Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Review: The Hopefuls

Summary: A brilliantly funny novel about ambition and marriage from the best-selling author of Girls in White Dresses, The Hopefuls tells the story of a young wife who follows her husband and his political dreams to Washington, D.C., a city of idealism, gossip, and complicated friendships among the young aspiring elite.

When Beth arrives in D.C., she hates everything about it: the confusing traffic circles, the ubiquitous Ann Taylor suits, the humidity that descends each summer. At dinner parties, guests compare their security clearance levels. They leave their BlackBerrys on the table. They speak in acronyms. And once they realize Beth doesn’t work in politics, they smile blandly and turn away. Soon Beth and her husband, Matt, meet a charismatic White House staffer named Jimmy, and his wife, Ashleigh, and the four become inseparable, coordinating brunches, birthdays, and long weekends away. But as Jimmy’s star rises higher and higher, the couples’ friendship—and Beth’s relationship with Matt—is threatened by jealousy, competition, and rumors. A glorious send-up of young D.C. and a blazingly honest portrait of a marriage, this is the finest work yet by one of our most beloved writers. -- Knopf

I read a few reviews prior to sitting down to write my own for THE HOPEFULS by Jennifer Close, and they weren't what I expected. In fact, they weren't exactly raving reviews, and I had to wonder if I read the same novel. Entertainment Weekly, my go-to source for book reviews, however, gave it an A-... so I felt a bit redeemed.

I thought THE HOPEFULS was highly entertaining, very funny, and surprisingly insightful. It tells the story of Beth, a woman who moves from New York City to Washington, D.C. for her husband Matt's new job. He definitely has political aspirations and Beth dutifully follows him even if that means being less than happy about leaving New York.

Beth soon discovers that there is a lot to hate about D.C. and who can blame her? It's a whole new world where everyone seems to be obsessed with politics. And since Beth isn't involved in that world, except through her husband, people have little time for her... until she meets Ashleigh.

Ashleigh is married to Jimmy, an up-and-comer in the White House; and she and Beth immediately hit it off. The two couples begin doing everything together -- brunches, weekly dinners, vacations, and more. When Jimmy decides to return to Texas to run for office, Matt decides to leave D.C. to run the campaign. The two couples even live in the same house in the months leading up to the election.

The closeness of the couples highlights some differences in their lives, and their relationship takes a downhill turn. Matt has a hard time dealing with Jimmy's behavior and a harder time dealing with Jimmy's success. Meanwhile, Beth, who never was crazy about being a political wife, feels even more excluded from her husband's life.

I loved THE HOPEFULS! I honestly didn't want to put this book down; and as a result, I read it in the course of a day or two. Maybe it's because I worked in D.C. for almost a decade, but I thought the author's observations about the city were perfect. I loved Beth's wry comments about the quirks of the city, like the traffic circles, the Metro, and the dinner parties; and I found myself laughing out loud on a number of occasions while reading this book.

One thing that stood out to me was Beth. She was far from perfect, but I really liked her. The novel was written in her voice, and I loved her wry observations about... pretty much everything. She was very funny and extremely honest. And it was her honestly that made this book so good to me. Her insights into life and the way the novel captured her thoughts was so spot on. In fact, I could relate to (and laughed at) many of her thoughts even when I knew I shouldn't!

I think the real strength of the book, however, was in how the relationships were portrayed. There was definitely lot going on in Beth and Matt's marriage (as well as Jimmy and Ashleigh's!) In addition, there was some tension between Beth and Jimmy that was interesting to say the least. However, my favorite relationship in the book was the friendship between Beth and Ashleigh.

When Beth met Ashleigh, it was exactly what she needed -- a friend! They discovered they really liked each other and became almost inseparable. I could totally relate to this, and I suspect many women will feel the same way. The beginning of their friendship was almost like the beginning of a romantic relationship. They had such a wonderful time getting to know each other, and it definitely reminded me of some of the friendships I've had in my life.

I do think THE HOPEFULS would make a great book club read; however, I wasn't able to find any formal discussion questions. Don't let that be a deterrent to selecting this novel. There is really so much to talk about especially the complex relationships in the novel. Some of the themes you might want to explore include marriage, sacrifice, secrets, adultery, honestly, friendship, motherhood, adjustments, and politics.

I adored THE HOPEFULS and highly recommend it to fans of women's fiction.

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

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Review: What Was Mine (Audio)

Summary: Simply told but deeply affecting, in the bestselling tradition of Alice McDermott and Tom Perrotta, this urgent novel unravels the heartrending yet unsentimental tale of a woman who kidnaps a baby in a superstore—and gets away with it for twenty-one years.

Lucy Wakefield is a seemingly ordinary woman who does something extraordinary in a desperate moment: she takes a baby girl from a shopping cart and raises her as her own. It’s a secret she manages to keep for over two decades—from her daughter, the babysitter who helped raise her, family, coworkers, and friends.

When Lucy’s now-grown daughter Mia discovers the devastating truth of her origins, she is overwhelmed by confusion and anger and determines not to speak again to the mother who raised her. She reaches out to her birth mother for a tearful reunion, and Lucy is forced to flee to China to avoid prosecution. What follows is a ripple effect that alters the lives of many and challenges our understanding of the very meaning of motherhood.

Author Helen Klein Ross, whose work has appeared in The New Yorker, weaves a powerful story of upheaval and resilience told from the alternating perspectives of Lucy, Mia, Mia’s birth mother, and others intimately involved in the kidnapping. What Was Mine is a compelling tale of motherhood and loss, of grief and hope, and the life-shattering effects of a single, irrevocable moment. -- Gallery

I remember when my good friend Kathy was listening to WHAT WAS MINE by Helen Klein Ross. She really enjoyed it and I was so excited because she was able to share it with me via Audible's new policy! It took me awhile to get around to listening to it, but I'm really glad I did. I have to agree with her that this was a compelling story.

WHAT WAS MINE centers around one woman's desire to be a mother and the extent she would go through to live that dream. Lucy Wakefield and her husband have been trying to have a child for years. It becomes all consuming for Lucy, so much so that she and her husband's marriage fails partly because of it. Lucy throws herself into her advertising career, yet she still longs for a child.

One day when Lucy is browsing in IKEA, she sees an infant left alone in a shopping cart. Something overcomes her and she leaves the story with the baby girl. Despite her intentions that she was just taking the baby outside to warm up, she ends up taking the baby home with her. She names the baby Mia and creates an elaborate set of lies... and the two live together and mother/daughter for two decades.

Meanwhile, Mia's biological mother Marilyn is devastated to lose her daughter. She and her husband try to keep hope alive, but their marriage eventually falls apart too. Marilyn ends up moving to California after some time and finding a new career, husband, and family. However, she never forgets about her daughter.

When Mia eventually discovers the truth about her mother, she is extremely confused. She's also furious with Lucy and decides she never wants to speak with her again. She goes to California and tries to live with her biological mother and new family; however, that proves to be difficult too. Lucy flees to China (where there just happens to be no extradition agreement with the U.S.) and prays that some day Mia will contact her.

Needless to say, there's a heck of a lot going on in WHAT WAS MINE. It's a touching story about mothers and the love they have for their children. However, it also explores some other universal topics including grief, loss, and guilt. I thoroughly enjoyed the audio version which was read by Julia Whelan, Cassandra Campbell and Amanda Carlin (with: Rebekkah Ross and Jonathan Todd Ross.)

One of my favorite things about WHAT WAS MINE was the way the author decided to tell the story. The book was written in multiple viewpoints -- mainly Lucy and Marilyn's eyes; however, Mia, the husbands, and even a few minor characters also had their turn. I really appreciated how the author captured each of their voices, and I think the narrators further helped with their interpretations.

