Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Review: My Sweet Vidalia

Summary: On July 4, 1955, in rural Georgia, an act of violence threatens the life of Vidalia Lee Kandal’s pre-born daughter. Despite the direst of circumstances, the spirit of Vidalia’s lost child refuses to leave her ill-equipped young mother’s side. For as long as she is needed—through additional troublesome pregnancies, through poverty, spousal abuse, and agonizing betrayals—Cieli Mae, the determined spirit child, narrates their journey. Serving as a safe place and sounding board for Vidalia’s innermost thoughts and confusions, lending a strength to her momma’s emerging voice, Cieli Mae provides her own brand of comfort and encouragement, all the while honoring the restrictions imposed by her own otherworldly status. Vidalia finds further support in such unlikely relations and townsfolk as Doc Feldman, Gamma Gert and her Wild Women of God, and most particularly in Ruby Pearl Banks, the wise, kind, and courageous church lady, who has suffered her own share of heartache in their small Southern town of yesteryear’s prejudices and presumptions. 

My Sweet Vidalia is wise and witty, outstanding for its use of vibrant, poetic language and understated Southern dialect, as well as Mantella’s clear-eyed observations of “race relations” as “human relations,” a cast of unforgettable characters, an in-depth exploration of the ties that bind, and its creative perspective. My Sweet Vidalia is a rare, wonderful, and complex look at hope, strength, the unparalleled power of unconditional love, and a young mother’s refusal to give up. -- Turner Publishing

I was so excited when I received a surprise copy of MY SWEET VIDALIA by Deborah Mantella. I love books that take place in the south, and this novel certainly sounded original. The reviews were overwhelmingly positive and I was sure that this book would resonate with me. Unfortunately, I thought MY SWEET VIDALIA was just okay. I am guessing that it just wasn't the right book for me at the right time.

MY SWEET VIDALIA tells the story of Vidalia Lee and her unborn daughter Cieli Mae. When Vidalia faces yet another act of violence, she ends up losing her unborn baby. However, Cieli Mae knows how much her mother needs her and refuses to leave her side. Cieli Mae is "there" for Vidalia through some pretty horrific events including abuse by her husband and additional pregnancies. She provides advice and much needed support to help Vidalia deal with the unfortunate circumstances in her life.

I was very excited to sit down and read MY SWEET VIDALIA. I found the idea of a "spirit child" helping her troubled mother to be extremely unique, and I was interested to see if the author could write this character convincingly. Overall, I do think Ms. Mantella was successful in creating a special character in Cieli Mae; and I didn't have any problem accepting her as a "real" character. (And that's saying something because I don't love books with spirits and otherworldly things.)

I really can't explain why I found this book to be just okay. The writing was good, but it wasn't outstanding. And I have to admit that the book didn't stick with me much after I finished the last page. While the premise was unique, the novel and the characters just didn't resonate with me. Overall, it was just very average.

I appreciated that the author tried to bring the south to life through her vivid descriptions. There were some very good passages in the story that stood out, and I found the portrayal of the prejudices and racial relations to be insightful. I also liked how this novel showed the overall positive message that people are kind. However, I think that many of the characters were one-dimensional... and I think that was maybe my issue with the book. There just wasn't enough depth to the various characters.

I accept that I am pretty much alone with my thoughts of MY SWEET VIDALIA. I suggest checking out some additional reviews because I'm pretty sure I missed something in this novel.

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

Monday, December 21, 2015

Review: The Journey of the Penguin & Giveaway

Summary: To celebrate 80 years of Penguin Books, a charming picture book that tells the imagined story of the penguin who waddled his way into history as the symbol of a beloved publisher

A lonely Antarctic penguin, dreaming of adventure, sets off on a long swim north. Arriving at last in London in 1935, he encounters the chance of a lifetime: auditions are on to find the face of a brand new publishing house. The penguin wins, of course, and so begins an adventure that takes him on to New York and into the hearts of readers around the world.

In The Journey of the Penguin, award-winning graphic artist Emiliano Ponzi delivers a boldly illustrated, wildly imaginative, and terrifically fun story—told entirely through image—that brings to life the “dignified yet flippant” bird chosen eighty years ago by Allen Lane as the name and icon of his revolutionary publishing business. With cameo appearances by legendary Penguin authors including Jack Kerouac, Arthur Miller, and Dorothy Parker, this exquisite, one-of-a-kind book celebrates the enduring appeal of storytelling. -- Penguin

THE JOURNEY OF THE PENGUIN by Emiliano Ponzi is a wonderful celebration of Penguin Books 80th birthday! It's a wordless picture book so you might think it's for children... which it definitely is. However, it's also a treat for grownups who are children at heart and also love books.

