Monday, September 30, 2013

Review: Gilt Trip & Giveaway

Summary: Louisiana businessman Jerry Earl Leland served only a fraction of his five-year sentence for white-collar crime, thanks to some political connections and a few greased palms. But he won’t have long to enjoy his freedom…

After Jerry Earl’s early release, his wife, Margo—a much-married Garden District doyenne—throws an extravagant Get Out of Jail Free Party, complete with a Zydeco band, champagne ice luge, and waiters in ties and tails. The guest list includes many prominent New Orleans socialites, as well as scrapbook shop owner Carmela Bertrand and her best friend, Ava Gruiex. But sometime during the swirl of partying and drinking, Jerry Earl is brutally murdered—then stuffed inside a clothes dryer.
Carmela has earned a reputation around town for solving murders, and when the grieving widow turns to her for help, she can’t say no. But Jerry Earl took a lot of people to the cleaners with his underhanded business tactics, so Carmela’s going to be hard-pressed to identify which of his enemies was steamed enough to kill him. As she sorts through Jerry Earl’s dirty laundry, she needs to collar the killer before another victim is set to tumble dry… -- Berkley Prime Crime

It's been awhile since I've read a cozy for Mystery Mondays, and I have to admit that I kind of missed these fun books. It's not that I don't love the suspense and literary mysteries that I read, but sometimes I just want to something light. GILT TRIP by Laura Childs (with Diana Orgain) hit the spot.

For fans of cozies, Laura Childs is a pretty big name. She writes not only the Scrapbooking Mystery series, but she also writes the Teashop Mysteries and the Cackleberry Club Mysteries. I am more than a little embarrassed to say that I've always wanted to read one of her Teashop Mysteries, and I probably even own one or two; however, I've never read one of her books... until now.

GILT TRIP is part of Ms. Childs' Scrapbooking Mysteries, and I thought it was extremely entertaining. There is a reason why Ms. Childs has had so much success as a writer. Carmela Bertrand owns a scrapbooking store in New Orleans, but she also works as an amateur sleuth. In this eleventh novel in the series, Margo, a New Orleans socialite, asks for Carmela's assistance in getting to the bottom of the murder of her husband Jerry Earl.

Jerry Earl  has recently been released from prison after serving time for white collar crime. At his Get Out of Jail Free Party, he is not only stabbed, but thrown into a clothes dryer! Jerry Earl has managed to upset many of his business associates through the years, so there are plenty of credible suspects. Carmela, with the help of her good friend Ava, set out to investigate the events surrounding Jerry Earl's death and hopefully get to the bottom of the crime before the murderer strikes again!

GILT TRIP was exactly what I look for in a cozy! It had an intriguing crime, a unique cast of characters, and a terrific setting. There was also a lot of humor thrown into the story. I loved that the novel took place in New Orleans, and it brought back so many wonderful memories of my visits there. I had to drool when the characters ate at some of my favorite restaurants like Commander's Palace.

I also really enjoyed the fun "extras" in GILT TRIP. I was expecting some scrapbooking tips since the main character runs a scrapbooking store, but I was surprised by how helpful they were. Not only did the novel have some craft instructions as part of the story, but there was also a section at the back with additional tips. In addition, there were many recipes included at the back of the book. There was lots of references to food in the book (another reason I liked it so much), and I loved that the author included some of the recipes.

Despite all of the fun extras, GILT TRIP was a mystery... and a pretty good one at that. Like the characters, I went back and forth wondering who was responsible for Jerry Earl's murder. Even when I started to see where the story was going, I still didn't completely figure out the crime. Of course, I don't spend a ton of time trying to figure out cozies, but I was still kept guessing.

For those of you wondering, GILT TRIP works very well as a standalone novel. I'm sure there were probably a few references that I would have appreciated more if I were familiar with the characters and their pasts, but it really didn't affect my appreciation of the novel. Having said that, I enjoyed GILT TRIP so much that I now want to go back and read some earlier books in the series.

GILT TRIP was a lot of fun! Highly recommended to fans of cozies!

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

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

Giveaway alert: I have a copy of GILT TRIP to share with one lucky reader. Even better, the author has agreed to sign and personalize the winner's copy! To enter, just fill out the form below before October 13th at 11:59 p.m. EST. I will randomly select and notify the winner the following day. This contest is open to those of you with U.S. addresses only. Good luck!

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Kid Konnection: Sure Signs of Crazy

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 my thoughts about a terrific new middle grade novel.

Summary: Love can be a trouble word for some people. Crazy is also a trouble word. 

I should know. 

You've never met anyone exactly like twelve-year-old Sarah Nelson. While most of her friends obsess over Harry Potter, she spends her time writing letters to Atticus Finch. She collects trouble words in her diary. Her best friend is a plant. And she's never known her mother, who left when Sarah was two. 

Since then, Sarah and her dad have moved from one small Texas town to another, and not one has felt like home. 

Everything changes when Sarah launches an investigation into her family's Big Secret. She makes unexpected new friends and has her first real crush, and instead of a "typical boring Sarah Nelson summer," this one might just turn out to be extraordinary. -- Little Brown 

It's been over four years since I reviewed JANEOLOGY by Karen Harrington. That's been a long time and I've read many book since then; however, I remembering enjoying this novel about Jane Nelson, a mother who tried to kill her children. I appreciated getting an inside look into the mother's mind as well as the affects the crime had on her husband.

Well... the Nelson family is back, ten years later, in SURE SIGNS OF CRAZY. This time, however, the book is geared towards the middle grade crowd; and the story is told through the eyes of Sarah, the 12 year old surviving daughter. As much as I enjoyed JANEOLOGY, I found that SURE SIGNS OF CRAZY was even better!

In many ways, SURE SIGNS OF CRAZY is a coming-of-age story. The novel takes place during the summer of Sarah's twelfth year, a time when girls are going through so many changes. It's obvious early on that Sarah is unlike the other girls, not just because her mother is serving time in a mental hospital for murder. She's also obsessed with words, writes Atticus Finch letters on a regular basis, and has a plant for her best friend. Sarah and her alcoholic father have also moved around... a lot, trying to keep once step ahead of curious people and the media.

Needless to say, her father wasn't exactly in touch with Sarah's needs as a tween, so she turns to her 20 year old neighbor Charlotte for help in the "girl department." She learns about guys and relationships, and she even has her first crush on Charlotte's younger brother. Not only does he share her love of words, but he truly listens to her and accepts her for who she is. It was through this friendship that Sarah was able to start dealing with being her mother's daughter and not always having to hide from this fact.

Sarah was such a terrific character and I absolutely loved seeing her find her way throughout the course of this novel. There's no doubt that there were many times when my heart broke for Sarah, but I also loved her intelligence and her strength. She truly was a remarkable character and one that will stay in my thoughts for some time. 

Since the novel was written in Sarah's words, I felt as if I truly got to know her and appreciate her insights into life. Despite having to deal with some pretty difficult situations, Sarah still managed to make me laugh. On the other hand, I also felt like crying for her a few times. For example, Sarah feared that her mother's insanity (and/or her father's alcoholism) was hereditary. She analyzed all of her quirks and, as a result, she spent a lot of time looking for signs of either affliction. I just hated that she had to carry this burden on her shoulders in addition to so many other ones.

SURE SIGNS OF CRAZY would make an outstanding mother/daughter book club selection. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to find any discussion questions; however, I think most readers will have plenty of ideas to discuss. Some of the themes you might want to explore include mental illness, addiction, first loves, fears, insecurities, guilt, determination, growing up, changes, fresh starts, family dynamics, and love.

I adored SURE SIGNS OF CRAZY and I highly recommend it to fans of coming-of-age stories!

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

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

Friday, September 27, 2013

Guest Blogger: Daniel Kalla & Giveaway

I am so excited to welcome author Daniel Kalla back to Booking Mama. I recently reviewed his latest novel RISING SUN, FALLING SHADOW, and I thought it was a terrific sequel to THE FAR SIDE OF THE SKY. Mr. Kalla wrote a guest post for my Book Club Exchange feature a little over a year ago, and now he's back with a very entertaining essay about his "fear" of book signings!


