Thursday, March 30, 2017

Review: The Mother's Promise

Summary: All their lives, Alice Stanhope and her daughter, Zoe, have been a family of two, living quietly in Northern California. Zoe has always struggled with crippling social anxiety and her mother has been her constant and fierce protector. With no family to speak of, and the identity of Zoe’s father shrouded in mystery, their team of two works—until it doesn’t. Until Alice gets sick and needs to fight for her life.

Desperate to find stability for Zoe, Alice reaches out to two women who are practically strangers but who are her only hope: Kate, a nurse, and Sonja, a social worker. As the four of them come together, a chain of events is set into motion and all four of them must confront their sharpest fears and secrets—secrets about abandonment, abuse, estrangement, and the deepest longing for family. Imbued with heart and humor in even the most dismal moments, The Mother’s Promise is an unforgettable novel about the unbreakable bonds between mothers and daughters and the new ways in which families are forged. -- St. Martin's Press

Mother's Day is right around the corner. Well, it's really about six weeks away, but I recently read a novel that I think would make a wonderful mother's day gift. The book is THE MOTHER'S PROMISE by Sally Hepworth, and it's a story that celebrates all types of mothers.

THE MOTHER'S PROMISE tells the story of Alice Stanhope and her daughter Zoe. Alice is a single mother and her life revolves around Zoe. These two have depended on each other with little help from others... and that includes Zoe's father whom she's never met. All moms are protective of their children, but Alice is extremely protective Zoe because she has severe social anxiety disorder.

Things become even more complicated for these two when Alice receives a terminal cancer diagnosis. She has no family or friends to turn to, and she's extremely concerned about Zoe's future. As Alice gets weaker, she finds that she must reach out to two virtual strangers to help with Zoe -- Kate, a nurse, and Sonja, a social worker. While trying to help Alice and Zoe, Kate and Sonja must also face some insecurities about themselves and their own families. These four women are brought together by an unfortunate event; however, they pull together for Zoe's sake... and in the process, they learn about the strength of women and especially mothers.

THE MOTHER'S PROMISE is some novel. It's beautiful and heartwarming, but it's also touching. I ended up crying towards the end of this book, and that's not something I do with regularity. I have to say that I really enjoyed this novel, but it wasn't an easy book for me to read. Books about terminal cancer are always difficult to process, but a mother leaving her child (and a sensitive one at that) was especially heartbreaking for me.

I knew fairly early on that Alice and Zoe's part of this novel would be the primary one; however, I wasn't expecting the other characters to have their own in-depth storylines. In fact, I was impressed with how well the author developed all four of these characters. The novel was written in alternating chapters about each of the characters' stories, and I appreciated getting an inside look into each women's life and thoughts. Kate was a nurse who was desperate to have a baby. She and her husband (who already had children) were willing to do almost anything to have a child... until he wasn't. And Sonja had an odd (and honestly, pretty abusive) relationship with her husband.

As you can probably tell by now, this novel had its dark moments because it delved into some pretty serious topics including a terminal illness, a crippling social anxiety disorder, an abusive marriage, and infertility. But before you write off this book as being one big cry fest, I want to tell you that there were light moments in this novel... just like real life. I actually found myself laughing at parts of this book. There were also a few surprises and twists thrown in too. In addition, the author did a beautiful job of showing the bond between mothers and daughters.

THE MOTHER'S PROMISE isn't the first book I've read by Ms. Hepworth. That would be THE SECRETS OF MIDWIVES which I also enjoyed -- you can read my review here. One thing I can definitely say about Ms. Hepworth is that she isn't afraid to tackle difficult issues. What impressed me so much about this novel though was how genuine she made these women. I could feel their pain and my heart broke for each one of them. Furthermore, I learned a lot about these serious issues and thought the author portrayed them in a realistic way.

THE MOTHER'S PROMISE would make an excellent book club pick especially for groups with moms. The book delves into so many serious issues (I think I mentioned most of them above), but the real crux of the novel was the bond between women and especially mothers and daughters. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to find discussion questions; however, I'm not sure you would need a formal guide because there is so much to talk about.

THE MOTHER'S PROMISE would make a wonderful gift for the women (and especially mothers) in your life. Highly recommended!

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

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Review: Opening Belle

Summary: Maureen Sherry’s funny insider novel about a female Wall Street executive also trying to be a mother and a wife is a “compulsively readable…cheeky—and at times, romantic—battle-cry for any woman who’s ever strived to have it all and been told by a man that she couldn’t” (Entertainment Weekly).

