Monday, December 31, 2012

Reading Highlights of 2012 - Part 2

Yesterday, I featured some of my favorite books of the year for audio, mystery, and YA/MG/Kids. I'm back today with my favorite novels of the year. Of course, I'm worried that I've left off some fantastic reads, but I decided to stop with "just" thirteen. In all reality, I probably could come up with at least five more!

So without further ado, here are some of my reading highlights of 2012 (in no particular order):

Best Novels

I'm almost certain I've forgotten some really great books in 2012, so please chime in with some of your favorite reads!

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Reading Highlights from 2012 - Part 1

One of the things that I most enjoy about the end of the year is reading everyone's "Best of ..." lists. I devour People Magazine's and Entertainment Weekly's lists, and I read as many book bloggers' posts as possible. However, I have never written one of my own... until now!

I have always been reluctant to write a "Best of Books" list because I find it so difficult to just narrow down my year in reading to just a few favorite books. I also fear that I will leave out one or two fantastic books, and I also wonder if my list would change if I did it a few days or weeks from now.

Anyway, here's my "Reading Highlights from 2012" for Best Audio Books, Best Mystery Books, and Best YA/MG/Kids Books (in no particular order):

Best Audio Books

Best Mystery Books

Best YA/MG/Kids Books
Make sure you stop by tomorrow for Part 2 of my Reading Highlights from 2012. I will be featuring my favorite novels!

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Kid Konnection: Love and Other Perishable Items

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 an entertaining young adult book about an awkward, yet honest, relationship.

Summary: Love is awkward, Amelia should know.

From the moment she sets eyes on Chris, she is a goner. Lost. Sunk. Head over heels infatuated with him. It's problematic, since Chris, 21, is a sophisticated university student, while Amelia, 15, is 15.

Amelia isn't stupid. She knows it's not gonna happen. So she plays it cool around Chris—at least, as cool as she can. Working checkout together at the local supermarket, they strike up a friendship: swapping life stories, bantering about everything from classic books to B movies, and cataloging the many injustices of growing up. As time goes on, Amelia's crush doesn't seem so one-sided anymore. But if Chris likes her back, what then? Can two people in such different places in life really be together?

Through a year of befuddling firsts—first love, first job, first party, and first hangover—debut author Laura Buzo shows how the things that break your heart can still crack you up. -- Knopf

LOVE AND OTHER PERISHABLE ITEMS by Laura Buzo is probably one of those books that I should be featuring a little closer to Valentine's Day because of the subject matter, but I just finished this one a few days ago and wanted to share it with you sooner rather than later. LOVE AND OTHER PERISHABLE ITEMS is a very funny young adult book that showcases a realistic look at young love.

Amelia is a fifteen year old girl who works at a grocery store after school and on weekends. She has a major crush on Chris, a twenty-one year old college student. She knows that she has zero chance with a guy that age, yet she can't help but see that they have a connection, and she suspects that he might be attracted to her too!

LOVE AND OTHER PERISHABLE ITEMS covers a year in Amelia's life. And it's quite a year filled with many memorable firsts. The reader gets an inside look into Amelia's first job, her first party, her first crush, and much more. In addition, there are even a few journal excerpts from Chris. Overall, it's a very cute book that takes an honest look at love and friendship.

I don't read many young adult books, but LOVE AND OTHER PERISHABLE ITEMS definitely caught my eye. First of all, I was drawn to the cover and the title. I know I shouldn't "judge a book by its cover" or even a title, but I thought both were so clever. Secondly, I was impressed with the reviews that this debut novel was receiving. Kirkus Reviews gave the novel not only a starred review but also named it one of the Best of Teens Books of 2012. And lastly, I admit I was drawn to the story because, like Amelia, I spent some time during my teen years working as a checkout clerk at a grocery store.

Even though it's been awhile since I worked at a grocery store, I can still remember many of the dynamics of the teen and college employees. There were lots of parties, dating, jealousy, and crushes, and it definitely didn't hurt to be in good favor with the supervisors. There was even one older guy who always seemed to be hitting on the young girls. I have to say that Ms. Buzo's novel nailed these aspects perfectly. I got a major kick out of the various characters and their interactions, and I appreciated how authentic this book was.

However, I most enjoyed the characters of Amelia and Chris. Both were fantastic and so real. (I don't know if I can stress just how genuine they were to me!) Despite being only fifteen, in many ways, Amelia was quite mature. I loved how well-read she was (especially with Chris's recommendations), and I thought her insights into life (and feminism) were pretty smart for a young girl. I think it was the blend of her honestly and her naivete that caused Chris to notice her.

While I enjoyed that most of the book was written in Amelia's voice, I was extremely happy to also get an inside peak into Chris's mind. He just seemed like such a typical guy on the outside, but he had some major insecurities and baggage from a lost love on the inside. I really appreciated his honesty and his desire to be his own man, and I could totally understand Amelia's feelings towards him.

Overall, I thought LOVE AND OTHER PERISHABLE ITEMS was a fantastic book. It was a smart and funny look at teen relationships that definitely rang true for me (and I suspect it will for most readers.) Highly recommended.

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

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

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Merry Christmas!

Wishing you a Merry Christmas! I hope you and your family have a blessed Christmas and a safe and happy New Year!

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Kid Konnection: Bon Appetit!

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 wonderful picture book about the famous chef Julia Child.

Summary: In a starred review, Publishers Weekly raves, "Chef and TV personality Julia Child likely would have delighted in and hooted over this wide-ranging picture-book biography.... Readers young and old will devour this fete pour les yeux."

Follow Julia Child—chef, author, and television personality—from her childhood in Pasadena, California, to her life as a spy in WWII, to the cooking classes she took in Paris, to the publication of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, to the funny moments of being a chef on TV. This is a comprehensive and enchanting picture book biography, told in many panels and jam-packed with lively, humorous, and child-friendly details. Young chefs and Julia Child fans will exclaim, "ooooh la la," about this book, which is as energetic and eccentric as the chef herself. -- Schwartz & Wade

BON APPETIT!: THE DELICIOUS LIFE OF JULIA CHILD by Jessie Hartland just has to be one of my favorite picture books that I've read this year. It's positively delightful and has certainly gathered its fair share of praise. I was anxious to read this book after Kathy (aka Bermudaonion) reviewed it earlier this year, and I was so grateful when she sent it to me.

While I will most likely never cook any of the recipes from a Julia Child cookbook, I am very interested in her life. I read her memoir MY LIFE IN FRANCE and even saw Julie & Julia in the movie theater (which is extremely rare for me!) I have also visited her kitchen at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History a few times, and I'm planning on tackling the huge biography of her that came out earlier this year. But in the meantime, BON APPETIT was the perfect way for me to learn a little more about Ms. Child.

BON APPETIT is too darn cute! It's definitely a biography of Ms. Child's life, but it's presented in a very fun way that kids (and parents) will appreciate. Nothing about this story is dry! The book is technically a picture book, but it has panels and text that remind me of a graphic novel. And, the artwork by Jessie Hartland is to darn cute. It's very colorful and whimsical and the perfect complement to Ms. Hartland's entertaining biography of Ms. Child.