THE JOURNEY OF THE PENGUIN isn't an easy book for me to review because of its simplicity. Basically, a lonely penguin sets off for an adventure. He swims a very long time (and sees some interesting people and places along the way) until he reaches London. Call it luck, but the penguin gets an audition to find the face of a new publishing company. The penguin wins and his life really takes off! He travels to New York and is forever synonymous with Penguin books.

I thought THE JOURNEY OF THE PENGUIN was adorable! I loved the illustrations by award-winning graphic artist Emiliano Ponzo -- the were gorgeous. In fact, I could totally see so many pages of this book in poster form! The story and illustrations were certainly special, but I also loved the humor in the book. There were even a few Penguin writers that appeared including Jack Kerouac, Arthur Miller and Dorothy Parker.

Overall, THE JOURNEY OF THE PENGUIN is a fun celebration of Penguin's 80 years. Recommended to kids and adults alike!

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

Giveaway alert: I have a copy of THE JOURNEY OF THE PENGUIN to share with one lucky reader. To enter, just fill out the form below before January 3rd 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, December 19, 2015

Kid Konnection: Laurence King Children's Books

Every Saturday, I host a feature called Kid Konnection -- a regular weekend feature about anything related to children's books. This week I'm going to share with you two wonderful books from Laurence King Publishing.

Summary: Learn to count from one to ten with little houses around the world!

Visit a variety of charming little houses around the world - right the way from one Scottish crofter's cottage to ten town houses beside a canal in Amsterdam.

Created by talented papercut artist Helen Musselwhite, each beautiful scene has lots of details to spot and count together.

Also includes fun facts about each type of house for extra spotting fun. -- Laurence King

LITTLE HOUSES: A COUNTING BOOK by Helen Musselwhite is such a cool counting picture book. Like you, there have been many counting books come through our house over the past sixteen years, but LITTLE HOUSES is one-of-a-kind. This book teaches children how to count from one to ten with small houses from around the world.

For example, there are adorable houses from England, Amsterdam, South Africa and the United States; and they are all very cute. What makes this book even more special are the illustrations. Each set of houses is made of paper constructions and feature the unique architectural styles from all over the world.
As you can see from the picture above, this book is so interesting for kids and parents alike. The little ones can learn to count while older children (and parents) will learn about the various architectural styles from around the world. I will admit that I wasn't sure where all of the houses were from... until I saw the last few pages of the book. The author included a section that explains the different styles of homes and where they exist.

I loved the artwork in LITTLE HOUSES and think the book is a great way to combine counting and architecture. Highly recommended!

Summary: A fantastic, original exploration of how animals build their homes and the fascinating structures they create. From gladiator frogs to chimpanzees, learn about how animals all over the world build their homes. Each spread contains a beautiful, colorful illustration of each animal and its home, plus a unique fold-out information panel, with stats and a simple architectural diagram showcasing the creation of the 'architect'. Look inside chimpanzee nests, beaver dams, termite mounds, stork nests, and many more - and get to know the clever animals who build them! -- Laurence King

ANIMAL ARCHITECTS: AMAZING ANIMALS WHO BUILD THEIR HOUSES by Daniel Nassar and Julio Antonio Blasco is a wonderful book for kids who are interested in animals and science. This picture book is definitely for an older crowd because it's chock full of interesting facts about animals and their houses.

I was blown away by how much information is included in ANIMAL ARCHITECTS. Of course, animals are fascinating and this book really explores just how amazing they are. Each two page spread features a different animal and how they build their home. Check out how beautiful this book is:
ANIMAL ARCHITECTS covers a wide variety of animals including a beaver, an African Tree Frog, a spider, a chimpanzee and more. Not only does the book teach what their homes look like, but it also explains how they build them; and it even gives information about the animal itself. The right page also has a flap which opens to look like a little building plan. ANIMAL ARCHITECTS is really quite impressive with how it's designed as well as the information it includes.

ANIMAL ARCHITECTS belongs in school libraries and classrooms. It's a wonderful book to learn about nature and science in an interesting and fun way!

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

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

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Review: The Coincidence of Coconut Cake

Summary: You’ve Got Mail meets How to Eat a Cupcake in this delightful novel about a talented chef and the food critic who brings down her restaurant—whose chance meeting turns into a delectable romance of mistaken identities.

In downtown Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Lou works tirelessly to build her beloved yet struggling French restaurant, Luella’s, into a success. She cheerfully balances her demanding business and even more demanding fiancé…until the morning she discovers him in the buff—with an intern.

Witty yet gruff British transplant Al is keeping himself employed and entertained by writing scathing reviews of local restaurants in the Milwaukee newspaper under a pseudonym. When an anonymous tip sends him to Luella’s, little does he know he’s arrived on the worst day of the chef’s life. The review practically writes itself: underdone fish, scorched sauce, distracted service—he unleashes his worst.