It’s 2008 and Isabelle, a thirty-something Wall Street executive, appears to have it all: the sprawling Upper West Side apartment; three healthy children; a handsome husband; and a job as managing director at a large investment bank. But her reality is something else. Her work environment resembles a frat party, her husband feels employment is beneath him, and the bulk of childcare logistics still fall in Belle’s already crowded lap.

Enter Henry, the former college fiancĂ© she never quite got over; now a hedge fund mogul. He becomes her largest client, and Belle gets to see the life she might have had with him. While Henry campaigns to win Belle back, the sexually harassed women in her office take action to improve their working conditions, and recruit a wary Belle into a secret “glass ceiling club” whose goal is to mellow the cowboy banking culture and get equal pay for their work. All along, Belle can sense the financial markets heading toward their soon-to-be historic crash and that something has to give—and when it does, everything is going to change: her marriage, her career, her bank statement, and her colleagues’ frat boy behavior.

Optioned by Reese Witherspoon who called it “smart, biting, and honest,” Opening Belle is “funny, relevant, and often shocking….Even if your own life is far from a fairy tale, it will allow you to laugh, learn, and maybe even lean in—to hug your own family a little closer.” (The Washington Post). -- Simon & Schuster

I like what's known as "insider books" -- books that give an inside view into a certain occupation or organization, and that's probably why OPENING BELLE by Maureen Sherry appealed to me. This novel was written by a one time female executive on Wall Street, and it tells the story of a woman trying to have it all in a man's world. Many (many) years ago, I was a finance major in college and very interested in stories about careers on Wall Street. I was hoping that this book would be nice and juicy! And it was... but it was also surprisingly (to me!) deep.

OPENING BELLE tells the story of Isabelle, a 30-something mother of three and a Wall Street executive. She lives in a big Upper West Side apartment with a handsome husband, and she has a job which brings in a lot of money. It might seem like she has it all; however, her husband is a bit of a bum and her office basically consists of a bunch of frat boys. As any working mom can relate, Belle is struggling to do a good job at work while also maintaining a sense of normalcy in her house.

Belle's life isn't easy to begin with and then things get really interesting when Belle's ex fiance Henry shows up. He is a hedge fun mogul, and his job causes him to work very closely with Belle. Belle has never truly gotten over Henry and especially the way they broke up, so when Henry tries to woo Belle back, she begins to have doubts about her current situation. Meanwhile, the women in Belle's office decide to take matters into their own hands when it comes to the "good old boy" network; and Belle senses impending doom with the markets! Belle's life is pretty much on an insane crash course, and Belle has to make some choices if she wants to save herself!

I found OPENING BELLE to be terrific! I loved getting an insider's view into Wall Street and corporate finance in the mid 2000s, but I also loved getting a look at Belle's life. The world Ms. Sherry described wasn't too far from what I had imagined (or read about), and I did find the juicy details to be extremely interesting. However, OPENING BELLE was so much more than just a scandalous tell-all book about Wall Street. It actually was a deep look at a conflicted woman who tried to have it all... like so many working moms out there.

I am so glad that Ms. Sherry has stepped away from Wall Street to become a author. She definitely told a great story and has some major skills as a writer. I loved Belle and I think many women will relate to her struggles... and her perseverance. I found OPENING BELLE to be highly readable, and I didn't want to put it down. I think that's a testament to Ms. Sherry's writing style and character development.

I actually really appreciated that the novel was written in Belle's voice. Belle's insights (and therefore Ms. Sherry's insights) were so wise and, at times, very funny. I have a feeling that some of Belle's stories might have been versions of ones that Ms. Sherry experienced. I also loved that Belle was such a complex character. She was far from perfect, but she always tried to do her best at everything. I thought the author did a good job in developing the relationships in her life including ones with her husband, Henry, and even the women she worked with.

I think OPENING BELLE would make a fun book club selection. I was happy to find a link to discussion questions on the author's website. Some of the topics you might want to discuss include working moms, sexism, parenting, marriage, adultery, harassment, wealth, second chances, equal pay to name just a few. I know women my age will want to discuss Belle and her choices as well as the way she interacted with others.

Overall, OPENING BELLE was a very good read. I loved the juicy gossip of Wall Street, but I loved even more the character of Belle and how she was portrayed. Highly recommended!

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

Monday, March 27, 2017

Review: Follow Me Down

Summary: Mia Haas has built her life far from the North Dakota town where she grew up, but when she receives word that her twin brother is missing, she is forced to return home. Back to the people she left behind, the person she used to be, and the secrets she thought she’d buried.

