Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Review: The Garden of Evening Mists

Summary: It's Malaya, 1949. After studying law at Cambridge and time spent helping to prosecute Japanese war criminals, Yun Ling Teoh, herself the scarred lone survivor of a brutal Japanese wartime camp, seeks solace among the jungle fringed plantations of Northern Malaya where she grew up as a child. There she discovers Yugiri, the only Japanese garden in Malaya, and its owner and creator, the enigmatic Aritomo, exiled former gardener of the Emperor of Japan. Despite her hatred of the Japanese, Yun Ling seeks to engage Aritomo to create a garden in Kuala Lumpur, in memory of her sister who died in the camp. Aritomo refuses, but agrees to accept Yun Ling as his apprentice 'until the monsoon comes'. Then she can design a garden for herself.

As the months pass, Yun Ling finds herself intimately drawn to her sensei and his art while, outside the garden, the threat of murder and kidnapping from the guerrillas of the jungle hinterland increases with each passing day. But the Garden of Evening Mists is also a place of mystery.

Who is Aritomo and how did he come to leave Japan? Why is it that Yun Ling's friend and host Magnus Praetorius, seems to almost immune from the depredations of the Communists? What is the legend of 'Yamashita's Gold' and does it have any basis in fact? And is the real story of how Yun Ling managed to survive the war perhaps the darkest secret of all? -- Weinstein Books

When my good friend selected THE GARDEN OF EVENING MISTS by Tan Twan Eng for our May book club selection, I was pretty excited. I hadn't read the novel (which is not always the case), and truthfully, I wasn't at all familiar with the story. After I read the book's description, it sounded like a book I'd really enjoy. Plus, it didn't hurt that the book was nominated for the 2012 Man Booker Prize.

THE GARDEN OF EVENING MISTS was a beautifully written book about a woman named Yun Ling Teoh, a survivor of a Japanese wartime camp. After a career prosecuting Japanese war criminals and serving as a judge, Yun Ling unexpectedly retires because she has been diagnosed with a disease that will take away her memory. She decides to return to a plantation in Northern Malaya where she spent time earlier in her life. She also begins writing down the events that have taken place in her life before she forgets all of them.

As Yun Ling thinks back on her life (a period that she hasn't wanted to remember for most of her adult life) and begins writing her personal story, the novel also reflects Yun Ling's past. The reader learns that Yun Ling came to this plantation many years ago with the desire to create a Japanese style garden in memory of her sister who died in a Japanese war camp. Because Yun Ling has suffered so much abuse at the hands of the Japanese, it's natural that she hates them; however, she meets Aritomo, a gardener who once worked for the Emperor of Japan, and asks him to create her sister's garden. He refuses but tells Yun Ling that he will teach her to design the garden herself while working as an apprentice to Aritomo.

The story follow Yun Ling as she learns about Japanese gardens but it also follows her unique relationship with Aritomo and her process of trying to heal. What is interesting is how many questions are raised as Yun Ling reveals her story like how Yun Ling managed to be the only survivor from her camp and what happened to Aritomo? The novel provides many, but not all, of the answers, and some readers will appreciate the open-endedness of the story, while others will want more closure to Yun Ling and Aritomo's story.

I am extremely curious to see what my friends think about THE GARDEN OF EVENING MISTS. I have a feeling that most (if not all) of us will say that we enjoyed the book, and I am confident that we will agree that the writing is outstanding. In fact, I truly can't rave enough about just how beautiful the prose is. The author's descriptions of the garden and the Malaya countryside are so vivid that I had no problems visualizing them; however, it was the way he presented Yun Ling and Aritomo's stories that made the book so outstanding. I loved how he incorporated such a sense of mystery into the characters and their actions.

THE GARDEN OF EVENING MISTS is a quiet story but it does pack a powerful punch. The author did a wonderful job of developing Yun Ling's character. I admit that initially her character didn't resonate with me; however, as her story was revealed, my heart broke for the pain she experienced as a child... and as an adult. It's so difficult for me to imagine that people live in a world of so much violence and fear, and I was reminded how lucky I am just to be born in the U.S.

I am having a difficult time articulating my next thought, but I'll give it a shot. I absolutely adored how the author tied the imagery of the garden (and then Yun Ling's tattoo) to the story. There is no way I can even begin to describe how well these "symbols" represented the world around the characters -- both the deceptions and the hidden truths. It's truly amazing how well Eng balanced the story and its symbolism!

I think THE GARDEN OF EVENING MISTS was an excellent choice for our book club to discuss. I wasn't able to find a formal set of questions, but we never really stick to a guide anyway. Some of the themes I hope to discuss include the effects of war, prejudice, grief, loss, truths, healing, love, forgiveness, art, and memory. I also think there are quite a few symbols, namely the garden itself, that will be interesting to dissect.

THE GARDEN OF EVENING MISTS is a gorgeous novel and one that fans of literary fiction won't want to miss.

I borrowed THE GARDEN OF EVENING MISTS from my local library.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Review: Reconstructing Amelia (Audio)

Summary: When Kate, single mother and law firm partner, gets an urgent phone call summoning her to her daughter's exclusive private school, she's shocked. Amelia has been suspended for cheating, something that would be completely out of character for her over-achieving, well-behaved daughter. 

Kate rushes to Grace Hall, but what she finds when she finally arrives is beyond comprehension. 

Her daughter Amelia is dead. 

Despondent over having been caught cheating, Amelia has jumped from the school's roof in an act of impulsive suicide. At least that's the story Grace Hall and the police tell Kate. In a state of shock and overcome by grief, Kate tries to come to grips with this life-shattering news. Then she gets an anonymous text: 

Amelia didn't jump. 

The moment she sees that message, Kate knows in her heart it's true. Clearly Amelia had secrets, and a life Kate knew nothing about. Wracked by guilt, Kate is determined to find out what those secrets were and who could have hated her daughter enough to kill. She searches through Amelia's e-mails, texts, and Facebook updates, piecing together the last troubled days of her daughter's life. 

Reconstructing Amelia is a stunning debut page-turner that brilliantly explores the secret world of teenagers, their clandestine first loves, hidden friendships, and the dangerous cruelty that can spill over into acts of terrible betrayal.-- Harper Audio

I stayed up a little late last night listening to the end of RECONSTRUCTING AMELIA by Kimberly McCreight so I could feature it on today's Mystery Mondays post. I had another book read and ready to go, but I was so excited about RECONSTRUCTING AMELIA that I didn't want to wait another week before sharing. This audiobook was fantastic -- both because of the story and the performance!

For those of you who have been living under a rock (just kidding!), RECONSTRUCTING AMELIA explores the death of a teenage girl named Amelia. Amelia is a good kid and an even better student, so her mom Kate is shocked when she gets a call from the school to pick up her daughter. By the time Kate reaches the school, she learns that Amelia is dead from an apparent suicide. Supposedly, Kate was so upset because she was caught cheating that she jumped to her death.

Kate finds it hard to believe that Amelia would kill herself, but school officials and the police assure her that's exactly what happened. Kate is left to grieve the loss of her only daughter and try to move forward with her life, but none of this makes any sense to her. Then, Kate receives an anonymous text telling her that Amelia didn't jump; and she begins her own search through her daughter's emails, texts, and Facebook posts to try to determine what was going on in her daughter's life.

Wow! I thought RECONSTRUCTING AMELIA was a darn good mystery. It was extremely entertaining with lots of terrific twists, and as a mother, I even found it a little disturbing. (Teenage girls can be so cruel!) I won't go so far as to say that I had no idea what happened, but I will say that the author presented enough twists and turns at the end that I did change my mind more than a few times about what I thought took place. Overall, I thought it was a well constructed mystery and I enjoyed how the author told the story.

RECONSTRUCTING AMELIA was presented in a variety of ways -- snippets of Amelia's texts and Facebook posts as well as chapters narrated by Kate and Amelia. In addition, the book had flashbacks which revealed more about Kate and Amelia's pasts. It was through these flashback sections that the reader ultimately learns about what happened to Amelia; however, I especially enjoyed them because they gave me more insight into the characters. While RECONSTRUCTING AMELIA was definitely an intriguing mystery, this novel also explored some pretty serious relationship issues. And it was probably this glimpse into teenage relationships that made the book extra special to me.

