Thursday, January 31, 2013

Book Club Exchange: Amy Brill & Giveaway

I am so glad to welcome author Amy Brill to Book Club Exchange. I haven't had a chance to read her new novel  THE MOVEMENT OF STARS yet (the novel will be available on April 18th), but I seriously can't wait! It's already getting some terrific reviews.

THE MOVEMENT OF STARS is described as, "A love story set in 1845 Nantucket, between a female astronomer and the unusual man who understands her dreams." It's also being touted as a terrific book club pick.

After reading Ms. Brill's guest post, I have to say that not only am I excited about her novel, but I want her to Skype with my book club. She sounds like a lot of fun and if she's a fan of Electric Company, clam chowder, and wine, then I'm pretty sure I"ll love her!

I’ve been madly in love with books ever since I learned how to read (thanks mostly to 1970s Electric Company segments, truth be told). I’m ever so grateful to my dad, who informed me at the ripe old age of five that I could read that “to myself”—magic! And to my local librarian, who piled me high with picture books and then chapter books and then more complex narratives that swept me away and I had to travel everywhere with two books because what if I finished one on the way and had nothing to read on the way home? Heaven forbid. 

If this sounds like an Oscar speech, well, if it took you 15 years to write and sell your first novel you, too, might go bonkers at every opportunity and thank everyone under the sun. But the biggest thanks of all go to readers who are engaged, interested, and social enough to band together to select my book, read it together, and chat about it in person (preferably with a few bottles of wine and something delicious to go along with it). 

So, in the interest of facilitating your conversation about The Movement of Stars, here are some things I’d probably ask if my book group was reading my book, were I lucky enough to have a book group right now (and maybe I will, when my children are old enough to go to the bathroom alone and/or tie their own shoes). Enjoy! 

1. Why is Hannah so stubborn? Does she really not know she’s falling for this guy? Or is she just too scared to admit it? 
2. Hannah goes through a total mind-body-spirit transformation over the course of the book. The women in her life have a lot to do with it—but so do the men. In what ways do they affect her? Which group has more impact? If these characters were in Top Chef Restaurant Wars (Men v Women) who would win? 
3. Why are the people in her community so threatened by “outsiders”? Why do they enforce “discipline” so stringently? Aren’t Quakers always depicted as really mellow and friendly? 
4. If I visit Nantucket, will there be clams? 
5. Does anyone have a really, really good recipe for clam chowder? (Why yes, I do—see below!) 
6. Could you please pass the wine over here? 
7. Oh, we’re out of white? Is there red? 
8. Did anyone else yell at Hannah through a veil of tears when they got to the end, or was that just me? Did she make the right choice? Was it the only possible choice? 
9. Are we really out of wine? 

Nantucket Clam Chowder (adapted from EJ Harvey, Nantucket Seagrille) 
Makes about a gallon 

About 20-25 fresh Quahog clams, scrubbed clean (or 2 cans of clams + 1 bottle of clam juice—I won’t tell) 4 strips of bacon, diced 
½ cup of butter (I’m just the messenger) 
½ cup of flour 
 ½ cup diced onion 
½ cup diced celery 
1 lb of russet potatoes, ½ inch dice 
1 quart of heavy cream (still just the messenger) 
About a quart of clam juice (the cooking water from the Quohogs, strained and reserved, plus extra store-bought if you need it (or vegetable stock, or water, in a pinch) 
1 bay leaf 
1 teaspoon dried thyme leaves 
A few drops of Tabasco
A splash of Worcestershire sauce 
A dash of white pepper 
Salt, to taste 

1. Steam the clams in a large pot until they open. Strain the cooking water and set aside. Remove the clam meat from the shells and chop into bite-sized pieces. 

2. Melt the butter in a large pot, and sauté the bacon until the fat renders and the bacon is crisp. 

3. Add the onion and the celery and cook until translucent. 

4. Add flour and cook for a minute or two, stirring constantly. 

5. Add thyme, bay leaf, reserved clam cooking liquid or bottled clam juice, and bring to a boil, stirring frequently, then reduce heat to a simmer. 

6. Add potatoes and season with a drop or two of Tabasco, the Worcestershire, white pepper, and taste. Add salt if needed. 

7. Add heavy cream, stir, then add the clams and simmer for another 15-20 minutes. Adjust seasoning to taste. 

8. Serve hot with oyster crackers or crumbled saltines. 

Amy Brill is a writer and producer who has worked for PBS and MTV, and has been awarded fellowships by the Edward F. Albee Foundation, the Millay Colony, and the American Antiquarian Society, among others. This is her first novel. She lives in Brooklyn.

Giveaway alert: To celebrate the new Putnam & Riverhead Book Club Community,the publisher is giving away copies of THE MOVEMENT OF STARS for your entire book club! To enter, just fill out the form here. You will also be included on the mailing list for suggested book club titles and special offers, including sweepstakes, call-ins, reading group guides, and more. The contest to win THE MOVEMENT OF STARS ends 11:59pm EST on 2/15/2013 and winners will be notified by 2/21/13. Best of luck!

A huge thanks to Ms. Brill for participating in Book Club Exchange!

If you are interested in participating in a future Book Club Exchange, please contact me at bookingmama(at)gmail(dot)com.   

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Review: The Fault in Our Stars

Summary: Despite the tumor-shrinking medical miracle that has bought her a few years, Hazel has never been anything but terminal, her final chapter inscribed upon diagnosis. But when a gorgeous plot twist named Augustus Waters suddenly appears at Cancer Kid Support Group, Hazel’s story is about to be completely rewritten.

Insightful, bold, irreverent, and raw, The Fault in Our Stars is award-winning-author John Green’s most ambitious and heartbreaking work yet, brilliantly exploring the funny, thrilling, and tragic business of being alive and in love. -- Dutton Children's

Normally, I just turn to my shelves for my next book; however, after reading so many book blogger's "Best of 2012" lists, I knew I had to head to my local library to get a copy of THE FAULT IN OUR STARS by John Green. This novel has received so many accolades and I can certainly see why. I absolutely adored this book... and feel like I should read everything this man has ever written!

For those of you who aren't familiar with THE FAULT IN OUR STARS (although I swear I'm the last blogger alive who hasn't read it!), this novel tells the story of Hazel, a teen girl who has survived one cancer scare but still is living with the knowledge that she is terminal. With all of her health issues, Hazel's life is far from normal, but things begin to look up when she meets Augustus at a cancer support group meeting. Hazel falls hard for this charming boy and begins to see her own life in a new light!

Truly, THE FAULT IN OUR STARS took my breath away. I read it in one day (almost one sitting if it weren't for carpooling duties!), and I was blown away by this story. While the book does deal with some very heavy issues (heck, it's about kids with cancer), somehow the story was still funny and smart; and it dealt with some very universal issues like first love and living each day to the fullest.

I could go on and on about all of the amazing things about this novel, but I'll just touch upon a few or else this review would be very long (even by my standards.) Plus I don't really feel that I can add any more to the already fantastic review out there. But I wanted to mention that Hazel and Augustus were incredible characters, ones that will remain in your thoughts for a very long time. Not only were they complex and interesting because of what they have had to deal with in their young lives, but they were also extremely real. The way the author portrayed their personalities, and even their humor, made them seem like typical teens when in reality they were far from typical!

Probably what stands out to me the most about THE FAULT IN OUR STARS is how much it affected me. I finished this novel while waiting for my son at his karate class, and I ended up sniffling and crying. Even though I knew what was coming, I felt so close to these characters that I couldn't help but cry for their losses. Yes, this book is sad -- very sad if I'm being honest, but I loved how it made me feel. I walked away from this story realizing that each and every day is a gift, and I am so fortunate to have some very special people in my life. I also realized that I need to live my life to the fullest and stop feeling sorry for myself. There are kids out there (and adults) who are dealing with a heck of a lot more than I am. Talk about some powerful messages!