The day that Al’s mean-spirited review of Luella’s runs, the two cross paths in a pub: Lou drowning her sorrows, and Al celebrating his latest publication. As they chat, Al playfully challenges Lou to show him the best of Milwaukee and she’s game—but only if they never discuss work, which Al readily agrees to. As they explore the city’s local delicacies and their mutual attraction, Lou’s restaurant faces closure, while Al’s column gains popularity. It’s only a matter of time before the two fall in love…but when the truth comes out, can Lou overlook the past to chase her future?

Set in the lovely, quirky heart of Wisconsin, The Coincidence of Coconut Cake is a charming love story of misunderstandings, mistaken identity, and the power of food to bring two people together. - Gallery

Seriously, tell me the cover THE COINCIDENCE OF COCONUT CAKE by Amy E. Reichert isn't fantastic! I love coconut cake so this cover drew me right in, but I will admit that the storyline was appealing too. I haven't been in a reading mode lately (at all!) and I needed something light and fun. THE COINCIDENCE OF COCONUT CAKE was exactly what the doctor ordered!

THE COINCIDENCE OF COCONUT CAKE tells the story of Lou, a restaurant owner and chef, who is struggling to keep her business afloat. She works super hard at her French restaurant and almost as hard trying to keep her fiancé happy. On her fiance's birthday, she decides to surprise him with a gorgeous coconut cake only to be surprised herself when she finds him with his intern!

Needless to say, Lou is devastated and not exactly able to concentrate on her cooking duties. Unfortunately this is the day that Al, an uptight and terribly snobby food critic, appears at her restaurant to review it. Lou isn't on her game and serves him undercooked fish and burnt sauce, and her staff isn't as attentive as they should be because they were worried about Lou. The review is devastating to Lou and her struggling restaurant.

Al actually writes under a pseudonym for the local Milwaukee newspaper, so when Al and Lou meet she has no idea that he is actually the one who wrote the scathing review... and Al isn't exactly anxious to tell her. The two end up finding having some chemistry, but Lou is in no condition to jump into another relationship. Instead, she decides to give Al a series of "dates" that introduce him to the finer aspects of Milwaukee and its food.

Of course, the two eventually fall in love and the truth has to come out, right? The normal escapades associated with a secret identity occur, and the story is fairly predictable... but in a good way. THE COINCIDENCE OF COCONUT CAKE is an entertaining love story and a great deal of fun!

Obviously, I really liked THE COINCIDENCE OF COCONUT CAKE, but I know what you are probably thinking. This book sounds a lot like the typical romcom book or movie. And you're right, I did recognize elements of You've Got Mail and more than a few books that I've read through the years. However, I do think THE COINCIDENCE OF COCONUT CAKE is better than the average story. The main reason for this is that the novel really made me fall in love with Milwaukee!

I have never been to Milwaukee but it sounds like a wonderful city! The author brought this small city to life in this novel and it sounded a lot like Pittsburgh to me... and I love Pittsburgh! Her descriptions of the people and the food and the festivals were wonderful, and in many ways, THE COINCIDENCE OF COCONUT CAKE was a beautiful tribute to a city that's obviously near and dear to the author's heart.

I think many people would enjoy this sweet and fun book, and therefore, I do think it would make a good book club selection. There is a reading guide available with twelve interesting questions along with some ideas to enhance your book club experience. Some of the themes you might want to explore include change, trust, forgiveness, second chances, the role of negative press, and the role of food. Of course, the author also included a recipe for coconut cake so you'd just have to serve that at your meeting!

Overall, THE COINCIDENCE OF COCONUT CAKE was a cute read that I enjoyed very much! Definitely recommended for fans of sweet romances and chick lit!

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

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Guest Review: A Killing Winter

Summary: In this stylish neo-noir set in the mountainous Central Asian republic of Kyrgyzstan, hard-bitten inspector Akyl Borubaev mourns the recent death of his beloved wife–the only humanizing force in his otherwise bleak life as a homicide dective in Bishkek. 

As he struggles to face his personal pain, Borubaev is assigned to investigate the murder of a young woman whose horribly mutilated body is found dumped in a public park. When Borubaev discovers the woman is the only daughter of Mikhail Tynaliev, the powerful and ruthless Minister of State Security, he realizes the case will probably destroy him, regardless of where the evidence leads. 

Borubaev begins making enemies everywhere he turns, even as he is aided by a motley assortment of dangerous cutthroats: his wife’s uncle Kursan, whose cross-border smuggling is the stuff of local legend; the explosive police chief, who wants the case solved as soon as possible; Saltanat, a beautiful and deadly agent of the Uzbek Security Service; an entire police force of bent cops; and members of the Kyrgyz mafia. 