RECONSTRUCTING AMELIA did deal with some very tough issues that teens face in today's society. I admit to being uncomfortable at times while listening to this novel because I think it's so much harder to grow up today than it was when I was a kid. While there are universal issues like mean girls and friendship problems, the effects of social media on communication has certainly added a whole new dimension to communication and the potential to bully. My heart just broke for Amelia (and a few of her friends!)

I hesitate to say much more about this novel because I fear that I will give away too much about the mystery surrounding Amelia's death. Many of the issues that I want to feature in this review would be considered spoilers. Suffice it to say that I found this novel (and the issues it addressed) to be refreshing and one that I won't soon forget. RECONSTRUCTING AMELIA is a must-read!

The audiobook of RECONSTRUCTING AMELIA was performed by Khristine Hvam , and I thought she did a wonderful job. Ms. Hvam did male voices, teenage boy voices in addition to a variety of female voices; and she even did managed an accent or two (if you count New York and Brooklyn ones!) I was especially impressed with her teenage girl voices -- they were just spot on. As I listened to this book, I remembered Ms. Hvam's voice from an earlier audiobook that I loved -- WHY WE BROKE UP which also featured a teen's voice.

I know a lot of book clubs are reading GONE GIRL (the book that RECONSTRUCTING AMELIA is being compared to), but I've always kind of scratched my head. I just didn't really see it as an ideal selection. However, I do think RECONSTRUCTING AMELIA would be an interesting selection especially for groups like mine consisting primarily of mothers with teen and pre-teen daughters. There is a reading guide with thirteen questions that is sure to generate some discussion. Some of the themes you might want to explore include communication, social media, technology, friendships, mother/daughter relationships, sexuality, secrets, bullying, secret societies, guilt, single parenting, grief, and forgiveness.

I thought RECONSTRUCTING AMELIA was a great read especially on audio, and I highly recommend it to fans of mysteries as well as ones who enjoy novels about relationship issues.

Thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy of this audio 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, April 27, 2013

Kid Konnection: Play Ball! (Audio)

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 another fun baseball book that Booking Son enjoyed!

Summary: Eleven-year-old cousins catcher Liam McCarthy and pitcher Carter Jones grew up playing baseball together. Now, their team is on the verge of winning the greatest championship of all: the Little League Baseball World Series. To reach the title match, however, they must first beat their number one rivals from Southern California. Little do they know that the game will prove to be just the first challenge they'll face on their road to the championships. -- Hachette Audio

Booking Son isn't exactly a big reader, but he will read books about sports and sports figures. And if that sport can be baseball, then all the better. So it was with much excitement that we started listening to PLAY BALL! by Matt Christopher. Audiobooks work really well for Booking Son in the car, and Lord knows we are in the car all of the time.

PLAY BALL! follows eleven year old cousins Liam and Carter as they make their first appearance in the Little League World Series. The boys' team reaches the US final where they have to play the team from Southern California. When Carter recognizes a player on the CA team that mercilessly teased him at a summer baseball camp, he begins to doubt his abilities. Can the boys beat this very talented team and reach the finals?

But that's only the beginning of the story. After the Little League World Series, Liam and Carter have to face another set of challenges that will not only test their baseball team but also test their friendship!

Booking Son and I both enjoyed PLAY BALL!, although I think he liked it a bit more than I did. That's not surprising since the book is aimed at middle grade readers. Booking Son couldn't wait to get back in the car to continue the story. According to him, it was the best audiobook that he's ever read!

I asked him specifically what he liked about this book and here's what he said:
  • All of the baseball game scenes -- it was like listening to a ball game on the radio
  • Learning about the rules of Little League like the pitch count ones
  • Everything!
As a mom, I liked that the story was both fun and educational. I learned a thing or two about the history of the Little League World Series as well as Little League rules. In addition, I liked that the book handled some difficult topics like bullying, pressure with playing sports, following rules, and friendship problems. I also appreciated the quality of the messages in the story. The main characters were good kids and so supportive of each other.

PLAY BALL! was read by Nick Sullivan. I thought he did a great job given that he had to do kid and adult voices and even mom voices. However, what I enjoyed the most about his performance was when he "announced" the baseball games. He had a great broadcasting tone to his voice and he managed to make each at bat appearance quite dramatic.

Overall, Booking Son absolutely loved PLAY BALL! and can't wait to read (or listen to) the other ones in the series.

Thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy of PLAY BALL!

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, April 26, 2013

Review: The Burgess Boys

Summary: Elizabeth Strout “animates the ordinary with an astonishing force,” wrote The New Yorker on the publication of her Pulitzer Prize–winning Olive Kitteridge. The San Francisco Chronicle praised Strout’s “magnificent gift for humanizing characters.” Now the acclaimed author returns with a stunning novel as powerful and moving as any work in contemporary literature.

Haunted by the freak accident that killed their father when they were children, Jim and Bob Burgess escaped from their Maine hometown of Shirley Falls for New York City as soon as they possibly could. Jim, a sleek, successful corporate lawyer, has belittled his bighearted brother their whole lives, and Bob, a Legal Aid attorney who idolizes Jim, has always taken it in stride. But their long-standing dynamic is upended when their sister, Susan—the Burgess sibling who stayed behind—urgently calls them home. Her lonely teenage son, Zach, has gotten himself into a world of trouble, and Susan desperately needs their help. And so the Burgess brothers return to the landscape of their childhood, where the long-buried tensions that have shaped and shadowed their relationship begin to surface in unexpected ways that will change them forever.

With a rare combination of brilliant storytelling, exquisite prose, and remarkable insight into character, Elizabeth Strout has brought to life two deeply human protagonists whose struggles and triumphs will resonate with readers long after they turn the final page. Tender, tough-minded, loving, and deeply illuminating about the ties that bind us to family and home, The Burgess Boys is Elizabeth Strout’s newest and perhaps most astonishing work of literary art. -- Random House

I consider OLIVE KITTERIDGE by Elizabeth Strout to be one of my favorite books... ever! I was truly blown away by Ms. Strout's writing. So it's sure seemed like a long wait to me for her next novel THE BURGESS BOYS. I couldn't wait to get my hands on this book and I have to say I wasn't disappointed. THE BURGESS BOYS was a great read... although it didn't quite live up to OLIVE KITTERIDGE. But honestly, I don't think that's even a fair expectation!

THE BURGESS BOYS tells the story of Bob and Jim Burgess, two men who are still reeling from the death of their father when they were young children. Both men couldn't wait to leave the small Maine town of Shirley Falls, and the eventually ended up in New York City working as lawyers, albeit in very different capacities. Bob is a Legal Aid attorney who has always taken a back seat to his successful brother Jim, while Jim is a successful corporate lawyer with goals of going into politics.

When their sister Susan's teenage son Zach is arrested for a crime against a Muslim church, both men return to Shirley Falls to help in whatever way they can. Their attempts to put their past behind them fails as they are forced to reexamine the events in their lives and their relationship with each other.

I thoroughly enjoyed THE BURGESS BROTHERS and found the story to be very entertaining. While I admit to having a hard time initially relating to the siblings (and even Zach for that matter), I thought that the characters were all very interesting; and by the end of the novel, I understood how their childhoods played a role in their adult selves. I'm still not certain that I ever came to truly "like" any of the characters (except maybe Bob); however, Ms. Strout has proved to me that I don't need to love a character to appreciate them. Case in point -- Olive!

THE BURGESS BROTHERS was a novel that definitely made me think... and I always consider that a good thing. What was interesting to me is that there were two distinct things about this story that affected me... and Ms. Strout managed to merge them in what seemed an effortless fashion. First of all was the human aspects of the story. By this I mean primarily the dynamic of the relationship between Jim and Bob and Susan as well as the idea of returning home. While some of the scenes made me cringe (namely how Jim treated Bob), I found their interactions to be interesting (and even entertaining) at times. I also found it fascinating how returning home to Shirley Falls affected each man.