I also thought WHAT WAS MINE gave me a lot to think about. And that's always a good thing when it comes to a book! While I obviously didn't think what Lucy did was right, I did feel some compassion towards her. (That's also a credit to the author!) I could feel Lucy's desperation and it was a one second decision that forever changed her life... as well as other's lives. While I've never made a decision quite like Lucy's, it does make you think about how your choices alter your future!

I also thought the author did a great job in showing the fall-out from Mia's kidnapping. Her portrayal of Lucy's constant paranoia was extremely realistic to me, but she also did a wonderful job in her portrayal of Marilyn and the path she took with her life. And Mia's reaction to learning the truth just resonated with me -- it was perfect. Overall, I found all three characters' reactions to be very believable, and that was refreshing because I did have some issues with believing that Lucy would just steal a baby.

WHAT WAS MINE would make an excellent book club pick. There is so much to uncover about these three women, and I do think groups with moms will embrace this novel. There is a reading guide available with twelve questions along with some suggestions to enhance your meeting. Some of the themes you might want to explore include guilt, desire, mother/daughter relationships, marriage, secrets, faith, grief, identity, and forgiveness.

I really enjoyed WHAT WAS MINE and highly recommend it to fans of women's fiction.

Thanks to Kathy (aka Bermudaonion) for sharing her audio copy of this novel.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Review: After Anna

Summary: The real nightmare starts when her daughter is returned…

A bone-chilling psychological thriller that will suit fans of Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn, Daughter, by Jane Shemilt, and The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins. A girl is missing. Five years old, taken from outside her school. She has vanished, traceless.

The police are at a loss; her parents are beyond grief. Their daughter is lost forever, perhaps dead, perhaps enslaved.

But the biggest mystery is yet to come: one week after she was abducted, their daughter is returned.

She has no memory of where she has been. And this, for her mother, is just the beginning of the nightmare. -- Harper

AFTER ANNA by Alex Lake has been on my radar ever since the fine folks at Harper Collins did a video book preview for those of us unable to attend this year's BEA in Chicago. I love psychological suspense novels and this one sounded terrific. I found it interesting that AFTER ANNA was a number one e-book bestseller prior to being published by Harper, and I was certain that I'd love it.

Unfortunately, that wasn't exactly what happened. I thought AFTER ANNA was just okay; and while I do think the premise is fantastic, the book just didn't work on all fronts for me. I can't even tell you why I didn't love it. All I know is that I felt a little disappointed given my expectations after reading the book's description.

AFTER ANNA tells the story of Julia Crowne, a divorce lawyer whose young daughter Anna goes missing one day after school. Julia was caught up in a meeting and her phone was dead, so she couldn't even contact the school that she was running late. No one at the school noticed anything suspicious the afternoon that Anna disappeared -- it was almost as if she went missing without a trace.

Naturally, Julia is beside herself, as is Anna's father Brian. What makes this story is more interesting is that Julia has recently decided that she no longer loves Brian and wants a divorce. The press doesn't miss a beat attacking Julia -- first for being a bad mother and second for being an adulteress who wanted to leave her daughter and husband.

Five days later, when everyone was starting to give up hope that Anna would ever be found, she appears in a convenience store. You might think the story could end here, but you'd be wrong. Things are just beginning to get interesting because Anna wasn't the target. The criminal mastermind is now aiming for the "real" target Julia.

If you're anything like me, you're definitely intrigued by this book's description. It sounds like a great psychological thriller. And for many readers, I'm sure it is a really good read. There were just a few things that didn't resonate with... starting with the character of Julia.

I didn't like Julia at all; and I have to wonder if that was the author's intent. Either way, Julia seemed so selfish to me that I couldn't feel as bad for her as I wanted to. Sure, my heart went out to her because Anna was missing -- isn't that a parent's worst nightmare? And it wasn't even that I exactly blamed her for being late to the school or letting her phone die. What bothered me about Julia was how mean she was to her husband. I understand that she no longer loved him, but she was absolutely vicious.

After Anna returned and Julia became the target, I found that the story became a little predictable. I had a pretty good idea who was responsible for the abduction fairly early in my reading; and while I didn't figure out every detail, when the culprit was eventually revealed I found it to be a little anti-climatic.

Having said all of that, there were definitely some strongpoints of AFTER ANNA. I do think the author has some definitel skills when it comes to storytelling; and I think she was very creative with the novel's plot. I also appreciated that the author attempted to make Julia a complex character throughout the story.

Overall, I have mixed feelings about AFTER ANNA. The book definitely will appeal to many fans of psychological suspense, but it just fell short of being a great book in my opinion.

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, August 27, 2016

Kid Konnection: Busy Builders, Busy Week! & Giveaway

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 cute picture book for little ones who love all things construction!

Summary: In this bright, bold picture book, a cast of animal characters are building a brand-new playground in a local park for their community! Each day of the week contains a different construction plan as the steam-rolling, digging, and planting gets underway.

Tuesday! Mix day!
Pipe and boards and bricks day.
Stack, spin, pour it in.
Give the fence a fix day.

Wednesday! Load day!
Take it on the road day.
Hoist, haul, pull it all.
Something being towed day!

The construction project comes together for a joyful, rhyming walking tour of a neighborhood, where young readers can learn the days of the week while watching everyone work as a team! -- Bloomsbury

BUSY BUILDERS, BUSY WEEK! by Jean Reidy and illustrated by Leo Timmers is a very fun picture book. In fact, it's ideal for fans of trucks and animals; and it also teaches youngsters about the various days of the week.

BUSY BUILDERS, BUSY WEEK! features an irresistible cast of construction workers... who just happen to be animals. They are building a new playground for a community park, and their dedication to the job shines through on every page. The book takes readers through the various days of the week, beginning with Sunday, and shows what progress is being made on the park. It ends on Saturday with the big park opening!

I thought BUSY BUILDERS, BUSY WEEK! was so much fun. I love the whimsical nature of the animals and their machines. (The cement mixer has polka dots!) And, I think the illustrations are positively adorable. I have no doubt that little ones will love looking at the pages of this book because there are so many silly details. I can't wait to share it with the little guys that I babysit every Monday!

BUSY BUILDERS, BUSY WEEK! is a great book and a must-have addition to preschool and home libraries. There is even a free class curriculum guide and storytime kit here. Highly recommended!

Thanks to Blue Slip Media for providng a review copy of this book.

Giveaway alert: I have a copy of BUSY BUILDERS, BUSY WEEK! to share with one lucky reader. To enter, just fill out the form below before September 9th 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!

Follow Jean on the BUSY BUILDERS, BUSY WEEK! tour!

Mon, Aug 22 -- Cracking the Cover
Tues, Aug 23 -- Literary Hoots
Wed, Aug 24 -- NC Teacher Stuff
Thurs, Aug 25 -- Mom Read It
Fri, Aug 26 -- Unleashing Readers
Mon, Aug 29 -- Bluestocking Thinking
Tues, Aug 30 -- Jean Little Library
Wed, Aug 31 -- Geo Librarian
Thurs, Sept 1 -- Mrs. O Reads Books
Fri, Sept 2 -- Where Imagination Grows

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, August 25, 2016

Review: How to Party with an Infant

Summary: The new novel from the New York Times bestselling author of The Descendants—a hilarious and charming story about a quirky single mom in San Francisco who tiptoes through the minefields of the “Mommy Wars” and manages to find friendship and love.

When Mele Bart told her boyfriend Bobby she was pregnant with his child, he stunned her with an announcement of his own: he was engaged to someone else.

