN HARBOR, but I also deeply appreciated that this novel addressed some other very serious issues. Mental illness was a biggie in this story, and I thought Ms. French did an outstanding job of showing the difficulties and responsibilities that family members face when dealing with a mentally ill individual. In addition, Ms. French tackled the very relevant issue of Ireland's economic decline in this story. Through the setting of Broken Harbor as well as the references to layoffs and job losses, the author showed how much this downturn has affected young peoples' lives. And finally, Ms. French takes a look at how our childhoods can affect our future actions.

Honestly, this novel is just so well written. I swear if it were just a murder mystery, I would have been impressed, but when I consider how much Ms. French accomplished with her social commentary, I'm truly blown away. It's rare that I read a suspense/thriller or mystery that is this smart. Not only did BROKEN HARBOR have me scratching my head over the mystery and even giving me the willies a few times, but it also made me think!

I would love to be part of a book club discussion for BROKEN HARBOR. The mystery is intriguing, but the characters are also fascinating. There is a reading guide available with eleven thought-provoking questions. Some of the topics you might want the explore include motivations, self-control, prejudices, responsibilities, family dynamics, a struggling economy, mental illness, luck, forgiveness, acceptance, and redemption.

Overall, BROKEN HARBOR is one of the best books that I've read this summer. Highly recommended for fans of mysteries and psychological thrillers.

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, August 19, 2012

Review: Taste of Home Best Loved Recipes

Summary: What is Taste of Home Best Loved Recipes? 

  • Taste of Home is America's connection to the personal recipes of people who cook at home as a way to bring family and friends together, particularly at the holidays. 
  • This special collection includes more than 1,400 of the most requested, most beloved dishes, all submitted by Taste of Home readers 
  • Each recipe has been evaluated and selected by Taste of Home, which ensures that it can be prepared with affordable everyday ingredients. 
  • Practical and proven tips to help every kind of cook enjoy perfect results every time 
  •  Personal stories and memories from contributors are sprinkled throughout 

  • Prep/Cook Times 
  • Top 100 favorite recipes marked with an icon 
  • Everyday ingredients 
  • Easy-to-follow directions 
  • How-to photos and cooking tips 
  • Personal stories 
  • Ribbon marker 

Taste of Home Best Loved Recipes at a Glance 
26 chapters inspired by the most popular magazine features 
  • Chapters include some of the most cherished magazine features from over the years including: Mom Made it Best, Our Favorite Contributor's Meals, Mealtime Express, Cooking for One or Two, Grand-Prize Winners, Potluck Picks
Where do I even start with a review of the new cookbook TASTE OF HOME BEST LOVED RECIPES: 1485 FAVORITES? Maybe by telling you that this is a must-have cookbook for any cookbook lover's collection? Or maybe by sharing that it's over two inches thick and weighs a ton? (Seriously, it could do some serious damage if you drop it!) Or maybe I could just say that BEST LOVED RECIPES has almost 1500 recipes?

No matter how you slice it, TASTE OF HOME BEST LOVED RECIPES is positively amazing! When I first opened the package, I couldn't believe the awesomeness of this cookbook. In fact, it is so huge and has so many recipes that I was a bit intimidated at first by where to even start. So I decided just to sit down and dig in. I began reading every recipe (yes, it took hours!) And then I was really excited because there are so many wonderful recipes -- definitely something to suit every single person who has ever cooked or eaten!

There is absolutely no way to fully describe how great this cookbook is. For those of you who are familiar with the Taste of Home cookbook or magazines, you already know how great they are. But for those of you who haven't experienced their products, then this BEST LOVED RECIPES is the perfect start. The folks at Taste of Home has selected 1485 fan favorite recipes that have withstood the test of time. They've even made a note when a recipe is a Top 100 one!

The cookbook is divided into many, many chapters. They are all pretty typical with only a few surprises. Here they are: Appetizers; Beef; Beverages; Breads; Breakfast & Brunch; Cakes; Candies; Celebrations & Holidays; Condiments & Sauces; Cookies & Bars; Cooking for One or Two; Desserts; Grand-Prize Winners; Mealtime Express; Mom Made It Best; Our Contributors' Meals; Pasta, Grains & Rice; Pies & Tarts; Pork & Lamb; Potluck Picks; Poultry; Salads; Sandwiches & Pizza; Seafood; Sides; and Soups. There is also a brief introduction which includes some details on how the recipes were compiled for the cookbook.

One chapter in particular that caught my attention (besides all of the dessert ones) was the Celebrations & Holidays one. This chapter gave meal ideas for various events including beverages, appetizers, main dishes, sides and desserts. It was pretty much a how-to in entertaining and leaves a lot of the guesswork out for those of us not always comfortable with cooking for a crowd.

There are a few color photographs in the cookbook which are very nice especially to readers like me who love to see the final product. Of course, there isn't a photo for every recipe or you wouldn't even be able to lift the cookbook. It's heavy enough as it is and when given a choice, I know I'd like more rather than less recipes. In addition, there are also viewers' comments in the sidebars. These quotes can be as simple as saying how great the recipes are, or they can even offer ways to serve the item as well as substitution ideas.