I do want to mention that this book is geared towards kids 14 years old and up, and as a mom, I agree with that. I loved this book so much that I debated passing it along to my 13 year old daughter; however, I decided that one more year (or so) wouldn't hurt. There are a few adult issues (i.e. sex) as well as some emotional ones that I think she might be better equipped to handle once she's a little more mature.

Given the topics explored in this novel, THE FAULT IN OUR STARS is ideal for teen book clubs or even mom/daughter ones. I think a discussion of cancer and even death can be a good one for teens; however, there are actually so many other pertinent issues that warrant some additional thought. For example, this novel delves into subjects like friendship, first love, guilt, parent/child relationships, and more -- so much to discuss!

Needless to say, I highly recommend THE FAULT IN OUR STARS! And thanks to all of you book bloggers out there who convinced me that I should read this book! You were absolutely right!

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Review: News from Heaven

Summary: The bestselling author of Faith and The Condition returns with a collection of unforgettable short stories inspired by a Pennsylvania coal-mining town and the people who call it home. 

When her iconic novel Baker Towers was published in 2005, it was hailed as a modern classic—"compassionate and powerful . . . a song of praise for a too-little-praised part of America, for the working families whose toils and constancy have done so much to make the country great" (Chicago Tribune). Its young author, Jennifer Haigh, was "an expert natural storyteller with an acute sense of her characters' humanity" (New York Times). 

Now, in this collection of interconnected short stories, Jennifer Haigh returns to the vividly imagined world of Bakerton, Pennsylvania, a coal-mining town rocked by decades of painful transition. From its heyday during two world wars through its slow decline, Bakerton is a town that refuses to give up gracefully, binding—sometimes cruelly—succeeding generations to the place that made them. A young woman glimpses a world both strange and familiar when she becomes a live-in maid for a Jewish family in New York City. A long-absent brother makes a sudden and tragic homecoming. A solitary middle-aged woman tastes unexpected love when a young man returns to town. With a revolving cast of characters—many familiar to fans of Baker Towers—these stories explore how our roots, the families and places in which we are raised, shape the people we eventually become. 

News from Heaven looks unflinchingly at the conflicting human desires for escape and for connection, and explores the enduring hold of home. -- Harper

A few weeks ago, I re-read one of my all-time favorite books BAKER TOWERS by Jennifer Haigh (my  review) in anticipation of reading her new book NEWS FROM HEAVEN. If possible, I think I enjoyed the novel more the second time around which is extremely rare for me. (The only other book I felt that way about is TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD!) To say I was looking forward to NEWS FROM HEAVEN is an understatement. I consider Ms. Haigh to be an incredible writer (one of my faves.) Plus, the story takes place in a fictional town only a few miles from where my grandparents live.

Often times when I am as excited about a book as I am for NEWS FROM HEAVEN, I tend to be disappointed. In addition, I wondered if I would enjoy the short story format since BAKER TOWERS was not a collection of short stories. I shouldn't have doubted Ms. Haigh's skills for one second. NEWS FROM HEAVEN is an outstanding piece of literature and I absolutely loved every word of it!

NEWS FROM HEAVEN is a collection of short stories; however, they are interconnected by one common themes -- characters with ties to the small town of Bakerton. Once a booming coal-mining town, Bakerton has suffered a gradual decline of both the town and its population. Through these various stories, Ms. Haigh delves into the lives of character who either once lived in Bakerton or still do. She manages to show a very real portrayal of this area and the effects of the coal mining industry's decline.

While BAKER TOWERS reminded me of my grandparents' lives, NEWS FROM HEAVEN resonated with me because it reflects what I have seen when I visit this area. I'm far from familiar with the daily occurrences in my family's hometowns, but I have seen how much the area has changed since I was a kid. There is no doubt that this area has been heavy hit and many individual's lives have been altered as a result.

Prior to the past year or so, I wasn't a big fan of short story collections. Fortunately, that has all changed for me and I do have a real appreciation for this genre. Having said that, usually when I read a collection of short stories, there are ones that I enjoy more than others. I can honestly say that I loved all of the stories in NEWS FROM HEAVEN -- there wasn't a dinger in the bunch! However, I will admit to enjoying the stories which centered around the Novak family because I was anxious to learn what happened to them after the end of BAKER TOWERS.

It truly is difficult for me to pick a favorite story (or two.) If pressed, I'd have to say I liked the ones about Sandy Novak the most. I was left wondering about him after BAKER TOWERS! The first is called "A Place in the Sun" and shows exactly what Sandy was up to after leaving Bakerton. I can't really say I was surprised, but I thought Ms. Haigh did a brilliant job of showing the complexity of his character and I loved how the story came full circle. The second one is called "To the Stars" and begins with Sandy's body arriving back to his family in Bakerton. While I found parts of this story to be utterly tragic, I still found it to be beautifully written.

Another wonderful story had to do with Mitch Stanek, the town's golden boy who arrived back home after quitting college and giving up a football scholarship. This story was so tragic and even held a few surprises for the reader. The way this story and its startling conclusion unfolded was especially moving to me... and incredibly well done!

I really can't express just how talented Ms. Haigh is. I'm almost at a loss for words and don't even feel like I have any right to be remarking on her writing. However, I have to say that she brings settings and characters to life like few authors can. She also has a special ability to write about day-to-day life in a way that I find utterly gripping. While she does tend to delve into some pretty heavy issues (in all of her books), I still find that I love the characters and their stories; and she somehow manages to leave me with a sense of hope!

Of course, I'm going to recommend NEWS FROM HEAVEN for book clubs. I wouldn't hesitate to pick it for our next meeting, but I already had to choose my pick a few weeks ago (don't worry -- it's an amazing book too!) There is a reading guide available with fifteen questions. Some of the themes you might want to explore include small towns, change, values, family dynamics, second chances, happiness, the meaning of the word home, and love.

I sure hope I've convinced you how special NEWS FROM HEAVEN is. Do yourself a favor and get a copy!

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

Monday, January 28, 2013

Review: The Map of Lost Memories

Summary: Suspense and secrets are woven together in this engrossing fiction debut by Kim Fay. The Map of Lost Memories takes readers on a daring expedition to a remote land, where the search for an elusive treasure becomes a journey into the darkest recesses of the mind and heart.

In 1925, the international treasure-hunting scene is a man’s world, and no woman knows this better than Irene Blum, who is passed over for the coveted curator position at Seattle’s renowned Brooke Museum. But she is not ready to accept defeat. Skilled at acquiring priceless, often illicitly trafficked artifacts, Irene is given a rare map believed to lead to a set of copper scrolls that chronicle the lost history of Cambodia’s ancient Khmer civilization. Such a find would not only restore her reputation, it would be the greatest archaeological discovery of the century.

As Irene travels from Seattle to Shanghai to the Cambodian jungles, she will encounter several equally determined companions, including a communist temple robber and a dashing nightclub owner with a complicated past. As she and her fellow adventurers sweep across borders and make startling discoveries, their quest becomes increasingly dangerous. Everyone who comes to this part of the world “has something to hide,” Irene is told—and she learns just how true this is. What she and her accomplices bring to light will do more than change history. It will ultimately solve the mysteries of their own lives. -- Ballantine

I probably shouldn't admit this, but I picked up THE MAP OF LOST MEMORIES by Kim Fay a few months ago and put it down after just a chapter. It wasn't that the book didn't capture my interest, but something more urgent probably ended up taking precedence over this novel -- that always seems to happen to me because I over commit (but that's another story!) Then I discovered that this book was nominated 2013 Edgar Award finalist for Best First Novel by an American Author, and I remembered that I had it sitting on my bookshelf and I thought it would be perfect to feature it for Mystery Mondays.