Fast forward two years, Mele’s daughter is a toddler, and Bobby and his fiancée want Ellie to be the flower girl at their wedding. Mele, who also has agreed to attend the nuptials, knows she can’t continue obsessing about Bobby and his cheese making, Napa-residing, fiancée. She needs something to do. So she answers a questionnaire provided by the San Francisco Mommy Club in elaborate and shocking detail and decides to enter their cookbook writing contest. Even though she joined the group out of desperation, Mele has found her people: Annie, Barrett, Georgia, and Henry (a stay-at-home dad). As the wedding date approaches, Mele uses her friends’ stories to inspire recipes and find comfort, both.

How to Party with an Infant is a hilarious and poignant novel from Kaui Hart Hemmings, who has an uncanny ability to make disastrous romances and tragic circumstances not only relatable and funny, but unforgettable. -- Simon & Schuster

I have to share a funny story that happened when I was reading the new novel HOW TO PARTY WITH AN INFANT by Kaui Hart Hemmings. I was sitting at karate and a mom came up to me and asked me if I was pregnant. I didn't get it for a minute, but I guess she was thinking that I was reading a self-help book. I very quickly assured her that I wasn't having a baby, but I'm sure she could tell immediate because I had a disgusted look on my face!

HOW TO PARTY WITH AN INFANT is far from a self-help book. Rather, it's a funny story about a single mom trying to navigate motherhood in the trendy city of San Francisco. The novel is funny and does have some touching moments; however, I can't go so far as to say I loved it. I thought it was just ok.

Mele is a single mom with a two year old daughter named Ellie. The father of her baby told her he was engaged to another women when Mele announced her surprise pregnancy. Now, he wants Ellie to be the flower girl at his wedding, and Mele is less than thrilled since she's not quite over him yet. She can't decide if it would be right for her to attend the wedding!

Meanwhile, Mele is looking for something to do. She's busy with being a mom and hanging out with play groups, but she might need a little more. (This is where I think many stay-at-home moms will relate.) She decides to enter the San Francisco Mommy Club's cookbook writing contest. She begins by filling out a questionnaire... in a brutally honest (and often times humorous) way, and then she uses her friends' life stories to create the unique recipes.

With the help of her play group (and one very special dad), Mele gets through all of the changes in her life, especially Ellie's dad's wedding. She also realizes some important things about being a mom and what she really wants out of life.

HOW TO PARTY WITH AN INFANT is truly an original story. I can't think of anything I've read similar to it. I don't mean that the story is entirely unique, but the way it's presented is pretty darn creative. I'm not sure I'm going to explain this very well, but the basic structure of the book is set up in the form of the questionnaire. Then, Mele's story is also woven in. Where it gets creative is that author also introduces Mele's friends' stories and then uses their stories to inspire original recipes. It's a fresh approach to storytelling, and I definitely appreciated what the author was trying to do.

I can't honestly say why the book didn't work for me. Maybe it's because I'm so far past Mele's motherhood stage. I also think that I pretty much have nothing in common with her or her stories. As a result, I couldn't really relate to her all that much. I also didn't really love her like I had hoped. There were times when her insecurity shined through and my heart did go out to her, but then there were other times when I didn't really like her all that much.

There were definitely some things I did like about this book though. I did think the author did a good job of capturing some of the feelings of hanging out with a toddler all day and attending play groups. It took awhile before Mele found the ideal playgroup, and her stories of some of the earlier ones were cute. I had to laugh at some of the interactions with the moms (and dads) as well as remember back to those days when I wasn't sure if my daughter or I were going to make it. Success was just making through each day in one piece!

I also appreciated that this book was so smart and witty. Even though I didn't love Mele, I found some of her observations on life (and especially motherhood) to be pretty darn funny. There were definitely parts of this novel that were satirical in nature, and I think (for the most part) they worked really well. I also thought there were some touching parts of the story that really cut to the chase about how hard it is to be a mother... especially a single mother.

I do think HOW TO PARTY WITH AN INFANT would be a good book club pick for a certain type of group -- probably one made of younger moms. There is a reading guide available with twelve questions along with some ways to enhance your book club experience. Some of the themes you might want to explore include friendship, motherhood, sacrifice, forgiveness, acceptance, new relationships, helicopter parenting, mommy wars, and more.

Overall, HOW TO PARTY WITH AN INFANT was a cute read that did touch upon some serious issues. I recommend this novel to moms with infants or anyone looking for a unique (and funny) story.

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

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Review: The Girls

Summary: Northern California, during the violent end of the 1960s. At the start of summer, a lonely and thoughtful teenager, Evie Boyd, sees a group of girls in the park, and is immediately caught by their freedom, their careless dress, their dangerous aura of abandon. Soon, Evie is in thrall to Suzanne, a mesmerizing older girl, and is drawn into the circle of a soon-to-be infamous cult and the man who is its charismatic leader. Hidden in the hills, their sprawling ranch is eerie and run down, but to Evie, it is exotic, thrilling, charged—a place where she feels desperate to be accepted. As she spends more time away from her mother and the rhythms of her daily life, and as her obsession with Suzanne intensifies, Evie does not realize she is coming closer and closer to unthinkable violence. 

Emma Cline’s remarkable debut novel is gorgeously written and spellbinding, with razor-sharp precision and startling psychological insight. The Girls is a brilliant work of fiction. -- Random House

I hardly know where to start talking about THE GIRLS by Emma Cline. This book has received some major praise in the past few months, and who am I to argue with that? The story takes place in the 1960s and will remind some readers of the Manson Family cult. In fact, I was expecting a fictionalized account of that story, but what I got was so much more.

THE GIRLS tells the story of Evie Boyd, a fourteen year old girl who notices a group of girls in a park and immediately becomes entranced by them. While Evie certainly has her fair share of freedom, she becomes caught up in the wonder of these girls. They just seem to have a certain way about them -- their unique style of dress, their wild nature, and their no care attitude.

Evie is especially drawn to Suzanne, one of the older girls in the group; and Suzanne introduces her to the cult and their charismatic leader. They live in seclusion in the hills of Northern California; and despite the raggedy nature of the ranch, Evie is mesmerized. Evie begins spending more and more time away from her family, and she eventually gets caught up in this group and their violent behavior.

Readers can't help but feel as if Evie was a member of the Manson Family or a group that is eerily similar. I honestly was expecting a story about the brutal crime but was pleasantly surprised that the novel was more about the dynamic of girls. (I guess the title of the novel could have been a clue!) The novel was extremely insightful, maybe even brilliant at times; and it is a compelling (albeit disturbing) read.

I always credit the author Megan Abbott for "getting" girls and teen behavior, and I have to say that Emma Cline is definitely another writer who gets it! In fact, Ms. Cline is a terrific author -- one that creates memorable characters and a compelling storyline. It's hard to believe that THE GIRLS is her first novel because it's so polished and well written. The way she portrayed the longing that Evie felt for Suzanne was so spot-on, and I suspect that readers will actually understand Evie's behavior... even though at first glance it seems so strange.

I have read quite a few books about the Manson Family, and I honestly have always wondered how a group of people could be so willing to follow a crazy man. It really wracked my brain. What I will say is that THE GIRLS helped me to understand the dynamics of girls who wanted to belong to a group so badly that they were willing to do almost anything. It's a scary (and sad) thing that the desire to be part of a group is that strong for some people.

Needless to say, THE GIRLS would make an excellent book club pick. Almost all of the women in my group have daughters, and I think it would be especially interesting to talk about these girls' behavior with them. There is a reading guide with twelve interesting questions that might help to jump start your meeting. Some of the themes you might want to explore include family, peer pressure, friendship, insecurity, desire, power and acceptance.

Overall, THE GIRLS is one of the best books I've read this summer. Don't miss it!

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

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Review: With Love from the Inside

Summary: Angela Pisel’s poignant debut explores the complex relationship between a mother and a daughter, and their quest to discover the truth and whether or not love can prevail—even from behind bars.