All of which would just be another day in the life of Akyl Borubaev–if the investigation didn’t turn up a blood-chilling connection to multiple homicides across Kyrgyzstan–including one on a Russian military base.  -- Quercus

It seems like it's been awhile since Booking Pap Pap has written a review (just kidding, dad!), but he's back with A KILLING WINTER by Tom Calaghan. Here are his thoughts:

A KILLING WINTER by Tom Callaghan takes place in Kyrgyzstan, the former Soviet state located between China and Uzbekistan. The book opens with Inspector Akyl Borubaev of the Bishkek Murder Squad surveying a grotesque murder scene in the city of Bishkek. A young woman was brutally murdered, mutilated and her body cavity filled with a fetus removed from someone else. 

Borubaev soon discovers that the victim is the daughter of a powerful, well-placed government official which adds pressure to quickly solve the crime. Borubaev’s investigation leads him to additional brutal murders which in turn leads him into the ugly world of Kyrgyzstan politics, to the brutal Kyrgyzstan underworld and to a local Russian military base and forces him to work with a beautiful Security Service agent from the rival country of Uzbekistan.

Author Tom Callaghan portrays Kyrgyzstan as an impoverished, corrupt, drug infested and lawless country with a mood of despair. The mood is further hardened by the long list of sleazy and nasty characters involved in the case. The characters are very well developed by Callaghan and fit nicely into the atmosphere developed in the novel.

Inspector Borubaev is depicted as the one compassionate character in the novel who is struggling with the loss of his wife to cancer. The author also shows Borubaev’s as a cunning and tough character who can display a violent side in enforcing the law.

A KILLING WINTER is a tough thriller full of violence and savagery. Although the book has great characters, is quick paced, includes a lot of twists and turns and has a surprise ending, I would not recommend it to those who are the least bit squeamish.

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

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Holiday Spotlight: Laurence King Publishing

I have been away from my blog the past week or so, but I'm back today with a selection of fantastic gift ideas from Laurence King Publishing. I have enjoyed looking through all of these books, and I'm pretty sure this publisher has something for everyone on your gift list!

Summary: From the publisher that brought you the hugely successful Secret Garden and Enchanted Forest by Johanna Basford - this special artist's edition features 20 beautiful, pull-out art prints for coloring in. Colouring fans of all ages will enjoy immersing themselves in a selection of the most popular artworks from the original book, now presented in a new, large-scale format for maximum coloring enjoyment.

Each detailed illustration is printed on high-quality card, and can be removed easily for framing or craft projects. -- Laurence King

A few weeks ago, I reviewed some gorgeous adult coloring books and, in the process, discovered why coloring is such a huge craze. The latest coloring book to catch my eye is SECRET GARDEN ARTIST'S EDITION: 20 DRAWINGS TO COLOR AND FRAME by Johanna Basford.

SECRET GARDEN ARTIST'S EDITION is absolutely beautiful. This new coloring book has twenty of Ms. Basford's most popular artworks from the original SECRET GARDEN book to color, and they are amazing. The book is a little larger than the "typical" adult coloring book (about 10x13 inches), and the pages are extremely thick cardstock quality. The pages are also designed for easy removal so you can frame your latest coloring creation.
As you can see from this picture above, these coloring pages are spectacular. SECRET GARDEN ARTIST'S EDITION would make a great gift!

Summary: Can’t decide what to wear in the morning? Why not mix a punk hairdo with a period dress? The pages of this interactive book (split into four parts) will take you from fashion faux-pas to fabulous in one flip.

From grunge and pirate to disco queen and street style, create over 100,000 of your own fashion fantasies (and nightmares) with this colorfully illustrated and carefully researched flipbook. With magazine-style captions for each outfit there are words to play with too. -- Laurence King

FLIP FASHION DESIGNER illustrated by Lucille Clerc is a terrific gift idea for the fashionista in your life. This book is so much fun and gorgeous too! FLIP FASHION DESIGNER is an interactive book (geared towards adults which is so cool) that allows you to mix and match styles to create a look entirely your own.

Each page of FLIP FASHION DESIGNER is made up of four sections -- head, chest, legs, and shoes. You can flip back and forth between the various designers to come up with a special outfit. As you select different options on the right of each page, you can see the designer and the year on the left. So I guess you could say this book is fun and educational!

I'm not sure that I'm explaining this concept of this book very well, so check out the picture below:
You can make over 100,000 different styles with the wide variety of choices in this book so it will never get old. Highly recommended to anyone interested in the history of fashion!

Summary: Turn your fridge into a polar landscape! Let polar bears roam wild while penguins slide across the ice. Dispatch an icebreaker ship to the remotest corner of the fridge door while killer whales and colossal squid lurk in the chilly waters. From caribous to killer whales, these 40 magnets will make a cool addition to any fridge. -- Laurence King

And last but certainly not least is the fun gift idea FRIDGESCAPES: POLAR FRIDGE MAGNETS illustraed by Caroline Selmes. This boxed set includes 40 magnets so you can create your own polar scene.

