Monday, January 30, 2017

Review: The Sleepwalker

Summary: From the New York Times bestselling author of The Guest Room comes a spine-tingling novel of lies, loss, and buried desire—the mesmerizing story of a wife and mother who vanishes from her bed late one night.

When Annalee Ahlberg goes missing, her children fear the worst. Annalee is a sleepwalker whose affliction manifests in ways both bizarre and devastating. Once, she merely destroyed the hydrangeas in front of her Vermont home. More terrifying was the night her older daughter, Lianna, pulled her back from the precipice of the Gale River bridge. The morning of Annalee’s disappearance, a search party combs the nearby woods. Annalee’s husband, Warren, flies home from a business trip. Lianna is questioned by a young, hazel-eyed detective. And her little sister, Paige, takes to swimming the Gale to look for clues. When the police discover a small swatch of fabric, a nightshirt, ripped and hanging from a tree branch, it seems certain Annalee is dead, but Gavin Rikert, the hazel-eyed detective, continues to call, continues to stop by the Ahlbergs’ Victorian home. As Lianna peels back the layers of mystery surrounding Annalee’s disappearance, she finds herself drawn to Gavin, but she must ask herself: Why does the detective know so much about her mother? Why did Annalee leave her bed only when her father was away? And if she really died while sleepwalking, where was the body?

Conjuring the strange and mysterious world of parasomnia, a place somewhere between dreaming and wakefulness, The Sleepwalker is a masterful novel from one of our most treasured storytellers. -- Doubleday

I love pretty much everything Chris Bohjalian writes! So when I learned that his latest novel THE SLEEPWALKER  was a thriller/mystery, I couldn't wait to read it. I basically devoured this novel and I was even surprised by the ending. All in all -- THE SLEEPWALKER was a great read!

THE SLEEPWALKER is an intriguing story about Annalee Ahlberg, a wife and mother who goes missing one night. Because Annalee is a sleepwalker and has had some strange incidents in her past, her husband and two daughters fear that she something horrible has happened to her. Her eldest daughter, Lianna, has already saved her mother from jumping off a bridge during a sleepwalker episode; and she is wracked with guilt that she didn't hear her leave the house this time.

A full-scale missing person investigation begins, and a handsome detective named Gavin arrives and starts asking questions. Annalee is intrigued by this man and surprised to learn that her mother had a relationship with Gavin. Gavin, like Annalee, is plagued by severe and strange sleepwalking episodes; and the two commiserated about their condition.

Lianna and her sister Paige are determined to find out what happened to their mother; and at the same time, Lianna finds herself becoming more and more involved with Gavin. She eventually begins to question Gavin's role in her mother's life and her disappearance while also trying to understand her mother's parasomnia.

I have to say that I was immediately drawn to THE SLEEPWALKER, and I think I read it in a 24 hour period. I love Mr. Bohjalian's writing (always have), and I thought the mystery in this novel was very interesting. However, what I found most intriguing about this novel was the sleepwalking angle of the story. I knew almost nothing about this condition (and certainly nothing about the type that Annalee and Gavin suffered from) outside of hearing about kids who walk in their sleep when they are young. All I can say is, "Wow!"

Annalee (and Gavin) both had a sleepwalking condition that made them aggressively pursue sexual encounters in their sleep. I had absolutely no idea that some sleepwalkers are "sleepsexers;" and I have to say that I was amazed by how much this disorder could affect their lives. I thought the author did a great job of explaining this sleepwalking condition for the readers, and he also realistically portrayed just how major the affects of sleepwalking are for those who suffer from it as well as their families.

Mr. Bohjalian is a terrific storyteller and I truly appreciated one of the techniques that he used in this novel. Besides the chapters that told of Lianna's desire to find her mother, there were chapters thrown in that read like a sleepwalker's diary. The interesting thing was that I had no idea whose "diary" it was. It added to the mysterious nature of the story, and I think it made me appreciate even more how the ending came to be revealed.

And last but not least, I actually was surprised by the resolution of the mystery surrounding Annalee's disappearance. I had quite a few guesses throughout the story, but I don't think I realized what was happening until I actually read the pages. I love that Mr. Bohjalian wrote such a fantastic story and that I was surprised by the ending! That isn't always the case with thrillers for me.

I do thing THE SLEEPWALKER would make a terrific book club selection. It will appeal to both fans of literary fiction and mysteries. There is a reading guide available with fifteen questions. Some of the themes you might want to discuss include parent/child relationships, sibling relationships, trust, science/medicine, nature vs. nurture, and guilt. Of course, I'm sure most groups will want to talk about sleepwalking and especially sleepsexers.

I really enjoyed THE SLEEPWALKER. I swear Mr. Bohjalian never disappoints! Highly recommended!

Thanks to the publisher and Netgalley 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, January 28, 2017

Kid Konnection: Penguin Problems

Every Saturday, I host a feature called Kid Konnection -- a regular weekend feature about anything related to children's books. This week I'm going to share with you an adorable picture book that has already received quite a few starred reviews.

Summary: Have you ever thought: I have so many problems and nobody even cares? Well, penguins have problems too! Discover them in this hilarious collaboration from Jory John (All my friends are dead. and Quit Calling Me a Monster!) and Lane Smith (The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales)!

This penguin has come to tell you that life in Antarctica is no paradise. For starters, it is FREEZING. Also, penguins have a ton of natural predators. Plus, can you imagine trying to find your mom in a big ol’ crowd of identical penguins? No, thank you.

Yes, it seems there is no escaping the drudgery of your daily grind, whatever it might be. Or perhaps we’ve just learned that grumps are everywhere. . . .

This book is sure to tickle kids’ funny bones and will elicit appreciative sighs from the adults reading it aloud. -- Random House

PENGUIN PROBLEMS by Jory John and Lane Smith is a picture book that's beyond cute! I absolutely love this picture book from the hilarious jacket flap text, to the incredibly funny story, to the adorable illustrations! This book just makes me smile!

PENGUIN PROBLEMS is narrated by a little penguin who wants you to know that being a penguin in Antarctica is not easy. It's really cold, there's lots of snow, it's super bright, and the other penguins are really noisy! And that's just the beginnings of this little penguin's gripes. There are other animals who want to hunt penguins, and he looks silly because he waddles. He's also upset that he can't fly and that he looks exactly like all the other penguins. Enter a very wise walrus who comes to tell him that his life is wonderful and very special. The little penguin is at first put off, but then he realizes that  he does love his life on Antarctica... most of the time!

PENGUIN PROBLEMS is such a fun book to read with children. The little penguin is hilarious and, if I'm being entirely honest, does sound a bit like my children when things weren't going quite right in their lives. I mean everything was wrong -- not just one thing -- when they were having a bad day! I know parents and kids alike will have to laugh at just how unfortunate the penguin's life is.

And just when I thought the book was just sort of silly, the walrus enters with words of wisdom. He makes the penguin reflect on his life and realize that there is no where he'd rather be. It's quite a sweet message! As a mom, I love that parents can read PENGUIN PROBLEMS to their kids when they are feeling down and need a bit of a lift.

I can't write about this book and not mention the illustrations by the amazing Lane Smith. WOW! These penguins are absolutely precious... as you can see from the book cover. The little penguin has some adorable facial expressions which made me chuckle, and I loved how the illustrator portrayed life on Antarctica, even the underwater scenes.

Overall, PENGUIN PROBLEMS is a wonderful picture book that I highly recommend. Parents and kids alike will love this one!