Once hailed as the golden boy of their town, and now a popular high school teacher, Lucas Haas disappears the same day the body of one of his students is pulled from the river. Trying to wrap her head around the rumors of Lucas’s affair with the teen, and unable to reconcile the media’s portrayal of Lucas as a murderer with her own memories of him, Mia is desperate to find another suspect.

All the while, she wonders: If he’s innocent, why did he run?

As Mia reevaluates their difficult, shared history and launches her own investigation into the grisly murder, she uncovers secrets that could exonerate Lucas—or seal his fate. In a small town where everyone’s lives are intertwined, Mia must confront her own demons if she wants to get out alive. -- Forge

I am always on the lookout for new (or new-to-me) authors to feature in my Mystery Mondays posts, so it just made sense for me to pick up FOLLOW ME DOWN by Sherri Smith. The book's description sounded right up my alley, and there is just something about the cover (which ends up being extremely pertinent to the novel!) FOLLOW ME DOWN is the Ms. Smith's debut fiction title; however, she is better known as the Canadian writer S.L. Smith. So I guess, in a way, Ms. Smith falls under the new-to-me writer!

FOLLOW ME DOWN tells the story of Mia Haas, a woman who fled her hometown for Chicago to make a living as a pharmacist. For the most part, Mia has shed her past and her troubled mother; however, when she receives a call that her twin brother Lucas has gone missing, she returns home. Mia learns that her brother is the suspect in the death of one of his female high school students, and she's determined to prove his innocence.

Going back home for Mia is never easy, and this time the stakes are much higher as she searches for Lucas. The pain from Mia's past challenges with her brain damaged mother come rushing back, and Mia's trouble with a drug addiction do too. Mia can't believe that Lucas had an affair with one of his students, or even worse, murdered her; however, the police department isn't even looking at other suspects. It doesn't help that the cop in charge has had some past dealings with Mia's family.

Mia begins her own informal investigation by talking to family and friends, and she even finds herself doubting Lucas -- if he's so innocent, then why did he run away rather than stay and fight? As Mia's investigation begins turning up details about her brother's life, she suddenly realizes that her own past  might not be what she always believed. Can Mia come to terms with her past and her addiction while also proving Lucas's innocence?

I really enjoyed FOLLOW ME DOWN! It was a fast-paced story with quite a few twists and turns, and I can honestly say that I had no idea whether Lucas was innocent or guilty. Or course, I wanted to believe in him, but the evidence was pretty damning! Like Mia, I began doubting Lucas's innocence; however, I also got to the point where I wasn't exactly sure if I could trust Mia. I didn't think of her as a bad person, but she was depending more and more on prescription drugs to help her cope with everything... and I just felt like her state-of-mind was questionable at best.

FOLLOW ME DOWN was Ms. Smith's debut thriller, and I have to say that I was very impressed with her storytelling as well as her character development. I especially appreciated the pacing of the novel -- it was definitely hard to put down; however, her character development was pretty strong too. Mia was extremely complex, as was her relationship with her past; and I thought the author did a fantastic job of showing the issues with a small town and the citizens' small town mentality.

It won't come as a surprise that the truth about Lucas is eventually revealed. However, the ending ends up having almost as much to do with Mia as Lucas... and I'm not even sure I realized how much her past was a mystery to the reader. I appreciated how the stories all came together, and I found the entire novel to be both intriguing and suspenseful.

All in all, I'd say that Ms. Smith has quite the future if she wants to write more thrillers! I definitely recommend FOLLOW ME DOWN to fans of mysteries/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, March 25, 2017

Kid Konnection: We're All Wonders

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 based on a beloved middle grade novel.

Summary: The unforgettable bestseller Wonder, soon to be a major motion picture, has inspired a nationwide movement to Choose Kind. Now parents and educators can introduce the importance of choosing kind to younger readers with this gorgeous picture book, featuring Auggie and Daisy on an original adventure, written and illustrated by R. J. Palacio.

Over 5 million people have fallen in love with Wonder and have joined the movement to Choose Kind. Now younger readers can meet Auggie Pullman, an ordinary boy with an extraordinary face, and his beloved dog, Daisy.

Countless fans have asked R. J. Palacio to write a book for younger readers. With We’re All Wonders, she makes her picture-book debut as both author and artist, with a spare, powerful text and striking, richly imagined illustrations. Palacio shows readers what it’s like to live in Auggie’s world—a world in which he feels like any other kid, but he’s not always seen that way.