In a cookbook as large as this one, an easy-to-use index is essential. I think BEST LOVED RECIPES has a pretty good one. You can look up recipes by title or even by ingredient, and you can also search by the year that the recipe as first published.

I don't know if I even need to say this, but the Taste of Home recipes are always fabulous. There are close to a hundred recipes that I'd love to try, and I hate to admit this, but most are for desserts. For some reason, Taste of Home has the best dessert recipes that you'll ever find. I can vouch for a number of the recipes in this BEST LOVED RECIPES cookbook. For example, the Pumpkin Gingerbread Trifle is fabulous and perfect for the fall; and, the Chicken Tortilla Bake is yummy (and very easy.)

While I do think BEST LOVED RECIPES is a quality cookbook, I also have to mention that it appeals to my emotional side as well. My late grandmother would have loved this cookbook, and I wish she were still here so I could share it with her. I inherited my love of cookbooks from my grandma and I have fond memories of looking through old Taste of Home magazines and cookbooks with her. So many of these recipes reminded me of her and the food that she made for us through the years. 

It should be apparent by now that I love TASTE OF HOME BEST LOVED RECIPES. I am pretty sure that no kitchen should be without it!

Thanks to FSB Associates for providing a review copy of this cookbook.

Weekend Cooking is hosted by Beth Fish Reads and is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, fabulous quotations, photographs. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up anytime over the weekend. Please link to your specific post, not your blog's home page. For more information, see the welcome post.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Kid Konnection: Middle School Survival Guides & Giveaway

Every Saturday, I host a feature called Kid Konnection -- a regular weekend feature about anything related to children's books. This week, I'm going to share with you some fabulous books for middle school girls. Plus, I'll be giving away a set of these books to one lucky reader.

Summary: She knows everything about you...she'd never tell your secrets...she's your biggest fan. Who doesn't want a friend like that? True friendship is a gift...but it can be hard to find. Whether you're stuck in a fading friendship, caught in the popularity trap, or dealing with mean girls, we'll break down the solutions to your problems step by step. Best of all, we'll teach you how to free yourself from poisonous friendships forever and be the best friend you can be. Soon, you'll be meeting new people and making friends who truly respect and understand you...because you deserve first-rate friendships. -- Discovery Girls

Summary: Getting Unstuck! Remember when you got the courage to tell your crush you liked him...and found out he didn't like you back? Didn't you wish you knew someone who had all the answers? Well, have no fear! Not only do we know exactly how to handle your crush, but we also know dow to deal with a gazillion other sticky situations. Like when your BFF blabs your deepest secret to the entire school...or when you make a total fool of yourself onstage. We'll also tell you how to handle being cornered by a mean dog...or stranded at the mall...and much, much more! By the last page, you'll be ready to deal with anything! -- Discovery Girls

Summary: When did life get so complicated? Stuck between friends? Tired of your siblings? Self conscious of your body? Crushing big time? You are not alone! Every month, girls write to Discovery Girls magazine to ask Ali, our advice columinst, for help with issues like these. When it comes to girls' most troublesome questions, Ali has all the answers you need. She tackles your questions on everything from family to friendship to school to boys...and much, much more. No matter what you're going through, you'll find answers to your problems inside. Ali is here to help! -- Discovery Girls

Summary: In these amazing true stories, girls just like you share their private struggles, hoping to help you through your most difficult times. You'll find comfort, encouragement, and inspiration here...and best of all, you'll know that whatever life throws at you, you are never alone. -- Discovery Girls

Once again, the folks at Discovery Girls have put together a set of books which are an excellent tool for middle school girls! This time it's the Discovery Girls Middle School Survival Guide series, and it's made up of four books that are chock full of sound advice for girls. I sure wish there had been something like this available for me when I was navigating the shark infested waters of middle school.

These books provide girls with strategies for handling friendship troubles, embarrassing moments, body image issues, peer pressure, school problems, and more. The information is provided in a simple and easy-to-understand format that makes these books fun to read too. There are a variety of quizzes, along with advice and real-life scenarios; and I have no doubt that middle school girls will be able to relate to many of the examples.

As a mom, I can't rave enough about everything that Discovery Girls publishes. Discovery Girls stresses the same values that I try to incorporate into Booking Daughter's life. All of their messages are extremely positive and focus on overcoming setbacks and learning from failures. In addition, they stress that girls should have a positive body image and openly communicate with their parents and/or other responsible adults. It's so refreshing to know that there are books out there that help girls deal with their problems in a positive light!

Of course, I adored the Discovery Girls Middle School Survival Guides, but what do I really know? I'm a 43 year-old mom. So I thought I'd go to an expert -- Booking Daughter. She absolutely devoured these books! She loved the quizzes and the advice, and I think some of the concepts really hit close to home for her. Here are her thoughts:

I really enjoyed the Discovery Girls books. All the books had great advice for any situation a middle school might find herself in. When I was reading the books, I compared the solutions in the book to what I normally did. The answers helped me see how I can handle problems better. The books really inspired me and I definitely recommend these books.

Thanks to Discovery Girls for providing review copies of these books and the set for giveaway.

Giveaway alert: I have a set of the Discovery Girls Middle School Survival Guide series to share with one lucky reader. To enter just fill out the form below before August 24th 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!

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!