In addition to the artwork and story, I loved the messages in this book. They are perfect for young children. Ms. Child wasn't the greatest student or even the prettiest one, and she was a bit of a late bloomer; however, she was determined to succeed at what she loved and she never gave up. The ten years she spent working on MASTERING THE ART OF FRENCH COOKING definitely proved that! The book also shows that it's possible to find your passion and make a difference.

Another neat thing about BON APPETIT is that it presented a lot of information about cooking and food to children. My kids probably wouldn't know half the ingredients or foods mentioned in this book, but the author did a great job of explaining them to young readers. I especially appreciated that she drew a small truffle and explained not only what a truffle was, but how much one that size would cost. At the end of the book, the author even included her recipe for crepes.

As you can see, I absolutely adored BON APPETIT -- everything about it. The artwork, the story, and even the message make this book extremely special! Highly recommended!

Thanks to the Kathy for giving us a copy of this book.

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. 

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! 

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Review: Gone

Summary: For the past fourteen years, Eve Adams has worked part-time while raising her two children and emotionally supporting her sculptor husband, Eric, through his early fame and success. Now, at forty-two, she suddenly finds herself with a growing career of her own—a private nutritionist practice and a book deal—even as Eric’s career sinks deeper into the slump it slipped into a few years ago.

After a dinner at a local restaurant to celebrate Eve’s success, Eric drives the babysitter home and, simply, doesn’t come back. Eve must now shift the family in possibly irreparable ways, forcing her to realize that competence in one area of life doesn’t always keep things from unraveling in another.

Gone is an outstanding novel about change and about redefining, in middle age, everything from one’s marriage to one’s career to one’s role as a best friend, parent, and spouse. It is a novel about passion and forgiveness and knowing when to let something go and when to fight to hold on to it, about learning to say goodbye—but, if you’re lucky, not forever. -- Atria

If I had to choose my favorite type of book, I'd probably say women's fiction or "book clubby books." More specifically, I seem to enjoy books that deal with dysfunctional families. So when I was looking at my book stash a few weeks ago, I decided that GONE by Cathi Hanauer looked like a book that was pretty ideal for me.

GONE tells the story of Eve, a mother of two whose career as a nutritionist and author is finally taking off. Professionally everything seems to be falling into place for her, but her home life is another story. Her teenage daughter is beginning to rebel and her husband seems distant. One night after a dinner to celebrate Eve's success, her husband takes the babysitter home and never returns. Eve had been supporting the family, both financially and emotionally, for the past few months as her husband's career as a sculptor continued to decline; however, she had absolutely no idea that her marriage was on the brink of collapse.

While Eve's husband is away, Eve tries to balance her career and her duties as a mother, but she learns that it's extremely difficult. Eve perseveres with "doing it all" and along the way, she learns many new things about herself as well as the true meaning of love, acceptance, and forgiveness.

Overall I thought GONE was a well written story that definitely captured my interest and then kept it. I appreciated the characters, but didn't always like them; and I really enjoyed the universal themes that this novel explored. There is no doubt that the characters in this book have flaws (and for the most part, they were pretty realistic ones), and I found them to be extremely complex. One very positive aspect of this novel is that it made me think -- about love, marriage, parenting and even forgivness!

Another thing I really liked was the way the novel was presented. Much of the story was from Eve's viewpoint; however, the reader was also given some insight into her husband's mind. Initially, I was very much on Eve's side and it wasn't until I saw her husband's side of the story that I realized that a troubled marriage is never just one person's fault. I found it very interesting to see how both characters interpreted the same events, and I actually understood how their marriage was falling apart.

For the most part, I did like this novel; however, there were a few things that kept me from saying this was a great story. First of all, one of the main characters suffered from depression, and I thought the way the author presented the information about the disorder was a little strange. Initially, the author did a great job of showing just how destructive this disease can be by having the character continue to decline; however, when he was approached about getting help, the characters' dialogue seemed straight out of a public service announcement. There is one scene in particular where the dialogue didn't seem as "tight" as the rest of the novel.

In addition, I didn't love any of the characters, and while that's not necessary, I tend to enjoy books more if I can relate. Almost all of them got on my nerves at times (especially Eve) and I never really felt a connection to most of them. I will admit that both Eve and her husband made me very frustrated -- namely because they acted very stubbornly and selfishly. And there were definitely times that I just wanted to put them in a room together and force them to talk to each other. Their lack of communication was a HUGE issue for them, and it drove me crazy. Having said all that, it's quite possible that this portrayal of a troubled marriage is very realistic.

Because this book delved into so many themes that many middle aged people experience, I think it would be a great book club selection for individuals in the late 30s and beyond. There is a reading guide for GONE with twelve interesting questions as well as some ideas for enhancing your book club meeting. Some of the themes you might want to discuss include family, parenting, marriage, grief, guilt, acceptance, redemption, forgiveness, change, depression, insecurities, and addiction.

I definitely liked GONE despite my few small quibbles and I think fans of women's fiction will appreciate it too.

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

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Guest Review: Black Fridays

Summary: Sometimes a man can be redeemed. But not in the way he expects.

Jason Stafford is a former Wall Street hotshot who made some bad moves, paid the price with two years in prison, and is now trying to put his life back together. He’s unemployable, until an investment firm asks him to look into possible problems left by a junior trader who died recently in an accident. What he discovers is big – there are problems, all right, the kind that get you killed.

But it’s not his only concern. Stafford has another quest as well: to reclaim his five-year-old son, “the Kid,” from his unstable ex-wife, and then learn just what it means to make a life with him. The things Stafford discovers about himself in the process are every bit as gripping as his investigation, and when the two threads of his life come together – the results are unforgettable.

Black Fridays marks the arrival of a remarkable new writer. -- Putnam

When I received a copy of BLACK FRIDAYS by Michael Sears, I knew I'd be passing it along to my dad. The description of the book just sounded like one that he'd enjoy, and for the most part, he did. Here are his thoughts:

In BLACK FRIDAYS, the reader is introduced to lead character, Jason Stafford, the day he was released from prison after serving two years for a white collar crime. Jason was a Wall Street trader who perpetrated a scam that prevented him from ever again working as a trader or contacting anyone from his old firm.

Jason was not remorseful about his crime and even had set up another scam where he divorced his wife, gave her half his assets to protect them from the feds and planned to remarry her after his prison term. However his drunken ex-wife wanted no part of him after prison which left Jason with two objectives- find employment and gain custody of his five year-old autistic son.

Jason was hired by a small Wall Street firm to look into possible trading irregularities ahead of a threatened SEC investigation. This assignment put Jason in a dangerous situation that included multiple murders, life threatening actions and FBI involvement.

At the same time, Jason had to get reacquainted with his son, had to learn as much as he could about autism and had to fight his ex-wife for custody. This storyline added a touching counterbalance to the fast paced world of Wall Street crime. It also provided a realistic look at life with an autistic child.