This gift set is especially cute, and as a mom, I love that the magnets can be securely kept in a box! I loved the variety of animals including polar bears, penguins, seals, and more. The magnets are a few inches in size so they are not recommended for kids under the age of three.
I think this set of magnets is a fun gift idea. Kids (and even adults!) can use their imagination and create unique polar landscapes.

Summary: Learn about the North and South Poles with this amazing panoramic play scene! Including more than 100 stickers for you to create your own icy scenes with, from sliding penguins to the lion’s mane jellyfish, and from Inuit families to all the different types of snow vehicles. Also included are plenty of fabulous facts to complete your Polar knowledge! -- Laurence King

To complement the FRIDGESCAPES POLAR FRIDGE MAGNETS, you should definitely check out STICKYSCAPES POLAR ADVENTURES. This sticker book has more than 100 stickers so kids can create polar landscapes on a fold-out play scene.
My kids had sticker books similar to this one when they were little and they absolutely loved them!

Thanks to the publisher for providing review copies of these items. I will be back on Saturday with a few special Laurence King kids' books!

Monday, December 7, 2015

Review: What She Knew

Summary: In her enthralling debut, Gilly Macmillan explores a mother’s search for her missing son, weaving a taut psychological thriller as gripping and skillful as The Girl on the Train and The Guilty One.

In a heartbeat, everything changes…

Rachel Jenner is walking in a Bristol park with her eight-year-old son, Ben, when he asks if he can run ahead. It’s an ordinary request on an ordinary Sunday afternoon, and Rachel has no reason to worry—until Ben vanishes.

Police are called, search parties go out, and Rachel, already insecure after her recent divorce, feels herself coming undone. As hours and then days pass without a sign of Ben, everyone who knew him is called into question, from Rachel’s newly married ex-husband to her mother-of-the-year sister. Inevitably, media attention focuses on Rachel too, and the public’s attitude toward her begins to shift from sympathy to suspicion.

As she desperately pieces together the threadbare clues, Rachel realizes that nothing is quite as she imagined it to be, not even her own judgment. And the greatest dangers may lie not in the anonymous strangers of every parent’s nightmares, but behind the familiar smiles of those she trusts the most. Where is Ben? The clock is ticking... -- Wm Morrow

I love mysteries and especially psychological thrillers. So when I read the description of the new novel WHAT SHE KNEW by Gilly Macmillan, I was definitely interested. With comparisons to THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN, I knew it had the potential to be a great book; however, I will admit that the subject matter made me take a pause.

WHAT SHE KNEW is about the abduction of an eight year old boy named Ben. He and his single mom were taking a walk in the woods one Sunday afternoon when he mysteriously disappeared. This novel describes the events that occurred immediately after Ben's abduction through the eyes of his hysterical mother Rachel and Clemo, the police office working the case.

Despite finding this an uncomfortable read at times (I challenge any parent not to be uncomfortable while reading this story!), I did appreciate it... and I guess I'd even say that I enjoyed it. The story was very well written, and I thought the portrayal of the events were realistic. Even more impressive was how well the author captured the intense feelings of both Rachel and Clemo. Not too shabby for a debut novel!

Naturally when a child goes missing, the police try to gather as much evidence at the scene of the crime as possible, but they also have to look to the parents... especially in the case of Ben when the kidnapping was so darn strange. Not only was Rachel beating herself up for letting Ben run ahead of her, but she was also being closely watched by the police and berated by the general public for being, at best, a bad mother, at worst, a murderer.

Rachel was an extremely realistic character to me, and naturally my heart broke for her. However, she was also an intriguing character to me. There were times when her behavior, albeit realistic, wasn't the persona that she "should" have portrayed to the public. And there were even times when I wasn't sure I liked her all that much. I appreciated just how well Ms. Macmillan brought Rachel to life and just how persistent Rachel was in figuring out what happened to Ben... and never giving up.

As interesting as I found Rachel, I really like Clemo, the cop working the case. He was even more interesting to me and the complexity of his character was fantastic. His sections of the novel included his first person thoughts as he became obsessed with the case, but they also featured excerpts from his sessions with an appointed therapist. These sections of the book were some of my favorites, giving both Clemo and the therapist's thoughts about his mental state; and I liked the depth they added to the story.

At its heart, WHAT SHE KNEW was a mystery about what happened to Ben; and I thought it was a very good one. As the police worked the case, secrets about Rachel and her family's past came to light which made her begin to doubt those who were closest to her. (Of course, she also wasn't exactly in a stable mental state either so she wasn't always thinking straight!) I appreciated how the story unfolded, the surprises that were thrown in, and the ultimate resolution of the case.

WHAT SHE KNEW is a fantastic debut from an author whose career I'll be tracking. Highly recommended to fans of mysteries and psychological suspense novels.

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, December 5, 2015

Kid Konnection: Welcome to the Symphony

Every Saturday, I host a feature called Kid Konnection -- a regular weekend feature about anything related to children's books. This week I'm going to share with you a fun, interactive book for the child who loves music!