We’re All Wonders may be Auggie’s story, but it taps into every child’s longing to belong, and to be seen for who they truly are. It’s the perfect way for families and educators to talk about empathy and kindness with young children. -- Knopf

One of my all-time favorite middle grade books was WONDER by R. J. Palacio. I know I'm not alone! This book won tons of awards and inspired a nationwide movement called Choose Kind. It's   even coming to the big screen in 2017 in a movie starring Owen Wilson, Julia Roberts, and Jacob Tremblay to name a few of the fantastic cast. And last but not least... WONDER is the inspiration behind the new picture book WE'RE ALL WONDERS! How exciting is that?

WE'RE ALL WONDERS is a terrific picture book aimed at ages four to eight which means that you can now share the outstanding messages from WONDER to kids at an earlier age. It's written and illustrated by none other than R. J. Palacio, and it's positively precious. I am almost embarrassed to admit this, but this picture book brought tears to my eyes. It's that special!

WE'RE ALL WONDERS features Auggie and his dog Daisy. As many of you already know, Auggie is a little boy with a very unique face. He knows that he has the same feelings as other kids, and he even does the same activities. However, Auggie looks different and feels insecure as a result. Despite hearing his mother tell him he's a "wonder," Auggie sees how other people stare at him and hears what they say. (And now I'm crying!)

Auggie has his own special way of dealing with the hurt. He puts on his helmet and blasts off into outer space with Daisy. It's from here that Auggie gathers perspective and realizes that there are billions of people in the world. People who are different... just like him. Furthermore, Auggie accepts that he can't change the way he looks, but maybe people can change the way they see him and others. (More tears!)

WE'RE ALL WONDERS is beautiful -- from the story, to the illustrations, to the messages. I love Auggie and his story, and this book makes it simple enough for kids of all ages to understand. Not only does this picture book attempt to show the importance of acceptance and tolerance (which is especially relevant in today's world!), but it also provides comfort to those kids who look or feel different from their peers. It really is pertinent to everyone!

I adore WE'RE ALL WONDERS and can't rave enough about it. This picture book really is one of the best picture books I've ever seen. It's a must-read for all kids and parents, and I know it is a book that can make a difference in kids' lives.

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, March 23, 2017

Guest Review: A Murder of Crows


For years, every intelligence agency in the world has been chasing the elusive terrorist known only as The Moroccan. But when James Hicks and his clandestine group known as the University thwart a bio-terror attack against New York City and capture The Moroccan, they find themselves in the crosshairs of their own intelligence community.

The CIA, NSA, DIA and the Mossad are still hunting for for The Moroccan and will stop at nothing to get him. Hicks must find a way to keep the other agencies at bay while he tries to break The terrorist and uncover what else he is planning.

When he ultimately surrenders information that leads to the most wanted terrorist in the world, Hicks and his team find themselves in a strange new world where allies become enemies, enemies become allies and the fate of the University - perhaps even the Western world - may hang in the balance.

Can Hicks and the University survive an onslaught from A MURDER OF CROWS? -- Polis

Booking Pap Pap is traveling again! After coming home for a few days after his five weeks in Florida, he's now in China beginning a three week cruise. Fortunately, he got some reading and writing done on his last vacation. Here are his thoughts about A MURDER OF CROWS by Terrence McCauley.

Like many thrillers written today, A MURDER OF CROWS by Terrence McCauley encompasses terrorism and technology. This story begins with James Hicks, a member of the clandestine group known as the “University”, thwarting a bio terror attack and capturing highly sought-after terrorist, Bajjah, aka Moroccan.

Hicks is ordered by the head of the University (in keeping with the theme he is known as the Dean), to use all available techniques to break Bajjah. When the interrogation of Bajjah leads to the world’s most wanted terrorist, Jabbar, the University ops to chase the leads surrendered by Bajjah rather than follow their normal practice of turning such leads over to one of the intelligence agencies. This puts the University at odds with nearly all intelligence agencies in the world including the CIA, NSA and the Mossad. These agencies, normally friendly with the University, seemingly will stop at nothing to get the information gleaned by Hicks. With the help of the University’s ultra-advanced computer system called OMNI, Hicks is able to evade several attempts on his life as he chases the leads. Hicks efforts are further complicated when the Dean makes a critical decision that directly impacts Hicks.

Although the author introduces many characters in the novel, they are all really secondary to Hicks and the OMNI system. If a system like this really exists, we should all be concerned.

One of the most curious aspects of the novel is the title, A MURDER OF CROWS. The best explanation I found came from the 15th century when the phrase referred to the idea that the appearance of crows was an omen of death.