And truth be told -- I am very glad that I picked up THE MAP OF LOST MEMORIES again. It truly is a unique and well written story that is worthy of the award nomination and the starred reviews. It's not a mystery in the traditional sense of the word, although there certainly are a lot of mystery aspects to this story, but it is most definitely a novel of suspense. As a result, I think it's a terrific book to feature here.

THE MAP OF LOST MEMORIES is a wonderful mix of historical fiction and suspense that takes place in 1925. It tells the story of Irene Blum, a woman who expected to become the curator at Seattle's Brooke Museum due to her hard work and success dealing with artifacts. When she was passed over, Irene decided that she had to prove her worth in some other way, namely discovering the copper scrolls that tell the story of Cambodia's ancient Khmer civilization.

Irene's quest takes her from Seattle to Shanghai to the jungles of Cambodia. Along the way, Irene meets up with some very interesting travel companions including an ex-nightclub owner with whom she falls in love and an unpredictable communist temple robber. As this group tries to find the temple and the copper scrolls, they face many hidden dangers and surprises including their relationships with each other.

THE MAP OF LOST MEMORIES is an intense read and has a little bit of something for every reader. The book is based in 1925 with many references to the past so it is most definitely a work of historical fiction. However, because of the quest to find the scrolls, the book is also a mystery filled with lots of suspense and adventure. In addition, the author does a wonderful job of bringing the jungles of Cambodia and the city of Shanghai to life so it's perfect for readers who enjoy travel, and there is even some romance thrown in for readers who like a little of that in their books.

There were many things that I appreciated about THE MAP OF LOST MEMORIES that depending on when you ask me, I would name a different one. For example, I thought the characters were extremely interesting as were their interactions with each other. I also loved the descriptions of the various settings -- it was very apparent to me that the author had personal experience with them and did very thorough research. And I thought Irene's entire quest was to find the copper scrolls was extremely well constructed. However, what really stood out to me was how much this novel managed to cover outside of just the suspense aspect. This book touched upon art history and the cut-throat business of artifacts, Cambodia and the effects of colonialism on the country, Communism and revolutionary politics, and even women's rights.

Because of all of these things, I believe THE MAP OF LOST MEMORIES would make for a very interesting book club discussion. I wasn't able to find a formal reading guide, but I honestly don't think you'd need one. Besides having many topics to discuss, you could also serve some really interesting Chinese and Cambodian foods.

THE MAP OF LOST MEMORIES is a very well written novel. Recommended for fans of suspense and thrillers!

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

Mystery Mondays is a regular feature where I review all types of mystery books -- traditional mysteries, suspense/thrillers, and even cozies! Please feel free to share your thoughts on any recent mystery books that you've read.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Kid Konnection: Flora and the Flamingo

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 adorable picture about one of my very favorite animals.

Summary: In this innovative wordless picture book with interactive flaps, Flora and her graceful flamingo friend explore the trials and joys of friendship through an elaborate synchronized dance. With a twist, a turn, and even a flop, these unlikely friends learn at last how to dance together in perfect harmony. Full of humor and heart, this stunning performance (and splashy ending!) will have readers clapping for more! -- Chronicle

FLORA AND THE FLAMINGO by Molly Idle is absolutely adorable and gorgeous to boot! The very sweet picture book isn't available until next month; however, I thought it was so cute that I wanted to share it right away.

FLORA AND THE FLAMINGO is a wordless picture book and I'm not usually a big fan of these types of books. However, I have to make an exception for this special story about dance and friendship. Initially, Flora is unable to mimic the graceful flamingo's dance movies, but they learn to dance together in perfect harmony. It's a sweet story about perseverance and friendship that is guaranteed to entertain little girls and their parents.

I have included two videos for FLORA AND THE FLAMINGO because I know my words won't do justice to just how beautiful this book is. The illustrations of the flamingo and Flora are wonderful, but it's the secret flaps that really bring the book to the next level... especially the cute surprise that's hidden underneath the last ones!

I just loved FLORA AND THE FLAMINGO and it's an ideal gift for a sweet little one in your life.

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, January 25, 2013

Another Downton Abbey Addict!

I realize that I'm a little late to the game, but I recently started watching Downton Abbey. I am hooked! I mean seriously hooked! I can't stop thinking about the characters and their interactions; and every night, I'm pushing the kids to go to bed early so my husband and I can catch up on the prior seasons.

I should have listened to all of you awhile ago, but better late than never, right?

As part of my new fascination with anything and everything related to this show, I am requesting some help from you. I know I've seen some blog posts, articles, etc. that mention books for fans of Downton Abbey but I didn't pay attention to them because I wasn't familiar with the show. Now that I'm finally "in the know," I'm dying to discover some books that are similar.

Any help would be greatly appreciated!

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Review: The Shortest Way Home

Summary: Sean has spent twenty years in Third World war zones and natural disaster areas, fully embracing what he’d always felt was his life’s mission. But when burnout sets in, Sean is reluctantly drawn home to Belham, Massachusetts, the setting of Fay’s much-loved Shelter Me. There, he discovers that his steely aunt, overly dramatic sister, and quirky nephew are having a little natural disaster of their own. When he reconnects with a woman from his past, Sean has to wonder if the bonds of love and loyalty might just rewrite his destiny. Completely relatable, The Shortest Way Home is another perfect serving of a slice of life from the irresistible Fay. -- Penguin

I have read a few novels by Juliette Fay and I have always appreciated how well she portrays family life. Somehow she has a talent for creating very real and memorable characters that get under your skin (in a good way!) She has done it once again in her latest novel THE SHORTEST WAY HOME. I really, really liked this book.

THE SHORTEST WAY HOME tells the story of Sean, a man who has spent his entire adult life serving as a nurse in Third World war zones. While his career is nothing short of noble, Sean's motivations for this profession are largely because he has been running from his past, namely his family. When he decides it's time to come back home, Sean finds that his family is facing their own set of problems. His elderly aunt who took care of Sean and his siblings is having issues with her memory, his sister wants to leave to pursue her acting career, and his nephew has troubles with social situations. Thankfully, Sean finds comfort in some friends (and even a girlfriend) from his past; and he is forced to re-examine his own life, his responsibilities, and his happiness.

It only took me a few pages to become utterly absorbed in Sean and his family's life. Basically, I started this book and pretty much read it every free minute I had for the next day or so -- I couldn't put it down! As was the case with Ms. Fay's other novels, I loved how real the characters were, both their strengths and their flaws; and I just cared so much about their stories. What I also appreciated is that I didn't always "love" the characters or their actions, but I did "love" that they evolved throughout the course of the story.

I think one of the best things about THE SHORTEST WAY HOME is how it made me feel. I actually found myself relating to the story despite having almost nothing in common with the main characters. I know that's a testament to Ms. Fay's writing and character development. She manages to create very realistic characters while at the same time writing interesting stories for them. And in the case of THE SHORTEST WAY HOME, she gave these characters some pretty heavy issues including the possibility of inheriting a deadly disease, dementia, infertility, sensory issues and/or autism, and more.

However, I think it's the day-to-day lives of these characters that really made an impression on me. I found that their thoughts, feelings, and actions (even the questionable ones) were extremely believable -- I "bought" these people and cared about them. Furthermore, I found the way that Sean's character evolved throughout the story to be ideal. He did a lot of soul searching and was willing to face his weaknesses head on (eventually), and because of this, he became a better man. As I finished this novel, I just felt happy!

One tidbit that I found interesting is that the setting for THE SHORTEST WAY HOME is Belham, Massachusetts -- the same setting for Ms. Fay's SHELTER ME. I adored SHELTER ME and was so happy to see some of the beloved characters make small appearances in this novel. Plus it was a little interesting to see how their lives were going. This won't matter at all for those of you who haven't read SHELTER ME, but if you have, it's a nice little touch!