Summary: Using one of the most famous works in classical music—Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony—here is the perfect way to introduce a young child to the world of classical music. This charming and interactive picture book with its panel of 19 sound buttons is like a ticket to a concert hall, taking readers on a journey from the exciting first moment when the musicians begin tuning up to the end of the first movement (attention newcomers: don’t clap yet!). At each step of the way, readers learn the basics of classical music and the orchestra: What is a conductor? What is a symphony? Who was Beethoven? The different aspects of music: melody, harmony, tempo, theme. And the families of instruments—strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion.

But the best part is that every critical idea is illustrated in gorgeous sound. The sound panel allows readers to hear the different parts of the symphony and voices of the music—the famous beginning of the Fifth, what a clarinet sounds like, the difference between a violin and a viola, what a melody is, and what harmony is. Kids will want to match their voices to the A note that tunes the orchestra, dance to the rhythmic passages—and, of course, sing along to da-da-da-daah! -- Workman

WELCOME TO THE SYMPHONY by Carolyn Sloan and illustrated by James Williamson is an excellent book for children who want to learn more about classical music and the symphony. It has nineteen buttons on the side which kids will love to play with; and in the process, they can learn about the various instruments in a symphony as well as the basics of Beethoven's Symphony No. 5.

While some kids might find that subject matter a little daunting, WELCOME TO THE SYMPHONY makes learning fun with its many interactive sound buttons. There is a button that demonstrates the tuning necessary for musicians and others that play Symphony No. 5 and the main theme. In addition, there are sixteen buttons of various instruments so kids can learn how they sound when compared to each other.

WELCOME TO THE SYMPHONY is both fun and educational. My kids probably would have spent the majority of their time just playing with the buttons and "making music." However, the book also teaches children the basics of the music. They will learn what a symphony is as well as the definitions of pitch, note, and tempo to name just a few. In addition, they will learn background/history of the various instruments and when it's okay to clap!

I was pleasantly surprised by how much information exists between the pages of WELCOME TO THE SYMPHONY. The book is only 31 pages, yet it contains so much educational material about the symphony. I found the information to be very interesting, so I'm sure youngsters will manage to learn a thing or two. What I really appreciated, though, was how the authors include mice as the audience members -- the ones who were learning along with the reader about the symphony. These characters and their humor made the book lighter and even more fun!

My son's class went to see the orchestra last year for a field trip, and I think this book would have been a fantastic way to introduce the symphony to them! Highly recommended for both home and school libraries.

Thanks to FSB Associates 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!

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Review: The Great Christmas Knit-Off

Summary: In the tradition of Trisha Ashley and Jenny Colgan, this first book in a new series by Alexandra Brown—author of the popular Cupcakes at Carrington’s series—tells the hilarious, heartwarming story of a jilted bride who anticipates a lonely Christmas but instead finds herself in the tiny village of Tindledale, where the residents share her obsession with knitting. When life unravels, it’s time to knit…

Sybil has always taken comfort in her passion for knitting, creating beautiful knits stitch by stitch. But her world suddenly unravels when her fiancé ditches her for her identical twin sister at her Star Wars-themed wedding, leaving her sporting a Princess Leia do. Then things go from bad to worse when an incident at work jeopardizes her job.

Hoping to escape her woes and forget that she’ll be alone for Christmas this year, she visits her friend in Tindledale—a winter wonderland of quaint shops and snowy rooftops. When she arrives in the idyllic town, she can’t help feeling like she’s in a Hallmark greeting card. She’s embraced by welcoming—if eccentric—locals wearing handmade knits that remind Sybil of her own creations as well as her unrealized ambitions of selling them. So when the vintage boutique asks her to make an assortment of knits for their display window, she’s thrilled. The hot town doctor has even taken an interest in Sybil, hoping to heal her broken heart.

But just when Sybil thinks she’s going to have her fairytale Christmas after all, an unexpected turn of events threatens to unspool her happily ever after. -- William Morrow

I'm following up yesterday's review with another fun Christmas book! This one is called THE GREAT CHRISTMAS KNIT-OFF by Alexandra Brown, and it's an entertaining story that reinforces all those feel-good things about the holiday season. It focuses on the goodness of people, and it's exactly what I needed to read this week!

THE GREAT CHRISTMAS KNIT-OFF tells the story of Sybil, a woman who was left at the altar of her Star Wars themed wedding and still hasn't gotten her groove back. She is a bit of a mess in that she can't sleep and she's making mistakes at her job, and she really wishes she would just make a living selling knitting, crochet, and quilted items.

Sybil decides to visit her friend in the small village of Tindledale in an effort to escape her dreary life. Tindledale is a quaint English village with adorable shops, and it has quite the cast of characters as its citizens. Sybil immediately feels comfort in this small town with all the generosity displayed by the villagers; however, when she meets Hettie and her House of Haberdashery, she really feels a sense of happiness and belonging that she hasn't felt for some time.