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

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

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Review: Searching for John Hughes

Summary: For all fans of John Hughes and his hit films such as National Lampoon’s Vacation, Sixteen Candles, and Home Alone, comes Jason Diamond’s hilarious memoir of growing up obsessed with the iconic filmmaker’s movies—a preoccupation that eventually convinces Diamond he should write Hughes’ biography and travel to New York City on a quest that is as funny as it is hopeless.

For as long as Jason Diamond can remember, he’s been infatuated with John Hughes’ movies. From the outrageous, raunchy antics in National Lampoon’s Vacation to the teenage angst in The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink to the insanely clever and unforgettable Home Alone, Jason could not get enough of Hughes’ films. And so the seed was planted in his mind that it should fall to him to write a biography of his favorite filmmaker. It didn’t matter to Jason that he had no qualifications, training, background, platform, or direction. Thus went the years-long, delusional, earnest, and assiduous quest to reach his goal. But no book came out of these years, and no book will. What he did get was a story that fills the pages of this unconventional, hilarious memoir.

In Searching for John Hughes, Jason tells how a Jewish kid from a broken home in a Chicago suburb—sometimes homeless, always restless—found comfort and connection in the likewise broken lives in the suburban Chicago of John Hughes’ oeuvre. He moved to New York to become a writer. He started to write a book he had no business writing. In the meantime, he brewed coffee and guarded cupcake cafes. All the while, he watched John Hughes movies religiously.

Though his original biography of Hughes has long since been abandoned, Jason has discovered he is a writer through and through. And the adversity of going for broke has now been transformed into wisdom. Or, at least, a really, really good story.

In other words, this is a memoir of growing up. One part big dream, one part big failure, one part John Hughes movies, one part Chicago, and one part New York. It’s a story of what comes after the “Go for it!” part of the command to young creatives to pursue their dreams—no matter how absurd they might seem at first. -- William Morrow

I've been on a bit of a non-fiction kick these past few weeks. I've read one history book and two memoirs... and I think it might be more non-fiction books than I read all of last year. Being a child of the 1980s, I was really looking forward to reading the memoir SEARCHING FOR JOHN HUGHES: OR EVERYTHING I THOUGHT I NEEDED TO KNOW ABOUT LIFE I LEARNED FROM WATCHING '80S MOVIES by Jason Diamond. When I reflect on my middle school and high school years, I remember fondly the movies Pretty in Pink, The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, and more!

SEARCHING FOR JOHN HUGHES is Jason Diamond's memoir about his childhood as perhaps the biggest John Hughes fan in the world. Mr. Diamond's childhood was far from ideal, and he found much needed comfort in Hughes' films. He grew up in the Chicago suburbs where Hughes' movies took place, and he connected deeply with these characters.

He became so obsessed with Hughes' films that he decided he would set out to write the definitive biography on Hughes and his movies. Keep in mind that Mr. Diamond didn't really have the experience or training to write a book of this magnitude... or in fact, even any contact with Hughes or those who knew and worked with him.

Mr. Diamond spent years trying to write the book and eventually realized that the biography wasn't the book that he was meant to write. Instead, he wrote his own story, SEARCHING FOR JOHN HUGHES, about the life lessons he learned during his journey to find himself.

I really enjoyed SEARCHING FOR JOHN HUGHES. Honestly, I'm not sure that I would have read a memoir about a guy who had a tough childhood, even tougher teenage years, and early adult years where he was broke and depressed. However, a few words in the title sold me -- John Hughes! Seriously, I loved his movies and I thought the author linking his story to John Hughes and his movies was so intriguing.

And let me tell you, SEARCHING FOR JOHN HUGHES is one good memoir. It's extremely smart, but it's also hilarious and even touching. Reading about Mr. Diamond's childhood broke my heart -- it was just awful; and I have to tell you that there were times when I wanted to just shake some sense into him. It seemed like he didn't have a firm grip on reality. But then I remembered how horrible his parents were to him and I became sympathetic to his lack of direction.

I will admit that some of my favorite parts of this book were when he reference Hughes' films. In fact, I wanted to sit down and binge on all of my old favorites! It was like a walk down memory lane. I found his ability to weave bits of the movies into his personal story to be so entertaining... and very well done. And even though this book wasn't really that definitive book about Mr. Hughes, I still managed to love the information on the director and his films!

Of course, I couldn't help but appreciate Mr. Diamond's struggles and the way he turned his life around. It's an extremely honest story and also a motivational one. Mr. Diamond's memoir encourages individuals (and especially) artists to be true to themselves, and he definitely shows what it means to pull yourself up from your bootstraps -- over and over again.

In conclusion, SEARCHING FOR JOHN HUGHES is a very entertaining memoir about a young man's journey to self-discovery. Recommended for fans of memoirs... and of course, John Hughes.

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

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Review: Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down

Summary: The lives of four teenagers are capsized by a shocking school shooting and its aftermath in this powerful debut novel, a coming-of-age story with the haunting power of Station Eleven and the bittersweet poignancy of Everything I Never Told You.

As members of the yearbook committee, Nick, Zola, Matt, and Christina are eager to capture all the memorable moments of their junior year at Lewis and Clark High School—the plays and football games, dances and fund-drives, teachers and classes that are the epicenter of their teenage lives. But how do you document a horrific tragedy—a deadly school shooting by a classmate?

Struggling to comprehend this cataclysmic event—and propelled by a sense of responsibility to the town, their parents, and their school—these four "lucky" survivors vow to honor the memories of those lost, and also, the memories forgotten in the shadow of violence. But the shooting is only the first inexplicable trauma to rock their small suburban St. Louis town. A series of mysterious house fires have hit the families of the victims one by one, pushing the grieving town to the edge.

Nick, the son of the lead detective investigating the events, plunges into the case on his own, scouring the Internet to uncover what could cause a fire with no evident starting point. As their friend pulls farther away, Matt and Christina battle to save damaged relationships, while Zola fights to keep herself together.

A story of grief, community, and family, of the search for understanding and normalcy in the wake of devastating loss, Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down explores profound questions about resiliency, memory, and recovery that brilliantly illuminate the deepest recesses of the human heart. -- William Morrow

A few weeks ago, I reported out that my book club read OUR HEARTS WILL BURN US DOWN by Anne Valente for the month of January. It wasn't really a hit with only a few of us even finishing the novel. I have to say that I probably enjoyed the book more than anyone else, and I'm not even sure I'd go so far as to say I loved it. However, I was impressed by quite a few things about this book.

OUR HEARTS WILL BURN US DOWN tells the story of four teenagers whose lives are forever changed when a school shooting takes place at their high school. Nick, Zola, Matt, and Christina are all good friends and members of the yearbook staff, and they were hoping for a memorable junior year at their high school -- one that they could record in the yearbook. Little did they know that they would not only be struggling to cover a horrific event but also struggling to even make sense of what they saw.

The local community is distraught over the unnecessary violence, but things take an unusual twist when unexplained fires start breaking out. What's even more sad is that these fires are occurring in the homes of the families who lost children in the school shooting. And to make things even more disturbing, there are no remains of the families' bodies.

Nick, the son of the detective investigating the fires, isn't happy with the lack of explanation from the police, so he decides to begin his own investigation. His other friends are similarly upset about the events, and the foursome begins to pull away from each other. Two of the kids are trying to make sense of their relationships with their significant others, while one is just trying to make sense of her own life.

OUR HEARTS WILL BURN US DOWN is an extremely sad book that explores both community as well as individual grief. As I read this novel, I admit I was a bit surprised by just how gut wrenching this story was. I felt as if the author truly captured the essence of loss and mourning, but I'm not sure I'd seek out such a depressing story again.Having said that, there were signs of resilience in the story. Granted there weren't a lot, but there were some signs of hope in the four children.