The second aspect of the novel that intrigued me was how it explored some of the social conditions in today's society. Because Zach arguably committed a hate crime against Muslims, the ideas of prejudice, tolerance, and fear were certainly explored. In addition, the author did a great job of demonstrating how a small town and its residents behave especially in light of being threatened. I very much appreciated how a fictitious Shirley Falls served as a microcosm for our society as a whole, and there is no doubt that much of the behavior of the characters in this story deserves some reflection on the part of the reader.

I do think THE BURGESS BROTHERS would make an excellent book club selection. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to find a formal discussion guide, but I don't think that should stop you from considering this novel for a future discussion. I've already touched upon a few themes that warrant some thought, but you also might want to discuss sibling rivalry, the meaning of home, family dynamics, honesty, prejudice, jealousy, alienation, pride, insecurities, guilt, forgiveness, and redemption.

I highly recommend THE BURGESS BROTHERS to fans of literary fiction and especially family dramas.

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

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Review: The Interestings

Summary: The summer that Nixon resigns, six teenagers at a summer camp for the arts become inseparable. Decades later the bond remains powerful, but so much else has changed. In The Interestings, Wolitzer follows these characters from the height of youth through middle age, as their talents, fortunes, and degrees of satisfaction diverge.

The kind of creativity that is rewarded at age fifteen is not always enough to propel someone through life at age thirty; not everyone can sustain, in adulthood, what seemed so special in adolescence. Jules Jacobson, an aspiring comic actress, eventually resigns herself to a more practical occupation and lifestyle. Her friend Jonah, a gifted musician, stops playing the guitar and becomes an engineer. But Ethan and Ash, Jules’s now-married best friends, become shockingly successful—true to their initial artistic dreams, with the wealth and access that allow those dreams to keep expanding. The friendships endure and even prosper, but also underscore the differences in their fates, in what their talents have become and the shapes their lives have taken.

Wide in scope, ambitious, and populated by complex characters who come together and apart in a changing New York City, The Interestings explores the meaning of talent; the nature of envy; the roles of class, art, money, and power; and how all of it can shift and tilt precipitously over the course of a friendship and a life. -- Riverside

I had HUGE expectations when I picked up THE INTERESTINGS by Meg Wolitzer. I had read a few of Ms. Wolitzer's novels so I knew she was an extremely talented author, but I had also seen some fantastic reviews for her latest novel. You  might think with such high expectations that I was just setting myself up for disappointment (and truthfully, I was afraid of that); however, this novel was outstanding! I don't usually give books a rating, but if I did, THE INTERESTINGS would be an A+!

At its simplest, THE INTERESTINGS is a story about a group of friends. It begins at a summer camp for the arts in the early 1970s. Julie Jacobson, an awkward 15 year old who aspires to be an actress, attends the camp on a scholarship after the loss of her father. One evening, she is invited by five privileged teens to join them in a cabin, and the six form a unique bond of friendship. They even decide to call themselves "The Interestings." This story follows these individuals and their friendships over the next 30 years (or so) as they experience the ups and downs of their careers and their personal lives.

But truly THE INTERESTINGS is so much more than just those few sentences, and you have to read it to fully appreciate the scope of this novel. It's a wonderful story about some truly unique individuals; however, it explores all types of relationships and love. Furthermore, it also touches upon the themes of talent, envy and jealousy (these are defined differently in the book), class structure, wealth, power, and art. I can't express how entertained I was by this novel, but it made me think. As far as I'm concerned, it's one of the best books I've read in recent memory!

If I were to mention everything that "worked" for me in this novel, my review would be incredibly long -- even longer than my normal "long" reviews. Suffice it to say that almost everything about this novel impressed me from the story, to the writing, to the character development, to the universal themes that it explored. I am truly in awe of Ms. Wolitzer's talent. The way she managed to bring everything together in this story is nothing less than genius!

One thing I appreciated about THE INTERESTINGS were the characters themselves. They were incredibly complex and so very real to me. Julie, who now goes by Jules, is the main character; and I just loved how her character evolved throughout the novel. Jules was an insecure teen who aspired to be an actress. She tried her luck in New York only to discover that she couldn't make it, so she changes paths and becomes a therapist. The story follows her as she meets her future husband and becomes a mother, and it continues to show how big of a role her friendship with some of "The Interestings" played in her life.

I was also intrigued by the other members of "The Interestings." Naturally, all six of them don't remain close, and I was interested in how their lives played out; however, it was the ones that stayed friends whose stories really appealed to me. Two of the members, Ash and Ethan, marry and find a great deal of success in following their dreams of being "artists," while Jonah decides to go an entirely different route with his life. I especially enjoyed seeing these characters come together (and grow apart) through the years, and I found that their relationships were extremely real and honest.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Ms. Wolitzer's writing. It's just crazy good! THE INTERESTINGS is one of those books that stopped me in my tracks... quite a few times. I've already gone on and on about the character development and the story, but her prose is beautiful too. I found myself re-reading certain passages over and over again because they were just rang true with me. I was blown away by how well Ms. Wolitzer captured the essence of some very complex themes and managed to express these ideas in just a sentence or two.

I think what I loved the most about THE INTERESTINGS is how it accomplished so much. It explored so many thought-provoking themes about individuals and society while also examining the role of friendships in our lives. As a result, the novel would make an excellent book club pick because there is just so much to discuss. (My group read Wolitzer's THE TEN YEAR NAP a few years back and it was one of our best discussions!) There is a reading guide with eight fantastic questions which will help get your discussion started; however, I think it's really just a jumping off point.

Truth be told, I am so excited about THE INTERESTINGS that I'd have a hard time focusing for a book club discussion. Some of the themes I'd want to discuss include the definition of art and success as well as the role of choices versus luck. In addition, there is so much to explore surrounding various types of relationships including friendships, marriage, love, parenting, and more. And then there's the concepts of jealousy, envy, loyalty, honesty (and dishonesty), morality, class structure, wealth, responsibility, and staying true to one's self. Some groups might even decide to discuss mental illness, depression, AIDS, gay rights, autism, and child labor. Whew! That's a lot of topics -- see why I'm so impressed with the scope of this novel?
I hope I've expressed just how special of a novel THE INTERESTINGS is. I thought it was an amazing piece of literature and I highly recommend it!

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

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Review: Fever

Summary: Mary Beth Keane, named one of the 5 Under 35 by the National Book Foundation, has written a spectacularly bold and intriguing novel about the woman known as “Typhoid Mary,” the first person in America identified as a healthy carrier of Typhoid Fever. 

On the eve of the twentieth century, Mary Mallon emigrated from Ireland at age fifteen to make her way in New York City. Brave, headstrong, and dreaming of being a cook, she fought to climb up from the lowest rung of the domestic-service ladder. Canny and enterprising, she worked her way to the kitchen, and discovered in herself the true talent of a chef. Sought after by New York aristocracy, and with an independence rare for a woman of the time, she seemed to have achieved the life she’d aimed for when she arrived in Castle Garden. Then one determined “medical engineer” noticed that she left a trail of disease wherever she cooked, and identified her as an “asymptomatic carrier” of Typhoid Fever. With this seemingly preposterous theory, he made Mallon a hunted woman. 

The Department of Health sent Mallon to North Brother Island, where she was kept in isolation from 1907 to 1910, then released under the condition that she never work as a cook again. Yet for Mary—proud of her former status and passionate about cooking—the alternatives were abhorrent. She defied the edict. 

Bringing early-twentieth-century New York alive—the neighborhoods, the bars, the park carved out of upper Manhattan, the boat traffic, the mansions and sweatshops and emerging skyscrapers—Fever is an ambitious retelling of a forgotten life. In the imagination of Mary Beth Keane, Mary Mallon becomes a fiercely compelling, dramatic, vexing, sympathetic, uncompromising, and unforgettable heroine. -- Scribner

Most of us probably have heard the term "Typhoid Mary" used to describe someone who was spreading cooties, but how many of us know the story behind the woman who was branded this name? Truth be told, I had absolutely no idea that the term was even based on an actual person; and it wasn't until I read the description for FEVER by Mary Beth Keane that I realized there is a story behind the nickname. As a reader who loves historical fiction, I was immediately intrigued.