I'm not shy. In fact, I kind of enjoy public speaking. Last year, I wrote a blog gushing over how much fun I have attending book clubs. I raved about the perks: the informed audience, insightful conversation and, of course, the often "bottomless" wine glass! But there are never ever bottomless wine glasses at a book signing! And that's only one tiny factor contributing to my aversion of these emotionally hazardous outings. 

Earlier this week, for the debut of my new novel, RISING SUN, FALLING SHADOW, I was invited to do a reading before the Probus Club in Vancouver. My first reading for this novel! I approached the event with my usual trepidation. I envisioned a cavernous auditorium with me at the front and an AV guy at the back and two bored-looked people scattered in the hundreds of empty chairs between us. As it turns out, it was a fantastic morning that I spent with two hundred interesting women, many of whom had already read the first installment of my Second World War Shanghai novel series, THE FAR SIDE OF THE SKY. Their enthusiasm and support, not to mention the terrific book sales, blew my expectations out of the water.

So, you might ask, what the hell am I complaining about?! Well let me put it in context by describing a slightly less successful event.

About six years ago, I was invited to a signing inside an AAFES exchange store at Ft. Lewis in Washington State to promote a new novel at the time. (For those of who you who have never seen an exchange store, imagine if someone merged a Costco, a Target and a Macy's into one entity.) The people running the store couldn't have treated me better. They aggressively promoted my appearance with enormous posters—I'm talking Saddam Hussein-sized headshots—and they put me at a table right at the front of the store with what can only be described as a mountain of my own books behind me! It was a gray rainy Saturday; absolutely perfect for foot traffic. And man, was there a lot it! The problem was that none of the visitors had come to see me. People rushed past me as though I was there to clean up a particularly unpleasant spill. A few kind souls stopped to ask me where they could find eggs, beer, camping supplies, etc. After the first hour, I had sold roughly four of the four thousand books behind me. And then, something remarkable happened. It actually got worse! Another table was set up across from me… for the Arizona Cardinal cheerleaders to sign their Christmas calendars. You can imagine that if scantily clad cheerleaders came to an army base to autograph their photos, there might be a response. “Stampede” would be a better description! The lineup extended out the door and snaked around my lonely table (with the life-sized posters of me and the insurmountable pile of my books). The only thing that saved from melting under my table was that, even at the time, I could actually see the humor in the situation.

Of course, these two scenarios are, for me, the extremes of the spectrum when it comes to book readings/signings. I’ve done events with surprisingly good turnouts and others that were disappointingly unattended. I have to say that invariably the people who do show up are polite, attentive and generous. But for me, nothing can compensate for the hollow sense of personal and professional inadequacy that comes with addressing an almost empty room or bookstore.

If you happen to be J K Rowling, Stephenie Meyer or Dan Brown, then probably crowd control is your biggest worry at a book signing. But if you’re me or, I suspect, numerous authors like me, then I think turnout is always a concern and an evening can be made or broken by the number of people who actually show up. Promotion, online marketing and, as an extra security step, seeding the audience with friends and families can help (though people will eventually start to recognize your kids and parents by their pathological enthusiasm). Sometimes, it’s just too much of a crapshoot dependent on factors beyond anyone’s control (the weather, competing event, etc.)

So until I write my own boy wizard, love-struck vampire or religious cryptographer/detective blockbuster that turns me into a household name, I'm going to remain leery of book readings. But please do keep inviting me to your book clubs, where the company is always guaranteed and the wine is never rationed!

A huge thanks to Mr. Kalla for providing such a fun guest post!

Daniel Kalla is the international bestselling author of PANDEMIC, RESISTANCE, RAGE THERAPY, BLOOD LIES, COLD PLAGUE, and OF FLESH AND BLOOD. His books have been translated into eleven languages. Two novels have been optioned for film. Kalla practices emergency medicine in Vancouver, British Columbia, where he lives with his family.

Giveaway alert: I have a copy of RISING SUN, FALLING SHADOW to share with one lucky reader. To enter, just fill out the form below before October 10th, 11:59 p.m.EST. I will randomly select and notify the winner the following day. This contest is open to those of you with U.S. and Canada addresses only. Good luck!

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Review: The Sweetest Hallelujah

Summary: An unforgettable story of two courageous women brought together by one extraordinary little girl 

Betty Jewel Hughes was once the hottest black jazz singer in Memphis. But when she finds herself pregnant and alone, she gives up her dream of being a star to raise her beautiful daughter, Billie, in Shakerag, Mississippi. Now, ten years later, in 1955, Betty Jewel is dying of cancer and looking for someone to care for Billie when she's gone. With no one she can count on, Betty Jewel does the unthinkable: she takes out a want ad seeking a loving mother for her daughter. 

 Meanwhile, on the other side of town, recently widowed Cassie Malone is an outspoken housewife insulated by her wealth and privileged white society. Working part-time at a newspaper, she is drawn to Betty Jewel through her mysterious ad. With racial tension in the South brewing, the women forge a bond as deep as it is forbidden. But neither woman could have imagined the gifts they would find in each other, and in the sweet young girl they both love with all their hearts. Deeply moving and richly evocative, The Sweetest Hallelujah is a remarkable tale about finding hope in a time of turmoil, and about the transcendent and transformative power of friendship. -- Harlequin

I'm embarrassed to say that I'm very far behind in writing reviews. In fact, I still have a few books to review from when I was at the beach in August. One of them is THE SWEETEST HALLELUJAH by Elaine Hussey. I am pretty sure that I requested this novel from Shelf Awareness; and since the major theme was the power of friendship, I decided that it sounded like a great book to pack in my beach bag.

THE SWEETEST HALLELUJAH tells the story of two women -- Betty Jewel, a former jazz musician who is now dying from cancer; and Cassie, a recently widowed woman who works as a journalist for the local paper. Betty Jewel is a single mother to a young daughter Billie, and she writes a newspaper ad looking for someone to take care of Billie after she dies. Cassie sees the ad and becomes intrigued. Somehow, Betty Jewel and Cassie overcome these racial tensions (among other things) and manage to develop an incredibly strong friendship all in the name of love for Billie.

I actually have mixed feelings about THE SWEETEST HALLELUJAH. On one hand, it was a quick read and did manage to touch my heart. But you know, I'm a sucker for books about female friendships. However, I also thought it was a little too saccharine and predictable. For many reasons, I think this story would have been a better movie than a book.

Despite not loving this novel, there were still some very positive aspects of the story. For example, the novel takes place in the deep South in 1955, and I thought the author did a fairly good job of bringing that time period to life. I appreciated how she explored the prejudices in the small town, and I even think she brought to life the plight of both black and white women in this time.

Another thing I appreciated about this novel were the characters. Ms. Hussey created some memorable characters in Betty Jewel and Cassie, and I couldn't help but root for them. I liked their initial pre-friendship exchanges and then I really liked how their relationship was portrayed after they became close. Furthermore, I loved how the author incorporated some humor into their characters, especially considering how sad much of this story was.

I also enjoyed how the story in THE SWEETEST HALLELUJAH was told. The book alternated between Billie Jewel's, Cassie's, and Billie's voices, and for the most part, I liked how the author wrote each of their parts. As a reader, I appreciated getting an inside view into each of these character's minds and hearing the story through each of their perspectives.

I guess my biggest issue with the novel is that there were parts of this story that were pretty far-fetched. I don't want to give many specifics because I think they'd be considered spoilers. Just suffice it to say that I don't think these two women would forge such a strong friendship in such a short period of time. Of course, there's the whole black/white thing which would make their friendship difficult; however, there is also a lot of baggage, hurt feelings, and resentment. I wanted to believe that they would be so close, but I just couldn't totally accept it.

I think THE SWEETEST HALLELUJAH would make a good book club pick. I'm sure there will be plenty of readers who love this book and the characters, and I bet there could be some terrific discussion about why the book worked for some and not others. There is a reading guide available with nine questions that is included in the back of the book. Some of the topics you might want to talk about include the significance of music, racial relations, sacrifice, love, forgiveness, and family.

Overall, I think there is an audience out there for THE SWEETEST HALLELUJAH. I recommend it for fans of women's fiction and readers who appreciate stories with strong female characters.