I thought Ms. Valente did an excellent job of bringing the four main characters to life. I found them to be very realistic; and as a mom to a teenage daughter, my heart broke for each of them. Of course, they were dealing with the unthinkable, but they also were dealing with normal teenage feelings. Matt, who was gay, was trying to work through a relationship with another boy who wasn't as comfortable with his sexuality. And Christina was trying to handle the breakup with her longtime boyfriend. I felt as if many of the scenes about these kids were very genuine and well written.

One thing that I did have issues with was the ending. I wasn't alone with this feeling. I don't want to give too much away, but the ending was kind of out there for me. I think it was even more shocking because the rest of the book was so literal about the grief of the children and the community. I totally understand what the author was trying to do with the fires and the destruction. I'm just not sure I appreciated it.

OUR HEARTS WILL BURN US DOWN was an interesting book club pick. I think our discussion would have definitely benefited from more of our members reading this novel... even if they didn't appreciate it. I thought the various characters were interesting to analyze; and of course, the themes of grief and loss are worthy of some discussion. Some other topics you might want to discuss include parent/child relationships, first loves, sexuality, self-acceptance, and more!

Overall, I did appreciate OUR HEARTS WILL BURN US DOWN. I recommend it to fans of literary fiction and those readers who are interested in stories about loss.

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

Monday, January 23, 2017

Review: Little Deaths

Summary: It's 1965 in a tight-knit working-class neighborhood in Queens, New York, and Ruth Malone--a single mother who works long hours as a cocktail waitress--wakes to discover her two small children, Frankie Jr. and Cindy, have gone missing. Later that day, Cindy's body is found in a derelict lot a half mile from her home, strangled. Ten days later, Frankie Jr.'s decomposing body is found. Immediately, all fingers point to Ruth.

As police investigate the murders, the detritus of Ruth's life is exposed. Seen through the eyes of the cops, the empty bourbon bottles and provocative clothing which litter her apartment, the piles of letters from countless men and Ruth's little black book of phone numbers, make her a drunk, a loose woman--and therefore a bad mother. The lead detective, a strict Catholic who believes women belong in the home, leaps to the obvious conclusion: facing divorce and a custody battle, Malone took her children's lives.

Pete Wonicke is a rookie tabloid reporter who finagles an assignment to cover the murders. Determined to make his name in the paper, he begins digging into the case. Pete's interest in the story develops into an obsession with Ruth, and he comes to believe there's something more to the woman whom prosecutors, the press, and the public have painted as a promiscuous femme fatale. Did Ruth Malone violently kill her own children, is she a victim of circumstance--or is there something more sinister at play?

Inspired by a true story, Little Deaths, like celebrated novels by Sarah Waters and Megan Abbott, is compelling literary crime fiction that explores the capacity for good and evil in us all. -- Hachette

I have to say that I am still giddy about the books I came home with from this year's SIBA. So many good ones. But one that I was especially excited about is LITTLE DEATHS by Emma Flint. This book has been garnering tremendous reviews... and I can totally see why. I loved this book!

LITTLE DEATHS takes place in 1965 in Queens, New York, when Ruth Malone wakes up and discovers that her two young children are missing. Later in the day, her daughter's body is found strangled and left in an empty lot close to her home. A week and a half later, her son's body is found. I recently found out that this story is based on a real-life one -- how cool is that?

As the police begin their investigation, all signs point to Ruth as the prime suspect. Ruth is a facing a divorce and subsequent custody battle, and her behavior has been rather odd. She seems to be more worried about her appearance than the deaths of her kids. The lead detective on the case discovers a variety of evidence that doesn't shed a positive light on Ruth -- she drinks, goes to bars, brings home different men, etc.; and he immediately jumps to the conclusion that she murdered her kids.

In the meantime, Pete Wonicke is a young reporter who is assigned to cover the murders after some clever tricks. He wants to prove himself to the paper's editor, and he believes that this case just might do that. However, he becomes quite entranced with Ruth (almost obsessed) and believes that she's innocent of the crimes. While the police are interested in putting Ruth away, Pete is trying to learn more about this enigmatic woman and possibly prove her innocence.

I loved LITTLE DEATHS... absolutely loved it. It's a well written mystery with compelling characters, and I believe it challenges readers to really think about people and our perceptions of them. I appreciated both the setting and the time period of the story, and I think Ms. Flint did a remarkable job in bringing the characters to life.

Obviously, Ruth was an interesting character and a tough nut to crack. I wasn't quite sure how to take her -- she definitely wasn't the typical grieving mother; and I found myself questioning her motives as well as her innocence. However, I think many of the other characters were equalling compelling. The old-fashioned police inspector was a great character as well as Pete, the young reporter. In addition, I found Ruth's grieving ex-husband to be rather intriguing.

I also thought the mystery behind the deaths of Ruth's children was a good one. If I'm being entirely honest, I thought I figured out what happened, but I wasn't entirely sure until it was revealed. However, the real beauty of this novel wasn't in the whodunnit aspect. Rather is was in how the story was told. LITTLE DEATHS was a literary mystery and an extremely good one at that. I loved the way Ms. Flint evoked the feel of the setting as well as the humanity of the characters.

Furthermore, I loved how this book make me think... and I suspect I'm not alone. As a result, I definitely recommend LITTLE DEATHS for book clubs. There are some major themes at work here including first impressions, judging individuals based on appearances, sexism, rumors, and morals. But this novel also explored some pretty heavy issues about a woman who was fighting to be independent in a time and place when her behavior was frowned upon.

Overall, I think LITTLE DEATHS is a wonderful example of great literary fiction that also happens to be a pretty good mystery. Highly recommended!

I received a copy of this novel at this year's SIBA.

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

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Kid Konnection: Our Country's Presidents

Every Saturday, I host a feature called Kid Konnection -- a regular weekend feature about anything related to children's books. This week I'm going to share with you another terrific book that's especially pertinent as we recently inaugurated our 45th United States President.

Summary: National Geographic presents the 44 individuals who have led the U.S.—plus America's newest commander-in-chief—in this up-to-date, authoritative, and lavishly illustrated family, school, and library reference. It features comprehensive profiles of the 44 former presidents along with timelines and descriptions of crucial events during their terms. Information about the 2016 president-elect is also included.

Thematic spreads cover a variety of topics from the history of voting rights to writing a presidential letter. Full-page portraits, famous quotes, and fascinating facts help kids get to know each leader. This new volume is a fascinating read and excellent reference for students and kids of all ages. -- National Geographic

Yesterday, Donald J. Trump was sworn in as President of the United States yesterday as millions were watching. Whether you are happy or terrified about these events, you still have to admit that we are pretty darn lucky to be Americans where our transfer of power is a peaceful one. It's been a crazy few months with some truly unbelievable news stories; and for many children, including my twelve year old, this is the first time that he was introduced to the world of politics and the presidency.

And that's why the recently released National Geographic book, OUR COUNTRY'S PRESIDENTS: A COMPLETE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE U.S. PRESIDENCY written by Ann Bausum, is so timely. This book is aimed at kids ten years old and up, and it's truly a special book. It's hardcover and oversized; and with almost 225 pages, it's full of information on all of our presidents, both past and current. It even includes information about the 2016 election. When it arrived a few days ago, my son was thrilled... and for a relatively reluctant reader, I think that's really saying something!