FEVER tells the story of Mary Mallon, an Irish immigrant who lived in New York City in the early 1900s. She aspired to be a cook and had worked her way up and gained respect in the kitchen. Her life was pretty much a success by her own terms until a "medical engineer" named George Soper identified Mary as an asymptomatic carrier of typhoid fever. She was sent to North Brother Island and isolated from 1907 to 1910. Mary fought tooth and nail against Soper's claim and she was eventually released under the condition that she never work as a cook again.

Mary tried to work as a laundress but she absolutely hated it. And eventually she worked her way back into the kitchen -- first in a bakery and later in a maternity hospital. Soper eventually tracked her down again and she was returned to North Brother Island for over twenty years.

I found FEVER to be absolutely riveting. Ms. Keane is an amazing writer and I loved how she brought Mary Mallon to life. I was extremely impressed with how well she mixed fact with fiction and it was apparent that she did a tremendous amount of research not only on Mary but also New York City in the early twentieth century. Her descriptions of the setting captured the essence of the time and place, but it was also how well she demonstrated the social conditions of the time that really impressed me.

FEVER is a fantastic example of what I love about historical fiction. It's an inherently intriguing story that the author embellished just enough to make it extremely special. However, I think what I appreciated the most about this novel is how it made me think and how I reacted to the story. On one hand, I found it extremely interesting that Mary Mallon was a victim in many ways. No one asks to be a carrier of a deadly disease, nor would anyone want to be removed from society to live in isolation. It seemed for quite awhile that Mary couldn't even grasp the concept that she was carrying a disease without showing symptoms. However, because of her actions, for much of the novel, I didn't like her and wasn't able to feel much sympathy towards her.

And that's because, Mary was also a really difficult woman. She was stubborn and prideful, and she absolutely refused to accept that there was any truth to Soper's claims. She blamed everyone else -- even accusing them of mistreatment because she was an immigrant and a woman. Furthermore, when she was eventually allowed to return to society, she didn't obey the rules set out for her by the Department of Health. She went right back into the kitchen even cooking for mothers and babies at a maternity hospital! While I might be able to accept that she didn't fully understand her actions in the early days, it became apparent that Mary did eventually understand, and yet she still continued to cook and put many innocent people at risk. It was fascinating to see how Mary lied to herself and others for years, and how mentally unstable she became as a result.

It wasn't until Mary realized while working at the maternity hospital that she was responsible for carrying the typhoid germ, and then it seemed that she was almost relieved to come to terms with it after all these years. It's even seemed like she felt remorse at this point. As a reader, I still wasn't sure I could forgive her and I knew I still didn't like her, but I loved how the author made the character so human and real. In fact, all of Mary's behavior (including her relationship with an addict) just fascinated me.

So it's no surprise that FEVER would make an excellent book club pick. There is a reading guide available with twelve questions along with some ideas to enhance your book club. Some of themes you might want to discuss include personal liberties versus public health concerns, addiction, class structure, prejudice, the role of media, dishonesty, and pride. Plus, Mary's actions are just so darn interesting in their own right.

Overall, I thought FEVER was a fascinating portrayal of Mary Mallon's life as well as early twentieth century life in New York City. Highly recommend for fans of historical fiction.

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

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Review: Someday, Someday, Maybe & Giveaway

Summary: From Lauren Graham, the beloved star of Gilmore Girls and Parenthood, comes a witty, charming, and hilariously relatable debut novel about a struggling young actress trying to get ahead―and keep it together―in New York City.

It’s January 1995, and Franny Banks has just six months left of the three-year deadline she set for herself when she came to New York, dreaming of Broadway and doing “important” work. But all she has to show for her efforts so far is a part in an ad for ugly Christmas sweaters, and a gig waiting tables at a comedy club. Her roommates―her best friend Jane, and Dan, an aspiring sci-fi writer―are supportive, yet Franny knows a two-person fan club doesn’t exactly count as success. Everyone tells her she needs a backup plan, and though she can almost picture moving back home and settling down with her perfectly nice ex-boyfriend, she’s not ready to give up on her goal of having a career like her idols Diane Keaton and Meryl Streep. Not just yet. But while she dreams of filling their shoes, in the meantime, she’d happily settle for a speaking part in almost anything—and finding a hair product combination that works.

Everything is riding on the upcoming showcase for her acting class, where she’ll finally have a chance to perform for people who could actually hire her. And she can’t let herself be distracted by James Franklin, a notorious flirt and the most successful actor in her class, even though he’s suddenly started paying attention. Meanwhile, her bank account is rapidly dwindling, her father wants her to come home, and her agent doesn’t return her calls. But for some reason, she keeps believing that she just might get what she came for.

Someday, Someday, Maybe is a story about hopes and dreams, being young in a city, and wanting something deeply, madly, desperately. It’s about finding love, finding yourself, and perhaps most difficult of all in New York City, finding an acting job. -- Ballantine

When I learned that the actress Lauren Graham had written a novel, part of me was pretty quick to dismiss it. While I think that Ms. Graham is a terrific actress and has loads of loyal fans, I wasn't sure that those "skills" translate to being an author. However, there was another part of me that had a feeling that it might be worth picking up. And guess what... SOMEDAY, SOMEDAY, MAYBE ended up being a very enjoyable read. I think there's a lesson somewhere in this for me!

SOMEDAY, SOMEDAY, MAYBE takes place in New York back in 1995. Franny Banks has given herself an ultimatum -- she has three years to attain a job as a legitimate actress and time is running out. Franny has only six months left and, up to now, she's had only one commercial gig. In the meantime, Franny has been waiting tables (like every other struggling actor) and taking acting lessons in the hopes that she can get an agent and ultimately some auditions!

Despite living from pay check to pay check (and asking her dad for money), Franny has a great support system in place. Her two roommates, Jane and Dan, are encouraging and assure her that success will come to her soon, but her father thinks it might be time for her to come home. Franny definitely feels like times is running out. She sometimes wonders if she should have a back-up plan which includes her long-time boyfriend; however, she's just not ready to give up her dream quite yet. Franny's acting class's showcase just might be her last chance to break into show business and meet the influential people that can make or break her career.

I have to admit that I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed SOMEDAY, SOMEDAY, MAYBE. I found that I loved the characters, especially Franny and her friends; and I thought their relationships were very realistic. In addition, I thought the dialogue was smart and witty and just rang true for me. And I think those reasons really sum up why I appreciated this book as much as I did. It was a genuine and realistic look at a young woman's struggle to become an actress in the mid 1990s.

I actually am pretty close in age to Franny (or at least I was in the mid 1990s), and while I didn't move to New York after college or decide to try my hand at acting, I could relate to Franny. I realize that sounds strange because of our different paths in life, but somehow Ms. Graham created a character that resonated with me (and probably many other women out there.) Franny was such a sweet character and had her fair share of insecurities, but she also had a strong sense of staying true to herself and not wanting to give up her dream. I loved rooting for her both for success in her career as well as finding some happiness on the relationship front.

I also really liked that the story took place in the mid 1990s. I graduated from college in the early 1990s and, in many ways, this story was a trip down memory lane for me. I had to laugh at the idea of no cell phones (but there were Filofaxes) as well as the constant checking for a blinking light on the answering machine. I also enjoyed all of the references to New York City in 1995 and realizing just how much it's changed in the past 20 years.

Another fun aspect of SOMEDAY, SOMEDAY, MAYBE was that the author included snippets of Franny's Filofax at the beginning of the chapters. These pages had handwritten notes and lots of doodles, and I thought they were hilarious. In addition, many of the chapters began with scripts of Franny's answering machine messages... beeps included! I can't explain why, but I really liked that Ms. Graham included these fun parts to her story.

Overall, I had a lot of fun with SOMEDAY, SOMEDAY, MAYBE; and I know that fans of Lauren Graham's are going to love it. It's just a heartwarming (and very funny!) story about a young woman aspiring to be an actress, and you can't help but get caught up in her story!