I think many book clubs would enjoy discussing THE SHORTEST WAY HOME because they are so many universal themes. I have a feeling that every reader will find at least one character or situation to which they can relate. I was happy to find that there is a reading guide with twelve thought-provoking questions although I'm not entirely sure you'd need one to stimulate discussion. Some of the topics you might want to further explore include family, obligations, guilt, trust, loss, fear, parent/child relationships, motivations, and love.

I thoroughly enjoyed THE SHORTEST WAY HOME and I think fans of Ms. Fay's work will too. Highly recommended for fans of women's literature and family dramas.

Thanks to Kathy and FSB for providing copies of this book.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Review: The Painted Girls

Summary: 1878 Paris. Following their father’s sudden death, the van Goethem sisters find their lives upended. Without his wages, and with the small amount their laundress mother earns disappearing into the absinthe bottle, eviction from their lodgings seems imminent. With few options for work, Marie is dispatched to the Paris Opéra, where for a scant seventeen francs a week, she will be trained to enter the famous ballet. Her older sister, Antoinette, finds work as an extra in a stage adaptation of Émile Zola’s naturalist masterpiece L’Assommoir.

Marie throws herself into dance and is soon modeling in the studio of Edgar Degas, where her image will forever be immortalized as Little Dancer Aged Fourteen. There she meets a wealthy male patron of the ballet, but might the assistance he offers come with strings attached? Meanwhile Antoinette, derailed by her love for the dangerous Émile Abadie, must choose between honest labor and the more profitable avenues open to a young woman of the Parisian demimonde.

Set at a moment of profound artistic, cultural, and societal change, The Painted Girls is a tale of two remarkable sisters rendered uniquely vulnerable to the darker impulses of “civilized society.” In the end, each will come to realize that her salvation, if not survival, lies with the other. -- Riverhead

A few years ago, I read THE DAY THE FALLS STOOD STILL by Cathy Marie Buchanan; and I absolutely adored it -- you can read my review here. I have been anxiously waiting for her next novel THE PAINTED GIRLS  for what seems like forever; and I am thrilled to say that it was well worth the wait. In fact, I enjoyed THE PAINTED GIRLS even more than THE DAY THE FALLS STOOD STILL, and that's really saying something.

In my opinion, THE PAINTED GIRLS is historical fiction at its very best. This novel which takes place in the late 1870s and early 1880s in Paris is the perfect blend of historical information and a riveting story. It is one of the best books that I've read so far this year (which I realize is only three and a half weeks in), and I'm quite positive that it will go down as one of my top reads for 2013. It's that good.

THE PAINTED GIRLS tells the story of the van Goethem sisters -- primarily Antoinette and Marie although there is a third sister as well. After their father passes away, the girls and their mother (who works as a laundress and enjoys her fair share of absinthe) find themselves so poor that they barely have enough food to eat. Desperate, Marie is sent to the Paris Opera for training as a ballerina and Antoinette finds work as an extra in a play.

Marie becomes quite the dedicated dancer and even begins modeling for Degas. She even becomes the model for his masterpiece Little Dancer Aged Fourteen. However, she finds that her new life comes with some costs, namely in the expectations of her male patron. Antoinette's life takes a rather different course, She falls head over heels in love with the menacing Emile Abadie, a fellow stage extra who enjoys his fair share of women and alcohol; and her life takes a drastic turn when Emile is accused of some horrible crimes.

I hesitate to go into any more details about these sisters' stories because I feel that much more would spoil the beauty of this novel. Suffice it to say that I found everything about this novel to be just about perfect. The characters were so well developed and complex, the setting was vividly brought to life, and the story was incredibly interesting. Needless to say, I absolutely loved THE PAINTED GIRLS.

Truly, I can't rave enough about what Ms. Buchanan has created in THE PAINTED GIRLS. I wasn't familiar with this time period or the van Goethem sisters (yes, they are real characters!) in the least; however, after I read this novel, I had to know more. I was also fascinated with her portrayal of Degas. While he wasn't necessarily a major character in this novel, I found his methods to be interesting. After I finished this novel, I did a little reading and found that Ms. Buchanan based this story on very real events -- yes she took some liberties with relationships, but it is a work of fiction!, and I extremely impressed with how well she merged the facts with an enticing story.

In addition, I loved the characters that Ms. Buchanan created. That statement pretty much holds true for all of the characters -- the good ones and the bad. Having said that, the van Goethem girls held a special place in my heart. Both girls were far from perfect (in fact, they were extremely flawed), but they were so real. And as far as their relationship with each other, I thought it reflected the ups and downs of sibling relationships -- the love and the rivalry.

I could go on and on about so many things that I loved about this book. It really is so much more than just an entertaining story. For example, I loved how the author included so much about the social climate of late 1880s Paris. The exploration of the criminal system, art, theater, poverty, justice and much more were extremely thought-provoking and really helped to make this book extra-special. I also thought the way the story was told (in both girls' voices) was ideal. The author managed to make each girl come alive and have a very distinct voice.

It won't come as any surprise to you that I highly recommend THE PAINTED GIRLS for book clubs. I found a terrific reading guide on the author's website with fourteen questions. Some of the themes you might want to explore include Paris in the 1800s, sibling rivalry, poverty, determination, jealousy, crimes, dedication, honestly, sacrifice, addiction, and love. Of course, they are many more topics that warrant some additional discussion.

I will be recommending THE PAINTED GIRLS to everyone I meet! In fact, I think my friends are already tired of me talking about this book. It's nothing short of fabulous!

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

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Review: The Twelve Tribes of Hattie (Audio)

Summary: The arrival of a major new voice in contemporary fiction.

A debut of extraordinary distinction: Ayana Mathis tells the story of the children of the Great Migration through the trials of one unforgettable family.

In 1923, fifteen-year-old Hattie Shepherd flees Georgia and settles in Philadelphia, hoping for a chance at a better life. Instead, she marries a man who will bring her nothing but disappointment and watches helplessly as her firstborn twins succumb to an illness a few pennies could have prevented.  Hattie gives birth to nine more children whom she raises with grit and mettle and not an ounce of the tenderness they crave.  She vows to prepare them for the calamitous difficulty they are sure to face in their later lives, to meet a world that will not love them, a world that will not be kind. Captured here in twelve luminous narrative threads, their lives tell the story of a mother’s monumental courage and the journey of a nation.

Beautiful and devastating, Ayana Mathis’s The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is wondrous from first to last—glorious, harrowing, unexpectedly uplifting, and blazing with life. An emotionally transfixing novel, a searing portrait of striving in the face of insurmountable adversity, an indelible encounter with the resilience of the human spirit and the driving force of the American dream. -- Random House Audio

As soon as I saw that Oprah picked THE TWELVE TRIBES OF HATTIE by Ayana Mathis, I knew that I wanted to read it. Then I read Entertainment Weekly's review, and that pretty much sealed it for me. For the most part, I adore family sagas (especially ones about dysfunctional families); and this story which covers five decades and tells about the ups and downs of the Shepherd family seemed perfect. 

For the most part, I really liked THE TWELVE TRIBES OF HATTIE. I wouldn't go so far as to say I loved it, but I did like it a lot. The book covers the life of Hattie Shepherd, her husband, her children, and even a grandchild through twelve separate narratives -- one chapter per person. In a way, each chapter is almost like a short story and stands on its own; however, they are, of course, all tied together through Hattie.

THE TWELVE TRIBES OF HATTIE begins with high hopes for Hattie who is fifteen and leaving the South for Philadelphia with her mother and sisters. However, that sense of hope soon disappears. Hattie marries young and sets herself up for a life of having babies and hard work. She loses her first-born twins to pneumonia; however, she has nine more children; and the reader quickly realizes that Hattie isn't a kind and loving mother. In fact, her kids even refer to her as the "general."