OUR COUNTRY'S PRESIDENTS obviously provides information about all of our 45 presidents. It is arranged chronologically, but it divided into sections based on what as going on in our country. For example, the first section is titled, "The Presidency and How it Grew" and the last section is called, "Footprints on the Global Frontier." The book also begins with a copy of Trump's victory speech as well as an introduction about the office of the presidency. There are also instructions about how to use the book including information on the timelines, profiles, presidential portraits, fact boxes, thematic spreads, and reference aids.

Naturally, the book explores the life and times of the presidents; and I'm sure there are quite a few children's books out there that do this. However, OUR COUNTRY'S PRESIDENTS is super special because of how it's arranged. There are lots of words providing information, but there are also so many other graphics and colorful photographs to make it interesting. There are some famous quotations in boxes, boxes with quick fun facts about each president, and more. I think kids can use this book as reference material or read it straight though -- maybe a chapter a day on each president.

I've reviewed enough National Geographic books over the past few years that it's probably redundant for me to say that the photographs in OUR COUNTRY'S PRESIDENTS are wonderful. There are gorgeous color photos from more recent presidents and great drawings/paintings from earlier ones. There truly are hundreds of interesting pictures to look at... and learn from in this book.

OUR COUNTRY'S PRESIDENTS is a terrific resource for school, classroom and home libraries. As far as I'm concerned, it's a must-read book for all kids who are interested in U.S. history and especially the lives of our country's leaders.

Thanks to Media Masters Publicity 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!

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Review: Al Capone His Life, Legacy, and Legend

Summary: From a National Book Award-winning biographer, the first complete life of legendary gangster Al Capone to be produced with the cooperation of his family, who provided the author with exclusive access to personal testimony and archival documents.

From his heyday to the present moment, Al Capone—Public Enemy Number One—has gripped popular imagination. Rising from humble Brooklyn roots, Capone went on to become the most infamous gangster in American history. At the height of Prohibition, his multimillion-dollar Chicago bootlegging, prostitution, and gambling operation dominated the organized-crime scene. His competition with rival gangs was brutally violent, a long-running war that crested with the shocking St. Valentine’s Day Massacre of 1929. Law enforcement and the media elite seemed powerless to stop the growth of his empire. And then the fall: a legal noose tightened by the FBI, a conviction on tax evasion, Alcatraz. After his release he returned to his family in Miami a much diminished man, living quietly until the ravages of his neurosyphilis took their final toll. But the slick mobster persona endures, immortalized in countless novels and movies.

The true flesh-and-blood man behind the legend has long remained a mystery. Unscrupulous newspaper accounts and Capone’s own tall tales perpetuated his mystique, but through dogged research Deirdre Bair debunks the most outrageous of these myths. With the help of Capone’s descendants, she discovers his essential humanity, uncovering a complex character that was flawed and sometimes cruel but also capable of nobility. And while revealing the private Al Capone, a genuine family man as remembered by those who knew him best, Bair relates how his descendants have borne his weighty legacy.

Rigorous and intimate, Al Capone provides new answers to the enduring questions about this fascinating figure, who was equal parts charismatic gangster, devoted patriarch, and calculating monster. -- Nan A. Talese

Since I've been a kid, I've always had a strange attraction to the mob. As a high schooler, I read every book about gangsters that I could get my hands on, and I saw every movie that I was allowed to see. There still is a bit of me that's drawn to stories about larger than life criminals. That probably explains why I wanted to read the new book AL CAPONE: HIS LIFE, LEGACY, AND LEGEND by Deirdre Bair.

AL CAPONE: HIS LIFE, LEGACY, AND LEGEND obviously tells the story of the notorious gangster Al Capone. It begins with his childhood story in Brooklyn and follows him to his financially successful operation in Chicago during Prohibition. It then follows his equally amazing downfall by the FBI on a tax evasion conviction of all things. Things just got worse for Capone when he left prison and returned to Miami with his family as syphilis took over his brain.

I'm pretty sure that I've read at least one book about Al Capone prior to this one because many of the stories were familiar; however, AL CAPONE: HIS LIFE, LEGACY, AND LEGEND also managed to surprise me. This book didn't really rehash all of those larger-than-life actions by Public Enemy Number One (although they are definitely mentioned and often times debunked!) Rather, it tried to provide information to readers about the man behind horrific crimes -- the family man and father that his family remembers. I commend the author for doing something new with Capone's story, and I definitely appreciated this book.

AL CAPONE: HIS LIFE, LEGACY, AND LEGEND was written by a National Book Award-winning biographer, Deirdre Bair, and had the approval of Capone's family. As a result, Ms. Bair had access to a lot of information that no other Capone biographer ever had. I thought that sounded terrific because I wanted new insight into his life. And for the most part, it was interesting. However (and I realize this is entirely my issue!), I was a little disappointed to learn that much of the myth surrounding Capone wasn't true. WHAT???? It seems that journalists in those days liked to break "stories" and sell papers too. Imagine that?

All in all, I found AL CAPONE: HIS LIFE, LEGACY, AND LEGEND to be a very intriguing book about a very interesting character in America's history. Highly recommended to fans of biographies.

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

Monday, January 16, 2017

Review: This Is Not Over

Summary: You’ll have your deposit within seven business days, just like it says on I’ve put through a refund to your credit card for the full amount, minus $200 to replace the stained sheets...


When 30-year-old Dawn reads Miranda’s email, she sees red. People have always told Dawn she’s beautiful, and she just hopes they don’t see beneath—to how she grew up, to what she’s always tried to outrun. She revels in her getaways with her perfect (maybe too perfect) husband, the occasional long weekend in luxurious homes, temporarily inhabiting other people’s privileged lives. Miranda’s email strikes a nerve, with its lying intimation that Dawn is so dirty you need to throw out her sheets.

Beware of your “host”

I wouldn’t have left a review at all, if I didn’t feel it was my civic duty to warn others…

57-year-old Miranda thought she’d seen it all, but she can’t believe her eyes when she reads Dawn’s review. She’s a doctor’s wife but she needs that rental money, desperately. People might think her life is privileged, but they don’t know what’s really going on. They don’t know about her son. She won’t take this threat to her livelihood—to her very life—lying down.

Two very different women with this in common: Each harbors her own secret, her own reason why she can’t just let this go. Neither can yield, not before they’ve dredged up all that’s hidden, even if it has the power to shatter all they’ve built.

This is not over.

This is so not over. -- William Morrow

I would say that I read a fair amount of psychological thrillers, so I am always looking for one with an original concept. And that's what attracted me to the new novel THIS IS NOT OVER by Holly Brown. This book tells the story of a fairly ordinary event that could happen to anyone... that takes a dramatic turn for the worse.

THIS IS NOT OVER begins with two women, Miranda and Dawn, who are fighting over a security deposit of $200. Dawn and her husband spent the weekend in Miranda's luxury beach home only to arrive home to learn that Miranda was keeping $200 of the security deposit because the sheets were permanently stained. Dawn is furious with Miranda's email because it hits a little to close to home that she doesn't belong in "nice" places, so she leaves a negative review on rental website.

Despite being the wife of a doctor, Miranda needs the income from her rental property to support her adult son. She can't afford to have a bad reputation as a renter. Her son is a drug addict who is supposedly cut off from the family, but Miranda has been secretly keeping in contact with him... and providing money to him when he asks for it.

These two very different women obviously are dealing with their own set of personal issues, and these issues make this odd email encounter escalate quickly. Neither woman can let it go (heck -- it's only $200); and as a result, their darkest secrets come to light. Will these women's persistence to destroy each other eventually destroy the lives they've so carefully built?