Author Michael Sears did a great job in developing the characters of Jason and his son. Our hero Jason had several faults and was not entirely clean as he moved forward in his investigation. I felt that the other characters were a little predictable. Each Wall Street character possessed at least one of the typical characteristics we think of when we think of Wall Street: large ego, excessive drinking, fast talking, lying, dishonest or wealthy. The FBI agents were very unemotional and only focused on the job. His wife was a little too southern. The possible romance with a magician friend’s assistant didn’t really add much to the story.

Sears was certainly more than capable of writing about white collar crime and securities trading after spending more than twenty years on Wall Street. Some of the investment talk was a little difficult to follow but did not detract from the story.

BLACK FRIDAYS is a story about high finances and high risk. It is an easy to read enjoyable thriller that includes a touching father-son story. Anyone who enjoys a good thriller will like BLACK FRIDAYS.

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

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Review: Decked with Holly

Summary: Holly Dayton is about to go way out of her comfort zone…

Spending Christmas vacation on a cruise with her two cousins from hell isn’t Holly’s idea of a good time. And when in a moment of seasick-fueled desperation she lurches into an open suite—she’s greeted with an eyeful of pepper spray. The culprit? A gorgeous guy calling himself Nick. But when Holly goes to make her exit, she gets the shock of her life: a corridor crammed with screaming teenage fans. Because Nick just happens to be Dominic Wyatt, drummer for ReadySet—one of the hottest bands in America.

Suddenly rumors are swirling, and Holly’s face is captured on countless phones and plastered all over the Internet. But the band can’t risk a scandal destroying their family-friendly image, so Dominic convinces Holly to be his fake girlfriend—just for two weeks. How bad could it be to be fauxmantically involved with one of the cutest rockstars on the planet? Holly’s about to find out… -- Kensington Teen

After reading Kathy's (aka Bermudaonion) review of DECKED WITH HOLLY by Marni Bates, I thought it sounded like such a fun read for this time of year. Fortunately, she shared her copy with me! I have to agree with her. DECKED WITH HOLLY was a good escape read for me this week, and since I'm swamped with Christmas activities and feeling a wee bit stressed, it was exactly what I needed.

DECKED WITH HOLLY tells the story of Holly, a teen girl who is spending her Christmas vacation on a cruise with her family... and that includes her evil twin cousins. It's not exactly Holly's idea of a dream vacation, but when she finds herself suffering from an extreme case of seasickness, it soon turns into a nightmare. Holly rushes into a suite to locate a bathroom (she's really seasick!) and ends up getting pepper sprayed by Nick/Dominic, the hot drummer of ReadySet -- a hugely popular rock band!

In a strange twist, Holly is caught coming out of Nick's suite by tons of adoring (and screaming) tweens looking very pale and upset. To put an end to all of the rumors, Holly and Nick agree to pretend that they are dating until the end of the cruise. Playing the parts in this "fauxmance" is easier said than done because Holly and Nick don't exactly hit it off. However, as they get to know each other, they both realize that they might be having some genuine feelings towards each other.

DECKED WITH HOLLY is a very cute book and a lot of fun. I'm not going to say that the storyline and characters weren't predictable (because they pretty much were!), but it was still a very entertaining read. I couldn't help but adore both Holly and Nick, and I certainly wanted them to see that they were perfect for each other. And I have to say that if they didn't eventually realize that, I would have been disappointed!

I think I most enjoyed Holly's character, though. She wasn't the smartest or prettiest (and definitely not the most popular!) girl in her school, and she was dealing with some serious insecurity issues. Having said that, Holly was extremely funny and she had lots of spunk, and I loved seeing how she was able to frazzle Nick.

I have a feeling that teen readers are going to love Holly and maybe even relate to her. She epitomized "normal" in that she wasn't skinny or gorgeous, and yet she still ended up with the guy. DECKED WITH HOLLY was almost a fairytale story and what teen girl doesn't sometimes dream of ending up with a hot rock star, right?

Overall, DECKED WITH HOLLY was a light and sweet read. Since I haven't read many books like this lately, it definitely worked for me.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Review: Low Pressure

Summary: Bellamy Lyston was only 12 years old when her older sister Susan was killed on a stormy Memorial Day. Bellamy's fear of storms is a legacy of the tornado that destroyed the crime scene along with her memory of what really happened during the day's most devastating moments.

Now, 18 years later, Bellamy has written a sensational, bestselling novel based on Susan's murder. Because the book was inspired by the tragic event that still pains her family, she published it under a pseudonym to protect them from unwanted publicity. But when an opportunistic reporter for a tabloid newspaper discovers that the book is based on fact, Bellamy's identity is exposed along with the family scandal.

Moreover, Bellamy becomes the target of an unnamed assailant who either wants the truth about Susan's murder to remain unknown or, even more threatening, is determined to get vengeance for a man wrongfully accused and punished.

In order to identify her stalker, Bellamy must confront the ghosts of her past, including Dent Carter, Susan's wayward and reckless boyfriend -- and an original suspect in the murder case. Dent, with this and other stains on his past, is intent on clearing his name, and he needs Bellamy's sealed memory to do it. But her safeguarded recollections -once unlocked-pose dangers that neither could foresee and puts both their lives in peril.

As Bellamy delves deeper into the mystery surrounding Susan's slaying, she discovers disturbing elements of the crime which call into question the people she holds most dear. Haunted by partial memories, conflicted over her feelings for Dent, but determined to learn the truth, she won't stop until she reveals Susan's killer.

That is, unless Susan's killer strikes her first... -- Hachette Audio

After being adamantly against audio books for many years, I now find that I enjoy them a great deal. There are definitely benefits to having an audio book with me when I work out and have long car rides; however, I admit that I still prefer a hard copy almost every time. I still consider myself a newbie to audio books, but one thing I've discovered is that the mystery/suspense genre seems to work best for me.

I decided to listen to LOW PRESSURE by Sandra Brown. I have read a book or two by Ms. Brown in the past and I remember enjoying them; and I do know that she is a best-selling author with a huge following. Plus the book's description sounded pretty good. The mystery aspect seemed very intriguing and I figured that there would be some romantic tension between the main characters, but I don't mind a little romance if it's done well. Sounded like a good book to work out to, right?

And I guess I'd have to say I liked LOW PRESSURE, but I certainly didn't love it. There was too much romance for me, and it wasn't in a sweet way. There was a lot of sexual tension and it was hot -- even a little dirty! Definitely not my normal reading fare, but I guess I should have expected some of that with a Sandra Brown book.

I don't really feel I can speak to the romance aspects of LOW PRESSURE, so I'll focus on the mystery angle. I actually found it to be pretty interesting. Basically, Bellamy, under a pseudonym, has written a fictional account of her sister's murder which occurred eighteen years ago, and it's become a huge bestseller. Bellamy was only twelve at the time and there are many things about that day that she can't remember. She was hoping that writing the story would help bring back her memories and give her some closure.

However, a tabloid reporter figures out that Bellamy is the actual author; and Bellamy's world is turned upside-down. She begins getting some threats from a  creepy stalker and decides that she has to get to the bottom of her sister's murder once and for all. She contacts her sister's boyfriend, Dent, and together they begin investigating the murder. Of course, along the way, they find that they are attracted to each other!