A MURDER OF CROWS is fast paced action-filled thriller that utilizes the requisite twists and turns before finishing with a surprise ending. Anyone who is a fan of thriller novels will enjoy A MURDER OF CROWS.

Thanks to Saichek Publicity for providing a review copy of this novel and thanks to Booking Pap Pap for his review.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Review: Girl in Disguise

Summary: Inspired by the real story of investigator Kate Warne, this spirited novel follows the detective’s rise during one of the nation’s times of crisis, bringing to life a fiercely independent woman whose forgotten triumphs helped sway the fate of the country.

With no money and no husband, Kate Warne finds herself with few choices. The streets of 1856 Chicago offer a desperate widow mostly trouble and ruin—unless that widow has a knack for manipulation and an unusually quick mind. In a bold move that no other woman has tried, Kate convinces the legendary Allan Pinkerton to hire her as a detective. Battling criminals and coworkers alike, Kate immerses herself in the dangerous life of an operative, winning the right to tackle some of the agency’s toughest investigations. But is the woman she’s becoming—capable of any and all lies, swapping identities like dresses—the true Kate? Or has the real disguise been the good girl she always thought she was? -- Sourcebooks Landmark

I received a lot (and I mean a lot) of good books at last year's SIBA, but one of was really looking forward to was this historical fiction novel GIRL IN DISGUISE by Greer Macallister. This book tells a fictionalized account of Kate Warne, a woman who was the first female detective for the Pinkerton Agency in the mid 1800s. I don't read as much historical fiction as I used to, but this one really sounded fantastic.

GIRL IN DISGUISE begins when Kate Warne, a recent widow, finds herself in need of a job. She sees an ad that the famous Allan Pinkerton is hiring detectives, and she figures she should give it a shot. It says a great deal about Kate's personality and determination that she convinced the renowned detective to hire her!

Kate finds herself thrown into many cases because she's a woman -- she plays a ton of different roles including a fortune teller, a Southern belle, and even a caregiving sister; however, she also discovers that just being a woman immediately causes resentment among many of the men she works with. Kate is extremely tough, though; and she uses her acting abilities, as well as her skills at lying and deceit to solve many mysteries.

I adored GIRL IN DISGUISE, and I mean everything from the characters, to the storylines, to the writing. This book is epitomizes everything I love about historical fiction. Ms. Macallister took a real-life woman about which little is known, and she created a fantastic story surrounding her life. There were quite a few great stories that the author had to work with, including in one where she helped President Lincoln escape an assassination plot and another one where she was spy during the Civil War.

There are many great things about this novel, but I especially loved how Ms. Macallister chose to portray Kate. She was an exceptional woman who was extremely ahead of her time. That made for some entertaining stories about her career; however, she also gave Kate a lot of depth. Kate was actually fairly lonely much of her life due to the choices she made, and the author showed the toll it took on her state of mind and happiness. In addition, because Kate played so many roles, there was some confusion about who she really way and what were her motivations.

GIRL IN DISGUISE is Ms. Macallister's second novel, but the first one for me. Her first book is titled THE MAGICIAN'S LIE, and it sounds terrific too. After loving GIRL IN DISGUISE, I won't hesitate to pick up her first novel the next time I'm at the library!

All in all GIRL IN DISGUISE is a wonderfully written (and imagined!) story about an amazing woman. Highly recommended for fans of historical fiction!

I received an autographed (yay!) copy of this novel at last year's SIBA.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Review: In This Grave Hour

Summary: Sunday September 3rd 1939. At the moment Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain broadcasts to the nation Britain’s declaration of war with Germany, a senior Secret Service agent breaks into Maisie Dobbs' flat to await her return. Dr. Francesca Thomas has an urgent assignment for Maisie: to find the killer of a man who escaped occupied Belgium as a boy, some twenty-three years earlier during the Great War. In a London shadowed by barrage balloons, bomb shelters and the threat of invasion, within days another former Belgian refugee is found murdered. And as Maisie delves deeper into the killings of the dispossessed from the “last war," a new kind of refugee — an evacuee from London — appears in Maisie's life. The little girl billeted at Maisie’s home in Kent does not, or cannot, speak, and the authorities do not know who the child belongs to or who might have put her on the “Operation Pied Piper” evacuee train. They know only that her name is Anna.

As Maisie’s search for the killer escalates, the country braces for what is to come. Britain is approaching its gravest hour — and Maisie could be nearing a crossroads of her own. -- Harper

Through the years, I have reviewed almost every Maisie Dobbs book that Jacqueline Winspear has written. There probably isn't a whole lot more for me to say. I look forward to each and every one of these novels; and the latest, IN THIS GRAVE HOUR, is another example of an excellent mystery. I absolutely adored this book, and I will never tire of Ms. Dobbs' adventures.