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

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Review: Help for the Haunted

Summary: It begins with a call one snowy February night. Lying in her bed, young Sylvie Mason overhears her parents on the phone across the hall. This is not the first late-night call they have received, since her mother and father have an uncommon occupation: helping "haunted souls" find peace. And yet something in Sylvie senses that this call is different from the others, especially when they are lured to the old church on the outskirts of town. Once there, her parents disappear, one after the other, behind the church's red door, leaving Sylvie alone in the car. Not long after, she drifts off to sleep, only to wake to the sound of gunfire. 

As the story weaves back and forth through the years leading up to that night and the months following, the ever-inquisitive Sylvie searches for answers and uncovers secrets that have haunted her family for years. 

Capturing the vivid eeriness of Stephen King's works and the quirky tenderness of John Irving's novels, Help for the Haunted is told in the captivating voice of a young heroine who is determined to discover the truth about what happened on that winter night. -- William Morrow

At this year's BEA, I was fortunate enough to meet John Searles. Not only is he an author, but he's also the Editor-at-Large at Cosmo and the book critic for The Today Show and CBS's The Early Show. Just last week, his latest novel HELP FOR THE HAUNTED was released, and I could hardly wait to read it. This book is getting some major buzz... and after reading it, I can totally see why!

HELP FOR THE HAUNTED tells the story of the Mason family. The parents help those who are (for lack of a better word) possessed by evil spirits with prayer, and they travel all over the country working to excise the demons. Sometimes, they even bring these troubled individuals into the home. Sadly, their choice of occupation eventually leads to their deaths.

Needless to say, their teenage daughters, Rose and Sylvie, are traumatized by the murder of their parents and struggle to stay afloat. Rose, the older daughter, was headstrong and constantly challenged her parents, while Sylvie always tried to be the "good" daughter. Sylvie was actually there the night her parents were murdered, but her memories of that evening begin to blur. She starts to question what she thought she saw, and she decides to uncover the truth -- even if that truth is painful.

To be honest, I was a little afraid to pick up HELP FOR THE HAUNTED because I'm not one who usually appreciates scary books. The word "haunted" in the title wasn't calling out to me! And since I'm being honest here, I have to say that I did think this book was a little creepy and it made me uncomfortable -- but in a very good way. I ended up absolutely loving this novel and I even accepted all of the supernatural stuff (which is really saying something). This book might be one of my favorite reads of 2013!

HELP FOR THE HAUNTED was so good for so many reasons. I loved the uniqueness of the story and I appreciated that the story was part ghost story, part mystery, and part coming-of-age tale. In addition, I loved how the story was presented. The story was told in Sylvie's voice and it also went back and forth between the present and the past. I can hardly express how well the story (and the secrets) unfolded, and I think I was on the edge of my seat for almost the entire novel.

One of my absolute favorite things about HELP FOR THE HAUNTED was the character of Sylvie. She is the narrator of this story and I grew to love her so much. She's very bright and curious, but she also feels the pressure of being a good daughter. Even though my heart just broke for her (how much can one kid take?), I appreciated her inner strength and how much she matured throughout the story. The family secrets that were revealed to her were just horrible, and yet she still managed to persevere.

I also thought Mr. Searles' writing was fantastic! Naturally, I was impressed with his storytelling abilities, but I also was blown away by how well he captured the essence of a teenage girl. Furthermore, his transitions between the present and the past were extremely smooth, and he did a marvelous job of keeping suspense (and the mystery of the murder) alive for the entire story.

I could talk (or in this case, write) for hours about how special HELP FOR THE HAUNTED was to me, but I think it's best to experience it on your own. I have a feeling that each reader will get something a little different from Sylvie's story. That should be a sign that this novel would make a wonderful book club selection. Fortunately, there is a reading guide available with nine thought-provoking questions, although I'm sure you can come up with a few more topics to discuss on your own. Some of the themes your group might want to explore include faith, religion, the possibility of spirits, parent/child relationships, trust, betrayal, and secrets. I also think it would be interesting to discuss what might happen to Rose and Sylvie after the end of the novel.

HELP FOR THE HAUNTED is a beautifully written novel that also just happens to be a little bit scary! Highly recommended.

I received a review copy at this year's BEA.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Review: Rising Sun, Falling Shadow

Summary: Return to World WAr II Shanghai in Dan Kalla's thrilling historical novel Rising Sun, Falling Shadow, the sequel to The Far Side of the Sky 

It’s 1943 and the Japanese juggernaut has swallowed Shanghai and the rest of eastern China, snaring droves of American and British along with thousands of “stateless” German Jewish refugees. Despite the hostile environs, newlyweds Dr. Franz Adler and his wife, Sunny, adjust to life running the city’s only hospital for refugee Jews. 

Bowing to Nazi pressure, the Japanese force twenty thousand Jewish refugees, including the Adlers, to relocate to a one-square-kilometer “Shanghai Ghetto.” Heat, hunger, and tropical diseases are constant threats. But the ghetto also breeds miraculous resilience. Music, theater, sports, and Jewish culture thrive despite what are at times subhuman conditions. 

Navigating subversion and espionage, Nazi treachery and ever-worsening conditions while living under the heel of the Japanese military, the Adlers struggle to keep the hospital open and their family safe and united. -- Forge

Last summer, I reviewed  THE FAR SIDE OF THE SKY by Daniel Kalla. I was truly impressed with both the story and the writing in this terrific historical fiction book, and I also learned a thing or two about history while reading it. That's always a bonus for someone like me who doesn't appreciate traditional accounts of history.

Not only did I enjoy the novel, but I also came to really like the characters. Because they experienced so much heartache, yet still managed to keep hope, I became rather attached to them. After I finished THE FAR SIDE OF THE SKY, I was still curious about what happened to them -- I had a feeling that there was more to their story. Thankfully, Mr. Kalla revisited Sunny and Franz's story in his second book in the Shanghai series RISING SUN, FALLING SHADOW.

RISING SUN, FALLING SHADOW picks up right where THE FAR SIDE OF THE SKY left off. It is 1943 and Shanghai has become home to thousands of German Jewish refugees. Dr. Franz Adler and his wife Sunny are recently wed and operating a hospital for the refugee Jewish community. When the Japanese force 20,000 Jewish refugees to relocate to the "Shanghai Ghetto," the Adlers must go. They continue to operate their hospital to the best of their efforts; however, they are constantly battling Nazis and other dangerous living conditions.

I had very similar feelings with RISING SUN, FALLING SHADOW that I had when I finished THE FAR SIDE OF THE SKY. Once again, I loved the characters and thought the story was intriguing. The combination of historical information and drama kept me glued to the pages, but the action-packed scenes didn't hurt either. Having said that, I think I enjoyed THE FAR SIDE OF THE SKY more than RISING SUN, FALLING SHADOW. Maybe it was because I was so impressed with the originality of the setting and what I learned while reading the first book?

Once again, I recognized how much research Mr. Kalla conducted while writing this novel. Not only did he include a fair amount of historical details in the story, but he also did a fantastic job of blending fact with fiction. I mentioned this in my prior review, but I had absolutely no idea prior to reading the book that Shanghai became a home to German Jewish refugees during World War II. I loved the setting of RISING SUN, FALLING SHADOW, and I found it fascinating to learn the turn of events for these refugees.

Finally, I appreciated some of the beautiful messages in the story. There is no doubt that Franz, Sunny, and their family and friends have some terrible experiences; however, this novel, like the first, still has a feeling of hope. Even though the Shanghai Ghetto had some horrific living conditions, the author managed to show the strength of the human spirit. These people still managed to make art, music, and theater; and they sacrificed so much to help each other. Furthermore, there was an underlying message of love and kindness whether it be for family, friends, strangers, lovers, and even sometime enemies.

For those of you who are wondering if the second novel in this series works as a standalone, it does... but I don't really suggest reading it on its own. You might enjoy it and even come to love the characters, but I think RISING SUN, FALLING SHADOW will be appreciated more if you're already aware of Franz and Sunny's journey.