I enjoyed THIS IS NOT OVER, but I don't know if I'd say I loved it. I definitely appreciated the premise of the novel -- an ordinary misunderstanding that escalated into an all-encompassing nightmare; however, I had difficulties in liking the main characters. I realize that I don't have to like a character to enjoy a novel, but the characters is this book, particularly Miranda and Dawn but even Miranda's husband and son, were almost impossible to like.

On one hand, I think the author did a fairly good job of escalating the issue between the characters and then building the tension for the reader. However, on the other hand, it seemed a bit ridiculous at times. I realize that both Miranda nor Dawn were far from normal. They both had so much baggage that made them vulnerable to an encounter like this one, so I tried not to judge them based on "normal" people's behavior. I even tried to feel their pain as their complicated backstories were revealed. I just had a very hard time relating to them.

As the tension in the novel grew, I had a feeling that things were going to build to a suspenseful conclusion... and they definitely did. I'm not sure I was entirely satisfied with the ending but I did appreciate that the author managed to surprise me. Truth be told, I think I was just happy that the battle between the women came to an end... one way or another!

There were some definitely positives about THIS IS NOT OVER, and I think it's a testament to Ms. Brown's experience as a family and marriage counselor. Both Miranda and Dawn were struggling with some huge issues, and I do think the author used these life experiences to explain their crazy behavior. Her understanding of marriages and family problems definitely came in handy when building these two characters. Furthermore, I thought she did an excellent job of explaining a parent's thoughts and actions when they have a child who is an addict.

THIS IS NOT OVER would make an interesting book club pick because the main characters are so complex. There is a set of ten discussion questions in the paperback version of the book but I wasn't able to find a link on-line to the questions. Some of the themes you might want to explore include paranoia, insecurity, secrets, addiction, parent/child relationships, marriage, lies, anger, validation, guilt, the age of social media, and communication.

Overall, THIS IS NOT OVER is an interesting look at an ordinary event going bad. I recommend this novel to fans of psychological thrillers and those readers interested in books about dysfunctional characters.

Thanks to Get Red PR and 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, January 14, 2017

Kid Konnection: My Washington, DC

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 picture books that's timely considering all the happenings in our nation's capital next week!

Summary: Vibrant, lush paintings full of elaborate detail bring the capital city to life! A young girl and her friend explore their favorite places in Washington, DC, from the White House to the Lincoln Memorial. They peek inside the National Air and Space Museum, glimpse the Declaration of Independence at the National Archives, and bask in the beauty of the cherry blossoms surrounding the Tidal Basin.

With two giant foldout pages, a free poster of the Bill of Rights, a map of the whole city, fun facts, and seek-and-find challenges, My Washington, DC is endlessly enjoyable and educational. Kathy Jakobsen's lavish paintings invite readers to return again and again to this dazzling tribute to America's capital! -- Little Brown

I didn't see many picture books at this year's SIBA, but the ones I managed to grab are terrific. Case in point - MY WASHINGTON, DC by Kathy Jakobsen. I absolutely love this book! This illustrated picture book is the perfect way to introduce young readers, ages four to eight, to Washington, DC. MY WASHINGTON, DC takes kids on a "tour" of our nation's capital and provides some wonderful information along the way.

MY WASHINGTON, DC tells the story of a young girl and her friend as they visit the famous places in Washington. The book begins with their arrival at Union Station and follows them to various DC landmarks including Capitol Hill, Library of Congress, the Supreme Court, the National Archives, the Smithsonian, and more! On each page there are beautiful paintings of the locations as well as text on the bottom providing more specifics about each stop.

I can't rave enough about the artwork in this book. It truly is spectacular. Ms. Jakobsen's paintings are so detailed that you could look at each page for quite awhile. Truly, this illustrations alone are worth taking a peek at this book. She has gotten everything just right from the artwork on the ceilings to the ornate tiles on the floors. My absolute favorite page is the one of the Tidal Basin with the Jefferson Monument and the pretty cherry blossoms in bloom!

Not only is this book educational, but it's also a fun way to explore Washington... over and over again. The book includes foldout pages as well as a poster of the Bill of Rights. It also includes a map of the entire city, seek-and-find games, and more. It truly is a special picture book!

I highly recommend MY WASHINGTON, DC for home libraries, school libraries and classrooms. It's a gorgeous book about an incredible city, and a fun way for kids to learn about our nation's capital.

I received a copy of MY WASHINGTON, DC at this year's SIBA.

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, January 12, 2017

The Booking Mamas' January Meeting

Summary: The lives of four teenagers are capsized by a shocking school shooting and its aftermath in this powerful debut novel, a coming-of-age story with the haunting power of Station Eleven and the bittersweet poignancy of Everything I Never Told You.

As members of the yearbook committee, Nick, Zola, Matt, and Christina are eager to capture all the memorable moments of their junior year at Lewis and Clark High School—the plays and football games, dances and fund-drives, teachers and classes that are the epicenter of their teenage lives. But how do you document a horrific tragedy—a deadly school shooting by a classmate?

Struggling to comprehend this cataclysmic event—and propelled by a sense of responsibility to the town, their parents, and their school—these four "lucky" survivors vow to honor the memories of those lost, and also, the memories forgotten in the shadow of violence. But the shooting is only the first inexplicable trauma to rock their small suburban St. Louis town. A series of mysterious house fires have hit the families of the victims one by one, pushing the grieving town to the edge.

Nick, the son of the lead detective investigating the events, plunges into the case on his own, scouring the Internet to uncover what could cause a fire with no evident starting point. As their friend pulls farther away, Matt and Christina battle to save damaged relationships, while Zola fights to keep herself together.

A story of grief, community, and family, of the search for understanding and normalcy in the wake of devastating loss, Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down explores profound questions about resiliency, memory, and recovery that brilliantly illuminate the deepest recesses of the human heart. -- William Morrow

On Tuesday night, The Booking Mamas met to discuss OUR HEARTS WILL BURN US DOWN by Anne Valente. This novel centered around a school shooting; and in hindsight, it might not have been the best selection to read over the holidays. I am sorry to say that it wasn't a big hit with my book club. Only a few of us actually read the entire book -- again, maybe because of the timing and subject matter? And those of us who did finish the novel had some very different opinions about the book. Having said that, because there were many different opinions, I thought we had a solid discussion about both the book and the writing.

Most of us didn't love OUR HEARTS WILL BURN DOWN. A few didn't like the writing style, a few didn't like the subject matter, one didn't like the characters, and most didn't like the ending. Although what was extremely interesting is how much we differed on what we liked and didn't like about the novel. Two of our members just thought the book was way too long and didn't like the author's lack of quotation marks, while one of us didn't mind the writing and actually found it to be the right tone for the book.

For those of us that actually finished the book, we did agree on one thing -- we were disappointed with the ending. It's going to be hard for me to say much about this without giving away some major spoilers, but I think I can best sum it up by saying that the book took a turn that was almost too "out there." So much of the novel (really all of it) explored loss and grief on an extremely personal and authentic level... and then the book kind of went all metaphorical on us.

I can say that I appreciated both the story and the writing and thought the author did a terrific job in exploring the all encompassing feelings of grief. I don't know if I'd go so far as to say I loved the book because it was a challenging read for me at times, but I did appreciate what the author was trying to do. I will provide more of my thoughts in a later review.

Next month, we will be reading THE WICKED CITY by Beatriz Williams. I adore this author and was thrilled when our book club selected this novel! This will be the last book we read as part of the Book Club Girl Program, and I can't express how grateful we are to the fine folks at William Morrow for providing us with books for the past year!