Grace Bradshaw knows the exact minute she will die. On death row for murdering her infant son, her last breath will be taken on February 15 at 12:01 a.m. Eleven years, five months, and twenty-seven days separate her from the last time she heard her precious daughter’s voice and the final moment she’d heard anyone call her Mom. Out of appeals, she can focus on only one thing—reconnecting with her daughter and making sure she knows the truth.

Secrets lurk behind Sophie Logan’s big house and even bigger bank account. Every day when she kisses her husband good-bye, she worries her fabricated life is about to come crumbling down. No one knows the unforgivable things her mother did to tear her family apart—not her husband, who is a prominent plastic surgeon, or her “synthetic” friends who live in her upscale neighborhood.

Grace’s looming execution date forces Sophie to revisit the traumatic events that haunted her childhood. When she returns to her hometown, she discovers new evidence about her baby brother William’s death seventeen years ago—proof that might set her mother free but shatter her marriage forever.

Sophie must quickly decide if her mother is the monster the prosecutor made her out to be or the loving mother she remembers—the one who painted her toenails glittery pink and plastered Post-it notes with inspiring quotes (“100 percent failure rate if you don’t try”) all over Sophie’s bathroom mirror—before their time runs out. -- Putnam

It wasn't until I saw so many Facebook ads for the new novel WITH LOVE FROM THE INSIDE by Angela Pisel that I realized I had this book sitting on my shelf. That could tell you a few things about me... 1) that I have no idea what books I have, or 2) that I have a lot of books on my shelf. Both are probably a little bit true.

WITH LOVE FROM THE INSIDE tells the story of a very difficult relationship between a mother and daughter. Grace is the mother and she has been living on death row in a prison for years for killing her infant son. Her daughter, Sophie, is happily married to a successful doctor, lives in a beautiful home... and hasn't spoken to her mother for over a decade. She is also living a lie because she's never told her husband the truth about her mother.

Grace is desperate for her daughter's forgiveness especially now that she's run out of appeals and has been given the date of her execution. When she returns back to her hometown for some closure, she discovers some new evidence about her baby brother's death. This new information could be exactly what Sophie needs to prove Grace's innocence.

Sophie isn't sure what to make of the past seventeen years. She remembers her mom as a kind, loving mother, but she also knows that the evidence of the baby's death points directly to Grace. She also knows that by telling her husband the truth about her mother after all of these years could put her marriage in jeopardy. Sophie must decide quickly what she wants to do... before it's too late!

I really enjoyed WITH LOVE FROM THE INSIDE, and I was definitely impressed with the debut effort by Ms. Pisel. The novel was a compelling story about a mother and daughter that really touched my heart. I appreciated that there was a touch of a mystery surrounding the death of the baby, and I liked how the secrets were resolved.

I think the strength of this novel was the relationship between Grace and Sophie... even though they weren't really together in many of the scenes. The book alternated between the two women and much of Grace's chapters were letters written to Sophie. As Grace remembered her time bringing up Sophie, I found my heart aching for her. She was obviously a woman of faith who loved her child dearly. She was so concerned with leaving behind her memories and words of wisdom to her daughter.

I was actually surprised by how much I felt while reading this novel. I think that's a testament to the author and the characters she created. I found both Grace and Sophie to be interesting, and I definitely liked both of them too. As the story went on, I found my heart just breaking for both of them -- Sophie because she was so damaged and living a lie and Grace because she was sentenced to death and living in prison. These women were suffering so much and it seemed like neither one was to blame.

I don't want to give too much away, but I will say that I appreciated the ending of the story. I don't know that I'll go so far as to say I liked it though. I appreciated it because it fit with the novel. (That will make more sense if you read the book.) The ending wasn't entirely predictable and it did make me think (which is a very good thing); however, it wasn't entirely the resolution I wanted!

I do think WITH LOVE FROM THE INSIDE would make a great book club pick. There is a reading guide available with eight thought-provoking questions. Some of the themes you might want to explore include mother/daughter relationships, guilt, secrets, lies, our legal system, the death penalty, and forgiveness.

Overall, I thought WITH LOVE FROM THE INSIDE is a compelling novel about a very unique mother/daughter relationship. Recommended to fans of women's fiction as well as readers who appreciate stories about dysfunctional families.

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

Monday, August 22, 2016

Review: All the Missing Girls

Summary: Like the spellbinding psychological suspense in The Girl on the Train and Luckiest Girl Alive, Megan Miranda’s novel is a nail-biting, breathtaking story about the disappearances of two young women—a decade apart—told in reverse.

It’s been ten years since Nicolette Farrell left her rural hometown after her best friend, Corinne, disappeared from Cooley Ridge without a trace. Back again to tie up loose ends and care for her ailing father, Nic is soon plunged into a shocking drama that reawakens Corinne’s case and breaks open old wounds long since stitched.

The decade-old investigation focused on Nic, her brother Daniel, boyfriend Tyler, and Corinne’s boyfriend Jackson. Since then, only Nic has left Cooley Ridge. Daniel and his wife, Laura, are expecting a baby; Jackson works at the town bar; and Tyler is dating Annaleise Carter, Nic’s younger neighbor and the group’s alibi the night Corinne disappeared. Then, within days of Nic’s return, Annaleise goes missing.

Told backwards—Day 15 to Day 1—from the time Annaleise goes missing, Nic works to unravel the truth about her younger neighbor’s disappearance, revealing shocking truths about her friends, her family, and what really happened to Corinne that night ten years ago.

Like nothing you’ve ever read before, All the Missing Girls delivers in all the right ways. With twists and turns that lead down dark alleys and dead ends, you may think you’re walking a familiar path, but then Megan Miranda turns it all upside down and inside out and leaves us wondering just how far we would be willing to go to protect those we love. -- Simon & Schuster

I am getting to the point where I hate all of the book comparisons to THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN and LUCKIEST GIRL ALIVE. I realize that publishers are trying to attract fans of those books to read their latest female protagonist thriller; however, it's just not fair. A lot of these books can stand on their own merit. Case in point -- ALL THE MISSING GIRLS by Megan Miranda.

ALL THE MISSING GIRLS tells the story of Nicolette Farrell, a woman who left her hometown ten years ago after her best friend, Corinne, mysteriously disappeared. Now living in Philadelphia with a good job and a fiancé that most would consider quite the catch, she is forced to return home to help with her aging father.

Within days of Nic's return, another local woman named Annaleise goes missing without a trace. Needless to say, Corinne's unsolved case is brought right back in the spotlight. Nic's high school boyfriend Tyler is a suspect -- he was dating Annaleise at the time of her disappearance; however, Nic finds that she's also being looked at by the police along with her brother Daniel. It's hard to argue with the police that there are just too many coincidences in the two disappearances.

I have a feeling this is a "love it" or "hate it" type of book. I read two reviews, Publishers Weekly and Kirkus; and they couldn't have been more different. I actually will side with PW on this one. I thought ALL THE MISSING GIRLS was a well-written, suspenseful story that kept me turning the pages until late in the night.

I certainly found a lot to like in ALL THE MISSING GIRLS. First and foremost, I loved how the story was told. The novel is written in Nic's voice which worked extremely well because it gave readers an insider's look into the story. As I learned more and more about Nic and her past, I actually began to wonder if she was a reliable narrator. In many cases, I feel manipulated by an unreliable female narrator but not so with this novel.

In addition, I loved that the story took place in reverse chronological order. I wasn't entirely sure the author could pull off this trick, but she did so with flying colors. The story begins with the end (which is actually Day 15) and each chapter is the prior day until you reach Day 1. There is actually an ending past Day 15, but you get the drift. I found the presentation to be so clever and effective, and I especially appreciated not knowing what happened in the past whether that was 15 days earlier or 10 years earlier. I will say that there were a few times when I was a little disoriented, but for the most part, I loved how the clues were revealed!