Thanks to Big Honcho Media for providing a review copy of this novel.

You can learn more about Lauren Graham and SOMEDAY, SOMEDAY, MAYBE here and follow her on twitter @TheLaurenGraham.

Giveaway alert: I have copies of SOMEDAY, SOMEDAY, MAYBE to giveaway to two lucky readers courtesy of the publisher. To enter, just fill out the form below before Monday, April 29th at 11:59 p.m. ET. I will randomly select and notify the winners the following day. This contest is open to those of you with U.S. addresses only. Good luck!

Monday, April 22, 2013

Review: The Mystery Box

Summary: There's nothing more mysterious than a locked box. Whether it's a literal strongbox, an empty coffin, the inner workings of a scientist's mind, or an underground prison cell, there are those who will use any means necessary to unlock the secrets of...THE MYSTERY BOX.

With this anthology, bestselling author Brad Meltzer introduces twenty-one original stories from today's most prominent mystery writers. In Laura Lippman's "Waco 1982," a young reporter stuck with a seemingly mundane assignment on lost-and-found boxes unwittingly discovers a dark crime. In Joseph Finder's "Heirloom," a scheming neighbor frightens the new couple on the block with an unnerving tale of buried treasure. In R.L. Stine's "High Stakes," a man on his honeymoon gets drawn into a bizarre bet involving a coffin--a bet he may pay for with his life.

From the foothills of Mount Fuji to Georgia's Okefenokee Swamp, from a physics laboratory in wartime Leipzig to an unusual fitness club in Boca Raton, these sometimes terrifying, sometimes funny, and always suspenseful tales will keep you riveted to the page. -- Grand Central Publishing

When I received a copy of THE MYSTERY WRITERS OF AMERICA PRESENTS THE MYSTERY BOX edited by Brad Meltzer, I was absolutely thrilled. I immediately thought that it would be perfect for my Mystery Mondays feature, but I also was looking forward to reading short stories by some of the best mystery writers around. After reading these original stories, I have to say that this collection is a "must-have" for any mystery fan!

THE MYSTERY BOX is an anthology of 21 original short stories written by today's most prominent mystery writers... and I mean major players! Best-selling author Brad Meltzer edited the collection and wrote the introduction. He explains that the theme of this year's anthology is a "mystery box." Each writer could interpret this box how they saw fit. The box could be real or metaphoric, but there had to be a box in each story.

The authors who contributed this collection are all outstanding in their own right. I was happy to see a few of my favorites like Laura Lippman and Karin Slaughter, but this anthology also introduced me to some mystery writers that I had never read before like Charles Todd and Tom Rob Smith. All in all, I think these 21 authors all brought some terrific (albeit sometimes strange) stories to this collection.

What I really enjoyed about THE MYSTERY BOX is how diverse the stories were. There were traditional mysteries, but there were also some very funny stories and some that were a little creepy. The stories had many different settings and time periods, and all of the writing was of the highest quality. I definitely appreciated how these authors were able to fully create and resolve a mystery within just a few pages while also managing to include some sort of box. I suspect that's not an easy thing to do in a just a few pagews!

One story I enjoyed a great deal was Laura Lippman's tale titled "Waco 1982," but that's not surprising since I almost always love everything I've ever read by her. This story followed a young journalist who was tasked with the assignment of writing about hotel's lost and found boxes. Sounds pretty boring right? If there was anything of value left in the boxes, the owner would have claimed it already. However as this reporter begins her quest, she discovers a sinister crime.

One of the strangest stories in the book was written by an author whose work I've enjoyed in the past -- Joseph Finder. This story is about a man who is determined to scare off the couple who have just bought the house next door to him. I definitely had some suspicions of the neighbor and what occurred in the house, but it was even worse than I thought! This story was highly entertaining, but at the same time a little creepy to me!

Just in case you are wondering, here's the list of the 21 authors who are featured in THE MYSTERY BOX:
Jan Burke, Laura Lippman, Libby Fischer Hellman, C.E. Lawrence, Joseph Finder, James O. Born, S.W. Hubbard, Joseph Goodrich, R.T. Lawton, Tom Rob Smith, Mary Anne Kelly, Tony Broadbent, Steve Berry, Angela Gerst, Catherine Mambretti, Stephen Ross, Charles Todd, Jonathan Stone, Katherine Neville, R.L. Stine, and Karin Slaughter.

I enjoyed THE MYSTERY BOX a great deal and recommend it to fans of mysteries and short stories. I can almost guarantee that you will be entertained by this unique collection of stories!

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

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

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Kid Konnection: You Never Heard of...?!

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 two fantastic picture books about some very special baseball players.

Summary: According to Booklist in a starred review, "the Say Hey Kid had style to spare, and so does this irrepressible book."

He hit 660 home runs (fourth best of all time), had a lifetime batting average of .302, and is second only to Babe Ruth on The Sporting News's list of "Baseball's 100 Greatest Players." Many believe him to be the best baseball player that ever lived. His name is Willie Mays. In Jonah Winter and Terry Widener's fascinating picture book biography, young readers can follow Mays's unparalleled career from growing up in Birmingham, Alabama, to playing awe-inspiring ball in the Negro Leagues and then the Majors, where he was center fielder for the New York (later San Francisco) Giants. Complete with sidebars filled with stats, and a cool lenticular cover, here is a book for all baseball lovers, young and old. -- Schwartz & Wade

Booking Son loves baseball! He plays it a few times a week and he keeps track of every team's record. In fact, it's the first thing he looks at when he gets up every morning. So when I opened a package containing YOU NEVER HEARD OF WILLIE MAYS?! by Jonah Winter and Terry Widener, I had a feeling that it was going to be a hit. That is a major understatement. He absolutely adored this book!

And truth be told... so did I! It's probably my favorite picture book that I've read with him so far this year. Even the cover is "cool" (his word.) -- it's a lenticular cover. I had no idea what lenticular was, so if you're like me, it's kind of/sort of a 3D effect. When you move the book, it looks like Willie Mays is swinging the bat! The rest of the illustrations by Terry Widener are also fantastic and fit the tone of the book perfectly.

But it's the story of Willie Mays that really captured my heart. Many would argue that Willie Mays is one of the best (if not the best) baseball player of all time. I absolutely loved how Jonah Winter presented his story. Naturally the book gives specifics about Mr. Mays' baseball career, but it also provides information about Mays' childhood and his early playing years in the Negro Leagues. It also talks about how Mr. Mays' followed in Jackie Robinson's footsteps with being an early African American player in the Major League as well as "the Catch" and how he got the nickname "the Say Hey Kid."

YOU NEVER HEARD OF WILLIE MAYS?! is a perfect book to read out loud with the young baseball enthusiast in your life... and that's mainly because of how it's written. The story is told by an unknown narrator who was obviously a huge fan of Willie Mays', and it's filled with lots of drama and exciting descriptions. There are even a few actual quotations from the baseball announcers giving the play-by-play of his games. Just check out this excerpt where the narrator describes "the Catch:"

"Can he still play? Hah! Game One of the 1954 World Series. Giants and Indians. That's right, with Mays back, the Giants had made it to the Series -- with the whole country watchin' on TV. Score's tied 2-2 in the eighth. Vic Wertz at bat for Cleveland. Two guys on, nobody out. With the count 1 and 2, Wertz SLAMS the ball to deep center field... and -- BAM -- WIllie's running' like a madman... without even lookin'! This was crazy! I mean, this is a shot NO ONE catches -- not even the Say Hey Kid. It was hit too far, too hard, and Willie has his back to it -- lookin' like he might run smack into the WALL! Still, he keeps on barrelin', at one point doin' that thing he does when he knows he'll make the catch, tappin' his glove with his right fist...

One more fun tidbit for baseball fans... this picture book includes sidebars filled with stats, not only about Willie Mays, but other great baseball players too. I'm telling you, Booking Son couldn't get enough of this book. 

Which brings me to the next YOU NEVER HEARD OF book....