LOW PRESSURE was an entertaining book. I don't know that I'd say I was constantly thinking about the story and rushing back to listen to it, but I did like the book. I enjoyed how the author presented the story with flashbacks to the time around the murder as well as various views of the present-day main characters. I also liked how Bellamy had to not only investigate the murder but work through a lot of personal baggage that she gathered over the past eighteen years.

I did find the mystery to be quite intriguing. It was pretty obvious to me from fairly early on, that the man who went to jail for Bellamy's sister's murder wasn't actually guilty of it. I admit that I suspected a few people and was pretty surprised when I learned the real culprit. I'm not going to say that the character who was ultimately guilty for the crime never entered my mind as a suspect, but I was leaning towards someone else. I liked that the mystery aspect wasn't entirely predictable.

The audio book of LOW PRESSURE was read by Stephen Lang. Mr. Lang is a new-to-me narrator and evidently he reads quite a few novels of the suspense/thriller genre. Overall, I thought he did a good job with this book, and his variety of voices and accents were different enough to keep things interesting. I wouldn't hesitate to listen to another book read by Mr. Lang; and actually, I'm quite curious to see his take on a more traditional thriller.

And that brings me to my next point about the audio version of LOW PRESSURE. I've already mentioned that I wasn't a big fan of the romantic aspects of the story, and I think one of the main reasons was because I was listening to the book rather than reading it. I have no idea if others have this issue with audio books, but I'm much more uncomfortable listening to sex scenes than I am reading them. There were a few scenes in LOW PRESSURE that made me blush (and I never thought I was that much of a prude!)

In hindsight, I'm not sure how I felt about LOW PRESSURE. There were parts of the story that I really enjoyed, and then a few other ones that I thought were a little predictable and trite. What I've concluded is that I'm not the target audience for this novel, and therefore, not the best judge. I do, however, think fans of Ms. Brown's will appreciate this story (as evidenced by the reviews on Amazon.)

Thanks to the publisher for providing the audio book version 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, December 16, 2012

Review: My Year in Meals

Summary: Ever wonder what Rachael Ray cooks when the cameras aren’t rolling? Here she gives you an inside look into her kitchen for one full year. My Year in Meals offers intimate access to tasty dishes that will take you from breakfast to dinner. From the meals she whips up at a moment’s notice to family feasts, and dishes inspired by her travels around the world, you can now enjoy twelve incredible months of Rachael’s homemade favorites.

Need something to get you out of bed in the morning? Try the Almond Custard Brioche Toast or Eastern Egg Sandwiches with Bacon. Looking to fire up that backyard barbecue? Try the Baby Back Ribs with Bourbon BBQ sauce. For something simple that will knock your guests’ socks off, try Rachael’s Egg Tagliatelle with Truffle Butter and Butternut Squash Risotto. Rachael even shares her husband John Cusimano’s amazing cocktail recipes, guaranteeing that you’ll never reach for store-bought Margarita mix again. To top it off, Rachael includes personal stories behind many of the dishes and her own never-before-seen photos of these culinary creations. In no time at all, you’ll feel like you’ve stepped into her home for a change!

A year of delicious food is only enhanced by a selection of equally tasty cocktails, and Rachael’s husband, John Cusimano, is no stranger to the cocktail shaker. Now he’s sharing his secrets with you. Whether shaken or stirred, straight up or on the rocks, with a cherry or a twist, John’s creations—like his Strawberry Velvet featuring honey liqueur, strawberries, and lime—are always fresh, fun, and certain to make any gathering more memorable. With plenty of options for every occasion and season, such as the Pomegranate Margarita, the Halloween Fizz, and the Nod to Nog, these fabulous concoctions are the perfect complement to Rachael’s year of great eating. -- Atria

In the past, I haven't always had a lot of luck with Rachael Ray's cookbooks. In theory, the recipes should be perfect for me. They are usually fairly quick and use easy-to-find ingredients; however, there have been only a few that I've really considered "keepers." For whatever reason, every single time Ms. Ray comes out with a new cookbook, I want to check it out. Her latest MY YEAR IN MEALS was no different.

The premise behind MY YEAR IN MEALS is fairly obvious from the title. This cookbook chronicles Ms. Ray's actual meal plan for a year. I've often wondered if celebrity chefs really cook the way they do on television, and this cookbook proves that Ms. Ray does. The recipes are very similar to her other cookbooks, and I even recognized one or two that I've seen her make on television.

MY YEAR IN MEALS has over 500 recipes including breakfasts, lunches and dinners. I'm not sure I'm head over heels in love with all of the recipes because Ms. Ray tends to use a little too many condiments for my family's tastes. (We are a mayo, mustard, and ketchup-free home!) However, I did find quite a few that I want to try when my life calms down a bit after the holidays.

As far as the format for MY YEAR IN MEALS, I thought it was positively adorable and very user-friendly. There are small photos for every recipe which really helps cooks like me who need to see a photo before making something. In addition, the book is set up by month (beginning in April) with a calendar showing, by day, the various recipes Ms. Ray made; and then follows with the individual recipes along with Ms. Ray's personal notes about the meals. Some of the text looks like actual handwriting so that's makes it cute too.

MY YEAR IN MEALS is also a "Smart Book." That means that there are tags throughout the book. When you use your smart phone, you can access enhanced digital content about the various recipes. The Simon and Schuster website also has this content available.

Another really neat (and surprise-to-me) feature of this cookbook occurs when you turn the entire cookbook upside-down and then over. The "back" of the cookbook is another mini cookbook put together by Ms. Ray's husband John Cusimano titled MY YEAR IN COCKTAILS. This cookbook is actually terrific (and perfect for this time of year) since it includes more than 100 recipes for adult beverages. I'm not a big drinker, but I can tell you that many of these recipes looked fantastic, and I've already given my bartender (I mean husband!) a list of a few that I'd like to sample.

When it came time to pick on recipe to sample, I decided to make the Five-Minute Fudge Wreath. I had seen Ms. Ray make this on her show year's ago and thought it looked adorable. It didn't hurt that it was very simple (note "five-minute" in the title). I'm not a huge fudge fan, but I thought it looked cute to set out at a holiday party or share with a neighbor. The ingredients are fairly simple -- chocolate chips, butterscotch chips, sweetened condensed milk, vanilla extract, walnuts and dried currants; and you just melt the chips, milk, and vanilla and then stir in the nuts and fruit. I am not a currant fan so I substituted dried cranberries. You pour it all in an 8-inch round cake pan (with the leftover sweetened condensed milk can in the middle) and let it set for a few hours in the refrigerator. You can also decorate with candied cherries or a bow. Easy peasy!

I was pleasantly surprised by the fudge -- it was actually pretty good, but I wouldn't  go so far as to say it was great. But I'm not a huge fudge fan, so I might not be the best judge. (I was happy that the fudge didn't have too strong of a butterscotch flavor because I'm not the biggest butterscotch fan either.) I do think the nuts and dried cranberries definitely added to the overall taste though! This recipe makes about two pounds of fudge and the wreath ended up looking pretty cute. I think it would be a hit at a party.