The book follows each of Hattie's children, as well as her husband, through their good times and bad. Having said that, I found that the bad times seemed to take priority in this novel. Hattie and many of her children led difficult lives to say the least. One child is schizophrenic, one is suicidal, one is a closeted gay musician, and one is a slimy revival preacher. I could go on and on about her children and the pain and suffering they experienced. In fact, if I had one complaint about the story, it would be that these individuals experienced almost too much... if that makes sense.

One thing that did really stand out to me, though, was the writing. I thought Ms. Mathis did an outstanding job of bringing the times and the characters to life. Her prose was beautiful and she definitely has a talent for making the reader "feel" the characters' pain. In addition, I appreciated how she took the ordinary in these people's lives and made it extraordinary.

The audiobook version of THE TWELVE TRIBES OF HATTIE was read by Adenrele Ojo, Bahni Turpin and Adam Lazarre White. I admit that I was confused about why there were three different narrators when it seemed like Ojo read all but two chapters -- and those chapters included the ones about the men in the family. The only thing I can figure (and I'd really need a hard copy of the book to be sure) is that Turpin and Lazarre White read the chapters that were written in first person, while Ojo read everything else. I have to say that I thought the audio production was very good and I appreciated all three of the readers. You can take a quick listen below:

THE TWELVE TRIBES OF HATTIE would make a wonderful book club selection. Because the book covers so many years as well as many characters who experienced a variety of issues, there is naturally a great deal to discuss. In fact, there is a reader's guide with twenty questions! Some of the themes you might want to explore include parenting, death, abuse, loss, second chances, mental illness, addition, adultery, regret, forgiveness, prejudice, and redemption. Truly those themes are just the tip of the ice berg. This book could keep you thinking and talking for hours.

Overall, I enjoyed THE TWELVE TRIBES OF HATTIE a great deal. Recommended for readers who appreciate family sagas.

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

Monday, January 21, 2013

Review: Footprints in the Sand

Summary: It's the dead of winter and struggling actress and wedding-cake decorator Piper Donovan is thrilled to be in warm and romantic Sarasota, Florida, enjoying the powdery white beaches, soothing seas, and golden sunsets over the Gulf of Mexico. She and her family are there to celebrate her beloved cousin's wedding. Not only is Piper creating the sugar-sand-dollar-festooned wedding cake, she's also the maid of honor. 

But a cloud seems to be hovering over the whole affair. Shortly after a bridesmaid mysteriously disappears, a kindly neighbor's car is run off the road and a prospective witness, an innocent Amish teenager, is threatened to keep silent. Then a body is found on the beach where the wedding will take place. With the nuptials threatened, it falls to Piper to unmask a killer. Could it be the wedding planner with something to hide? A doctor and his wife who collect unusual Japanese figurines? The best man, an ex–drug dealer with lecherous eyes and roving hands? What about her cousin's future stepfather—or even the bridegroom himself? 

As Piper gets close to figuring out who's been covering his guilty footprints in the sand, the cunning killer has already set his sights on Piper as his next victim! -- William Morrow

FOOTPRINTS IN THE SAND by Mary Jane Clark is the third book in the Piper Donovan Mystery series, and since I read and enjoyed the first two, I was interested to see what was next in store for Piper. Piper is a struggling actress who also works part time as a cake decorator at her mom's bakery. Because of her day job making wedding cakes, Piper finds herself at a lot of weddings. Unfortunately, she also finds herself caught up in a lot of murder mysteries.

In FOOTPRINTS IN THE SAND, Piper is heading to Sarasota, Florida, to be her cousin's maid-of-honor as well as her chief cake designer. Despite the gorgeous location, things don't seem quite right to Piper especially after a bridesmaid goes missing. Add to that, an elderly woman is run off the road, the best man is an ex-con, and an Amish teenager is acting suspicious. When the bridesmaid's body is found buried on the beach, Piper once again finds herself trying to solve a murder mystery and salvage her cousin's dream wedding.

I have to admit that I enjoy this series, but they are very much cozies; and I realize that when I pick up one of these books, it's more of an escape read than anything else. FOOTPRINTS IN THE SAND was a very quick read and I actually guessed the culprit pretty early on. The thing is I wasn't sure of the motive until it was revealed at the end of the book. I just had a "feeling" about the murderer if that makes any sense.

Maybe because I've read a few of these books, but I'm finding that they kind of all read the same. That's a common complaint for me when it comes to cozy series. I feel like the characters are pretty much flat, even Piper, and the relationship she has with her parents is very predictable. For example, her dad is an ex-cop who is extremely overprotective of Piper even though she's 27 years old. Not to say that he shouldn't keep an eye on her because her judgment is lacking, but I'd like to see some growth in both characters.

And one thing that was missing from FOOTPRINTS IN THE SAND that I surprisingly enjoyed in the first book was the sexual tension between Piper and her FBI boyfriend Jack. Jack appeared in a few scenes via phone before he arrived in Sarasota, but he didn't play a major role in the story until the very end. I guess what I'm saying is that I really like his character and hope that the next book has more Jack in it!

I did appreciate the mystery angle of this story, but I'm not sure it was my favorite of this series. There were quite a few clues given and I'm happy to say that I even picked up on a few of them. There was some foreshadowing that was pretty blatant, though, so I imagine that most readers will find themselves figuring out at least part of the mystery and/or associated crimes.

Finally, I did like that the story took place in Sarasota. I thought the author did a great job of bringing this beautiful setting to life, and I also enjoyed how she included some educational information about the area. I especially liked how the tie-in with the sea turtles and their hatching. She even had the couple meet when they were monitoring the sea turtles nests.

Overall, I'm not sure that this was my favorite Piper Donovan mystery; however, I enjoyed it enough to continue when the next installment is available.

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

Mystery Mondays is a regular feature where I review all types of mystery books -- traditional mysteries, suspense/thrillers, and even cozies! Please feel free to share your thoughts on any recent mystery books that you've read.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Kid Konnection: Celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

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 few picture books that are especially pertinent this weekend.

Summary: The most effective method used to influence children to read is to incorporate the information that interests them the most. National Geographic Readers are educational, high-interest, and comprehensive for children. In this title, readers will learn about the fascinating life and legacy civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 

In this level two biography, difficult concepts are made understandable and transitioned into a more approachable manner. This includes the use of sidebars, timetables, diagrams and fun facts to hold the interest of the young reader. The colorful design and educational illustrations round out this text as an exemplary book for their young minds to explore. -- National Geographic Kids

I recently received some National Geographic Readers books in the mail, and they are a huge hit with Booking Son. One of the books that captured his interest is NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC KIDS MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR. by Kitson Jazynka. The reader book is aimed at Level 3 readers which are "fluent readers," and I thought it was an outstanding book to introduce children to Martin Luther King, Jr. and his goals for our country.

Of course, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC KIDS MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR. gives children a brief history of MLK's life, from his childhood to his untimely death. However, the book also outlines the civil rights movement, demonstrating what MLK was able to peacefully accomplish for equality. Booking Son doesn't really have any comprehension of segregation or the social injustices that occurred in our country, and I think this book does a great job of explaining it to today's children.

There are many wonderful things about NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC KIDS MARTIN LUTHER KING JR., but one of my favorites is how the information is presented. This book is chock full of gorgeous photographs -- both black and white and color ones; and there are plenty of interesting tidbits that are sure to catch (and keep) kids' attention. The book includes "Words to Know" on each page (as well as a Glossary in the back of the book) and a timeline that reflects the major events in MLK's life.

Both Booking Son and I absolutely love these National Geographic Readers biographies! Highly recommended for young readers and teachers.