Summary: In this striking picture book biography, an old-timer tells us what made Sandy Koufax such an amazing baseball player. We learn that the beginning of his career with the Brooklyn Dodgers was rocky, that he was shy with his teammates, and experienced discrimination as one of the only Jews in the game. We hear that he actually quit, only to return the next season—different—firing one rocket after another over the plate. We watch him refuse to play in the 1965 World Series because it is a Jewish high holy day. And we see him in pain because of an overused left arm, eventually retiring at the peak of his career. Finally, we are told that people are still “scratchin’ their heads over Sandy,” who remains a modest hero and a mystery to this day.

Accompanied by sidebars filled with statistics, this Parents Magazine Best Book of the Year and Booklist Top of the List is sure to delight budding baseball fans. -- Schwartz & Wade

Booking Son loved YOU NEVER HEARD OF WILLIE MAYS so much that I immediately began searching for other books in this series. Fortunately, there is one from a few years back called YOU NEVER HEARD OF SANDY KOUFAX?! by Jonah Winter and Andre Carrilho. Guess what the Easter Bunny brought in Booking Son's Easter basket!

YOU NEVER HEARD OF SANDY KOUFAX?! is just as much fun as YOU NEVER HEARD OF WILLIE MAYS?! It has the same great story about an amazing baseball player, and lots of baseball stats in the sidebars. The cover is also very "cool" because it looks like Koufax is pitching, but the illustrator is different (yet also very good!) And I have to say that Booking Son loved this book too!

One thing I really appreciated about this picture book is the way the author described Koufax. He's a little before my time, but I knew he was a great pitcher. What I didn't know is that he struggled for a few years with control issues (and he even quit) before becoming one of the best lefty pitchers of all time. He also had major pain in his elbow after every game, and one day he surprised everyone by retiring. It was also interesting to learn that Mr. Koufax was discriminated against because he was a Jew, and that he sat out a game in the 1965 World Series in honor of a Jewish High Holy Day.

I certainly hope that Mr. Winter continues to write more books in this series because I truly believe he's created a little bit of magic for young baseball fans... and their moms!

Thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy of YOU NEVER HEARD OF WILLIE MAYS?!

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, April 19, 2013

Review: Amity & Sorrow

Summary: A mother and her daughters drive for days without sleep until they crash their car in rural Oklahoma. The mother, Amaranth, is desperate to get away from someone she's convinced will follow them wherever they go--her husband. The girls, Amity and Sorrow, can't imagine what the world holds outside their father's polygamous compound. Rescue comes in the unlikely form of Bradley, a farmer grieving the loss of his wife. At first unwelcoming to these strange, prayerful women, Bradley's abiding tolerance gets the best of him, and they become a new kind of family. An unforgettable story of belief and redemption, AMITY & SORROW is about the influence of community and learning to stand on your own. -- Little, Brown

I'm just going to put this right out there -- I'm fascinated by polygamy. It might be a little strange (although I daresay I am not alone), and my interest has caused me to read a few memoirs as well as watch the entire HBO Big Love series. So when I discovered that there is a new novel called AMITY & SORROW by Peggy Riley which tells the story of a mother and her two daughters escaping from a polygamist compound, it was only natural that I read it. All I can say is,"Wow!' Just "Wow!"

AMITY & SORROW begins when Amaranth, along with her daughters Amity and Sorrow, crashes her car in rural Oklahoma. Amaranth is escaping from her husband, who just happens to have fifty wives and dozens of children; and she's terrified that he will stop at nothing to find them. A farmer named Bradley, who is reeling from the loss of his wife, rescues them and takes them to his farmhouse. Things are extremely awkward at first between the women and Bradley. (Keep in mind that Amity and Sorrow have never left the compound, nor can they read or write.) However, Bradley and Amaranth find comfort in each other, and eventually they begin to consider themselves a family.

It's difficult for me to express how I felt about AMITY & SORROW. There is no doubt that this was an entertaining book that was very well written, but there were parts of the book that I found to be disturbing and a few scenes hit me like sucker punches to my gut. Overall, I'd say I appreciated the novel because I'm not sure the word enjoy precisely captures my feelings. Having said that, I love that the author was able to evoke these feelings in me and it's a huge testament to her writing that I'm still thinking about these extremely complex characters.

There are many things about AMITY & SORROW that impressed me, and there is no way that I can touch upon all of them in this review. I'm bound to leave a few out! However, one of the most obvious things is the actual story itself. I've already mentioned that I'm extremely intrigued by the concept of polygamy, and that also goes for the idea of unique religious sects. In this novel, the author created a religion and a leader that were beyond interesting and she managed to bring them to life in such a realistic way. I appreciated how she incorporated some of the more "traditional" polygamy views, but she also created some new rituals that I found to be fascinating like the spinning of the women.

Another wonderful thing about this novel was the character development. I found Amaranth and Bradley to be well drawn characters, and I liked the dynamics between them. Furthermore, I thought Amaranth's husband and leader of the polygamist compound was presented as a real (and very creepy) character. However, it was Sorrow and especially Amity that really fascinated me. These two sisters knew basically nothing outside of their little world on the compound. They were deliberately sheltered and had so much fear instilled in them that they really couldn't function in the real world. I absolutely loved how Ms. Riley juxtaposed the two of them. Sorrow, the older sister, had absolutely no desire to leave the compound or to be separated from her father (she even had to be tied to her sister so she wouldn't run away); while Amity, the twelve year old, seemed much more curious and ready to embrace what her new life had to offer.

Finally, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the writing style and the unique way the story was presented. The novel was written in the present with flashbacks to the past. I liked how these flashbacks allowed me to better understand the characters as well as their life on the compound. In many ways, these chapters answered various questions that kept popping up about these three women and why and from what they were escaping. In addition, the actual prose of the story was very original and unlike anything I can remember reading. Ms. Riley's writing is beautiful and almost poetic. I especially liked her descriptions of the Oklahoma land and Bradley's farm, and how she tied it to Steinbeck's GRAPES OF WRATH.

AMITY & SORROW would make an excellent book club selection. The story is riveting and there is so much to discuss about these very complicated characters. I wasn't able to find a formal reading guide, but don't let that deter you from considering this novel. Some of the themes you might want to explore include love, marriage, forgiveness, religion, faith, mother/daughter relationships, family dynamics, and redemption. It might also be interesting to talk about the various symbols that appeared in the story.

AMITY & SORROW is truly a beautifully written book that will also make you think. Highly recommended!

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

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Guest Review: A Case for Solomon

Summary: The spellbinding story of one of the most celebrated kidnapping cases in American history and a haunting family mystery that took almost a century to solve.

In 1912, four-year-old Bobby Dunbar, the son of an upper-middle-class Louisiana family, went missing in the swamps. After an eight-month search that electrified the country, the boy was found in the pinewoods of southern Mississippi. A wandering piano tuner was arrested and charged with the boy’s kidnapping—a crime punishable by death at the time. But when a destitute single mother came forward from North Carolina to claim the boy as her son, not Bobby Dunbar, the case became a high-pitched battle over custody—and identity—that divided the South.

Amid an ever-thickening tangle of suspicion and doubt, two mothers and a father struggled to assert their rightful parenthood over the child. For two years, lawyers dissected and newspapers sensationalized every aspect of the story. Psychiatrists, physicians, criminologists, and private detectives debated the piano tuner’s guilt and the boy’s identity. And all the while the boy himself remained peculiarly guarded on the question of who he was. It took nearly a century, the detective work of Bobby Dunbar’s granddaughter Margaret Dunbar Cutright, and the science of DNA to discover the truth.

First told in a stunning episode of National Public Radio’s This American Life, A Case for Solomon chronicles the epic struggle to determine one child’s identity, along the way probing unsettling questions about the formation of memory, family, and self. -- Free Press

I have talked to my dad a few times in the past week and both times he mentioned this book --
A CASE FOR SOLOMON: BOBBY DUNBAR AND THE KIDNAPPING THAT HAUNTED A NATION by Tal McThenia and Margaret Dunbar Cutright. He said the story was fascinating and goes to prove that real life is stranger than fiction!