I also found the mystery aspect of this story (or stories) to be extremely well done. I'm not going to lie, I had some idea about Corinne's disappearance; however, I was shocked by the mystery surrounding Annaleise's disappearance. I think the format of the story (working backwards) helped to muddy the waters surrounding Annaleise, but I honestly thought the culprit could have been a number of the characters.

I do think ALL THE MISSING GIRLS would make a great book club pick. I would love to talk with a group to get their feelings about the novel as well as the way the story was written. I think the characters would be somewhat interesting to dissect, although I'm not sure we got a detailed look at any of them except Nic. There is a reading guide available with fifteen questions along with some suggestions for ways to enhance your meeting. Some of the themes you might want to discuss include family, obligation, love, secrets, regrets, myth, superstition, honesty, deception, morality, and memory.

I found ALL THE MISSING GIRLS to be a treat! Highly recommended for fans of psychological thrillers and mysteries.

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, August 20, 2016

Kid Konnection: Science with Stuff 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 four fantastic science books from Downtown Bookworks!

Summary: Discover fascinating facts about our feathered friends such as:

• which birds are the biggest, fastest, smallest, and more
• why some birds change colors with the seasons
• which bird has poisonous skin and feathers
• who builds the coolest nests
• how the fastest fliers soar -- Downtown Bookworks

Summary: Close-ups of creepy crawlies and incredible facts about the world of insects will keep kids enthralled. A bug in resin is an excellent bonus! -- Downtown Bookworks

Summary: Spectacular pictures and jaw-dropping info make this a must-read. Real space rocks (tektites) make it impossible to pass up! -- Downtown Bookworks

Summary: Fascinating information about prehistory is thrilling for young science fans. A real fossil gives them something to treasure! -- Downtown Bookworks

I am really excited to share with you some wonderful books for youngsters (ages 8 and up) who are interested in science. Unfortunately, Booking Son doesn't like science all that much -- I know, I know; however, he even made an exception for this collection! These books not only have vivid photographs and loads of information, but they also include "stuff" on the front cover that kids can touch.

The very first book that captured Booking Son's attention was BIRD-ACIOUS by Melissa Stewart. This book's subtitle is Yuck! Owl Puke with Bones in it. My daughter's 4th grade class got to dissect owl puke but they discontinued it by the time my son hit fourth grade. He's always wanted to find little bones in an owl pellet and now he can!

This science book describes the different types of birds beginning with a birdasaurus. It also delves into why birds can fly, why male birds strut their stuff, nesting, and types of beaks to name just a few of the topics. The color photographs are beautiful and the information is presented in a fun way that will definitely appeal to kids. The descriptions are brief and written in language that they will relate to. For example, it even explains how birds poop!

And they saved the best for last... the owl pellet. There is an explanation of how the pellet heat-treated as well as specifics for how to dissect the owl pellet. There is even a photo of the various types of bones and teeth you might find in the pellet.

The next book is INSECT-O-MANIA by Allyson Kulavis. This book includes a beetle preserved in resin -- not exactly my idea of fun but I think kids will think it's pretty cool. This book is just as fun and educational as BIRD-ACIOUS. It is chock full of information on insects as well as very interesting close-up photographs. I think parents will especially appreciate the pages devoted to cockroaches! Ha Ha!

Readers who are interested in different insects (or love gross things) will have love this book! I'll even admit that I found the different types of insects to be fascinating.

The next cool book in the series is SPACE-TACULAR by Allyson Kulavis. The book includes real space moon rocks. Booking Son was really interested in this book too -- I guess he doesn't realize that space is still science! Once again, I am really impressed with the quality of photography and details in this book.

There are pages devoted to the sun and the moon, but there are also pages about space shuttles and space food. I thought the section explaining how space technology has impacted the earth was especially interesting. Kids who are interested in outer space and the space program will have a blast with this book! (I couldn't resist!)

And last but certainly not least is the book FOSSIL-ICIOUS by Allyson Kulavis. I was always interested in fossils as a kid, and I was really drawn to this book that includes a real fossil right in the front cover. It won't surprise you that this book has some awesome photographs.

FOSSIL-ICIOUS explores the different eras and what types of animals and plants existed during those times. It also looks at tar pits and fossil hunters which are pretty darn interesting. The last page of the book teaches kids how to identify the fossil that was included with the book. Our copy includes a plant leaf fossil.

Overall, these books are wonderful! These are only four of the Stuff with Science books that are available. There are also ones about the sea called SEA-SATIONAL and sharks called SHARK-TASTIC. I highly recommend this fun and educational series. Plus at $11.99, they make great gifts!

Thanks to the publisher for providng 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!

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Review: If You Left

Summary: A seductive novel about a privileged but damaged Manhattan wife whose main source of stability — her marriage — comes under threat, from forces both without and within.

For most of their marriage, Althea has fluctuated between extreme depressive and manic states — what she calls “the Tombs” and “the Visions” — and Oliver has been the steady hand that guided her to safety. This summer, Althea decides that she will be different from here on. She will be the loving, sexy wife Oliver wants, and the reliable, affectionate mother their nine year-old daughter Clem deserves. Her plan: to bring Clem to their Easthampton home once school is out — with no “summer girl” to care for her this time — and become “normal.”

But Oliver is distant and controlling, and his relationship with their interior decorator seems a bit too close; Clem has learned to be self-sufficient, and getting to know her now feels like very hard work for Althea. Into this scene enters the much younger, David Foster Wallace–reading house painter, who reaches something in Althea that has been long buried.

Fearless, darkly funny, and compulsively readable, If You Left explores the complex dance that is the bipolar marriage, and the possibility that to move forward, we might have to destroy the very things we've worked hardest to build. -- Mariner

I can't really say that I've ever read a novel quite like IF YOU LEFT by Ashley Prentice Norton. Maybe what's even more appropriate to say is I've never encountered a character quite like the main one in this story. Althea is suffers from bi-polar disorder and her once-stable marriage is on the brink of disaster. This summer, she is determined to make things "normal" for her husband and daughter.

In the past, Althea has gone from extremely depressed to manic states. Her husband Oliver has always been there for her. When he sees her approaching a breakdown, he's the one to pack up her suitcase and take her to the hospital. Althea realizes it's difficult for both Oliver and her daughter Clem, and she decides to take matters into her own hands. She will be the perfect wife and mother (no "summer girl" this year for Clem!), and she will also remodel their Easthampton home.

Oliver seems to be reaching the breaking point with Althea. When he's around (which isn't all that often), he also seems entirely too cozy with their interior decorator. As if that's not enough, Althea finds that it's not quite natural for her to be an attentive mom... especially when her daughter is used to having virtually no mommy presence. And then the young, sexy house painter named Maze enters the picture; and Althea discovers that Maze rekindles a desire in her that she didn't even realize still exists.

I'm not really sure how I felt about IF YOU LEFT. I read it in an afternoon, so I guess that says something. While I appreciated the writing and the character development, I didn't really like Althea (or any of the characters for that matter except maybe Clem) all that much; and I never felt as if I related to her. But it was more than just being unlikable, Althea really didn't resonate with me at all.

If I'm being entirely honest, I guess I should have felt sorry for Althea... and I definitely did, but it just wasn't enough. She suffers from a severe mental illness that contributed to her five suicide attempts. She's also on a cocktail of drugs that I'm sure are just awful. In addition, she is losing her husband and daughter; and she realizes that she needs to do something different, but she just can't. But despite all of this, I just didn't didn't care all that much!