Summary: In moving verse, Children’s Poet Laureate J. Patrick Lewis gives new voice to seventeen heroes of civil rights. Exquisitely illustrated by five extraordinary artists, this commanding collection of poems invites the reader to hear in each verse the thunder that lies in every voice, no matter how small. Featuring civil rights luminaries Coretta Scott King, Harvey Milk, Mohandas Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Sylvia Mendez, Aung San Suu Kyi, Mamie Carthan Till, Helen Zia, Josh Gibson, Dennis James Banks, Mitsuye Endo, Ellison Onizuka, Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Yunus, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner. -- Chronicle Books

While this book WHEN THUNDER COMES: POEMS FOR CIVIL RIGHTS LEADERS by J. Patrick Lewis and illustrated by Jim Burke, R. Gregory Christie, Tonya Engel, John Parra, and Meilo So doesn't specifically address Martin Luther King, Jr., I still think it's wonderful book to commemorate the Civil Rights Movement and his ideals. WHEN THUNDER COMES is a tribute by Children's Poet Laureate J. Patrick Lewis to seventeen heroes of civil rights. The book has a poem for each person who made a difference as well as a gorgeous illustration by a variety of artists. Needless to say, this book is gorgeous!

I am the first to admit that I'm not a huge lover of poetry. I want to enjoy reading poems, but I find that I'm just not intellectual enough (or something like that) to truly appreciate them. However, poetry geared towards kids is something I can get into. I think it's more my speed! And that's why I found WHEN THUNDER COMES to be such a special book. I loved reading these beautiful poems about these amazing individuals.

As a mom, I love that WHEN THUNDER COMES introduces so many civil rights heroes to our children... and  maybe even some adults. I probably shouldn't admit this, but I learned a great deal from this book. I wasn't familiar with some of these hero's stories, and thankfully, there are pages in the back of the book which provide brief bios for each of them.

What I really appreciated about this book was the wide variety of causes that it celebrated. The book celebrates those individuals who fought injustices for race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, sexual orientation and more. Some of the heroes commemorated in WHEN THUNDER COMES include Coretta Scott King, Harvey Milk, Jackie Robinson, Mohandas Gandhi, Sylvia Mendez, and Nelson Mandela.

WHEN THUNDER COMES is a wonderful book that should be an addition to every school library!

Thanks to the publisher and Media Masters Publicity for providing a 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, January 18, 2013

Guest Review: Line of Fire

Summary:  Clinical psychologist and Boulder resident Alan Gregory is finally beginning to feel settled, hopeful that a long period of upheaval in his private life is behind him. He refocuses his energy on his clinical psychology practice, where a beguiling new patient is challenging his values. The interlude of calm doesn’t last, of course: Alan’s dear friend Diane is showing signs of a long-simmering emotional collapse, and Alan’s greatest fear—the exposure of his most dangerous secret—has become something he can’t ignore.

A new witness has surfaced, causing authorities to reopen their investigation into the suicide death of a woman named J. Winter Brown. When Alan and his equally culpable friend Sam Purdy inadvertently disclose details of their involvement in her death to a desperate drug dealer, any confidence they felt about riding out the new investigation evaporates. The trail that leads back to Alan and Sam, once cold, has turned white-hot.

With his vulnerability mounting daily, Alan begins to fear that his mesmerizing new patient may be the catalyst that can cause everything he treasures—his marriage, family, friendship, and future—to implode. As the authorities close in, the story hurtles toward a conclusion that will set the stage for the most unexpected of outcomes: the final act of the Alan Gregory saga. -- Dutton

I have heard some good things about Stephen White's novels, but I've never read one before. Since I was hesitant to begin reading a series at book nineteen, I thought my dad might be game. So here are his thoughts about LINE OF FIRE:

LINE OF FIRE is the first Stephen White book that I have read. It is the19th book in a series about psychologist Dr. Alan Gregory. White intends to end the series with the 20th book as he explains in a note to the reader at the beginning of the novel.

The story takes place near Boulder, Colorado with a wildfire that’s threatening to destroy several homes serving as the background. White develops a complex story mixing some cases from prior novels with a few new cases with new patients.

Alan’s best friend and cop, Sam Purdy, finds out that Alan’s deputy DA wife, Lauren, may be reopening one of Sam’s old cases. The original case was ruled a suicide but new evidence indicates otherwise. This has potential risks to both Alan and Sam. This situation is further compromised by what a supposedly comatose patient thought he overheard Alan and Sam discussing about the case while in his room. At the same time Alan’s friend and associate, Diane, is on the edge of emotional collapse from two traumatic events from her past coupled with her anxiety from the wildfires and her concern that her husband is having an affair.

Meanwhile, Alan has taken on two new patients, Amanda Bobbie and Ricky Contreras. Amanda challenges all of Alan’s clinical capabilities as she discusses her relationships with a lover and her now deceased brother while Contreras is trying to recover from an automobile accident when he finds out his parents are throwing him out of their house.

White’s characters are complex, imperfect and well developed. There are no pure heroes. The fact that they are all flawed to some extent adds immensely to the storylines. Although it would have been beneficial to have read at least some of the previous installments to become more familiar with the characters, the book clearly stands on its own.

Author Stephen White expertly weaves these varied storylines into a terrific thriller that he somehow brings together at the end. He does however leave enough loose ends to be tied up in the final installment of this long running series. If you enjoy complex thrillers that move along at a fast pace you will enjoy LINE OF FIRE.

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

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Review: The Devoted

Summary: From wartime Italy to the American West, Jonathan Hull takes readers on a heartrending passage through the lives of three families torn by history and bound by an unshakeable -- and at times forbidden -- devotion.

Ryan Brooks never forgot the powerful hands that pulled him from the wreckage of his parents' station wagon that summer in 1960 when he was ten and his childhood came to a fiery end during a family vacation. Thirty years later, Ryan returns to Wyoming to thank the dying rancher for saving the life he is still trying to be worthy of. The chilling sight of Mike O'Donnell's deeply scarred hands is just the beginning of Ryan's journey as he soon finds himself caught between the rancher's captivating -- and married -- daughter, Shannon, and his mysterious Italian wife, Alessandra.

When Mike's deathbed confession sets Ryan on a search for the truth of what really happened the day his parents died, he unearths a long-buried secret that leads to a mountain cave in Northern Italy and Alessandra's dangerous love affair with a haunted young German soldier. As past and present collide in an intricately woven story of love and redemption across generations and continents, Ryan discovers that the answers he seeks are inscribed deep in the hearts of those whose lives -- and courage -- he must measure against his own. -- Dancing Muse Press

If I'm being entirely honest, there were a couple of reasons that I normally wouldn't have picked up THE DEVOTED: A LOVE STORY by Jonathan Hull. First is that the title calls it a "love story," and I'm not exactly the biggest fan of romance books. Another major reason is that the book is published through the author's own imprint, and I'm always a little leery of self-published books. However, I was assured that this book was good -- really good and that I should give it a try.

I have to say that I'm very glad I took a chance on THE DEVOTED. I really liked this book and I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the writing. I probably shouldn't say "surprised" because Mr. Hull is a former Time Magazine bureau chief and has had a book published through traditional channels in the past. He actually created his own press to re-release his novel LOSING JULIA and to publish his new one. It was evident to me very early on that Mr. Hull is a talented storyteller. I should also add that I guess THE DEVOTED is a love story of sorts, but not what I normally think of when I hear a book called a love story!

THE DEVOTED tells the story of Ryan, a man who is forever troubled by his past. When Ryan was a young boy, he and his parents were in a horrific car wreck. His parents perished, but Ryan was saved by Mike O'Donnell, a rancher who just happened to be nearby when the accident occurred. Throughout the years, Ryan loosely kept in touch with Mike; however, he decided that he needs to visit Mike and thank him before Mike dies.