RISING SUN, FALLING SHADOW would definitely make an interesting book club discussion. I wasn't able to find a formal discussion guide; however, most groups wouldn't have an issue coming up with things to discuss. Some of the themes you might want to explore include love, betrayal, secrets, morality, sacrifice, World War II, prejudices, loss and redemption.

RISING SUN, FALLING SHADOW is an entertaining novel and fans of historical fiction will find it intriguing.

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

Monday, September 23, 2013

Review: W is for Wasted

Summary: Two dead bodies changed the course of my life that fall. One of them I knew and the other I' d never laid eyes on until I saw him in the morgue. 

The first was a local PI of suspect reputation. He d been gunned down near the beach at Santa Teresa. It looked like a robbery gone bad. The other was on the beach six weeks later. He 'd been sleeping rough. Probably homeless. No identification. A slip of paper with Millhone s name and number was in his pants pocket. The coroner asked her to come to the morgue to see if she could ID him. 

Two seemingly unrelated deaths, one a murder, the other apparently of natural causes. 

But as Kinsey digs deeper into the mystery of the John Doe, some very strange linkages begin to emerge. And before long at least one aspect is solved as Kinsey literally finds the key to his identity. And just like that, she says, the lid to Pandora s box flew open. It would take me another day before I understood how many imps had been freed, but for the moment, I was inordinately pleased with myself.  

In this multilayered tale, the surfaces seem clear, but the underpinnings are full of betrayals, misunderstandings, and outright murderous fraud. And Kinsey, through no fault of her own, is thoroughly compromised. 

W is for . . . wanderer . . . worthless . . . wronged . . . 

W is for wasted.  -- Marian Woods Books/Putnam

At the beginning of 2013, I read KINSEY AND ME by Sue Grafton, and I was totally blown away. I had read many of her Kinsey Millhone series, and I always enjoyed them, but I really got to see her skills at writing in this collection of short stories. Then, I was fortunate enough to meet Ms. Grafton at this year's BEA, and I absolutely adored her. She was positively delightful!

So it was with much excitement that I sat down to read her latest novel W IS FOR WASTED. In this 23rd novel in the Kinsey Millhone series, Kinsey becomes involved in the deaths of two men -- one, an unidentified homeless man who just happened to have her name on a piece of paper in his pocket; and the other, a dubious private investigator that Kinsey knew from her past. At first, they seem to have no relation to each other; however, as Kinsey begins digging into their deaths, she discovers a complex path that ties these two men together.

I am pretty sure that fans of Sue Grafton will definitely enjoy W IS FOR WASTED. Like all of the Kinsey Millhone books, this one is extremely entertaining and full of surprises. I especially appreciated how "smart" the mystery was, and it took me quite awhile to figure out the tie between the two stories. And even when I started to see where the story was going, it was still even more convoluted than I thought! I also liked that a fair amount of story related directly to Kinsey and her personal life.

I am a huge fan of Kinsey and I truly think Ms. Grafton has created one of the most special characters in fiction! I love the way she works and solves her cases, but I also love how complex she is. There is no secret that Kinsey has some baggage, especially as it relates to men and her family. In W IS FOR WASTED, Kinsey is forced to reevaluate what she's always thought about herself and her place in her family.

Another thing about this series that I've come to enjoy more and more as I've gotten older is the time when the story occurs. It takes place in the eighties and I love all of the references this time period. It might seem like a long time ago to many of you, but I still remember not having computers, mobile phones, and more. It does bring an entirely different approach to solving a case by today's standards.

I hate to even mention this, but I wouldn't be entirely honest with my review if I didn't mention this one thing. W IS FOR WASTED was really long. I'm talking almost 500 pages long! I'm not a big fan of "chunksters" and usually I tend to steer away from them. Maybe it's just me and my phobia, but I thought this book could have been about a hundred pages less and still worked.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed W IS FOR WASTED, although I admit that my reading experience was bittersweet. I am terribly sad that Ms. Grafton is running out of letters, and I sincerely hope she has a plan to keep Kinsey alive and well for many more years!

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

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

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Kid Konnection: Danny's Doodles

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 my thoughts about the first book in a new middle grade series.

Summary: Here's a fact: My new friend Calvin Waffle is 100% Weird 

Danny Cohen and Calvin Waffle are two very different kids. Danny likes playing baseball; Calvin enjoys strange experiments. Danny follows the rules at school; Calvin tries to drive his teacher crazy. 

Danny and Calvin decide to team up for the big jelly bean experiment. Will it lead to trouble? Maybe. Will they have fun trying? You can count on it.  -- Sourcebooks Jabberwocky

When I was at this year's BEA, I spent some time with a Sourcebooks' publicist for children's books. One that she was very excited about was DANNY'S DOODLES: THE JELLY BEAN EXPERIMENT by David A. Adler. And honestly, I was looking forward to getting my hands on a copy of this middle grade book too. It's a graphic novel that will appeal to all types of readers (even reluctant ones) and it's written and illustrated by the author of the Cam Jansen mysteries!

DANNY'S DOODLES: THE JELLY BEAN EXPERIMENT is written (and doodled on) by Danny, a fourth grade boy who has just noticed that the new kid in school, Calvin, is keeping a very close eye on him. Danny loves baseball and seems pretty normal. Calvin, on the other hand, is a little different. He likes science experiments and he also likes challenging his teacher.

One day, Calvin convinces Danny to conduct a jelly bean experiment with him. Danny isn't sure he understands what Calvin's trying to prove by having him carry jelly beans around, and he's pretty sure Calvin is "100% weird." However, Danny learns to appreciate his new friend when Calvin helps the baseball team win the big game!

DANNY'S DOODLES: THE JELLY BEAN EXPERIMENT is a very cute book. Booking Son isn't a big fan of fiction, but I think even he will enjoy this story. The book is under 100 pages with easy-to-read words and many cute doodles. (You can interpret that to mean that it's not intimidating in the least to reluctant readers.) It also includes some very funny situations along with some interesting characters that make the story entertaining and fun to read.

Danny and especially Calvin are fantastic characters. I love Calvin's quirkiness and he definitely kept me guessing with what he was going to do next. I also enjoyed Danny's interpretation and reactions to Calvin's behavior. His comments about Calvin even sounded like what a fourth grade boy would say.

This book is obviously the first in a new series. In fact, the reader gets a little sneak preview of the next novel THE DONUT DILEMMA at the back of this one. I do think these books will have widespread appeal to middle elementary age kids. The blend of humor and unique characters, along with the theme of friendship, make it a winner for both boys and girls.

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, September 20, 2013

Review: Taste of the Town

Summary: College football culture is captured through the food, small town characters, and college life that makes Saturdays in autumn something fans look forward to every year. 

 In TASTE OF THE TOWN, Todd Blackledge, host of the enormously popular ESPN segment "Taste of the Town," focuses on popular college towns by telling you where to eat, what to eat, and great stories about college football traditions across America. With over 100 recipes from the chefs of the featured restaurants and the coach (or wife) of the hometown team you will be left hungry and excited to try out the popular football food for yourselves! 

Behind-the-scenes photos, shot on location, enhance the energy of the fun and food featured in each town. This book about football, food, and college culture showcases the coaches, players, chefs, and rabid fans who regularly join together to talk about their common passion. - Center Street

I was so excited to receive a copy of TASTE OF THE TOWN: A GUIDED TOUR OF COLLEGE FOOTBALL'S BEST PLACES TO EAT by Todd Blackledge and J.R. Rosenthal. I have been a huge fan of Mr. Blackledge's for quite some time. It began when I was in middle school and he was the starting quarterback for Penn State. After he led PSU to their first national championship, I continued to follow his time in the pros and then his career in broadcasting. Recently, I respected Mr. Blackledge even more when he spoke out about the Sandusky scandal and how Penn State handled it. So combine Mr. Blackledge and a cookbook and I'm definitely in!

College football fans probably know Mr. Blackledge for his ESPN feature called "Taste of the Town." This segment which showcases famous eateries in college football towns has become very popular. Not only does he taste some of the specialties, but he also shares some of the amazing college football traditions in each location. As far as I'm concerned, there is nothing quite like college football, and Mr. Blackledge does a darn good job of sharing his love for the sport.. and food in TASTE OF THE TOWN.