Summary: New York Times bestselling author Beatriz Williams recreates the New York City of A Certain Age in this deliciously spicy adventure that mixes past and present and centers on a Jazz Age love triangle involving a rugged Prohibition agent, a saucy redheaded flapper, and a debonair Princetonian from a wealthy family. When she discovers her husband cheating, Ella Hawthorne impulsively moves out of their SoHo loft and into a small apartment in an old Greenwich Village building. Her surprisingly attractive new neighbor, Hector, warns her to stay out of the basement at night. Tenants have reported strange noises after midnight—laughter, clinking glasses, jazz piano—even though the space has been empty for decades. Back in the Roaring Twenties, the place hid a speakeasy.

In 1924, Geneva "Gin" Kelly, a smart-mouthed flapper from the hills of western Maryland, is a regular at this Village hideaway known as the Christopher Club. Caught up in a raid, Gin becomes entangled with Prohibition enforcement agent Oliver Anson, who persuades her to help him catch her stepfather Duke Kelly, one of Appalachia’s most notorious bootleggers.

Headstrong and independent, Gin is no weak-kneed fool. So how can she be falling in love with the taciturn, straight-arrow Revenue agent when she’s got Princeton boy Billy Marshall, the dashing son of society doyenne Theresa Marshall, begging to make an honest woman of her? While anything goes in the Roaring Twenties, Gin’s adventures will shake proper Manhattan society to its foundations, exposing secrets that shock even this free-spirited redhead—secrets that will echo from Park Avenue to the hollers of her Southern hometown.

As Ella discovers more about the basement speakeasy, she becomes inspired by the spirit of her exuberant predecessor, and decides to live with abandon in the wicked city too. . . . -- William Morrow

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Giveaway: The Hunting Ground

Summary: Deuce Mora doesn't shy away from fights -- she picks them. The bigger the better.

Although, to be fair, this one is brought to her by a dog with a bone in his teeth. In Jean Heller’s first Deuce Mora murder mystery, the scrappy sleuth tangled with the mob; this time out she’s on the wrong side of the NSA, the FBI and the CIA. Fans of hard-boiled female protagonists should hang onto their fedoras—this one’s an action-packed extravaganza!

The grisly discovery of a human bone while Deuce is out for a hike with handsome arson investigator Mark Hearst leads to a vast burial field, a human trafficking ring, and international intrigue. The pulls-no-punches columnist—and meticulous detective--keeps turning up information, bit by bit, only to find some Fed always in her face, at her door, emerging from the shadows, steadfastly guarding the the story. Insisting it can’t be told. Yes, the Feds are aware of the trafficking ring; yes they have a plan to move on it; no, Deuce can’t be told about the plan; and under no circumstances can she write about its existence.

This is the story of a lifetime—bigger than the one that earned her a Pulitzer, and, for once, she has the support of her editor. But the Journal’s lawyer appears daily, bringing warnings about “national security.” What, Deuce seethes, could be a greater matter of national security than the safety of children who are being kidnapped and murdered?

And this story has become very personal for Deuce, as she herself admits. The hard-hitting journalist has fallen hard for a new guy: the savvy and charming Charles, an eight-year-old boy with the face of an angel and the possibility of a bright future--but in danger of being tarnished by a life in foster care. For Deuce, every child reported missing and every new body discovered in the hunting ground has Charles’s face. But while she’s racing to break the case wide open, her life and her career are threatened on all sides. She has to wonder if there are any lines the Feds won't cross.

But break wide open it does, racing to an outrageous surprise ending that seems shockingly … plausible, and Deuce learns first-hand the lesson that sometimes the only way to accomplish a great good is to commit unthinkable evil and then learn to live with the consequences. Author Heller does a masterful job of expanding the story—and her canvas—from a simple murder mystery to an ever-widening crime thriller, and finally to an international conspiracy.

Last year, I featured the novel THE SOMEDAY FILE by Jean Heller. This novel was the first in a new series starring Deuce Mora, a columnist for the Chicago journal. The book had political intrigue, some criminal elements, the Chicago mob, and lots of suspense. Ms. Heller's second novel starring Deuce Mora, THE HUNTING GROUND, is now available... and free to those of you with Kindle Unlimited!

THE HUNTING GROUND sounds like a good one. Deuce is trying to get some exercise and fresh air when she makes a shocking discovery -- someone is kidnapping and murdering children. Deuce is determined to get to the bottom of this mystery, but she finds herself hitting wall after wall. The police won’t act or even talk about the crimes; and neither will the mayor, or the medical examiner, or the Department of Children and Family Services. All the organizations who should be helping the city's children seem to be helping those responsible for the crimes.

These crimes become personal for Deuce as she tries to make sense of the violence. Just how far is Deuce willing to go to get to the bottom of these horrific crimes?

I am excited that I have a copy of THE HUNTING GROUND to share with one lucky reader courtesy of the author and Saichek Publicity. To enter, just fill out the form below before January 23rd 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!

Monday, January 9, 2017

Review: Her Every Fear

Summary: The author of the wildly popular The Kind Worth Killing returns with an electrifying and downright Hitchcockian psychological thriller—as tantalizing as the cinema classics Rear Window and Wait Until Dark—involving a young woman caught in a vise of voyeurism, betrayal, manipulation, and murder. The danger isn’t all in your head . . .

Growing up, Kate Priddy was always a bit neurotic, experiencing momentary bouts of anxiety that exploded into full blown panic attacks after an ex-boyfriend kidnapped her and nearly ended her life. When Corbin Dell, a distant cousin in Boston, suggests the two temporarily swap apartments, Kate, an art student in London, agrees, hoping that time away in a new place will help her overcome the recent wreckage of her life.

But soon after her arrival at Corbin’s grand apartment on Beacon Hill, Kate makes a shocking discovery: his next-door neighbor, a young woman named Audrey Marshall, has been murdered. When the police question her about Corbin, a shaken Kate has few answers, and many questions of her own—curiosity that intensifies when she meets Alan Cherney, a handsome, quiet tenant who lives across the courtyard, in the apartment facing Audrey’s. Alan saw Corbin surreptitiously come and go from Audrey’s place, yet he’s denied knowing her. Then, Kate runs into a tearful man claiming to be the dead woman’s old boyfriend, who insists Corbin did the deed the night that he left for London.

When she reaches out to her cousin, he proclaims his innocence and calms her nerves . . . until she comes across disturbing objects hidden in the apartment—and accidently learns that Corbin is not where he says he is. Could Corbin be a killer? And what about Alan? Kate finds herself drawn to this appealing man who seems so sincere, yet she isn’t sure. Jetlagged and emotionally unstable, her imagination full of dark images caused by the terror of her past, Kate can barely trust herself . . . So how could she take the chance on a stranger she’s just met?

Yet the danger Kate imagines isn’t nearly as twisted and deadly as what’s about to happen. When her every fear becomes very real. And much, much closer than she thinks.

Told from multiple points of view, Her Every Fear is a scintillating, edgy novel rich with Peter Swanson’s chilling insight into the darkest corners of the human psyche and virtuosic skill for plotting that has propelled him to the highest ranks of suspense, in the tradition of such greats as Gillian Flynn, Paula Hawkins, Patricia Highsmith, and James M. Cain. -- William Morrow

Almost two years ago, I read and enjoyed THE KIND WORTH KILLING (my review) by Peter Swanson so much that I immediately got my hands on a copy of his first novel THE GIRL WITH A CLOCK FOR A HEART. I loved Mr. Swanson's writing and creative storytelling, and I promised myself that I'd read every book he writes.