That's not to say that IF YOU LEFT didn't have some positive things about it. First and foremost, I thought the writing was pretty darn good. Ms. Norton created an intriguing character in Althea, and I do think she portrayed her very honestly... even if it was brutally so at times. I also think she probably did a very good job with handling the ups and downs of a mental illness. As I was reading this book, I realized how awful living with bipolar disorder would be and just how out-of-control Althea was.

In addition (and this one might surprise you), IF YOU LEFT was an extremely funny novel. I will be the first to admit that many of the themes of this story (mental illness, adultery, parent/child relationships, etc.) delved into some very serious subject matters. However, there was so many truly funny scenes in the novel. Some were awkward and some were shocking (and I really wasn't sure whether I should be laughing), but I most certainly found them amusing.

And lastly, I give credit to the author for exploring some really difficult topics. The author definitely didn't shy away from them. Living with mental illness was a huge theme in the novel, as was a marriage on the brink of collapse. The scenes with Althea and Clem were also extremely painful to read because they showed just how out-of-touch the two were with each other. In many ways, I just felt the tone for most of the novel was almost hopeless... and maybe that's why I had some issues with how the story ended!

I do think IF YOU LEFT would make an interesting book to discuss. In addition to the complex themes I mentioned earlier, the characters and their interactions were pretty darn interesting. I think many women will have difficulties in relating to Althea, and the potential for an exciting discussion is definitely there... especially among moms.

Overall, I'm still confused about IF YOU LEFT. I didn't love it, but I didn't hate it. I do think there were quite a few positives to take away from the novel, so I recommend it to those readers who want something a little different than normal literary fiction fare.

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

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Guest Review: Shadow War

Summary: From a paratrooper turned private military contractor comes a blistering-hot debut in the tradition of Brad Thor, Daniel Silva, and Tom Clancy about an elite American mercenary on a secret mission to rescue a businessman’s family in Eastern Europe

Tom Locke is an elite warrior working for Apollo Outcomes, one of the world’s most successful private contracting firms. Pulled out of a mission in Libya, he is tapped for an unusual and risky assignment: a top secret black op in Ukraine. He has one week to rescue an oligarch’s family and to pull off a spectacular assault that could have long-lasting repercussions for this imperiled Eastern European nation and the world.

What Locke doesn’t know is that the operation comes with a dangerous complication. Brad Winters, Locke’s ambitious and enigmatic boss, is engaged in a secretive, high-stakes geopolitical chess game with influential power brokers in capitals around the world. One misstep could cost him—and Locke—everything. And that misstep may already have been committed by Locke’s former love, war correspondent Alie MacFarlane, who impulsively makes a move that risks both their lives.

Locke has methodically planned the mission and handpicked a team of trusted operatives to pull it off—and to save his ass if things go south. He is an intelligent, iconoclastic soldier who specializes in achieving the impossible, but all his brilliant preparation can’t prevent the backstabbing and recklessness that is getting in his way. Locke must move quickly to stay ahead of a looming betrayal that could lead to catastrophe . . . and tip the balance of power toward Putin’s Russia.

With fascinating characters, nonstop action, and unparalleled authenticity, Sean McFate and Bret Witter’s thrilling debut will captivate readers and reveal the terrifying power plays and treachery that determine the fate of the modern world. - -William Morrow

I will be the first to admit that I would never pick up SHADOW WAR by Sean McFate. It's a political /military thriller, and it's just not my thing. However, I am thrilled to have someone (who occasionally does reviews for me) that appreciates these types of books -- my dad! Here are his thoughts:

Sean McFate, author of SHADOW WAR, a Tom Locke Novel, is more than qualified to write his first military thriller. McFate served in the U.S. Army 82nd Airborne Division and then worked in a private military corporation. Tom Lock, the main character of the novel, has a career that bears a close resemblance to McFate’s.

Locke currently works primarily in North Africa for Apollo Outcomes, a very successful military contracting firm. The book opens with an action filled scene of Locke’s team securing a weapons cache from a dangerous tribe in Libya. Locke is called back to Washington D.C. by his boss, Brad Winters, to take on a black-ops assignment in Ukraine. Locke’s mission is to rescue the family of a very wealthy Ukraine businessman and put the businessman in a position of power in Ukraine. The catch is that Locke only has five days to complete the mission and must take on the powerful Russian army in the process. Even though Locke puts together a capable team of trusted operatives and plans the operation down to the smallest detail, two things threaten to destroy the mission. The first problem is that Lock’s former lover, now a war correspondent, shows up with a young, incompetent CIA case worker and almost derails the mission. Additionally Brad Winters seems to have his own secret objective that could result in Lock’s team being collateral damage.

McFate and his co-author, Brett Witter add a real life feel to SHADOW WAR with references to Vladimir Putin and Russia’s current desire to annex portions of Ukraine as well as mention of the current world politics surrounding the control of oil resources.

Although the Tom Locke character has been well-developed, I believe that in general the authors focused more on the military operations and world situations than character development. SHADOW WAR is a fast paced, complex, realistic military thriller that fans of this genre will enjoy. I’m sure we will see future Sean McFate novels featuring Tom Locke as the main character.

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

Monday, August 15, 2016

Review: Still Mine

Summary: Clare is on the run.

From her past, from her husband, and from her own secrets. When she turns up alone in the remote mining town of Blackmore asking about Shayna Fowles, the local girl who disappeared, everyone wants to know who Clare really is and what she’s hiding. As it turns out, she’s hiding a lot, including what ties her to Shayna in the first place. But everyone in this place is hiding something—from Jared, Shayna’s secretive ex-husband, to Charlie, the charming small-town drug pusher, to Derek, Shayna’s overly involved family doctor, to Louise and Wilfred, her distraught parents.

Did Shayna flee? Was she killed? Is it possible she’s still alive?

As Clare uncovers the mysteries around Shayna’s disappearance, she must confront her own demons, moving us deeper and deeper into the labyrinth of lies and making us question what it is she’s really running from. Twisting and electrifying, this is a get-under-your-skin thriller that will make you question what it means to lose yourself and find yourself in the most unlikely places. - Touchstone

I'm always on the lookout for a good thriller, and STILL MINE by Amy Stuart certainly sounded like it would be right up my alley. The book had already been released in Canada and hit the bestseller list immediately. I thought it had a lot of potential... and it was a good read; however, I wouldn't go so far as to say I loved it though.

STILL MINE tells the story of Clare, a mysterious woman on the run from her past. Clare travels to Blackmore, a small mining town where the inhabitants are immediately suspicious of her arrival. Clare begins digging into the disappearance of Shayna Fowles, a local woman who coincidentally also disappeared from her home. Clare and Shayna seem to have more than a few things in common.

But Clare isn't alone in her secretive nature. Many citizens of Blackmore seem to be hiding things including Jared, Shayna's ex, to Charlie, a man who sells drugs, to Derek, the town doctor, to Louise, Shayna's mom who is suffering from dementia, to Wilfred, Shayna's father. It seems like everyone in this small town is suspicious of each other.

Readers quickly learn that Clare has been sent to Blackmore by another mysterious man named Malcolm to look into Shayna's disappearance. Nothing is really what is seems in this town and questions begin to pile up for the reader including who is Clare, why is she running, who is Malcolm, is Shayna alive, and more!

I enjoyed STILL MINE quite a bit; however, I'm not sure it will go down as one of my favorite thrillers of the year. It had an interesting premise and I did find Clare to be an intriguing character; however, I just didn't love it. There is nothing inherently "wrong" with the novel, and I do think it was well-written. It just wasn't a book that will stay with me a long time... if that makes sense.