It will come as no surprise that I loved TASTE OF THE TOWN. It's a terrific resource for fans who follow their college teams to away games, but it also has some wonderful recipes. I am pretty sure that any fan of the ESPN segment or college football will find a few things to like about this book.

The book is set up by college divisions with the SEC at the beginning, then Texas and the South, to The Best of the Rest. A total of twenty different colleges/college towns are featured including University of Alabama, Ohio State University, and Florida State University. The last two chapters are titled "Coaches Can Cook" and "The Blackledge Family Culinary Tradition;" and I thought these were fun sections too.

Naturally, Mr. Blackledge featured Penn State; and of course, it was my very favorite chapter. I had a feeling that I already knew which restaurants he would feature, and I can tell you that I've spent quite a bit of time and consumed many calories in a few of them.

To give you an idea of what's included for each school, I thought I'd use the Penn State chapter as an example. It begins with The Berkey Creamery, the on-campus dairy store which has the most amazing ice cream. He provides a little history on the Creamery and then describes some of the most popular flavors. (Penn State is one of my very favorite places in the entire world, and the Creamery is a place I HAVE to visit every time we go to State College.)

Mr. Blackledge lists a few more of the popular restaurants in State College with a description of the must-have dishes! Then, he provides recipes from some of the restaurants including the Berkey Creamery's Penn State Ice Cream Mix. There are also photos of the various restaurants as well as some of Penn State.

Finally, Mr. Blackledge gives some fun information about the football traditions at Penn State -- Riding the Blue Buses, The Uniform, We Are... Penn State, and Success with Honor. Mr. Blackledge played for three years under Joe Paterno and he remained friends with the Paterno family; and I absolutely love how he addressed the scandal that has rocked our university. It actually made me cry!

Joe Paterno established "Success with Honor" as the Penn State football mission statement during his illustrious career as the head coach. Penn State teams were made up of men who competed just as hard int he classroom as on the football field. We won games, went to bowls, and competed for championships, while at the same time annually graduating one of the highest percentages of players in the nation. Doing things the right way, not occasionally but all of the time, was the Penn State credo. That is success with honor, and despite what some uninformed outsiders have said in the past couple of years, the phrase defines the true football culture at Penn State. That mantra was always adhered to during Joe Paterno's forty-six-year tenure as head football coach, and will continue to be upheld under Bill O'Brien's watch.
*Quoted from ARC

Overall, I enjoyed TASTE OF THE TOWN, but I especially loved how it focused on the amazing traditions of college football! Of course, the food and recipes didn't hurt either!

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

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

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Review: Unbroken

Summary: On a May afternoon in 1943, an Army Air Forces bomber crashed into the Pacific Ocean and disappeared, leaving only a spray of debris and a slick of oil, gasoline, and blood. Then, on the ocean surface, a face appeared. It was that of a young lieutenant, the plane’s bombardier, who was struggling to a life raft and pulling himself aboard. So began one of the most extraordinary odysseys of the Second World War.

The lieutenant’s name was Louis Zamperini. In boyhood, he’d been a cunning and incorrigible delinquent, breaking into houses, brawling, and fleeing his home to ride the rails. As a teenager, he had channeled his defiance into running, discovering a prodigious talent that had carried him to the Berlin Olympics and within sight of the four-minute mile. But when war had come, the athlete had become an airman, embarking on a journey that led to his doomed flight, a tiny raft, and a drift into the unknown.

Ahead of Zamperini lay thousands of miles of open ocean, leaping sharks, a foundering raft, thirst and starvation, enemy aircraft, and, beyond, a trial even greater. Driven to the limits of endurance, Zamperini would answer desperation with ingenuity; suffering with hope, resolve, and humor; brutality with rebellion. His fate, whether triumph or tragedy, would be suspended on the fraying wire of his will.

In her long-awaited new book, Laura Hillenbrand writes with the same rich and vivid narrative voice she displayed in Seabiscuit. Telling an unforgettable story of a man’s journey into extremity, Unbroken is a testament to the resilience of the human mind, body, and spirit. -- Random House

I don't know what it is about UNBROKEN: A WORLD WAR II STORY OF SURVIVAL, RESILIENCE, AND REDEMPTION by Laura Hillenbrand, but I seem to procrastinate when it comes to this book. First, this book has been sitting in my basement for years. And then when I finally do read it, I take forever to write my review. It probably sounds like I didn't even want to read this book, but that's definitely not true. I've been meaning to read it for years after two of my good friends highly recommended it. So what made me finally sit down and read UNBROKEN? Another one of my friends picked it for our August book club meeting. (Pretty pitiful, I know!)

For those of you who aren't familiar with this book (and it can't be many of you), UNBROKEN tells the amazing story of Louis Zamperini. Zamperini was a former Olympic runner who became an airman during World War II. In 1943, the bomber he was flying on crashed into the Pacific Ocean and only three men survived. What happens to Zamperini after the plane lands in the water is truly incredible! It's a story that proves that real life is definitely stranger than fiction.

I fear my opinion of UNBROKEN isn't going to be a popular one. I liked it, but I didn't love it. Without a doubt, I thought Zamperini's story was both fascinating and inspirational; however, I had an extremely difficult time getting into the book. At times, I thought it was very bogged down in details, especially as they pertained to the war and planes. I acknowledge that my taste in books doesn't run towards history or World War II books, so I know that was my personal problem and not a problem with the book. In fact, if anything, I was extremely impressed with how much research Ms. Hillenbrand conducted to write this story.

Once Zamperini's plane went down and the book became more of a survival story, I appreciated it much more. I can't even express how much this man went through and his strength and perseverance are truly inspirational. As I read the book, I couldn't imagine going through any of the horrors that this man experienced; and I was continually amazed by how many bad things kept happening to him.

And then, I had another issue with the ending. I don't want to give anything away about what happens to Zamperini, but I will say that he has a life-altering transformation -- think redemption. This change is an extremely positive one and I felt as if the author kind of rushed it compared to the pace of the rest of the story. Maybe Zamperini doesn't want everyone to know the details about his personal life, but I was dying for more. How he has managed to lead such a wonderful life after experiencing so many horrific things is something that would be extremely interesting to me.

UNBROKEN was a great book club selection for our group. Most of my friends adored it; however, there was one woman who didn't like the book (not the story) all that much. There is a reading guide with discussion questions, but I don't remember actually using it. Some of the topics you might want to discuss include war, strength, faith, heroes, bullying, human nature, and redemption.

My group was lucky enough to have a member whose grandfather was an airman in the same type of plane that Zamperini was in when he crashed. Reading UNBROKEN gave her the desire to learn more about her grandfather and his military experience. She brought much of her research and even a few papers and books from the war which she shared with us. I loved how much this novel affected her!

UNBROKEN is an incredible survival story about an incredible man. Definitely recommended!

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

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Review: The Unknowns

Summary: Eric Muller has been trying to hack the girlfriend problem for half his life. As a teenage geek, he discovered his gift for programming computers-but his attempts to understand women only confirm that he's better at writing code than connecting with human beings. Brilliant, neurotic, and lonely, Eric spends high school in the solitary glow of a screen. 

 By his early twenties, Eric's talent has made him a Silicon Valley millionaire. He can coax girls into bed with ironic remarks and carefully timed intimacies, but hiding behind wit and empathy gets lonely, and he fears that love will always be out of reach. 

 So when Eric falls for the beautiful, fiercely opinionated Maya Marcom, and she miraculously falls for him too, he's in new territory. But the more he learns about his perfect girlfriend's unresolved past, the further Eric's obsessive mind spirals into confusion and doubt. Can he reconcile his need for order and logic with the mystery and chaos of love? 

 This brilliant debut ushers Eric Muller-flawed, funny, irresistibly endearing-into the pantheon of unlikely heroes. With an unblinking eye for the absurdities and horrors of contemporary life, Gabriel Roth gives us a hilarious and heartbreaking meditation on self consciousness, memory, and love. - -- Reagan Arthur Books

I don't know if you remember, but Kathy (aka Bermuda Onion) and I hosted the Reagan Arthur Book Challenge. I have read quite a few of the books, but I was far from reading all of them. I decided it was about time for me to pick up another one. I selected THE UNKNOWNS by Gabriel Roth because it was getting some terrific reviews. It also didn't hurt that it was relatively short and I haven't had much time to read lately!