Check out this video to get a better idea about the MY YEAR IN MEALS:

I'm sure fans of Rachel Ray's will enjoy this cookbook, and there are some very good recipes in it. I'm just not sure it would be one of my go-to cookbooks.

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

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.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Kid Konnection: Holiday Picture Books

Every Saturday, I host a feature called Kid Konnection -- a regular weekend feature about anything related to children's books. This week, I'm going to share with you some adorable holiday-themed picture books.

Summary: I am a mix of two traditions.
From Daddy Christmas and Hanukkah Mama.
How lucky am I?

Holiday time at Sadie's house means golden gelt sparkling under the Christmas tree, candy canes hanging on eight menorah branches, voices uniting to sing carols about Macabees and the manger, and latkes on the mantel awaiting Santa's arrival.

Selina Alko's joyous celebration of blended families will make the perfect holiday gift for the many Americans who celebrate both Christmas and Hanukkah. -- Knopf

DADDY CHRISTMAS & HANUKKAH MAMA by Selina Alko is a fun book that teaches children about both Hanukkah and Christmas traditions.What makes it even more special is that is shows how families who celebrate both Hanukkah and Christmas can manage to incorporate and merge traditions from both holidays!

Sadie is a "mix of two traditions." Her daddy celebrates Christmas while her mom celebrates Hanukkah. Rather than feeling that she doesn't fully fit in with either religion, Sadie is truly lucky that she gets twice the celebration this time of year. Her family seems to do many of the traditional celebrations from each holiday... but with a twist. For example, they leave latkes for Santa, hang candy canes on a menorah, and share religious stories about each holiday with various extended family members.

The message in this story is a fairly unique one for a children's book, and it's actually based on the author's own family. They make a conscious effort each holiday season to incorporate traditions from both families. I think it's a great idea! Another really special thing about this picture book are the pictures themselves. They are extremely colorful and whimsical and the perfect complement to this story.

Overall, I thought DADDY CHRISTMAS & HANUKKAH MAMA was a very cute book with a very important message.

Summary: Three grizzled cowboys—Dwight, Darryl, and Dub—are stuck out on the range at Christmastime, roping steers and wrestling longhorns. Reminiscing about their childhood Christmases, they try to make the cowboy camp feel festive—and it's no surprise that a cactus decorated with tin cans, and cows dressed as reindeer, don't fill them with holiday cheer! But a surprise is in store for the Circle D dudes when Santa pays a visit to the cowboy campfire!

Illustrated by award-winning artist John Manders, this deluxe hardcover gives consumers what they expect from Golden Books: a high-quality book at a great value, ready for gift-giving. -- Golden Books

This is going to sound awful, but I wasn't that excited to read COWBOY CHRISTMAS by Rob Sanders and illustrated by John Manders. In hindsight, I'm not sure what I was thinking because I ended up loving this delightful picture book. The story is funny with a big surprise ending and the illustrations are fantastic. It just might be one of funnest Christmas books that I've seen this year!

In COWBOY CHRISTMAS, three cowboys are feeling a little down because they will be out on the range for Christmas rather than back home with their families. Each one has fond memories of Christmas including the tree, cookies, and more; so they try to make their cowboy camp more festive by decorating a tree (which ends up being a cactus), making cookies (which end up tasting and looking horrible), and welcoming Santa's reindeer (which are dressed up cows!) On Christmas Day, the tend to their regular cowboy chores only to return to their camp and think it's just another ordinary day. However, they soon discover that something has occurred at the camp while they were gone -- Santa has managed to find them!

COWBOY CHRISTMAS was wonderful. Both the story and the illustrations were laugh-out-loud funny and I loved how these cowboys managed to make the best of their non-traditional Christmas!

Very cute and perfect for preschool and elementary age children!

Summary: What did Santa leave for Baby?
Let's go in and see . . .

This sweet rhyming story from 1959, illustrated by Eloise Wilkin, shows the presents that Santa brought for Baby's first Christmas--". . . a rocking horse, a bouncy swing, a shovel and a pail, a rubber duck, a little boat for Baby dear to sail. . ."

Babies will love to watch this adorable baby playing with his toys and enjoying his first Christmas! And parents will love the sturdy pages and padded cover of the Golden Baby board books. -- Golden Books

BABY'S CHRISTMAS by Esther Wilkin and illustrated by Eloise Wilkin is a classic Golden Book and it brought back many memories for me. I'm pretty sure that I had a copy of this book when I was young (not the original of course because I'm not that old!), and it definitely seemed familiar as I read it. BABY'S CHRISTMAS takes little ones through all of the wonderful gifts that Baby received for Christmas.

This sweet little board book is perfect for little ones because it's sturdy. The inside pages are made of board, but the outside cover is padded - -kind of the best of both worlds for parents and kids. I think little ones will also love the rhyming text and the pictures of the baby, while parents will appreciate the story and the gorgeous illustrations.

Definitely recommended for little ones this holiday season. Parents and grandparents (and even great-grandparents) might find that this book evokes some happy childhood memories!

Thanks to the publisher for providing review copies of these books.

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

Friday, December 14, 2012

Warner Bros. Giveaway

I'm sure most of you have all of your holiday shopping done by now (NOT!), but just in case, Warner Bros. has come up with their awesome Happy Holidays Blog App featuring some classic and new movies out on Blu-ray sure to please everyone on your list!

Here's why you will love the Warner Bros. Happy Holidays Blog App:

 • Holiday Movie Challenge! Are you a true cinephile? Then take the WB Holiday Movie Challenge! Keep your movie skills sharp with this awesome quiz! Ready. Set. Go!

 • Decode-A-Scene Game! Time is running out! Can you figure out what movie scene is slowly being decoded in front of your eyes? The sooner you figure it out the more points you earn!

• Holiday Survival Guide! Throw an epic holiday party this season! Warner Bros. have some awesome tips to make you look like a total holiday master!

And if you still need some DVD gift ideas, check out this Shopping Survival Guide:

Giveaway alert: Courtesy of Warner Bros., I have a copy of The Dark Knight Rises Blu-ray Combo Pack or Magic Mike Blu-ray Combo Pack to your winner! (Prize will be chosen randomly from the above titles!) To enter, just fill out the form below before December 18th 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 (no P.O. boxes please.) Good luck!

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Review: The Midwife of Hope River

Summary: Midwife Patience Murphy has a gift: a talent for escorting mothers through the challenges of bringing children into the world. Working in the hardscrabble conditions of Appalachia during the Depression, Patience takes the jobs that no one else wants, helping those most in need—and least likely to pay. She knows a successful midwifery practice must be built on a foundation of openness and trust—but the secrets Patience is keeping are far too intimate and fragile for her to ever let anyone in. 