In August of 1912, four year old Bobby Dunbar, son of Percy and Lessie Dunbar, a well-to-do Louisiana family, disappeared from a family outing at Swayze Lake in Louisiana. After an eight month search, a wandering piano tuner, William Walters, was found in the company of a young boy in Mississippi and was accused of kidnapping Bobby. The story that developed is one of the most sensational and strange kidnapping cases in United States history. What made the story so fascinating was that Julia Anderson, an impoverished woman from North Carolina, came forward with a claim that the boy found with Walters was not Bobby but her son, Bruce. After a sensational trial in 1914 that drew national attention, Walters was found guilty of kidnapping Bobby Dunbar and sentenced to life in prison. Following the trial, Percy and Lessie Dunbar took the child home believing that their charge of kidnapping had been vindicated and Julia Anderson went home believing that her son has been taken from her. William Walters, always claiming his innocence, was released from prison after several months on a legal technicality.

In 2000, Margaret Dunbar Cutright, granddaughter of Bobby Dunbar, received from her father the Dunbar family scrapbook which contained all the information the family had on the Bobby Dunbar case. Margaret soon discovered that the documents did not support the simple kidnapping story she had heard growing up and had passed on to her children and grandchildren. Margaret began a multi-year investigation to find the truth. It included in-depth research of available documents and articles and access to the Dunbar, Anderson and Walters family descendants. With the assistance of co-author Tal McThenia, she reconstructed the story in A CASE FOR SOLOMON – BOBBY DUNBAR AND THE KIDNAPPING THAT HAUNTED A NATION.

This story that gripped a nation is far from simple and is not only about the kidnapping of a small child but offers a view of life in the South in the early twentieth century when most people still traveled by horse and buggy. The book reveals a society of lynchings and street duels as well as black versus white and rich versus poor prejudices. It exposes the yellow journalism exhibited by the three competing newspapers in New Orleans that swayed public opinion regarding the trial. The novel gives the reader an insight into Louisiana law and politics as practiced in the early 1900s. The book tells of a bitter rivalry that developed between the two competing states of Louisiana and Mississippi over the kidnapping issue. The authors also give the reader an insight into the personal lives of the main characters and the tragedies that unfolded during their lives.

About 90 per cent of the 386 page book focuses on the time period from the 1912 disappearance of Bobby Dunbar through the trial in 1914. The last 39 pages speedily cover the next 90+ years of the Walters, Dunbar and Anderson families ending with a 2004 paternity test of the sons of Bobby and Alonzo Dunbar (the biological son of Lessie and Percy Dunbar) that definitely identified Bobby as the son of Julie Anderson.

Several things stood out to me in this book. First, I was fascinated that something like this could really happen. Truth is definitely stranger than fiction. Second, it was hard to believe Julia Anderson showed such hesitancy in identifying her son after not seeing him for one year. Third, Eye witness testimony is always questionable. Each side had a long list of witnesses that were convinced they knew who the child belonged to. Additionally, some witnesses were obviously lying. Finally, growing up as Bobby Dunbar must have been extremely difficult. Each time a child kidnapping occurred in the United States his own kidnapping was revisited by all the media, reminding him of his own ordeal.

A CASE FOR SOLOMON is a well researched and well written fascinating history thriller about a case of mistaken identity that was only resolved a century after it occurred. I highly recommend this book.

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

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Book Club Exchange: Peggy Riley

I'd like to welcome author Peggy Riley to Book Club Exchange. I recently finished her debut novel AMITY & SORROW, and I have to tell you it's one very powerful book.

AMITY & SORROW tells the story of a mother and her two daughters who have recently escaped from a polygamist compound. The mother is terrified that her husband will find them, while the girls have absolutely no idea what life is like outside of their very sheltered existence on the compound. It's a story about love, loss and ultimately redemption; and it's quite a thought-provoking read. (That makes it an ideal book club pick!)

I am extremely excited to share Ms. Riley's guest post about her experiences with her "unique book club". Enjoy!

The only book club that I’ve been a part of was an odd one.  We read books that had been made into films that featured Peter Cushing, local Hammer Horror actor and former Dr. Who.  I told you it was odd. 

However, it certainly provided the opportunity to read and reread a number of truly excellent books.  Bram Stoker’s “Dracula”, in which Cushing played Van Helsing, was a cracking read – how had I managed to avoid it?  Chilling, modern, a wonderful page-turner; I should have known, with its longevity, that it would be marvelous.  Reading “The Hounds of Baskerville”, with Cushing as Sherlock Holmes, was a wonderful reminder of how brilliant Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s books are, hooked as I was on Benedict Cumberbatch.  I got on less well with “Frankenstein”, the title character also played by Cushing.  Maybe I’d simply had enough horror by then. 

Thankfully, we moved on to Cushing’s other, more oblique roles in films made of two classic post-war novels:  “Lolita”, for Cushing is spotted on a screen at the drive-in movie, and “Nineteen Eighty-Four”, which was done for television with Cushing as Winston Smith.  I had read both in university and probably wouldn’t have taken the time to reread them without the book club’s insistence, and I would have missed out. They both struck me as sadder works the second time around, more poignant than frightening.  Your reading does change the second time through a great work, especially twenty years after the first read, and I found much more in both of them than I had remembered. 

After reading these books (and probably others, whose titles I’ve forgotten) we discussed them at length and then watched the corresponding Cushing film.  I should be grateful there were no books to accompany some of his more flamboyant films:  no text was there for “Torture Garden” or “Blood Beast Terror”, nothing to read for “Madhouse” or “The Creeping Flesh”.  This made for a long, but very pleasurable, evening.  It was also a great way to meet people, for I had only just moved from London to a fishing town on the North Kent coast.  We were all very different people, with only these books in common.  And that is all you need, really - a shared love of books and a willingness to read them.  I’d quite like to join another book club – and many thanks for giving my first novel, Amity & Sorrow, a read!     

Peggy Riley is a writer and playwright. She recently won a Highly Commended prize in the 2011 Bridport Prize. Her short fiction has been broadcast on BBC Radio and has been published in "New Short Stories 4", Mslexia Magazine, and as an app on Ether Books. Her plays have been commissioned and produced off-West End, regionally and on tour. She has been a festival producer, a bookseller, and writer-in-residence at a young offender's prison. Originally from Los Angeles, Peggy now lives on the North Kent coast in Britain. She is currently working on her second novel, which will be set in the women's internment camp on the Isle of Man during WWII.

I am thrilled to be participating in the AMITY & SORROW book tour. Make sure you check out the other stops and come back on Friday to see my review!
A huge thanks to Ms. Riley 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.    

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Review: The House at the End of Hope Street

Summary: Distraught that her academic career has stalled, Alba is walking through her hometown of Cambridge, England, when she finds herself in front of a house she’s never seen before, 11 Hope Street. A beautiful older woman named Peggy greets her and invites her to stay, on the house’s usual conditions: she has ninety-nine nights to turn her life around. With nothing left to lose, Alba takes a chance and moves in.

She soon discovers that this is no ordinary house. Past residents have included Virginia Woolf and Dorothy Parker, who, after receiving the assistance they needed, hung around to help newcomers—literally, in talking portraits on the wall. As she escapes into this new world, Alba begins a journey that will heal her wounds—and maybe even save her life.

Filled with a colorful and unforgettable cast of literary figures, The House at the End of Hope Street is a charming, whimsical novel of hope and feminine wisdom that is sure to appeal to fans of Jasper Fforde and especially Sarah Addison Allen. -- Pamela Dorman Books

I am always a sucker for a Pamela Dorman book, so when the opportunity came my way to review THE HOUSE AT THE END OF HOPE STREET by Menna Van Praag, I jumped at the chance. Truth be told, THE HOUSE AT THE END OF HOPE STREET isn't exactly my normal reading fare. It's part fantasy and part magical realism which I usually steer clear of; however, it is a Pamela Dorman book so I figured it was worth a shot to read something outside of my comfort zone.