THE UNKNOWNS is the story of Eric Miller, a man who has made a lot of money in Silicon Valley. He has never had much luck with women, and that started in high school when he was more into figuring out computers than girls. He was admittedly a geek and he decided to use his technical skills to understand girls -- he collected data on them! Needless to say, that didn't work so well for him; and his trouble with women extended into his adult life.

However, Eric struck it rich in his early 20s and has now found that certain women are attracted to him. He plays "the game" and gets some girls, but he has yet to discover true love. That is until he meets Maya! Eric and Maya hit it off and things are going well until Eric learns about Maya's issues from her past. He becomes almost obsessed with understand everything about Maya and fixing her problems, and it very well might jeopardize his first attempt at a real relationship.

THE UNKNOWNS was absolutely delightful. In fact, I was surprised to learn that this was Mr. Roth's debut novel. I loved the character he created in Eric, and I also appreciated both the humor and social commentary in the novel. And as strange as it sounds, I found myself falling for Eric despite (or perhaps because of) his social mishaps.

The novel went back and forth between Eric's adult narrative and his teenage one. I loved getting to see Eric as a child and then seeing how much he changed (do I daresay evolved?) as an adult. I was impressed with how well Mr. Roth developed both of Eric's voices, and I was equally entertained by both nerdy "Erics."

Furthermore, I loved the humor and general tone of the story. Eric is portrayed as someone who is more comfortable around machines than people. His attempts to fit in are sweet and I did feel a little concerned for him on occasion; however, I also found myself laughing like crazy at the things he did. Whether it was what he said, how he said it, or even his insight into human nature, I thought he was extremely funny and occasionally spot-on.

THE UNKNOWNS was also a touching story, and in many ways, a coming-of-age story for Eric. Through his relationship with Maya (as well as his missteps with her), Eric learned some valuable lessons about himself and his role in a romantic relationship. Highly recommended.

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

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Review: The Maid's Version

Summary: Alma DeGeer Dunahew, the mother of three young boys, works as the maid for a prominent citizen and his family in West Table, Missouri. Her husband is mostly absent, and, in 1929, her scandalous, beloved younger sister is one of the 42 killed in an explosion at the local dance hall. Who is to blame? Mobsters from St. Louis? The embittered local gypsies? The preacher who railed against the loose morals of the waltzing couples? Or could it have been a colossal accident? 

 Alma thinks she knows the answer-and that its roots lie in a dangerous love affair. Her dogged pursuit of justice makes her an outcast and causes a long-standing rift with her own son. By telling her story to her grandson, she finally gains some solace-and peace for her sister. He is advised to "Tell it. Go on and tell it"-tell the story of his family's struggles, suspicions, secrets, and triumphs. -- Little, Brown

When I saw the review for THE MAID'S VERSION by Daniel Woodrell in Entertainment Weekly a few months ago, I immediately added it to my must-read list. The magazine (which is my go-to source for book reviews) raved about it -- giving the book an A. And there aren't a whole lot of books out there getting A grades from EW.

THE MAID'S VERSION is about a tragic explosion at a dance hall in West Table, Missouri in 1929. Exactly what happened was a mystery and there were many possible suspects. The main story is told through the eyes of Alma, a woman who worked as a maid at the time of the explosion. Her sister ended up being one of the 42 who were killed, and Alma thinks she knows what happened. Her determination to get justice has ultimately affected her entire life... and especially her relationships with other.

What actually happened at the explosion is eventually revealed in this short, but powerful, story. While the maid's story to her grandson is the primary one, there are also tales about many of the town's citizens including ones who were victims of the explosion as well as ones who were potential suspects.

Let me begin my thoughts by saying that THE MAID'S VERSION is really a special story. The writing is nothing short of brilliant and I absolutely understand why so many fuss over Mr. Woodrell's writing skills. What I also found so amazing about this story is that it is only 164 pages -- technically a novella. I am in awe of how much the author packed into such a short story while also developing so many characters so well!

And it is more than just the character development that impressed me. Quite simply, Mr. Woodrell is a beautiful writer. His prose is so eloquent that I found myself going back and re-reading some of the descriptions just because they took my breath away. I know I sound like I'm gushing, but his writing is just so eloquent and rich!

I have to agree with Entertainment Weekly's review that said, "Maid's is a whodunit, but really it's the who and not the dun that stays with you." While I'd normally talk about the mystery behind the explosion, it almost took a backseat to the character development in this story. (Notice, I didn't use this book as part of my Mystery Mondays feature.) Mr. Woodrell created dozens of characters and each one is memorable in his or her own way. These characters made an impression on me, whether it be good or bad; and their interactions with each other were fascinating.

I wasn't able to find a reading guide for THE MAID'S VERSION but that shouldn't stop you from considering this novel for your next book club. It is a quick read because it's so short, but it also has more to discuss than many full-length novels. Some of the themes you might want to explore include love, family, secrets, and justice.

THE MAID'S VERSION is a little book that packs a powerful punch. Highly recommended!

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

Monday, September 16, 2013

Review: Visitation Street

Summary: Summer in Red Hook, Brooklyn, an isolated blue-collar neighborhood where hipster gourmet supermarkets push against tired housing projects and the East River opens into the bay. Bored and listless, fifteen-year-olds June and Val are looking for fun. Forget the boys, the bottles, the coded whistles. Val wants to do something wild and a little crazy: take a raft out onto the bay. But on the water during the humid night, the girls disappear. Only Val survives, washing ashore in the weeds, bruised and unconscious.

 This shocking event echoes through the lives of Red Hook's diverse residents. Fadi, the Lebanese bodega owner, hopes that his shop is a place to share neighborhood news, and he trolls for information about June's disappearance. Cree, just beginning to pull it together after his father's murder, unwittingly makes himself the chief suspect in the investigation, but an enigmatic and elusive guardian is determined to keep him safe. Val contends with the shadow of her missing friend and a truth she's buried deep inside. Her teacher Jonathan, a Juilliard dropout and barfly, wrestles with dashed dreams and a past riddled with tragic sins.

 In Visitation Street, Ivy Pochoda combines intensely vivid prose with breathtaking psychological insight to explore a cast of solitary souls, pulled by family, love, betrayal, and hope, who yearn for a chance to break free. -- Dennis Lehane Books

When I picked up VISITATION STREET by Ivy Pochoda, I had a feeling that I was in for a treat. The novel is the second published under Dennis Lehane's line of books, and it also received four starred reviews. That this novel was very well written came as no surprise to me, but I admit that I was expecting more of a traditional mystery. Having said that, I really appreciated this novel; and I was actually blown away by Ms. Pochoda's storytelling abilities.

Even though I'm using VISITATION STREET for a Mystery Monday post, I would actually say that this novel is more literary than mystery. However, there is a mystery aspect to this story. The novel takes place in Red Hook, Brooklyn, with the disappearance of two high school girls. Val and June are looking for a little fun, so they decide to take a raft out on the East River. After the raft capsizes, Val finds her way to the shore while June is considered missing.

The girl's disappearance affects many members of the Red Hook community. None more so than Val who has to deal with losing June as well as carrying a secret. There is also Fadi the bodega owner who dreams that his shop will be a place for the residents to come together. Cree is a young man who becomes the main suspect after he admits to seeing the girls on the raft. And Jonathan is a one-time brilliant musician who ended up as music teacher at the local high school.

In what seems like a very diverse and unrelated cast of characters, VISITATION STREET explores the affects of June's disappearance on their lives while also providing insight into their personal challenges.

I found VISITATION STREET to be an extremely powerful novel, and I think that's a testament to the author. Ms. Pochoda (who was a former professional squash player of all things!) managed to bring to life these characters, and they really got under my skin... in a good way. Her prose was beautiful, and yet it was almost gritty, especially as she described the community and its struggles to deal with change.