While visiting Mike, Ryan finds himself intrigued by Mike's daughter Shannon and his Italian wife Alessandra. He is romantically drawn to Shannon despite knowing that she married to another man, and he also finds himself spending much time with Alessandra and learning about her past. However, it's Mike's deathbed confession that really give Ryan a great deal to think about. As he tries to make sense of the accident and Mike's role in it, he begins to uncover some secrets that threaten to tear apart everyone's lives.

I enjoyed THE DEVOTED and it really did have something for everyone. There was lots of drama and some brutal war stories. There were even some aspects of a love story in this novel (but they were very well done.) In addition, there was almost a mystery/suspense angle to the novel, not in the way you traditionally think of a mystery/suspense book, but more like I knew the characters were living with secrets and, as a reader, I couldn't wait to find out what they were. And I have to say, that some were pretty darn shocking and I didn't see them coming at all!

I was definitely impressed with Mr. Hull's writing, especially his character development. I felt as if Ryan were a very honest character, and I was incredibly interested in figuring out Mike. However, it was Alessandra's story that really captured my attention. I loved how the author used flashbacks to tell Alessandra's story about her life in Italy during the war, and I felt as if his portrayal of the war was very realistic. As I learned more about Alessandra, my opinion of her changed drastically; and I think Mr. Hull did a fantastic job of exploring her character and her motivations.

THE DEVOTED would make an excellent book club discussion choice. The characters are fascinating and their actions are certainly worthy of discussion. In addition, the book delves into some universal themes about love, loss, and family. In addition, the topics of honestly, secrets, forgiveness, and redemption are certainly ripe for discussion. I wasn't able to find a formal reader's guide, but don't let that deter you from considering this book for your next meeting. Trust me when I say there are loads of things to discuss.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed THE DEVOTED and recommend it to fans of literary fiction and especially family sagas.

Thanks to for providing a review copy of this novel.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Review: The Death of Bees

Summary: Today is Christmas Eve.
Today is my birthday.
Today I am fifteen.
Today I buried my parents in the backyard.
Neither of them were beloved. 

Marnie and her little sister, Nelly, are on their own now. Only they know what happened to their parents, Izzy and Gene, and they aren't telling. While life in Glasgow's Maryhill housing estate isn't grand, the girls do have each other. Besides, it's only a year until Marnie will be considered an adult and can legally take care of them both. 

As the New Year comes and goes, Lennie, the old man next door, realizes that his young neighbors are alone and need his help. Or does he need theirs? Lennie takes them in—feeds them, clothes them, protects them—and something like a family forms. But soon enough, the sisters' friends, their teachers, and the authorities start asking tougher questions. As one lie leads to another, dark secrets about the girls' family surface, creating complications that threaten to tear them apart. 

Written with fierce sympathy and beautiful precision, told in alternating voices, The Death of Bees is an enchanting, grimly comic tale of three lost souls who, unable to answer for themselves, can answer only for one another. -- Harper

Wow! I hardly know where to begin with this review for THE DEATH OF BEES by Lisa O'Donnell. The book has been described as dark, yet comedic, and it's also been described as part-mystery/part coming-of-age story. All of that is true and still doesn't seem to quite capture the essence of this story. THE DEATH OF BEES is a highly original story that made me laugh, shudder and cry; and I have to say that I can't think of any book that I've read that compares to this one.

THE DEATH OF BEES tells the story of sisters Marnie and Nelly and their next-door neighbor Lenny. The book begins with Marnie and Nelly burying their parents in the back yard, hoping to keep their deaths a secret for one year... until Marnie is legally an adult. According to Marnie and Nelly, the parents weren't exactly ideal and the girls seemed to been basically left to their own devices even when the parents were around. The reader isn't quite sure about the details surrounding their parents' deaths; however, all is eventually revealed. So I guess this book is technically a mystery, although I didn't really consider it that way when I was reading it. I definitely felt it was more a coming-of-age story.

The girls are doing their best to keep things a secret, but the are both in need of some parental guidance. This is where Lenny, the gay neighbor, steps in. Lenny is a convicted pedophile (he propositioned a teenage boy without realizing how young he was), yet he immediately suspects something isn't quite right next door. He begins taking care of the girls, and the three find comfort in their new family relationship. However, people (and some not very nice ones) begin asking Marnie and Nelly questions about their parents' whereabouts and things aren't adding up. Secrets begin spilling out and Marnie, Nelly, and Lenny are at risk of losing everything.

I've mentioned that this book is extremely original and I think you can see from the description that it's rather unique. However, there are quite a few things that made this book stand out to me. First of all, I loved how the story was written. Ms. O'Donnell chose to tell this story in Marnie, Nelly, and Lenny's voices with chapters alternating between the characters. I loved how she captured their individual voices and because she wrote in the first person, I was able to get an understanding of these three characters that I wouldn't have in any other way.

What surprised me was how much I liked and sympathized with Marnie, Nelly, and Lenny despite some pretty serious baggage. I think this is a credit to Ms. O'Donnell's ability to make their voices so genuine. Heck, Lenny was technically a predator, but I absolutely loved him for the way he cared about these girls. And Nelly was in her own little world, possibly autistic, while Marnie was brilliant, albeit a bit rough around the edges. Each of these characters were so well developed and truly memorable in my opinion, and I absolutely loved their interactions with each other.

Another really special thing about this story was how the author brought the setting to life. The story takes place in Glasgow in the projects, and I thought she did a great job of making this housing development real. But she also did a fabulous job of showing the bleak life that these two girls had. Their parents were absent, even when present if you get my drift, and there was definitely some substance abuse going on. Ms. O'Donnell managed to convey the pitiful existence and the girls' lack of options, while at the same time showing a glimmer of hope for them.

And finally, one of the strangest things about THE DEATH OF BEES was how funny it was. At times, all of the characters and the situations they found themselves in were borderline silly. For example, I thought it was hilarious that Lenny's dog kept sniffing around where the parents were buried and eventually started digging! And Marnie was a riot with her tough exterior and how she managed to lie to everyone about her family's situation. Initially, I wasn't sure that I should be laughing when there was so much sadness in the story; however, I found that I couldn't help it. The book had a wonderful darkness and, at the same time, wittiness to it.

THE DEATH OF BEES would make a great book club pick. The book actually delves into some pretty serious issues that warrant some further discussion. There is a reading guide available that will stimulate your discussion. Some of the themes you might want to explore include family dynamics, responsibility, secrets, sacrifice, honestly, love and protection.

If you are looking for a very original and highly entertaining, then I suggest picking up a copy of THE DEATH OF BEES. 

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

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Review: The Magic Room

Summary: The New York Times bestselling author of The Girls from Ames shares an intimate look at a small-town bridal shop, its multigenerational female owners, and the love between parents and daughters as they prepare for their wedding day.

Thousands of women have stepped inside Becker’s Bridal, in Fowler, Michigan, to try on their dream dresses in the Magic Room, a special space with soft lighting, a circular pedestal, and mirrors that carry a bride’s image into infinity. The women bring with them their most precious expectations about romance, love, fidelity, permanence, and tradition. Each bride who passes through has a story to tell—one that carried her there, to that dress, that room, that moment.

Illuminating the poignant aspects of a woman’s journey to the altar, The Magic Room tells the stories of memorable women on the brink of commitment. Run by the same family for four generations, Becker’s has witnessed transformations in how America views the institution of marriage: some of the shop’s clientele are becoming stepmothers, some are older brides, some are pregnant. Shop owner Shelley has a special affection for all the brides, hoping their journeys will be easier than hers. Jeffrey Zaslow weaves their true stories using a reporter’s research and a father’s heart.