Honest, moving, and beautifully detailed, Patricia Harman's The Midwife of Hope River rings with authenticity as Patience faces nearly insurmountable difficulties. From the dangerous mines of West Virginia to the terrifying attentions of the Ku Klux Klan, Patience must strive to bring new light and life into an otherwise hard world. -- William Morrow

I picked up THE MIDWIFE OF HOPE RIVER: A NOVEL OF AN AMERICAN MIDWIFE by Patricia Harman at this year's BEA, and everything about this novel captured my attention. I loved the cover and I've always been drawn to stories, both true and fiction, about midwives. I can't really say why it took me the better part of six months to eventually read this novel, but I am certainly glad that I did so. I really enjoyed this heartwarming story that celebrated the strength of women.

THE MIDWIFE OF HOPE RIVER is Patience Murphy's story about her life as a midwife in Appalachia during the Depression. Patience acts a midwife to those who can't afford doctors -- which means that she rarely gets paid; however, she is devoted to helping women and babies in need. Fortunately, she is a skilled midwife and seems to know exactly what a woman needs to help get her through childbirth

While Patience makes herself available to women at all hours of the day and night, she actually lives a pretty secluded life. The reason for this is that Patience (or Elizabeth as she used to be known as) is wanted for murder. It appears that Patience has successfully fled from her past; however, she still has difficulties getting close to anyone for fear of being found out.

But that's just the beginning of the difficulties that Patience faces in THE MIDWIFE OF HOPE RIVER. She tends to births which aren't always happy for the families. In addition, she faces mine accidents, a lack of food and money, and even a visit from the Ku Klux Klan. Throughout all of these troubles, Patience shows an inner strength and resilience that is just amazing.

THE MIDWIFE OF HOPE RIVER was a great read for me. As I mentioned earlier, I love books about midwives and this novel is another one that I can add to my "list." I always think it's ironic that I'm so drawn to stories about midwives since I'm the least likely person to ever do a natural birth nevertheless a home one. I guess I like to live vicariously through the brave female characters in the story. Anyway, THE MIDWIFE OF HOPE RIVER didn't disappoint with its share of birthing stories. Since the book was told in Patience's voice, there were many tales of childbirth (both the happy and the sad) as well as her brief journal entries which gave the highlights.

Another aspect of this story which I really enjoyed was the character of Patience. She was a great character and extremely interesting. I would even go so far as to say that I found her to be inspirational. There is no doubt that Patience had experienced a great deal of heartache during her lifetime, but she never gave up. She just kept plodding along. And more importantly, she was devoted to helping those who were less fortunate even when she knew that she might never see a cent from her work. I couldn't help but root for her, in her birthing experiences as well as her relationships.

I also really liked the historical aspects of this story. While I admit that I was probably more interested in the mothers and Patience, I was pleasantly surprised by how much information was included in this story. There were details about the Depression, labor unions, coal mines, and the KKK that I found to be extremely interesting. My relatives are from the coal regions of Western Pennsylvania and my grandfather even worked in coal mines for years, so I can't get enough information about these things. It's apparent that Ms. Harman did a great deal of research on this time period.

And finally, I loved THE MIDWIFE OF HOPE RIVER because it celebrated women. On the surface, the story was ultimately Patience's, and I really enjoyed her adventures. She was a fantastic character and I was very moved by her story. However, this novel also embraced the strength of all sorts of women -- from the woman who gives birth after losing her husband, to the woman who is abused by her husband, to the woman who has to deliver her dead baby, to a woman who devotes her life to helping others. I could go on and on. THE MIDWIFE OF HOPE RIVER shows readers just how incredibly strong woman can be; and for that reason, I thought this book was very special.

THE MIDWIFE OF HOPE RIVER would make a great book club selection, especially for female book clubs. There is a reading guide available with ten thought-provoking questions which will help generate discussion. Some of the themes you might want to explore include faith, loss, grief, guilt, friendship, love, sacrifice, and resilience.

Overall, I recommend THE MIDWIFE OF HOPE RIVER to fans of women's fiction. It's a beautiful story that will entertain you and touch your heart.

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

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Guest Review: Thomas Jefferson, The Art of Power

Summary: In this magnificent biography, the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of American Lion and Franklin and Winston brings vividly to life an extraordinary man and his remarkable times. Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power gives us Jefferson the politician and president, a great and complex human being forever engaged in the wars of his era. Philosophers think; politicians maneuver. Jefferson’s genius was that he was both and could do both, often simultaneously. Such is the art of power.

Thomas Jefferson hated confrontation, and yet his understanding of power and of human nature enabled him to move men and to marshal ideas, to learn from his mistakes, and to prevail. Passionate about many things—women, his family, books, science, architecture, gardens, friends, Monticello, and Paris—Jefferson loved America most, and he strove over and over again, despite fierce opposition, to realize his vision: the creation, survival, and success of popular government in America. Jon Meacham lets us see Jefferson’s world as Jefferson himself saw it, and to appreciate how Jefferson found the means to endure and win in the face of rife partisan division, economic uncertainty, and external threat. Drawing on archives in the United States, England, and France, as well as unpublished Jefferson presidential papers, Meacham presents Jefferson as the most successful political leader of the early republic, and perhaps in all of American history.

The father of the ideal of individual liberty, of the Louisiana Purchase, of the Lewis and Clark expedition, and of the settling of the West, Jefferson recognized that the genius of humanity—and the genius of the new nation—lay in the possibility of progress, of discovering the undiscovered and seeking the unknown. From the writing of the Declaration of Independence to elegant dinners in Paris and in the President’s House; from political maneuverings in the boardinghouses and legislative halls of Philadelphia and New York to the infant capital on the Potomac; from his complicated life at Monticello, his breathtaking house and plantation in Virginia, to the creation of the University of Virginia, Jefferson was central to the age. Here too is the personal Jefferson, a man of appetite, sensuality, and passion.

The Jefferson story resonates today not least because he led his nation through ferocious partisanship and cultural warfare amid economic change and external threats, and also because he embodies an eternal drama, the struggle of the leadership of a nation to achieve greatness in a difficult and confounding world. -- Random House

Last summer at BEA, I was so excited to see that Jon Meacham was going to be signing copies of his new book THOMAS JEFFERSON, THE ART OF POWER. I rarely wait in lines for author's autographs, but I wanted to make an exception for this book because I knew my dad would want to read it. Fortunately, the line wasn't too bad and I was able to get him a personalized ARC. He was pretty happy with the "gift" until I asked him a few months later for a review! Here are his thoughts:

In THOMAS JEFFERSON, THE ART OF POWER, author Jon Meacham explores Jefferson in his roles as philosopher, politician and forward-thinking leader. Meacham presents some familiar portrayals of Jefferson: the man of contradictions, the third president, the author of the Declaration of Independence, the slave owner, the builder of Monticello and the founder of the University of Virginia. This is not new material and is not what makes this novel so interesting. What makes this 500 page book worth reading is the picture Meacham paints as to how Jefferson wielded his power to accomplish his visions.