IN THIS GRAVE HOUR takes place in England during the outbreak of World War II. In fact, one of the first scenes is the famous announcement by Prime Minister Chamberlain declaring war against Germany. Maisie, who runs her own detective agency, is asked by a Secret Service agent to assist in finding out who was responsible for the murder of a man who immigrated to England from Belgium during World War I.

As London is preparing for attacks from Germany, Maisie is busy trying to gather clues about this man's past. However, another man, also a Belgium refugee, is found murdered; and Maisie begins to think that these men's murders are linked. Maisie's investigation leads her to discover interesting ties between a group of men who came to England from Belgium when they were just boys. Meanwhile, Maisie is dealing with refugee issues relating to the current war. Children are billeted at Maisie's home in the country, and one little girl named Anna, who won't speak, has definitely captured Maisie's interest!

I loved IN THIS GRAVE HOUR, but as I mentioned earlier, that's not a surprise. Maisie Dobbs is one of my favorite characters in literature, and Ms. Winspear is one of my favorite mystery authors. If you are familiar with this series, then you already know what a wonderful job the author does of bringing this time period to life; and you also know how complex of a character Maisie is. I think that the vast majority of my understanding of England in both World War I and World War II come from these books. (Guess how I prefer to get my history lessons!)

I found the mystery of these murders of these Belgium refugees to be really interesting, and I honestly didn't have a clue where the story was going. I learned a long time ago not to try to figure out the mysteries in these books because it's much more enjoyable to just go along with Maisie and her investigating skills. Suffice it to say that I was surprised by the outcome and I wouldn't have been able to figure out this culprit no matter how hard I tried!

As intriguing as the mystery was, I still think the strength of this novel lies in Maisie and her character development. Maisie has experienced so much trauma and heartbreak since the first novel (and actually even before that!), so the reality of war is especially terrifying for her. I thought the author did a great job of making Maisie's fears real as well as bringing some of the effects of her past life experiences to the forefront.

One thing I always appreciate is how Ms. Winspear ties together storylines from Maisie's past with the present, I appreciate even more how she ties the various storylines together within the same book. In the case of IN THIS GRAVE HOUR, one of the main recurring themes was the issue of refugees. (Do I even need to say how relevant parts of this story are to what's going on in today's world?) Ms. Winspear outdid herself in tying together the story about the Belgium men who were refugees as children with the plight of Anna, the young girl who was living at Maisie's country house.

As a fan of Maisie, I also appreciated how Anna brought out Maisie's maternal instincts. I don't want to give too much away about Maisie's past (and the other novels), but Maisie is a widow and has never had any children. When she meets Anna and realizes that they have no idea where Anna comes from or truly anything about her family, Maisie immediately wants to learn more about this girl. It makes sense given her occupation as a private detective, but it also shows that even Maisie isn't exempt from falling for a little girl.

If you are new to the series, you can definitely pick up IN THIS GRAVE HOUR and you'd be fine. Ms. Winspear does a great job of making these books work as stand-alone novels, but I would have to  recommend reading the entire series. These books are just so good and the way the author ties the books together is really something special. The mysteries definitely work on their own, but the character development as well as Europe's changes during the wars are extremely interesting to follow throughout the series.

Many years ago, my book club read and discussed the first book in the Maisie Dobbs series. This was a time when most book clubs didn't pick mysteries to discuss. It was a fantastic selection and we had so much to discuss. That's because these books are so deep on so many levels. IN THIS GRAVE HOUR would also make a great selection. There is a reading guide available with thirteen intriguing questions. Some of the themes you might want explore include grief, fear, challenges of refugees, memory, family, sacrifice, empathy, and anger.

IN THIS GRAVE HOUR is a terrific mystery and also a relevant novel in today's world. I was entertained and provided with some food for thought. Highly recommended!

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

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

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Kid Konnection: More Animal Bites

Every Saturday, I host a feature called Kid Konnection -- a regular weekend feature about anything related to children's books. This week I'm going to share with you two books from the popular television and book series Animal Bites.

Summary: With more than 200 adorable photos of baby animals and their families, there's serious "aw" factor on every page of Animal Planet Baby Animals. This fun addition to the Animal Bites series provides kids in the first years of schooling with the perfect bite-sized view of their favorite animals. Arranged thematically with a focus on animal behavior and family relationships, young readers will explore sections about life cycles, feeding, play time, conservation, getting around, and much more. Special book features designed for this age group include simple infographics and 'All Grown Up' animal facts to help kids learn more about how young and adult animals differ-just like humans!