Fast forward to September of last year when I attended SIBA. I was absolutely thrilled to learn that Mr. Swanson was going to be a speaker at the Harper Collins breakfast! Of course, I had to be there! He discussed the inspiration behind his latest novel HER EVERY FEAR and gave us a few teasers about the plot. I couldn't wait to read it.

I am happy to say that I wasn't disappointed with HER EVERY FEAR. I don't have to tell you that sometimes that happens after enjoying an author's first couple of books. HER EVERY FEAR tells the story of Kate, a young woman from London, who does an apartment swap with Corbin, her cousin in Boston whom she's never met. Kate, who isn't exactly the most stable individual because of a past trauma involving an ex, is looking for a fresh start and a break from her current life. Little does she know that her arrival in Boston coincides with the discovery of a woman's dead body in the apartment next door to her.

Kate is naturally distraught, especially given her past; and she begins to wonder if her cousin could be involved in the woman's murder. Her questions take on a new urgency after she meets Alan, a fellow neighbor who admits to watching the woman's apartment from his apartment across the courtyard. He tells Kate that he saw Corbin in the woman's apartment and embracing her; however, Corbin denies any relationship. Kate also meets another mysterious man who claims he was a longtime friend of the murdered woman, and his behavior also causes Kate to doubt Corbin's story.

Kate isn't sure what to believe or whom to trust... including herself. Because of her past, she tends to think that disaster is around every corner; however, this time Kate has a reason to fear for her life as she tries to find the truth about the woman's murder.

I really enjoyed HER EVERY FEAR. The book was suspenseful and the characters were interesting, and I appreciated the author's homage to the movie Rear Window. I found the book to be extremely well written, and the pacing was excellent. It was a very quick read for me because I was "forced" to keep turning the pages.

HER EVERY FEAR was told through the eyes of multiple characters including Kate, Corbin, and even the killer. I thought Mr. Swanson did a good job in bringing each character's voice to life, and I found his portrayal of the killer's thoughts to be pretty darn scary. I have to admit that I had my doubts about whether I would appreciate this novel when I realized that Kate might or might not have been the most reliable of narrators (I hate feeling manipulated with the storytelling technique!); however, that wasn't an issue for me in this story. I especially liked that the author "explained" away some of my doubts about Kate's sanity by the end of the novel.

It wasn't exactly a whodunnit for the entire novel, but I admit I was kept guessing for the first half. Once it became evident what was going on, I felt as if the author did a great job of providing the clues as well as the background of the characters. I will say that the story did seem a little farfetched at times (or at least I hope farfetched), but I was more than willing to embrace the craziness and twisted nature of these characters.

Overall, I definitely recommend HER EVERY FEAR to fans of psychological suspense novels. The book has some creepy characters and an intriguing storyline, and it will keep you guessing about whom you can trust.

Thanks to the publisher and Goldberg McDuffie Communications for providing review copies of this novel.

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

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Kid Konnection: I am Jim Henson

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 new picture book in an already fantastic series!

Summary: We can all be heroes. That’s the inspiring message of this New York Times bestselling picture book biography series from historian and author Brad Meltzer. This volume focuses on Jim Henson, the creator of the Muppets and Sesame Street.

This friendly, fun biography series focuses on the traits that made our heroes great–the traits that kids can aspire to in order to live heroically themselves. Jim Henson, for example, was always dreaming up something new, and always expressing his belief in the goodness of people. Henson was a born performer with a terrific sense of humor, and he used those talents to help create two of the most beloved programs in television history: The Muppet Show and Sesame Street. Through his Muppets, Jim showed the world that there’s nothing more beautiful than imagination, especially when it’s accompanied by laughter and kindness.

Each book in this series tells the story of one inspiring individual through lively text and art that works well for the youngest nonfiction readers. At the back are an excellent timeline and photos. -- Dial

I am so excited to share with you the latest book in Brad Meltzer's "Ordinary People Change the World" series -- I AM JIM HENSON! I absolutely adored the other books that I've read in this series, and this one holds a near and dear place in my heart because it's about Jim Henson, the creator of the Muppets and Sesame Street. I am a huge fan of both the Muppets and Sesame Street, and many of my fondest childhood television memories are centered around these characters.

I AM JIM HENSON is an outstanding book -- there is no other word for it. This picture book, aimed at ages 5 - 8 (and of course 47 year olds too!), tells the story of Jim Henson's life... in his words. The book explains how Mr. Henson developed his imagination, his sense of humor, and his love of movies and costumes. It also shows the important role his grandparents played in his life and how his grandma encouraged him to tell stories.

I AM JIM HENSON also details how Mr. Henson discovered that he wanted to work in television -- there's a great lesson about persistence here. Readers will also get a glimpse into the creation of Kermit the Frog (Hint: Mr. Henson made him from his mother's old wool coat!) as well as the origins of Sesame Street and The Muppet Show.

I love every single thing about this book -- from the story, to the cartoon bubbles, to the photos; however, I would be remiss if I didn't tell you just how adorable the illustrations are.  Christopher Eliopoulos is the illustrator for all of the books in the "Ordinary People Change the World" series, and I love his work. This book has the most adorable little Jim Henson. He's actually looks like his full bearded adult self even when he's a little kid. And I thought Mr. Eliopoulos did an excellent job in drawing all of the Muppets.

But here's what made I AM JIM HENSON extra special to me...  the overall messages in this book. Of course, we all know that Mr. Henson was an amazing creator; however, he also had a beautiful life philosophy. He believed that there is good in all of us, no matter how different we might seem. He also challenged individuals to create something new, share what you love, and find others with the same dreams. We could all use a bit more of Mr. Henson in our lives, right?

I AM JIM HENSON is my new favorite picture book, and Mr. Meltzer's "Ordinary People Change the World" series is one of my all-time favorite series. I love how these books teach kids that it's perfectly normal to have dreams, be successful, and be a good person. Highly recommended!

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

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

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Review: The Flood Girls

Summary: This snappy, sassy redemption story set in small-town Montana is “a wild and crazy debut novel by a talented young writer” (Jackie Collins), filled with an uproarious and unforgettable cast of characters you won’t want to leave behind.

“[The Flood Girls] includes barfights and AA meetings, a parade, a wedding, and a black bear, all of which Fifield juggles beautifully...The Wild West earns its name all over again in this lovable chronicle of small-town insanity.”—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

Welcome to Quinn, Montana, population: 956. A town where nearly all of the volunteer firemen are named Jim, where The Dirty Shame—the only bar in town—refuses to serve mixed drinks (too much work), where the locals hate the newcomers (then again, they hate the locals, too), and where the town softball team has never even come close to having a winning season. Until now.

Rachel Flood has snuck back into town after leaving behind a trail of chaos nine years prior. She’s here to make amends, but nobody wants to hear it, especially her mother, Laverna. But with the help of a local boy named Jake and a little soul-searching, she just might make things right.

In the spirit of Empire Falls and A League of Their Own, with the caustic wit of Where’d You Go, Bernadette thrown in for good measure, Richard Fifield’s hilarious and heartwarming debut will have you laughing through tears. -- Gallery Books

I've been in quite the reading slump over the holidays. I am way behind in reading and therefore writing reviews; however, one book I managed to read and really enjoy was THE FLOOD GIRLS by Richard Fifield. I wasn't quite sure that to expect from the book's description, but I admit I was willing to give it a try based on the blurbs, reviews, and accolades that this novel has received. I am happy to say that I wasn't disappointed. THE FLOOD GIRLS had a little bit of everything... and it was both heartwarming and funny!