Most of us have been presented a picture of Jefferson as a brilliant thinker, writer and philosopher. What Meacham reveals is a man who also was a brilliant politician. He shows Jefferson as a man who opposed George Washington while acting as Secretary of State, criticized John Adams while serving as his Vice-President and strongly objected to Alexander Hamilton’s plans for the federal treasury. Jefferson was chosen as the third president of the United States but only after a tie with Aaron Burr was broken by the House of Representatives. In all these events, Jefferson played politics with the best of them to influence the outcome of the issues. Many of these situations remind one of the political battles we see in Washington today.

Despite Jefferson’s philosophy of being opposed to a strong federal government at the expense of state rights, he didn’t always reflect that view in his presidential actions. Two strong examples are the Louisiana Purchase and the naval attack on the Barbary pirates. In each case Jefferson utilized powers that were considered beyond his authority as president in order to move his vision for the country forward. This ability to think forward and at the same time be politically savvy is what separates Jefferson from others.

Meacham also shows the human side of Jefferson as he shares examples of his dedication to his wife, children and grandchildren; his time in Paris during the French revolution; his entertainment practices at the White House; his life after his fifty years of public service and his reconciliation with John Adams who died the same day as Jefferson on the fiftieth anniversary of the nations independence.

Although I felt that Meacham tended to show Jefferson in a most favorable light, he does address some of Jefferson’s failures. Jefferson’s time as governor of Virginia is not presented as a highlight of his political career. Meacham addresses Jefferson’s relationship with slave Sally Hemings as the unquestionable father of at least six of her children. Jefferson’s record on the slave issue is also reported in a negative light. Although Jefferson appeared to oppose slavery he not only held slaves himself but neglected to push the issue on the public stage. I do think Meacham left Jefferson off the hook a little on the slave issue by stating Jefferson knew he couldn’t get a consensus on the issue so he didn’t pursue it.

It’s obvious that Jon Meacham did a great amount of research in writing this novel. Meacham’s style brings Jefferson to life. It is well written and I feel it’s the equivalent of his Pulitzer Prize novel about Andrew Jackson, American Lion. An interesting and helpful feature of the book is the inclusion of a Cast of Characters chapter that gives brief biographies of all the significant characters.

I recommend THOMAS JEFFERSON, THE ART OF POWER to anyone who wants to learn more about the beginning of our country and one of its great founding fathers.

Thanks to Booking Pap Pap for his fantastic review.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Review: The Promise of Stardust

Summary: Matt Beaulieu was two years old the first time he held Elle McClure in his arms, seventeen when he first kissed her under a sky filled with shooting stars, and thirty-three when they wed. Now in their late thirties, the deeply devoted couple has everything—except the baby they've always wanted. 

When a tragic accident leaves Elle brain-dead, Matt is devastated. Though he cannot bear losing her, he knows his wife, a thoughtful and adventurous scientist, feared only one thing—a slow death. Just before Matt agrees to remove Elle from life support, the doctors discover that she is pregnant. Now what was once a clear-cut decision becomes an impossible choice. Matt knows how much this child would have meant to Elle. While there is no certainty her body can sustain the pregnancy, he is sure Elle would want the baby to have a chance. Linney, Matt's mother, believes her son is blind with denial. She loves Elle, too, and insists that Elle would never want to be kept alive by artificial means, no matter what the situation. 

Divided by the love they share, driven by principle, Matt and Linney fight for what each believes is right, and the result is a disagreement that escalates into a controversial legal battle, ultimately going beyond one family and one single life. 

Told with sensitivity and compassion, The Promise of Stardust is an emotionally resonant and thought-provoking tale that raises profound questions about life and death, faith and medicine—and illuminates, with beauty and grace, the power of love to wound . . . and to heal. -- William Morrow

I rarely review books months before they are released, but I thought I'd make an exception for a very special book called THE PROMISE OF STARDUST by Priscille Sibley. Book Club Girl first mentioned this book to me over the summer, and she had nothing but great things to say about it. And then she described the premise of the book and I knew it had the potential to be good... really good. I couldn't wait to read it and was so glad when the ARC arrived on my doorstep!   

Despite my excitement, I waited until I had a day or two where I knew I'd have time to actually read the book the way it's meant to be read. For me, THE PROMISE OF STARDUST deserved to be read in as few sittings as possible. The main reason for that is because I knew I was going to get hooked and not want to put the book down; however, it ended up that there was another reason too. For much of the novel, THE PROMISE OF STARDUST deeply affected me. I cried over and over again and also felt sick in my stomach for the positions that all of the characters found themselves in.

THE PROMISE OF STARDUST is one of those family dramas that manages to touch upon so many relevant issues. Here's a quick summary: Matt and Elle have been trying for years to have a baby. After battling infertility and miscarriages, Elle is finally pregnant but hasn't told her husband yet. When a horrific accident leaves Elle brain dead, a fairly obvious decision to take her off of life support becomes extremely complex when Matt discovers that Elle is pregnant. This dilemma about Elle's rights (and the unborn child's) pits family members against each other and shows that there are never easy answers when it comes to life and death decisions.

I purposely gave you a very brief summary of the story. It is actually much more complex than that and truly delves into so many pertinent health and family issues in today's society. I admit that my initial impression of THE PROMISE OF STARDUST was that it was a major downer. I just kept asking myself, "How much heartache can one family take?" There were even times that I questioned if I could continue to read it, but those thoughts were quickly banished by my desire to see how things worked out.

I hope that the description of THE PROMISE OF STARDUST doesn't deter you from picking up this book. There are some very sad (and uncomfortable) situations, but the overall story is uplifting -- I promise! It is definitely worth the read and the range of emotions that all readers will experience! What's more (and kind of an added benefit) is how much THE PROMISE OF STARDUST made me think. I began to not only ask myself questions about the various characters' behaviors, but also about what I'd want or what I'd do in a similar situation. (I have to say that this book did raise many questions for me, and I'm still not entirely sure how I feel about many issues!)

I'm sure you can tell based on the book's description and my impressions that it would make for a fantastic book club discussion. As I mentioned before, this novel delves into so many complex issues about life and death as well as patient rights and rights of the unborn. In addition, the book examines marriage, parent/child relationships, faith, grief, infertility, and much more!

I was fortunate enough to be part of an on-line discussion with Ms. Sibley just a few weeks ago, and I have to say that I appreciated the book even more after hearing her talk about it. Ms. Sibley is a neonatal intensive care nurse who deals with life and death situations on a regular basis. She's had an inside look at how these decisions affect families, and I have a feeling that her characters reflect much of what she's seen.

I loved THE PROMISE OF STARDUST and I have a feeling that it's going to be a popular book club selection for 2013! Highly recommended for fans of family dramas as well as Jodi Picoult, Barbara Delinsky, and Kristin Hannah fans.

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

Monday, December 10, 2012

Review: The Child Who

Summary: An unimaginable crime and the man who must defend it-a probing psychological thriller from the author of A Thousand Cuts.