As interesting as the story and characters were, I think the strength of this novel was in Ms. Pochoda's portrayal of Red Hook and its citizens. Red Hook is an extremely diverse community, going through lots of change; and I love how she juxtaposed the issues in the neighborhood with the issues of the people living there. With her vivid detail, she managed to evoke a feeling of desire or longing for change in these characters that was almost unsettling to me in its honesty.

I was a little surprised that I wasn't able to find a reader's guide or discussion questions for VISITATION STREET. Because it is such a literary novel, I think there are many things to talk about including change, guilt, anger, fear, racism, prejudice, and differences in class. I also think many readers will want to further explore the diversity of Red Hook and what that means to a community.

While VISITATION STREET wasn't as much of a mystery as I had initially expected, I was pleasantly surprised by its depth and the beauty of the writing. Highly recommended.

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

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

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Kid Konnection: Heaven is Paved with Oreos

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 my thoughts about an adorable middle grade (or very young YA) book.

Summary: Fourteen-year-old Sarah Zorn intends to spend the Wisconsin summer with her “boyfriend” Curtis, waiting for a dead calf named Boris to decompose in time for the science fair. Her plans upend, however, when her fake-boyfriend strategy goes seriously awry just as her hippie Grandma Z invites her on a last-minute Roman holiday. As Sarah explores Italy’s ancient wonders, she can’t stop “boy-liking” Curtis . . . or puzzling over her grandmother’s odd behavior. Written as Sarah’s journal, this satisfying middle grade novel navigates the murky waters of first love, friendship, and family with heart and good humor. -- Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Don't get me wrong. I am glad that my daughter is growing up -- she started high school a few weeks ago, but I'm really sad that she isn't reading as much middle grade fiction as she used to. I tend to tease her because she reads lots of middle grade girly books, but who am I kidding? I loved those books when I was her age too. Heck, I still love those books even though I'm at least 30 years past the targeted age.

Since I do a regular weekly feature on kids' book, I "technically" had a reason to read HEAVEN IS PAVED WITH OREOS by Catherine Gilbert Murdock. I couldn't resist the title or the cover, and when I read the description and saw that the main character visits Italy, it was pretty much a done deal for me!

HEAVEN IS PAVED WITH OREOS is 14-year old Sarah's story about the summer she visited Rome. It is written in the form of Sarah's journal, and the reader gets an inside view into Sarah's life as she discovers important lessons about friends, boys, family, and especially her quirky grandmother.

I thought HEAVEN IS PAVED WITH OREOS was a delightful book! I had read one of Ms. Murdock's earlier novels DAIRY QUEEN and thought it was adorable too. Ms. Murdock writes exactly the type of book that I want my daughter and her friends to read. Her main characters are nice girls who are facing fairly typical challenges. In fact, I have a feeling that young, female readers will have no problems relating to at least some of what Sarah is facing.

There were quite a few things about HEAVEN IS PAVED WITH OREOS (besides the cover and the title) that appealed to me. First, I really liked how Sarah's story was told. Since the novel was written as Sarah's journal, I felt as if I got to really understand her because she shared her innermost thoughts. I loved Sarah's honest and her sense of humor, and it was wonderful seeing how much she matured over just a few months.

I also loved, loved, loved that Sarah got to visit Rome with her grandmother. Even though the trip ended up being different from what Sarah expected, she still got to visit Rome! I am dying to visit Italy one of these days, and at least for a few hours, I could live through Sarah. In addition, Ms. Murdock included a lot of terrific descriptions of the city and its landmarks as well as some interesting historical information.

I don't want to give too much away, but Sarah learned a great deal about not only Rome, but also her friends, her family and herself. As a mother, I truly appreciated the valuable lessons she learned and how some of the obstacles she faced made her a better (and more honest) person. Sarah also learned a thing or two about keeping secrets and how damaging that can be.

I have a feeling that Booking Daughter would still enjoy HEAVEN IS PAVED WITH OREOS. The publisher claims that the book is for readers ages 10 to 14, so she still has some time. Unfortunately, I think our mother/daughter book club is a little too old for this novel. However, book groups with younger girls shouldn't hesitate to consider this book. Some of the themes you will want to discuss include friendship, boys, secrets, lies, forgiveness, parent/child relationships, exploring, freedom, and trust.

I thought HEAVEN IS PAVED WITH OREOS was a super cute book for young girls. Highly recommended.

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

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

Friday, September 13, 2013

Review: Taste of Home Recipes Across America

Summary: Sink your teeth into 735 all-American dishes, from crispy Southern Fried Chicken and tasty Philly Cheese Steak Sandwiches to sweet Hoosier Sugar Cream Pie. This ALL-NEW Recipes Across America cookbook is our BIGGEST-EVER collection of regional favorites and a must-have for home cooks coast to coast! Take a look at the dishes below for a taste of what's inside, then order your own copy of Recipes Across America today! -- Taste of Home Books

I am a HUGE fan of Taste of Home's recipes, so when I saw that they had a new cookbook out, I knew I wanted to get my hands on a copy. Their latest addition to their cookbook line is called TASTE OF HOME: RECIPES ACROSS AMERICA, and what a cookbook it is!

RECIPES ACROSS AMERICA is quite a thick cookbook (over 500 pages) and offers a huge variety of recipes. If you are familiar with Taste of Home's cookbooks, then you know that's not unusual. However, what makes RECIPES ACROSS AMERICA so special is that it features recipes from all five regions of the United States -- the Northeast, South, Midwest, Southwest, and West.

RECIPES ACROSS AMERICA definitely appealed to me and I think all cookbook fans will enjoy the 700+ recipes. I've lived in both the Northeast and the South, so I appreciate seeing all of the foods that I have eaten all of my life. But, I also loved seeing recipes from the Southwest because I love Tex Mex food. I found it extremely interesting to see many of the foods I've come to think of as part of a particular area, and I also discovered a thing or two about some new-to-me variations of popular foods.

The cookbook is divided into five sections based on the regions of America. Then it is subdivided into Main Dishes, Sides & More, and Sweets. Needless to say, there is a little something for everyone. In addition to the recipes, this cookbook also has loads of color photographs. Not every recipes has a featured picture, but most of them do. I don't know about you, but that's pretty darn important (and impressive) to me!

Another special feature in RECIPES ACROSS AMERICA is that almost every page has a "Dishing about Food" section in the sidebar. I found this information to be particularly interesting because it gives little bits of trivia about the various region's food. For example, did you know that "fried chicken" in Maryland means pan-fried chicken that is browned and then steamed rather than a crunchy coating?

Any time I have a cookbook this large, I admit I feel a little overwhelmed when deciding what to try first. Since I was hosting book club this week, I decided to make a dessert to share with my friends. I was in the mood for a lemon pound cake so I made the Golden Pound Cake recipe from the South region -- Mechanicsville, Virginia to be exact. The recipe was really simple -- basically a doctored cake mix recipe, and it had one secret ingredient, Mountain Dew. We all agreed that the cake was tasty and extremely moist, although I wish it had risen just a tad bit more.

RECIPES ACROSS AMERICA has some amazing recipes but also some very interesting tidbits about food in America. Highly recommended.

Thanks to FSB Associates for providing a review copy of this book.
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Thursday, September 12, 2013

Review: Instructions for a Heatwave

Summary: Sophisticated, intelligent, impossible to put down, Maggie O’Farrell’s beguiling novels—After You’d Gone, winner of a Betty Trask Award; The Distance Between Us, winner of a Somerset Maugham Award; The Hand That First Held Mine, winner of the Costa Novel Award; and her unforgettable bestseller The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox—blend richly textured psychological drama with page-turning suspense. Instructions for a Heatwave finds her at the top of her game, with a novel about a family crisis set during the legendary British heatwave of 1976. 

Gretta Riordan wakes on a stultifying July morning to find that her husband of forty years has gone to get the paper and vanished, cleaning out his bank account along the way. Gretta’s three grown children converge on their parents’ home for the first time in years: Michael Francis, a history teacher whose marriage is failing; Monica, with two stepdaughters who despise her and a blighted past that has driven away the younger sister she once adored; and Aoife, the youngest, now living in Manhattan, a smart, immensely resourceful young woman who has arranged her entire life to conceal a devastating secret. 