When Sybil realizes that the 80-something Hattie is at risk for losing not only her store but her house, Sybil decides to help! It doesn't hurt that Sybil shares Hattie's passion for knitting. Together, they update the look of the store, set up a website for online orders, and even eBay some collectibles and completed projects. And when they receive a huge order for Christmas sweaters from some Japanese tourists, they just might be able to hold off the creditors and save the store!

What starts as a brief weekend trip to Tindledale turns into a life-changing experience for Sybil. She makes many new friends and possibly finds a love interest, while also being able to help Hattie save her house and store. In the process, Sybil realizes the path in life that she wants to take and finds true happiness!

I adored THE GREAT CHRISTMAS KNIT-OFF. The story was cute and the characters were quirky and fun. I found the book to be highly entertaining and it definitely hit the spot during my recent reading slump. Needless to say, this book was a quick read and had a chick lit feel to it (which I enjoy every so often); but it also felt like a contemporary Jan Karon book with the small town vibe and cast of characters.

I will admit that THE GREAT CHRISTMAS KNIT-OFF was a little predictable, but that's perfectly okay with me for a book like this. Honestly, if things had turned out any different, I would have been disappointed. Given the storyline and that it was a holiday book, I wanted a happy/feel-good ending!

THE GREAT CHRISTMAS KNIT-OFF is the first in a new series by Alexandra Brown, and I, for one, will be sure to read more from this author. I will admit that this novel isn't my typical read, but I really enjoyed laughing at these characters. In addition, I loved the messages from this novel. It was so heartwarming to see everyone pitch in to help someone in need, and it was a beautiful reminder of what's important during this hectic time.

THE GREAT CHRISTMAS KNIT-OFF is a cute story that's sure to be a winner for readers who enjoy sweet stories. It also would be ideal for a December book club meeting!

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

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Review: The Life & Adventures of Santa Claus

Summary: L. Frank Baum’s The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus was first published in 1902, two years after his Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Drawing on the attributes of Santa Claus from Clement Moore’s 1822 poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (“The Night Before Christmas”), Baum chronicles Santa’s life from his childhood in an enchanted forest—the same forest that is the source of all magic in the land of Oz—to his destiny of sharing gifts and spreading love to his fellow man. Along the way we witness him making his first toys, learn the origins of the Christmas tree and Christmas stockings, and discover the stories behind many Christmas secrets, like why Santa slides down chimneys, how he picks his reindeer, and how he delivers all his toys in one night. Later adapted into multiple animated films, and published here with the original illustrations from the first edition, The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus evinces the charm, warmth, and fantasy that made L. Frank Baum’s Oz stories American classics. -- Penguin Christmas Classics

Now that it's December, I sure hope you are getting into the Christmas spirit! I am done decorating and shopping, but I still need to do all of my wrapping -- my least favorite holiday task! This week, I decided to read a few Christmas books and share them with you so you will have time to buy and read them before the 25th... and hopefully relax while getting into the holiday spirit.

Last year I received the first five books in the Penguin Christmas classics series - A CHRISTMAS CAROL by Charles Dickens, CHRISTMAS AT THOMPSON HALL: AND OTHER CHRISTMAS STORIES by Anthony Trollope, A MERRY CHRISTMAS: AND OTHER CHRISTMAS STORIES by Louisa May Alcott, THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS by Nikolai Gogol, and THE NUTCRACKER by E. T. A. Hoffmann. I have stacked them and wrapped them in a gorgeous red bow because these books are too pretty to put away. Each book has a foil-stamped jacket, decorative endpapers, and a nameplate for personalization. They are also printed in a small size so they can be presented as stocking stuffers.

This year, I received a copy of THE LIFE & ADVENTURES OF SANTA CLAUS by L. Frank Baum -- yes the very same L. Frank Baum who wrote THE WIZARD OF OZ. I had absolutely no idea that this "Christmas classic" even existed, but I was happy to discover that this story is delightful. Mr. Baum tells Santa's story from his childhood in an enchanted forest, to his talents as a toymaker, to his ability to give toys to children of all backgrounds.

I thought THE LIFE & ADVENTURES OF SANTA CLAUS was terrific. I loved how Mr. Baum wove details into his story to match Clement Moore's poem "The Night Before Christmas," and it was fun to see how he explained many of the things we've come to associate with Santa like reindeer, chimneys, stockings, and more. I was very impressed with his creativity and storytelling abilities.

THE LIFE & ADVENTURES OF SANTA CLAUS is a quick read coming in around 150 pages and a perfect way to relax this time of year. In fact, I thought the book would make a great read-aloud for the entire family. Of course, Santa's story is always fun in any form, but I especially loved the wonderful messages in this story. There are just so many timeless words of wisdom that are important to remember throughout the year but especially these next few weeks.