A chance phone call throws the biggest murder case in southern England into the hands of provincial attorney Leo Curtice. Twelve-year- old Daniel Blake stands accused of murdering an eleven-year-old girl. But who is truly responsible when one child kills another? As Curtice sets out to defend the indefensible, he soon finds himself pitted against an enraged community calling for blood. When the buildup of pressure takes a sinister turn, he fears for his wife and young daughter's safety. Must he choose between his family and the life of a damaged child? With piercing psychological insight, Lelic examines a community's response to a hideous crime. - Penguin

As I was organizing my books a few weeks ago, I stumbled upon THE CHILD WHO by Simon Lelic. The cover caught my eye, not because I thought it was outstanding, rather because I thought it might be a book that would work for my Mystery Monday feature. As I read the book's description on the back cover, my interest was definitely piqued and I decided to read it sooner rather than later.

THE CHILD WHO is a psychological suspense novel that takes place in England. Leo Curtice, a small town lawyer, answers the phone one day and ends up with the biggest (and most scandalous) murder case of his career. A twelve year old boy, Daniel Blake, is accused of brutally murdering an eleven year old girl. Curtis is determined to represent this boy to the best of his abilities; however, he soon finds himself at odds with the community and his family because of his loyalty to Daniel.

Tensions are strong between Leo and his wife and daughter, but things really heat up when Leo begins receiving letters that threaten his family. Leo is torn between protecting his family and his damaged client, and his decision ultimately has drastic consequences to everyone involved.

I thoroughly enjoyed THE CHILD WHO, but I wasn't exactly surprised by that. First of all, I love a good psychological thriller and THE CHILD WHO definitely qualified as one. It's going to be difficult for me to discuss the reasons why the suspense aspects of this story were so good without providing spoilers; however, suffice it to say that the turn of events at the end of this story were pretty startling. I should also mention that there were many aspects of this story that made me rather uncomfortable from the idea that a twelve year old could brutally murder another child, to the treatment of Daniel, to the threatening letters.

Another aspect of THE CHILD WHO that I enjoyed was the character of Leo. I found him to be a fascinating and complex character, and I'm still thinking about him ever after I've finished this story. Leo was extremely well developed -- the reader was even given enough information about his past to make him more real; and while I didn't always agree with him, I was drawn to him and his plight to understand Daniel's actions.

And finally, I was very  impressed with the author's writing style. Mr. Lelic's debut novel A THOUSAND CUTS won a few awards and this one received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Kirkus, so I had a feeling that his writing would be pretty special. However, I admit that I was pleasantly surprised by the depth of this novel. And by that I mean the psychological aspects of the story. I thought Mr. Lelic did a remarkable job of asking some very tough questions about crime, victims, criminal responsibility, and guilt. Specifically, I appreciated how he brought to light Daniel's abuse as a child and the ways it might have affected him.

THE CHILD WHO would make a great book club selection. There is a fair amount of controversy in this novel, and there is also some insightful social commentary. I have a feeling that most book clubs would have more than enough to talk about between Leo and Daniel, not to mention Leo's family, co-workers, and the entire community. There is a reading guide available with eleven questions, and I thought they were all excellent. Some of the things you might want to discuss include the meaning of the title, guilt, responsibility, obligation, sacrifice, evilness, sympathy, and crime and punishment.

I found THE CHILD WHO to be a very satisfying read that actually entertained me and made me think. I recommend it to fans of suspense novels 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, December 9, 2012

Review: All Gone

Summary: A daughter’s longing love letter to a mother who has slipped beyond reach.

Just past seventy, Alex Witchel’s smart, adoring, ultracapable mother began to exhibit undeniable signs of dementia. Her smart, adoring, ultracapable daughter reacted as she’d been raised: If something was broken, they would fix it. But as medical reality undid that hope, and her mother continued the torturous process of disappearing in plain sight, Witchel retreated to the kitchen, trying to reclaim her mother at the stove by cooking the comforting foods of her childhood: “Is there any contract tighter than a family recipe?” 

Reproducing the perfect meat loaf was no panacea, but it helped Witchel come to terms with her predicament, the growing phenomenon of “ambiguous loss ”— loss of a beloved one who lives on. Gradually she developed a deeper appreciation for all the ways the parent she was losing lived on in her, starting with the daily commandment “Tell me everything that happened today” that started a future reporter and writer on her way. And she was inspired to turn her experience into this frank, bittersweet, and surprisingly funny account that offers true balm for an increasingly familiar form of heartbreak. -- Riverhead

I had very personal reasons for picking up ALL GONE: A MEMOIR OF MY MOTHER'S DEMENTIA, WITH REFRESHMENTS by Alex Witchel. Mainly, I was interested in reading more about how a daughter coped with taking care of her aging mother since it's a subject that more and more of my friends are facing as their parents (and grandparents) get older. I wasn't exactly sure it was the "right" read for this time of year when I tend to read "lighter" fare; however, I had read enough reviews to know that this book did have it's funny moments. So I figured , "what the heck!"

As odd as it sounds, this memoir which chronicles Ms. Witchel's mother's struggle with dementia wasn't all doom and gloom, although it easily could have been. Naturally, there were some very sad (and even uncomfortable) scenes in this story about her mother's disappearance from reality; however, overall, I felt as if this story were a positive one. (And there were a ton of hilarious scenes!)

First, I felt as if Ms. Witchel wrote a beautiful tribute to her mother. She demonstrated how special her mother was as a mother, wife, and teacher in a time when women weren't able to "do it all". In addition, she showed the ups and downs of a mother-daughter relationship, as well as the many ways her mother's words and advice came to fruition throughout her life -- even in her adult years. I found many of her sayings to be inspirational and touching.

Next, I thought Ms. Witchel did a nice job of incorporating her mother's recipes into ALL GONE. As her mother progressively got worse, Ms. Witchel was able to find comfort in cooking her mother's old recipes. It was a form of therapy for her, and she even included a few of them in the book. I didn't find any of these recipes to be particularly mouth-watering -- most were pretty basic and used a lot of prepackaged foods; however, I did appreciate how these meals brought back fond memories of her mother and her childhood. Just to give you an idea, here are some of the recipes: Frankfurther Goulash, Chicken with Prunes and the more normal Roast Chicken.

Finally, I liked how Ms. Witchel provided so much honestly in ALL GONE about herself and how she coped (and didn't cope) with her mother's illness. I think Ms. Witchel's emotions and reactions to her mother's descending spiral into memory loss were probably very realistic and ones that many adults experience in one form or another. I also adored how she showed that as she was "losing" her mother, she was also gaining an appreciation of her. As a daughter and granddaughter, I found it to be beautiful and touching.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention that there was something I found a little strange about this book. For the most part I enjoyed ALL GONE and thought it was very good; however, I did think that Ms. Witchel provided too much information about herself and her life that wasn't pertinent to her relationship with her mother. There were many personal stories about Ms. Witchel's childhood, her relationship with her husband Frank Rich, and her stepson. I realize that ALL GONE is ultimately Ms. Witchel's memoir, but I definitely appreciated the parts that were more geared towards her mother and how they handled her illness.

I hope that many people will find some comfort in this book and Ms. Witchel's words. It's a special tribute to mothers and daughters, the healing power of food, and anyone who has ever taken care of someone who is sick.

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

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