The lessons Zaslow shares from within the Magic Room are at times joyful, at times heartbreaking, and always with insight on marriage, family, and the lessons that parents—especially mothers—pass on to their daughters about love. Weaving together secrets, memories, and family tales, The Magic Room explores the emotional lives of women in the twenty-first century. -- Gotham

This month, our book club decided to read THE MAGIC ROOM: A STORY ABOUT THE LOVE WE WISH FOR OUR DAUGHTERS by Jeffrey Zaslow. I have to say that I wasn't jumping up and down about this selection because the book didn't really appeal to me. While I am the mother of a teenage daughter, and of course I want her to find true love and happiness, I wasn't really interested in reading stories about women shopping for bridal gowns. I won't go so far as to say that I was dreading reading the book, but I did wait until almost the last minute to read it.

I suspect THE MAGIC ROOM was written as a tribute of sorts to the love parents have for their daughters, and I liked it more than I expected to. I found some of the women in the book to be quite interesting and I admit that I was touched at times by their stories; however, for some reason, the book didn't resonate with me like it could have. Maybe it's because I haven't even thought about Booking Daughter dating nevertheless getting married, but I never really got caught up in any of the stories.

Basically, THE MAGIC ROOM follows the lives of some unique brides who all end up buying their bridal gowns at the family-owned Becker's Bridal in rural Michigan. These brides have some very interesting backgrounds and family dynamics, but the one thing they have in common is the excitement they experience when they enter Becker Bridal's Magic Room. The Magic Room is a special place in Becker's Bridal with soft lighting, a circular pedestal, and lots of mirrors where brides go to make sure they have their dream dress!

THE MAGIC ROOM gives glimpses into these women's lives, sharing their dreams, secrets, successes, and losses, as well as their relationships with their families. In addition, Ms. Zaslow offers the history of the Becker family and their personal insights into how wedding dress shopping and family dynamics have changed over the years. I thought the concept of the book was great, and I liked how the author switched up stories about the brides with stories about the Becker women. What fell short for me, though, was how the book was written. It just seemed a little "distant" for me given that the topics were so emotional.

I wasn't alone in my opinion of THE MAGIC ROOM. I don't think any one in my group felt passionately either way about the book. No one loved it and no one hated it. A few of us felt like the book was repetitive and had a "reporter" feel to it despite dealing with some very heartfelt stories. But what I found really interesting is that we apparently liked the book for different reasons. Some of the group really liked the information about how weddings and dress shopping have changed over the years while others enjoyed the personal stories more.

I do think THE MAGIC ROOM was a good pick for our book club. All but one of us are mothers of daughters and, of course, we all have been married. There is a reading guide available with twelve interesting questions; however, I'm pretty sure we didn't really use many of them for our discussion. What made our meeting extra-special was the care the hostess put into the evening -- she had a wedding theme. She served a sparkling wine and various wedding cookies; and she had those little mints and Jordan almonds on the table. In addition, we brought our wedding albums to share; and she even had a "favor" of a tulle-wrapped candy and a precious little silver angel ornament. Too cute!

I admit that the one thing that affected me the most about THE MAGIC ROOM was actually the author's Acknowledgments section. He wrote these words and brought me to tears:

Someday, perhaps, I'll have a chance to be a father of the bride. I know that when the search for a bridal gown begins, I'll think back to the wise advise I received from Shelley, her staffers, and all the Becker's brides and their parents. They taught me that a bride should make the final decision about which dress is "the one." What a parent thinks is secondary. My job as a father will be simple. My job will be to tell my daughters that I love them.

Tragically, Mr. Zaslow died in a car accident last year and won't have the opportunity to share this special time with his daughters. It just breaks my heart.

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

Monday, January 14, 2013

Review: Notorious Nineteen (Audio)

Summary: After a slow summer of chasing low-level skips for her cousin Vinnie’s bail bonds agency, Stephanie Plum finally lands an assignment that could put her checkbook back in the black. Geoffrey Cubbin, facing trial for embezzling millions from Trenton’s premier assisted-living facility, has mysteriously vanished from the hospital after an emergency appendectomy. Now it’s on Stephanie to track down the con man. Unfortunately, Cubbin has disappeared without a trace, a witness, or his money-hungry wife. Rumors are stirring that he must have had help with the daring escape . . . or that maybe he never made it out of his room alive. Since the hospital staff’s lips seem to be tighter than the security, and it’s hard for Stephanie to blend in to assisted living, Stephanie’s Grandma Mazur goes in undercover. But when a second felon goes missing from the same hospital, Stephanie is forced into working side by side with Trenton’s hottest cop, Joe Morelli, in order to crack the case.

The real problem is, no Cubbin also means no way to pay the rent. Desperate for money—or maybe just desperate—Stephanie accepts a secondary job guarding her secretive and mouthwatering mentor Ranger from a deadly Special Forces adversary. While Stephanie is notorious for finding trouble, she may have found a little more than she bargained for this time around. Then again—a little food poisoning, some threatening notes, and a bridesmaid’s dress with an excess of taffeta never killed anyone . . . or did they? If Stephanie Plum wants to bring in a paycheck, she’ll have to remember: No guts, no glory. . . . -- Random House Audio

It used to be that I couldn't wait to read the next installment in Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum series. I depended on these fun mysteries to entertain me while I spent a few hours at the pool, and I looked forward to seeing what messes Stephanie got herself into (and out of!) However, I stopped around book sixteen or so (I'm not entirely sure) because they became kind of "'old" for me. I found that I wasn't laughing as much at Stephanie's antics, and all of the stories seemed the same.

When I heard that Ms. Evanovich was up to book #19, I could hardly believe it -- and I admit I was almost ready to try again. But what pushed me over the edge was the opportunity to review the audio version of NOTORIOUS NINETEEN. My neighbor told me that she always listens to these books and absolutely loves them, so I figured maybe this was the answer for me.

It might be because I haven't read one of these books for awhile or that the narrator was a hoot, but I really enjoyed NOTORIOUS NINETEEN. Keep in mind that I am training for a half marathon and listen to audio books while I run, so a cute action-packed story was just what I needed to get through some cold five mile runs during the holiday season. I can't really say that anything was especially different about this novel than the other ones I've read, but I enjoyed revisiting some of the zany characters and Stephanie's crime-solving abilities.

In NOTORIOUS NINETEEN, Stephanie finds herself searching for Geoffrey Cubbin, a man accused of embezzling millions from a retirement community. When he mysteriously disappears from a hospital and misses his court appearance, no one is even sure if he is alive, including his wife. In the meantime, Stephanie is working for Ranger once again. This time moonlighting as a bodyguard to help him find an adversary from his days in the Special Forces. Naturally, Stephanie gets some help along the way from her family and friends including Lulu, Grandma Mazur, and Joe Morelli, as she attempts to solve the crimes and keep herself out of trouble.

Honestly, I don't have a lot to say about NOTORIOUS NINETEEN besides it was a fun story that made me chuckle quite a bit. It was very similar to the other Stephanie Plum books, so I think fans of Janet Evanovich's books will enjoy it. There is some romance, some tension, some mystery, and lots of silly scenes; and overall, I thought it was pretty good. The mysteries were somewhat predictable, but honestly, I don't read these books because the mysteries are so intriguing. Rather, I turn to these books because I like to laugh at Stephanie, Lulu and Grandma Mazur.

One reason that I enjoyed NOTORIOUS NINETEEN as much as I did was because I listened to the audio version read by Lorelei King. She was extremely entertaining, especially when she did the various voices. Her Lulu and Grandma Mazur are hilarious -- of course, she gets some pretty good material from Ms. Evanovich! Take a quick listen to get an idea of how much fun she is:

I am very glad that I decided to try NOTORIOUS NINETEEN after a few years off from Ms. Evanovich's books. What I'm even more glad about is that I chose to listen to the audio book rather than just reading the hard copy!

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

Mystery Mondays is a regular feature where I review all types of mystery books -- traditional mysteries, suspense/thrillers, and even cozies! Please feel free to share your thoughts on any recent mystery books that you've read.