One thing that I appreciated about STILL MINE was the setting. I thought the author did a terrific job in bringing this small and depressed mining town to life. I could visualize and almost feel the despair in Blackmore. In addition, I thought Ms. Stuart created some very interesting (and shady) characters who resided in this town. Almost all of the main characters were very well drawn and I found myself constantly questioning who to trust.

And that brings me to my next point... Clare was a terrific character. I still don't know quite what to make of her, and in many ways, I thought she was an unreliable narrator. I think readers will have different feelings about Clare, and I will say that she did grow on me as the novel went on. In fact, I have a suspicion that readers might get the chance to learn more about Clare in a future novel!

I also think STILL MINE explored abuse in a very interesting light. There was definitely a recurring theme of addiction in the story starting with Clare's issues with drugs and continuing with Charlie's supplying of drugs to the townspeople. The book also delved into physical abuse. I don't want to give too much away, but I will say that I thought the portrayal of these subjects was handled very well and seemed to be very authentic; and I was impressed with how dark this novel was and how well it explored the darker side of human nature.

Finally, I appreciated how many twists there were in the story. There were many mysteries in the book; however, the two main ones were about Clare and Shayna. I honestly wasn't sure which way this novel was going to go concerning either one of these characters, and I had so many questions about the other characters that I finally stopped even trying to figure out the truth.

Overall, STILL MINE is a complex thriller that is certain to keep readers guessing. Recommended to fans of psychological thrillers.

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

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

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Kid Konnection: National Geographic Kids Sports 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 three new books from National Geographic Kids that are the perfect way to celebrate the Olympics!

Summary: Become an expert on sports, just in time for the 2016 Olympics! From archery to zip lining this book covers EVERYTHING about the world's favorite team and individual sports. With stunning visuals and energetic, impactful design, readers won't stop until they've learned everything there is to know about the history, rules and regs, training, and practice of dozens of athletic pursuits. Includes popular sports such as baseball, basketball, football, soccer, tennis, and quirkier sports such as fencing, curling, and table tennis. -- National Geographic Kids

Booking Son couldn't have be happier with my latest haul of books from National Geographic Kids because they focus on his favorite reading subject -- sports! Rarely does he grab books from my desk, but in the case of these three, he could hardly decide which one to look at first.

EVERYTHING SPORTS: ALL THE FUN PHOTOS, FACTS, AND FUN TO MAKE YOU JUMP! by Eric Zweig with sports reporter Shalise Manza Young is terrific and it definitely lives up to its title. This colorful book explains in easy-to-understand language the basics of the world's most well-known team and individual sports. In fact, it's perfect for this time of year when the world's athletes are on full display in Rio.

This book has a little bit of everything for the curious sports fan. There are both popular sports as well as more obscure ones covered. For example, it features football, baseball, basketball and gymnastics, but it also covers fencing, curling, bowling, and bicycle motocross. In addition, it includes a wide variety of topics including the history of a sport, its star players, the rules and regulations, as well as interesting trivia tidbits.

As interesting as I found this book, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention how amazing the photographs are. This is probably sounding redundant because every single time I feature a book by National Geographic Kids, I'm blown away by the photos. The action shots are spectacular, but there are also some interesting ones of what's inside various balls and famous hall of famers.

I adored EVERYTHING SPORTS and I suspect young sports fans will feel the exact same way!

Summary: Get ready for the Olympics! Everything has its weird side -- even sports! Add wacky stats, facts, and stories to your arsenal of spots trivia with this new slam-dunk addition to the very popular Weird but True series! Discover tons more zany fun, focused totally on the subject of sports! So step up to the plate to get 300 ALL-NEW amazing facts plus photos. -- National Geographic Kids

WEIRD BUT TRUE SPORTS: 300 WACKY FACTS ABOUT AWESOME ATHLETICS is the latest addition to this fun series of Weird but True books. I had to laugh while reading this book because it really is outrageous. Many of the facts are almost to crazy to be real.

The book is really worth checking out. Each page features a Weird but True fact and there are over 300 different ones in this book. Here are just a few examples of some of the Weird but True facts:

America's first female Olympic champion competed against her own mother -- and won.

The Bunnies competing in the Rabbit Grand National in North Yorkshire, England, are specially trained to leap over hurdles.

Baseball star Ty Cobb's teeth sold at auction for $7,475.

I could go on and on with the absurdity! But I will say that this book is a bit addictive. I couldn't stop reading these fun facts and I admit there were only a few that I had heard before.

I have a feeling that this is a book that I'm going to be hearing a lot about in the next few days. I know I wanted to share some of the stories with someone; and if I know my son at all, he'll be telling the rest of the family about these stats and facts.

Summary: Do you love sports? Are you excited for the 2016 Olympic games? Here's an activity book that puts you right at the center of the gold-medal action! Fill in the blanks as you and a friend try your best at gymnastics, synchronized swimming, and much more! -- National Geographic Kids

And last but certainly not least is FUNNY FILL-IN: MY GOLD MEDAL ADVENTURE. This activity book is similar to the Mad Libs books that were all the rage when I was a kid. I'm sure most of you remember them, but just in case I'll give you a brief description of FUNNY FILL-IN.

Each page layout features a brief story with a cute cartoon picture. On the left hand side of the page spread is a list of descriptions like verb, noun, adjective, type of animal, etc. You can either fill in the blanks by yourself or have a friend play the game with you. After completing this part, there is a story on the right hand side of the page spread. You transfer the answers to the fill-ins to the actual story and read with your answers. I guarantee a fun and silly time!

One thing I liked about this version of the game is that you can play by yourself. Because the fill-ins are on a separate page from the story, you can come up with words for each description without knowing the topic of the story. As long as you don't peek, it works almost as well as playing with a friend. Of course, it probably is more fun to do this activity with someone but the point is you could play by yourself!

Another cute aspect of this book is that sports fun facts are included on each page spread. Some kids, like my son, will love this part of the book because it's just another way to learn more about his favorite subject matter.

All three of these National Geographic Kids' books are both fun and educational. I highly recommend them for sports fans young and old alike!

Thanks to the Media Masters for providng review copies of these books.

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

Friday, August 12, 2016

Review: Marlene

 Summary: From the cabarets of Weimar Berlin to the dazzling film studios of Hollywood’s golden age, an enthralling novel of a glamorous legend Maria Magdalena Dietrich was born for a life on the stage. Raised in genteel poverty after the First World War, the willful teenager vows to become an actress and singer, trading her family’s proper, middle-class society for the free-spirited decadence of Weimar Berlin’s cabarets and drag balls. With her sultry beauty, smoky voice, and androgynous tailored suits, Marlene performs to packed houses—and becomes entangled in a series of stormy love affairs that push the boundaries of social convention—until she finds overnight success in her breakthrough film role as the cabaret singer Lola-Lola in The Blue Angel. 

For Marlene, neither fame nor marriage and motherhood can cure her wanderlust. As Hitler rises to power, she sets sail for America. Her image as an erotic temptress captures worldwide attention, and she becomes one of Hollywood’s top leading ladies, starring in one high-profile film—and affair—after another. Though Hitler tries to lure her back to Germany, Marlene chooses instead to become a citizen of her new nation, even as America enters the war against her fatherland.

But one day, she must return to Germany, escorted by General George Patton himself. In the devastated cities and the concentration camps, she comes face-to-face with how the evils of fascism transformed her country, and the family she thought she knew.

Lushly descriptive, as alluring as the lady herself, Marlene reveals the inner life of a woman of grit, glamour, and ambition who defied convention, seduced the world, and forged a path on her own terms. -- William Morrow

Just a few days ago, I shared with you how much our book club enjoyed the historical fiction novel  MARLENE by C.W. Gortner. I don't know if I have a heck of a lot more to say about this fictional account of Marlene Dietrich's life, but I'll try to give some more insight into this story.