For more Animal Bites books, check out Animal Planet Ocean Animals, Animal Planet Polar Animals, Animal Planet Wild Animals, Animal Planet Farm Animals, and Animal Planet Animals on the Move.

A portion of the proceeds from the sale of books in the Animal Bites series benefits the principal partners of R.O.A.R. (Reach Out. Act. Respond.), Animal Planet's initiative dedicated to improving the lives of animals in our communities and in the wild. -- Liberty Street

Prepare for cuteness overload in the new book ANIMAL PLANET BABY ANIMALS by Dorothea DePrisco! This book, aimed at kids ages four to eight, is positively adorable. There are over 200 pictures of baby animals in this book, and each one is cuter than the next.

There is no doubt that children will love looking at the gorgeous, full color photographs in BABY ANIMALS, but this book is also chock-full of fun facts about baby animals. There are colorful tabs on each page which help kids navigate the book. For example, there are different tabs for "how they grow," "where they live," "big data," and more. In addition, the author uses "info bites" sections to give specifics about various animals.
I just adore the entire Animal Bites series. These books make learning fun with the fun photos and the ways the facts are presented. I also love that there is a focus on conservation in the books. It's never too early to get children thinking about our planet and its inhabitants!

Summary: With more than 200 gorgeous photos of animals in their natural habitats, there's action and adventure on every page of Animal Planet Animals on the Move. This fast-moving addition to the Animal Bites series provides kids in the first years of schooling with the perfect bite-sized view of their favorite animals. Arranged thematically with a focus on animal behavior and family relationships, young readers will explore sections about migration, fast and slow, hunting and playing, and animal movement on land, in the air, and in water, Special book features designed for this age group include simple graphics and 'Just Like Me' sidebars with fascinating animal facts for young readers to learn more about themselves and the amazing animals that share our world.

For more Animal Bites books, check out Animal Planet Ocean Animals, Animal Planet Polar Animals, Animal Planet Wild Animals, Animal Planet Farm Animals, and Animal Planet Baby Animals.

A portion of the proceeds from the sale of books in the Animal Bites series benefits the principal partners of R.O.A.R. (Reach Out. Act. Respond.), Animal Planet's initiative dedicated to improving the lives of animals in our communities and in the wild. -- Liberty Press

ANIMAL PLANET ANIMALS ON THE MOVE by Dorothea DePrisco is another fantastic book for children interested in animals and nature. It probably won't surprise you that I found the beautiful photographs to be the initial draw of this book. Upon further review, though, I was also very impressed with the factual data.

ANIMALS ON THE MOVE is set up the same way as BABY ANIMALS with the tabs and "info bites" sections. There are also over 200 photographs which will keep children's interest. While BABY ANIMALS definitely had the "cute" factor, this book has more of a "wow" factor. For example, kids will learn interesting facts about animals. Did you know that a peregrine falcons can dive at 200 miles per hour?
I can't recommend ANIMAL PLANET BABY ANIMALS and ANIMAL PLANET ANIMALS ON THE MOVE enough. They are perfect for both home and school libraries!

Thanks to Blue Slip Media for providing review copies of these books.

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

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Guest Review: Unholy Code

Summary: The Summer of Blood explodes. The U.S. is under siege from foreign jihadists and domestic terrorists. When a brilliant exploit strikes at the heart of the National Security Agency's own network, former NSA operative Lana Elkins discovers that it came from within the United States itself. More surprising still is the attacker: Steel Fist, a cyber-savvy radical white supremacist whose legions feed on his anti-Islamic exhortations. His popularity only grows when a jihadist team carries out a bold, but baffling, attack on the Louisiana coast, bringing ashore a lethal invader no one can see.

Most mysterious of all are Golden Voice, a hacker of unparalleled skill with a murderous agenda and a secret past, and Tahir Hijazi, a Muslim refugee from Sudan with his own shadowy history. When Tahir's young nephew starts dating Lana's daughter Emma, Steel Fist calls upon his fans to embark on a new mission: assassinate the entire Elkins family.

As extremists battle each other with Lana fighting both ends from the middle the conflict becomes deeply personal, the stakes tragically high.