THE HOUSE AT THE END OF HOPE STREET tells the story of a mysterious and magical house that has the ability to change its visitors lives. Take Alba, a young woman whose promising academic career has ended and she feels her entire life is spinning out of control. One day, she finds herself in front of "the house at the end of Hope Street" (a house that she never noticed before!) when an older woman named Peggy opens the door and welcomes her in. Peggy tells Alba that she can stay in the house for 99 nights until she gets her life straightened out. Peggy adds that, through the years, many woman have resided in the house and have had great luck in turning their lives around.

Alba sees that she has no choice but to stay and figure out her next step; however, she quickly realizes that this is one very special and unique house. For instance, there are many photos of the female residents on the walls -- including some very famous women like Virginia Woolf, Daphne du Maurier, and Agatha Christie. These photographs actually come to life and provide advice to the residents of the house. As Alba spends more time with these "women," she begins to learn about her family and, more importantly, herself; and she begins the valuable process of healing.

In addition to Alba and Peggy, there are two other women living in the house -- one is a struggling actress and the other has a mysterious secret. Like Alba, "the house at the end of Hope Street" offers these women a second chance and allows them to move forward in their lives as well. In addition, Peggy, the long-time caretaker of the house finds herself at a serious crossroads and wonders what (if anything) the next step will be for her.

I found THE HOUSE AT THE END OF HOPE STREET to be absolutely delightful. The characters (and of course the house itself!) were very charming, and the overall messages in the story were uplifting and full of hope. I enjoyed the life lessons that Alba and the other women in the house discovered, but I also loved all of the advice that the past residents provided to the current ones. The entire story definitely had a sense of magic and wonder, and despite being a little different than what I normally read, I loved the feelings and ideas that the story evoked.

As a reader who enjoys mysteries, I liked that there were quite a few mysteries and/or secrets in this novel. Everything definitely wasn't what it seemed in the house, but there were also some hidden events in the characters' pasts... as well as their futures. I appreciated how the author eventually came to reveal these surprises (some more shocking than others), and these unknowns certainly captured my attention and kept me turning the pages.

Finally, I so enjoyed all of the cameos by the famous women who had stopped by "the house at the end of Hope Street" at some time in their lives. These women had the ability to speak to the current residents through their portraits that were hanging in rooms all over the house -- even the bathroom! Many of these women were writers or entertainers of some sort like Dorothy Parker and George Eliot, and their advice was genuine and appropriate given their life experiences. There were even a few women that weren't able to turn their lives around despite spending some time at the house. I especially appreciated that the author included brief bios of these famous women in the back of the book!

THE HOUSE AT THE END OF HOPE STREET would make an extremely fun choice for a future book club meeting. Because these characters were all experiencing an assortment of hardships, there is much to discuss about their past actions and their future ones. There is a reading guide available with twelve great questions. Some of the topics that you might want to further discuss include the meanings of the colors that Alba "sees," the stigmas associated with mental illness, grief, secrets, redemption, forgiveness, second chances, sacrifice, self worth, and hope!

Overall, I thought THE HOUSE AT THE END OF HOPE STREET was such a surprisingly sweet and heartwarming read. Recommended to fans of magical realism as well as women's fiction.

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

Monday, April 15, 2013

Review: Ordinary Grace

Summary: “That was it. That was all of it. A grace so ordinary there was no reason at all to remember it. Yet I have never across the forty years since it was spoken forgotten a single word.”
New Bremen, Minnesota, 1961. The Twins were playing their debut season, ice-cold root beers were selling out at the soda counter of Halderson’s Drugstore, and Hot Stuff comic books were a mainstay on every barbershop magazine rack. It was a time of innocence and hope for a country with a new, young president. But for thirteen-year-old Frank Drum it was a grim summer in which death visited frequently and assumed many forms. Accident. Nature. Suicide. Murder. 

Frank begins the season preoccupied with the concerns of any teenage boy, but when tragedy unexpectedly strikes his family— which includes his Methodist minister father; his passionate, artistic mother; Juilliard-bound older sister; and wise-beyond-his-years kid brother— he finds himself thrust into an adult world full of secrets, lies, adultery, and betrayal, suddenly called upon to demonstrate a maturity and gumption beyond his years. 

Told from Frank’s perspective forty years after that fateful summer, Ordinary Grace is a brilliantly moving account of a boy standing at the door of his young manhood, trying to understand a world that seems to be falling apart around him. It is an unforgettable novel about discovering the terrible price of wisdom and the enduring grace of God. -- Atria

I had never read a novel by William Kent Krueger... until now. Naturally, I have head some pretty amazing things about Mr. Krueger, and especially his latest novel ORDINARY GRACE, so I decided it was high time to see what all the fuss was about. Well, let me just tell you that I absolutely get it. ORDINARY GRACE was a fantastic literary mystery and I devoured it in just a few hours.

ORDINARY GRACE takes place in a small town in Minnesota in 1961 in a time when our entire country seemed to be hopeful with a new young president. For 13 year old Frankie Drum, though, it was a summer of loss. It began with an "accidental" death of a young boy and just continued to get worse from there with a variety of losses. When tragedy hits Frankie's own family, Frankie and his younger brother are forced to grow up way too fast. They discover family secrets and lies, and they even see the extent people will go to protect themselves.

I was looking forward to sitting down with ORDINARY GRACE, but I had no idea just how much I'd love this book. I was expecting a tight mystery and that kept me guessing, but I wasn't expecting such a rich story. While it was definitely full of mysteries (including a few that weren't entirely resolved), it also had some complex character development and a remarkably memorable narrator. In addition, it explored the effects of a tragedy on a family (as well as a small town.) I think it was for these reasons that the novel was so special to me.

Since this is a Mystery Mondays post, I will start with the mystery aspect of the story. Suffice it to say that Mr. Krueger created an intriguing mystery and I loved figuring it out. There were many clues and even a red herring or two to throw off the reader; however, I think most readers will be able to figure out the culprit by the end of the novel. But honestly, the mysteries were almost secondary to the rest of the story!

The real beauty of this novel was how well-written it was. Mr. Krueger just did so many things so well. For instance, the story was narrated about 40 years after the fact by a middle-aged Frankie looking back at that summer of 1961. Personally, I loved this choice of narrator because I always appreciate a good coming-of-age story, and I think Frankie grew up a tremendous amount that summer. In addition, I liked how the author managed to capture the essence of a 13 year old boy, but at the same time, because the story is a flashback, could integrate an adult's wisdom and hindsight into the story.

Another wonderful thing that Mr. Krueger did was create a very solid setting. Not only did he describe perfectly a small river town in Minnesota, and that includes the attitudes and actions of the people who lived there, but he also brought to life the look and feel of the early 1960s. I wasn't even born during this time, but I've read enough to know that there was a feeling of hope and optimism in our county at that time along with some sort of innocence. Of course, Frankie (and the rest of his family and the town) lost much of their innocence that summer when they were forced to cope with so much.

I also appreciated the character development in the story. Frankie was terrific and so entertaining, but I also loved his younger brother who, despite his stutter, had such a way about him. While he was extremely quiet, he was so insightful and wise. In addition, Frankie's father was an intriguing character. Once a young man training to be a lawyer, he had a calling to be a Methodist minister after his experiences in the war. Through all of the tragedy, his strength and faith made him extremely interesting to me. Finally, I was fascinated by Frankie's mother. She fell in love with her husband prior to his decision to be a minister, and she didn't quite fit the role of a minister's wife nor did she share her husband's faith. I was extremely impressed with how real all of these characters were, and I thought the portrayal of how they were affected by tragedy was extremely well done.

I am a huge fan of literary mysteries, and I think it just might be my new favorite genre. I love it when a novel can get under my skin and keep popping in my thoughts even after I've read the last page. And that's exactly what happened with ORDINARY GRACE. As a result, I'm pretty sure that this novel would make an excellent discussion book. Some of the themes you might want to explore include grief, secrets, family, lies, betrayal, adultery, the past, forgiveness, faith, and redemption. Truly, this novel encompasses so many universal themes about individuals and families, and I'm pretty sure that there is plenty to discuss.

Overall, I loved ORDINARY GRACE and I highly recommend it to fans of literary fiction!

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

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