 Maggie O’Farrell writes with exceptional grace and sensitivity about marriage, about the mysteries that inhere within families, and the fault lines over which we build our lives—the secrets we hide from the people who know and love us best. In a novel that stretches from the heart of London to New York City’s Upper West Side to a remote village on the coast of Ireland, O’Farrell paints a bracing portrait of a family falling apart and coming together with hard-won, life-changing truths about who they really are. -- Knopf

I had a very productive vacation when it came to reading. Tanning, not so much, but finishing books was another story. I read quite a few good ones, but I think my favorite just might have been INSTRUCTIONS FOR A HEATWAVE by Maggie O'Farrell. I had seen some positive reviews for this novel as well as Ms. O'Farrell's writing, and I have to say that I totally agree!

In short, INSTRUCTIONS FOR A HEATWAVE is just a well written and very smart novel. It takes place during the British heatwave of 1976 and tells the story of the Riordan family. One morning, Gretta discovers that her husband of forty years is missing -- he went to get the morning paper and never came back! She notifies her three grown (and very different) children that their father has mysteriously disappeared, and as a result, they all come home for the first time in many years.

Michael is the only boy -- a teacher whose marriage is on the brink; Monica is married with two stepdaughters (who just happen to hate her); and Aoife is the youngest child who lives in New York and hides a pretty amazing secret. Monica and Aoife are estranged over something that happened years ago and have never made up. While all three children have major issues in their lives, they come together for the sake of their mother and eventually discover the importance of family.

I was extremely impressed with INSTRUCTIONS FOR A HEATWAVE! In fact, I think it might have been one of my favorite summer reads. I absolutely loved Ms. O'Farrell's storytelling abilities and her character development and prose were outstanding. And I loved how she tied the the oppressive heat of the summer with the building tensions in the Riordan family. However, what made this novel so special to me was the way that the author captured the essence of families and their secrets.

I guess you could say that there was an element of mystery to this story, too, since the reader (and the family) isn't quite sure what happened to the father. However, I didn't find this aspect of the story to be all that intriguing. Yes, I was a bit curious about why he left and where he went, but I mostly appreciated this part of the story as a way to bring the characters together and see how they acted in a time of crisis. Furthermore, I loved that it allowed old family secrets to come to the surface.

Another thing I appreciated about INSTRUCTIONS FOR A HEATWAVE was how the author portrayed the Riordan family. I loved the petty squabbling that the siblings did with each other, and the dialogue was often times very smart and witty. However, I also liked how the novel explored larger and much more serious issues. (I"m being vague on purpose because I don't want to spoil anything!) All of the siblings were experiencing their fair share of problems... on their own; and it wasn't until they came together because of their missing father, that they realized the role family members can play in their lives.

INSTRUCTIONS FOR A HEATWAVE would make an excellent book club selection. There is a
reading guide available with twenty (yes twenty!) discussion questions. Needles to say, there is a great deal to discuss. Some of the topics you might want to delve into include family, trust, marriage, love, parent/child relationships, sibling rivalry, forgiveness, pregnancy and birth, estrangement, and secrets. The list could really go on and on.

INSTRUCTIONS FOR A HEATWAVE is an excellent book about families and their secrets. Highly recommended.

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

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Review: The Girl You Left Behind & Giveaway

Summary: Jojo Moyes’s bestseller, Me Before You, catapulted her to wide critical acclaim and has struck a chord with readers everywhere. “Hopelessly and hopefully romantic” (Chicago Tribune), Moyes returns with another irresistible heartbreaker that asks, “Whatever happened to the girl you left behind?”

France, 1916: Artist Edouard Lefevre leaves his young wife, Sophie, to fight at the front. When their small town falls to the Germans in the midst of World War I, Edouard’s portrait of Sophie draws the eye of the new Kommandant. As the officer’s dangerous obsession deepens, Sophie will risk everything—her family, her reputation, and her life—to see her husband again.

Almost a century later, Sophie’s portrait is given to Liv Halston by her young husband shortly before his sudden death. A chance encounter reveals the painting’s true worth, and a battle begins for who its legitimate owner is—putting Liv’s belief in what is right to the ultimate test.

Like Sarah Blake’s The Postmistress and Tatiana de Rosnay’s Sarah’s Key, The Girl You Left Behind is a breathtaking story of love, loss, and sacrifice told with Moyes’s signature ability to capture our hearts with every turn of the page. -- Pamela Dorman Books

I already considered myself a big fan of Jojo Moyes; however, when Entertainment Weekly rated her latest novel THE GIRL YOU LEFT BEHIND an A-, I moved it right to the top of my TBR pile. I enjoy the occasional historical fiction read, and I'm always drawn to books with related stories that move between the present and the past. Needless to say, I had pretty high expectations for THE GIRL YOU LEFT BEHIND.

And Ms. Moyes didn't disappoint -- I loved this novel (although it did take me awhile to really get into it) I don't know if I'd go so far as to say I liked it more than  ME BEFORE YOU  but that was a very special book -- you can read my review here. However, THE GIRL YOU LEFT BEHIND is an equally compelling story about a two women and a painting.

THE GIRL YOU LEFT BEHIND begins in France in 1916 during World War I. Sophie's husband Edouard is a painter, but he's left his career and Sophie behind to fight for France in the war. Sophie is trying to keep her family's inn afloat during tough times, but then the Germans occupy their town and the inn too. Sophie has little of value now that the Germans have destroyed almost everything; however, she still has a portrait of herself that Edouard gave to her. This very same portrait manages to catch the attention of the Kommandant and he becomes obsessed with both the painting and Sophie. Sophie is desperate to see her husband again and willing to risk everything even if it means her life.

Fast forward 100 years and Liv is now the owner of Sophie's painting. Her husband, who has since died, gave it to her; and she treasures it every bit as much as Sophie did. However, Liv's life is unexpectedly turned upside down when Liv discovers that this painting is extremely valuable and the original family wants it back. A battle over its history ensues, and Liv is forced to stand up for what she believes in and fight to retain the piece of art.

I adored THE GIRL YOU LEFT BEHIND. Despite not exactly loving Sophie's story, I really enjoyed when the novel moved to Liv's story; and at that point, I couldn't put down the book. While I did find Sophie to be an interesting character -- I appreciated her passion and determination, I really felt for Liv and her battle to keep the painting. Like Sophie, she was extremely passionate and determined to do what she felt was right in honor of the man she loved.

One thing I really liked about this book was how it made me think. Liv's story delved into a huge ethical dilemma, "Who was the rightful owner of the painting?" I honestly felt for both sides and I wasn't exactly sure how I felt about this issue. As the story progressed, things became much clearer to me, but for a big part of this novel, I just shook my head and thought that in some cases, there just isn't a "right" or easy answer.

I mentioned earlier that Ms. Moyes didn't let me down with THE GIRL YOU LEFT BEHIND. I loved how she tied together Sophie's and Liv's stories, and I was really impressed with how she made the women so different and yet so similar. I found myself thinking about what these two women had in common -- missing their husbands, love for a painting that their husbands gave to them, risk taking, standing their ground, and much more; and I appreciated thinking about how the time period in which these women lived affected their outcomes.

I truly did love these women's stories and how well Ms. Moyes transitioned between the two, but I also liked that this book had some mystery elements to it. What happened to Sophie was left up in the air at the end of her section, and I was also dying to know what really happened to the painting. Of course, the reader gets answers to these questions and more by the end of the book, but I appreciated how I was kept guessing for much of the story.

It won't come as any surprise that I am recommending THE GIRL YOU LEFT BEHIND for book clubs. There is a reading guide with thirteen terrific questions. Most of the questions ask about decisions the characters made and what you thought of them, but there are also some themes you might want to explore including love, sacrifice, art, greed, rightful ownership, honestly, trust, and perseverance.

Overall, THE GIRL YOU LEFT BEHIND was a fantastic book. Highly recommended!

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

Giveaway alert: I have a copy of THE GIRL YOU LEFT BEHIND to share with one very lucky reader. To enter, just fill out the form below before Tuesday, September 24th at 11:59 p.m. EST. I will randomly select and notify the winner the following day. This contest is open to those of you with U.S. addresses only. Good luck!