I loved THE LIFE & ADVENTURES OF SANTA CLAUS and the idea of these Penguin Christmas Classics. Highly recommended for gifts and personal enjoyment!

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

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Guest Review: War of Two

Summary: A provocative and penetrating investigation into the rivalry between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, whose infamous duel left the Founding Father dead and turned a sitting Vice President into a fugitive.

In the summer of 1804, two of America’s most eminent statesmen squared off, pistols raised, on a bluff along the Hudson River. That two such men would risk not only their lives but the stability of the young country they helped forge is almost beyond comprehension. Yet we know that it happened. The question is why.

In War of Two, John Sedgwick explores the long-standing conflict between Founding Father Alexander Hamilton and Vice President Aaron Burr. A study in contrasts from birth, they had been compatriots, colleagues, and even friends. But above all they were rivals. Matching each other’s ambition and skill as lawyers in New York, they later battled for power along political fault lines that would not only decide the future of the United States, but define it.

A series of letters between Burr and Hamilton suggest the duel was fought over an unflattering comment made at a dinner party. But another letter, written by Hamilton the night before the event, provides critical insight into his true motivation. It was addressed to former Speaker of the House Theodore Sedgwick, a trusted friend of both men, and the author’s own ancestor.

John Sedgwick suggests that Hamilton saw Burr not merely as a personal rival but as a threat to the nation. Burr would prove that fear justified after Hamilton’s death when, haunted by the legacy of his longtime adversary, he embarked on an imperial scheme to break the Union apart. -- Berkley

I honestly don't know much you can read about Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, but my dad found another one. It's called WAR OF TWO: ALEXANDER HAMILTON, AARON BURR, AND THE DUEL THAT STUNNED THE NATION by John Sedgwick. Here are his thoughts:

WAR OF TWO Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and the Duel That Stunned the Nation by John Sedgwick is the latest take on this historic encounter. Sedgwick’s approach is to blend the biographies of two of our nation’s early leaders; both driven, both extremely intelligent, both outstanding lawyers, yet each with substantial flaws and each with a very different person. The author attempts to show how their lives intertwined right up to the unfortunate duel. He shows that at various times they were compatriots, colleagues and rivals.

Hamilton, of illegitimate birth, was an immigrant to the United States from a Caribbean island. He served as the chief aide to General George Washington, wrote a majority of the Federalist papers, led the Federalist Party and served as the first Treasury Secretary where his plans put the U.S. on a strong financial footing.

Burr, an American aristocrat, served as an officer in the Revolutionary War, held several political offices including the Vice-President of the United States ( Thomas Jefferson was elected President in 1800 on the House of Representatives’ 34th ballot after he and Burr tied in Electoral College votes. Burr won the consolation prize of Vice-President) , was an extremely private and complex individual and was a substantial force in the Republican Party.

Some say the reason for the duel began with a rumor that Hamilton told attendees at a dinner party that Burr was a dangerous man. Sedgwick contends that the cause began years earlier as their lives moved toward the inevitable duel.

By the time of the duel in 1804, both Hamilton and Burr were at the end of their political influence. Their reputations (partially due to sexual transgressions) and their finances were in significant ruin. Defending ones honor was all that remained. Hamilton’s son died in a duel and he abhorred the practice even though he actually participated in eleven; although only the last needed gunfire to resolve. Interestingly, Burr participated in two duels, both against members of the Hamilton family, both requiring gunfire.

WAR OF TWO continues with Burr’s tragic life after the killing of Hamilton. In 1805 he attempted to start his own country by dividing the newly acquired western lands from the eastern portion of the United States. He was arrested for high treason in 1806 and although found innocent, he was generally persona non grata in the United States and lived abroad for several years. He returned to the United States in1811 and died in 1836 at the age of eighty.

I have previously reviewed two books involving Burr and Hamilton. The first was AMERICAN EMPEROR by Davis O. Stewart. It began with the 1800 election and proceeded through the duel and Burr’s demise. The second was DUEL WITH THE DEVIL by Paul Collins which outlined a famous trial in 1800 where Burr and Hamilton worked together to defend a man accused of murder. Neither book contained as much detail as does WAR OF TWO.

To me, the most interesting aspect of WAR OF TWO is the way Sedgwick blended the two biographies with the history of the time. The reluctance of Washington to become President, his lack of trust in Burr, the dislike of John Adams’ policies, Jefferson’s strong enmity of Burr, the formation of the political parties and first-ever election campaigning are of few examples of the historical issues. It is also clear that polarized politics has a long history beginning with the election of 1800.

Even though I enjoyed WAR OF TWO, I was sometimes bogged down with the large amount of details presented. It was a difficult read and I would recommend it for those who truly have a keen interest in United States history.

Thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy of this book (BEA 2015) and to my dad for his great review.