THE FLOOD GIRLS tells the story of the quirky residents of Quinn, Montana, and one zany women's softball team. Rachel Flood returns home after almost a decade. She has worked the AA program and has reached the step of making amends to those she hurt. It's obvious right away that Rachel left some damage in her wake when she left Quinn, namely the relationship with her mother. Rachel doesn't want to spend much time in Quinn, but she feels like she needs to set some things straight before she can move on with her clean and sober life.

Rachel's mother, Laverna, is a piece of work. She owns the local bar named The Dirty Shame and definitely isn't familiar with the term customer service. The bar tends to the locals including a lot of firemen named Jim and a group of lesbian miners. And get this... Laverna doesn't serve mixed drinks because they are too much work -- it's a beer only kind of place.

When Laverna is injured in a crazy accident, Rachel decides the best way she can make amends is help her run the bar. It just about kills her to deal with an unforgiving and bitter Laverna, and things become even worse when Laverna forces her to join Quinn's women's softball team made up of a band of unforgettable misfits.

Rachel is trying to reconcile her past with her future and, in the process, she experiences a wide range of emotions. Thank goodness Rachel has managed to make a few friends in town including a fashionista preteen boy named Jake. With Jake's help, Rachel discovers many things about herself while also discovering what it means to be part of something bigger than herself.

I found THE FLOOD GIRLS to be absolutely delightful. The book had one of the quirkiest cast of characters that I can remember in recent memory, and the story was pretty unique too. (I mean that in the best possible way!) Even though I knew from the start that the book was dealing with a recovering alcoholic who was trying to make amends with a mother she obviously wronged (although you could argue that the turmoil in their relationship was definitely two-sided), I found the first few scenes in the book to be hilarious. The author has a way with both storytelling and prose, and there were many laugh out loud moments. Needless to say, this is one book that I could definitely see as a movie!

However, THE FLOOD GIRLS was also pretty heartbreaking which was not what I was expecting. Rachel was deeply troubled; and as her story was gradually revealed, it became more and more apparent just how messed up she was. And poor Jake's situation with an abusive stepfather just broke my heart. And I don't want to give any spoilers away, but there is something that occurs at the end of the novel that took my breath away... not in a good way! What I loved so much about this book is that the mix of humor and poignancy were so well done. I experienced a wide range of emotions while reading this novel and it was a fantastic ride!

I know THE FLOOD GIRLS would make an outstanding book club selection! Seriously, this one is terrific because of the complexity of the characters. There is a reading guide with twelve questions as well as some ideas for enhancing your book club meeting like watching A League of Their Own prior to discussing the novel. Some of the themes you might want to discuss include alcoholism, forgiveness, friendship, religion/spirituality, and mother/daughter relationships. Of course, the characters are worthy of a great deal of discussion as is the setting itself.

Overall, I can't rave enough about THE FLOOD GIRLS. It's a terrific story about redemption that will entertain readers and also touch their hearts. Personally, I'm hoping to see this quirky town and its residents again in a sequel...hint, hint, Mr. Fifield.

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

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Review: Forty Autumns

Summary: In this illuminating and deeply moving memoir, a former American military intelligence officer goes beyond traditional Cold War espionage tales to tell the true story of her family—of five women separated by the Iron Curtain for more than forty years, and their miraculous reunion after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Forty Autumns makes visceral the pain and longing of one family forced to live apart in a world divided by two. At twenty, Hanna escaped from East to West Germany. But the price of freedom—leaving behind her parents, eight siblings, and family home—was heartbreaking. Uprooted, Hanna eventually moved to America, where she settled down with her husband and had children of her own.

Growing up near Washington, D.C., Hanna’s daughter, Nina Willner became the first female Army Intelligence Officer to lead sensitive intelligence operations in East Berlin at the height of the Cold War. Though only a few miles separated American Nina and her German relatives—grandmother Oma, Aunt Heidi, and cousin, Cordula, a member of the East German Olympic training team—a bitter political war kept them apart.

In Forty Autumns, Nina recounts her family’s story—five ordinary lives buffeted by circumstances beyond their control. She takes us deep into the tumultuous and terrifying world of East Germany under Communist rule, revealing both the cruel reality her relatives endured and her own experiences as an intelligence officer, running secret operations behind the Berlin Wall that put her life at risk.

A personal look at a tenuous era that divided a city and a nation, and continues to haunt us, Forty Autumns is an intimate and beautifully written story of courage, resilience, and love—of five women whose spirits could not be broken, and who fought to preserve what matters most: family. Forty Autumns is illustrated with dozens of black-and-white and color photographs. -- William Morrow

A few weeks ago, my book club met to discuss FORTY AUTUMNS: A FAMILY'S STORY OF COURAGE AND SURVIVAL ON BOTH SIDES OF THE BERLIN WALL by Nina Willner. I loved that we selected this book and really enjoyed reading it. We rarely read nonfiction and this memoir about a family who lived on both sides of the Berlin Wall was both interesting and touching.

FORTY AUTUMNS is written by a former American military intelligence officer whose family was divided when the Berlin Wall went up. The book delves into the lives of five women who were separated for over forty years as well as their eventual reunion. Hanna is the twenty year old daughter who was brave enough (and smart enough) to escape from East to West Germany before the wall was constructed; however, she did this at the expense of seeing her parents and eight siblings. Hanna eventually moved to America and started her own family there.

Hanna's daughter is Nina Willner, the author of this book. Nina became the first female Army Intelligence Offier to lead intelligence operations in East Berlin during the Cold War. Talk about a family's story coming full circle, right? She brings a unique perspective to this book because she understands the history and politics of the time due to her career, but she also has the gut-wrenching story of her family and their separation which make the book even more poignant.

I found FORTY AUTUMNS to be fascinating. As I read this book, I kept telling my husband things about East Berlin and what took place there during the Cold War. My husband reminded me that I was alive for much of the book, and I was even in college when the wall finally came down; however,  so much of what took place in this book was new to me. I don't know that I ever truly understood the enormity of this situation until I read FORTY AUTUMNS.

I am still shocked that there was a wall dividing a city... and more importantly, families. Imagine knowing that your loved ones were only a mile or so away and you couldn't see them. It's almost incomprehensible for me. And the differences in how the individuals on each side of the wall lived is beyond comprehension. There are many examples of the difficulties those living in East Germany faced, but a few really resonated with me. For instance, it took almost 15 years to get a car from the time you signed up for one; and there were actually towns in East Germany (and therefore family and friends) that you couldn't visit because they were too close to the border. And those are relatively minor things when you consider that all of your communication was being monitored and people were taken away for not "obeying" the rules of the land.

I will admit that I enjoyed the first two thirds of the book more than the last third. I thought I would be fascinated by the "spying" and intelligence gathering aspect of the book; however, I found the story of the family members to be so much more interesting. I think the human aspect of the story just made the actual historical events so much more real to me, and I couldn't help but think about just how many families were torn apart for decades. I was actually surprised by how much FORTY AUTUMNS moved me.

I do think FORTY AUTUMNS is a good selection for books clubs. There is a reading guide with twenty (!) discussion questions. We didn't actually go through the questions one by one, but I did use the guide as a way to steer conversation. Some of the topics you might want to explore include parent/child relationships, loss, grief, mental health, courage, principles, beliefs, and perseverance.

Overall, I think FORTY AUTUMNS is an excellent way for readers to learn more about the Cold War on both a historical and personal level. Highly recommended.

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