MARLENE is a larger-than-life novel about a larger-than-life woman. I really knew next to nothing about her. In fact, I'm not even sure I could have listed a movie she starred in or even identified her from a photograph; however, I quickly realized she was a force to be reckoned with. She grew up in Germany after the First World War and was determined to become an actress and singer. And believe me when I say nothing would get in her way.

Despite her proper upbringing, Marlene started to frequent Weimar Berlin's cabarets where she often times dressed androgynously. She soon became a popular entertainer and eventually got her big break as the cabaret singer in The Blue Angel. She also had numerous love affairs with individuals of both sexes.

Marlene did marry and have one child; however, I think it's safe to say that this portrayal of her life didn't put her in the best light as a wife or a mother. She was determined to be famous, no matter the cost; and she even moved to Hollywood where she became one of the biggest stars in the world. She also continued to have numerous affairs with her leading men... and women!

However, Marlene always struggled with the relationship she had with her mother as well as the current events occurring in her home country. As Hitler rose to power, Marlene became more and more outspoken against him. When war broke out, she decided to return to Germany (at the side of General Patton) and perform with the USO. There, she was startled to see what was happening in the country she loved. She was also quite shocked to learn what had become of her family.

I really enjoyed MARLENE although I will admit that it took me a little while to become fully vested in the novel. (I was the only one at book club that felt this way so take it for what it's worth!) There was never a time that I didn't like the book. I just thought the second half of her life story was much more interesting that the first.

I have been a fan of Mr. Gortner's for years, and MARLENE definitely lived up to my expectations. I love that he is now writing historical fiction about some very strong and controversial women, and I sure hope he continues to do this -- hint, hint! His portrayal of Marlene was fascinating although I suspect she provided a pretty interesting start.

I have to say that I really disliked Marlene. I didn't care about the affairs she had or the way she stepped on some people to become famous; however, I was bothered by how she treated her daughter. She always provided for her financially, but it sure didn't seem to me that she cared all that much about her. Although as I'm reflecting back, maybe she did love her as much as she could.

What I really appreciated about this novel was how Mr. Gortner chose to portray her. He gave us enough information about her childhood and her relationship with her mother to explain a lot of her adult behavior. She definitely had some unresolved mommy issues and I do think understanding those issues helped make her a more sympathetic character... although I definitely wasn't feeling too sorry for her!

I also appreciated that Marlene was a woman who was, in many ways, ahead of her time. She was extremely strong and very smart about what she needed to do to be famous. There were times when I felt uncomfortable while reading this novel because I was so mad at her behavior. But what I realized is that I judged her differently because she was a woman and a mom. Had she been a man in the same situation, would I have blinked twice at her actions?

I think part of the reason that I enjoyed the ending of the novel more than the beginning was that I was able to see a more complex Marlene. I appreciated her outspokenness against Hitler as well as the concern for her family back in Germany. Her desire to support the troops as part of a USO tour was commendable to say the least. I couldn't believe how dangerous it was for her. She was on the front lines and she was so sick that she almost died!

MARLENE was a terrific pick for a book club discussion. There is a reading guide available with ten thought-provoking questions although my book club didn't even reference them. Some of the themes you might want to explore include family, mother/daughter relationships, sexuality, independence, success, fame, war, desperation, guilt, responsibility, and forgiveness.

Overall, MARLENE is a well-written, entertaining novel about a world famous star. Highly recommended to fans of historical fiction and readers who want to learn more about the Golden Age of Hollywood.

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

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

The Booking Mamas' August Meeting

 Summary: From the cabarets of Weimar Berlin to the dazzling film studios of Hollywood’s golden age, an enthralling novel of a glamorous legend Maria Magdalena Dietrich was born for a life on the stage. Raised in genteel poverty after the First World War, the willful teenager vows to become an actress and singer, trading her family’s proper, middle-class society for the free-spirited decadence of Weimar Berlin’s cabarets and drag balls. With her sultry beauty, smoky voice, and androgynous tailored suits, Marlene performs to packed houses—and becomes entangled in a series of stormy love affairs that push the boundaries of social convention—until she finds overnight success in her breakthrough film role as the cabaret singer Lola-Lola in The Blue Angel. 

For Marlene, neither fame nor marriage and motherhood can cure her wanderlust. As Hitler rises to power, she sets sail for America. Her image as an erotic temptress captures worldwide attention, and she becomes one of Hollywood’s top leading ladies, starring in one high-profile film—and affair—after another. Though Hitler tries to lure her back to Germany, Marlene chooses instead to become a citizen of her new nation, even as America enters the war against her fatherland.

But one day, she must return to Germany, escorted by General George Patton himself. In the devastated cities and the concentration camps, she comes face-to-face with how the evils of fascism transformed her country, and the family she thought she knew.

Lushly descriptive, as alluring as the lady herself, Marlene reveals the inner life of a woman of grit, glamour, and ambition who defied convention, seduced the world, and forged a path on her own terms. -- William Morrow

Last night, my book club met to discuss MARLENE by C.W. Gortner. I had a feeling that everyone was going to enjoy this novel, and I was right. A few even went as far to say that they loved it. I have been a big fan of Mr. Gortner's for years and I'm so glad my friends now understand what a fantastic historical fiction writer he is.

I was a little concerned that we wouldn't have a lot to discuss about MARLENE (and I also know how quickly we get off topic especially during the summer months); however, we did find a lot to discuss about this fascinating woman. We all agreed that she was something... and that's a pretty tame word for her. I think a few might have appreciated how determined she was to be successful, while some others resented her because she wasn't exactly a hands on mother. We did all agree, though, on how much we respected her for the time she spent touring with the USO.

There were quite a few things that surprised us about MARLENE. I think maybe that's because none of us were really familiar with her work or her life story. In many ways, she seemed ahead of her time  -- although I think it was enlightening to see that in many ways society hasn't really changed all that much. Mr. Gortner's portrayals of the European nightclubs was eye-opening to a few us to say the least. Marlene was also portrayed as being extremely narcissistic. I think we were all a little shocked by her behavior especially as it related to having affairs with both men and women. Basically, Marlene would use anyone and everyone if it furthered her career or her personal satisfaction.

In addition, I think it's safe to say that we didn't know how outspoken she was about Hitler and Nazi Germany. Marlene put herself and her family at risk because she saw the writing on the wall pretty early on about this madman. Needless to say, I was pretty sure some comparisons might be made to our present day political situation if you know what I mean. Fortunately, that never happened. I just didn't want to go there at our laid-back little book club meeting!

One thing that my group seemed to zero in on was the relationship Marlene had with her mother. Marlene had a difficult relationship with her mother, and despite her success, she never really seemed to stop looking for her mother's approval. We actually found this to be one of the major themes of the story and spent a great deal of time discussion women and their "mommy" issues.

Next month, we will be reading THE ROYAL NANNY by Karen Harper. I have to be honest when I say that this isn't the book I would have picked to read for September, but I was overwhelmingly overruled. Here's to hoping it's a good one!

Summary: April, 1897: A young nanny arrives at Sandringham, ancestral estate of the Duke and Duchess of York. She is excited, exhausted—and about to meet royalty. . . .

So begins the unforgettable story of Charlotte Bill, who would care for a generation of royals as their parents never could. Neither Charlotte—Lala, as her charges dub her—nor anyone else can predict that eldest sons David and Bertie will each one day be king. Lala knows only that these children, and the four who swiftly follow, need her steadfast loyalty and unconditional affection.

But the greatest impact on Charlotte’s life is made by a mere bud on the family tree: a misunderstood soul who will one day be known as the Lost Prince. Young Prince John needs all of Lala’s love, the kind of love his parents won’t—or can’t—show him. -- William Morrow