In Thomas Waite's edgiest tale yet, battles savage the American heartland, shaking the very foundations of the world's mightiest nation. -- Marlborough Press

A few years ago my dad reviewed LETHAL CODE by Thomas Waite, so it just made sense that he'd review the third book in the series UNHOLY CODE: A LANA ELKINS THRILLER. He seems to like thrillers that deal with the U.S. government, and UNHOLY CODE seems especially timely because it deals with cyber-security! Here are his thoughts:

Having previously enjoyed LETHAL CODE by Thomas Waite, I looked forward to reading UNHOLY CODE. Lana Elkins is again the lead character. Lana was a former NSA employee who now runs her own cyber-security company and works closely with the U.S. government in preventing cyber-attacks.

UNHOLY CODE deals with the issues of cyber-hacking and terrorism but does it with a plethora of story lines that keeps the reader very busy keeping track of them. The story begins with the United States on high alert for foreign attacks due to a nuclear blast on the arctic shelf that left the U.S. coast line vulnerable. Then Jihadists execute two brazen attacks – one on a Louisiana coast town and one on a Gulf oil platform. At the same time, a tech-savvy radical white supremacist fires up his followers with anti-Islamist rhetoric and a sophisticated hacker is manipulating several cyber-systems to enhance a murderous agenda. To complicate matters further, Lana’s 17 year-old daughter, Emma, is dating the nephew of a Muslim refugee with a somewhat questionable past. These issues puts the entire Elkins family in grave danger.

These story lines are greatly enhanced by a lengthy list of interesting and believable characters. First is Lana who has just reunited with her ex-husband, Dan, a prior drug runner and recent DEA informer. She also has her hands full with a serious gambling addiction and a difficult and somewhat independent teenage daughter, Emma. Those readers who like their heroes to show their vulnerabilities will love Lana. The readers are introduced to white supremacist, “Steel Fist”, hacker supreme, “Golden Voice” and Tahir, the Muslim with questionable loyalties. For good measure, author Thomas Waite throws in a speed boat racer, Jimmy McMasters, and an oil rig worker, Ken, who display a level of heroism that is pure American. The author mixes in an ex-Russian soldier, Ludmila and heroic dogs Jojo, Cairo and Biko.

Somehow author Thomas Waite pulls these complex and varied storylines about terrorism, national security, murder, bigotry, love and loyalty together in a fast paced high tension novel. The UNHOLY CODE is a thriller with plenty of violence and twists and turns to keep the most avid readers of this genre happy.

Thanks to Booking Pap Pap for his review and to Saichek Publicity for providing a review copy of this novel.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Review: This Is How It Always Is

Summary: This is how a family keeps a secret…and how that secret ends up keeping them.

This is how a family lives happily ever after…until happily ever after becomes complicated.

This is how children change…and then change the world.

This is Claude. He’s five years old, the youngest of five brothers, and loves peanut butter sandwiches. He also loves wearing a dress, and dreams of being a princess.

When he grows up, Claude says, he wants to be a girl.

Rosie and Penn want Claude to be whoever Claude wants to be. They’re just not sure they’re ready to share that with the world. Soon the entire family is keeping Claude’s secret. Until one day it explodes.

Laurie Frankel's This Is How It Always Is is a novel about revelations, transformations, fairy tales, and family. And it’s about the ways this is how it always is: Change is always hard and miraculous and hard again, parenting is always a leap into the unknown with crossed fingers and full hearts, children grow but not always according to plan. And families with secrets don’t get to keep them forever. -- Flatiron Books

THIS IS HOW IT ALWAYS IS by Laurie Frankel is a book that, frankly, surprised me... in all the best ways. I had heard some buzz about this novel at SIBA (and truthfully, even before that!), and I was assured that the book would make me think -- and think I did. However, THIS IS HOW IT ALWAYS IS made me feel too. I don't think you can ask much more from a book than that!

THIS IS HOW IT ALWAYS IS tells the story of one very big family who has an even bigger secret. Rosie and Penn are the parents of four rambunctious boys. Of course, it's natural that they would like a little girl; however, they decide to have one more child -- truly not caring if it's another boy. Well, guess what? It's another boy they name Claude. However, Claude knows from a very young age that he wants to be a girl.

Rosie and Penn (and even his four bring brothers) are all extremely supportive, but the rest of the community... not so much. They decided to move to the more progressive Seattle area and just introduce Claude as Poppy. Through the next few years, the family has the normal issues that all families have; however, Poppy has made friends and seems happy. That is, until her "secret" is eventually revealed, and everything comes crashing down for Poppy and the rest of her family.

I couldn't put down THIS IS HOW IT ALWAYS IS. I was drawn into this family's story from the first few pages, and I became more and more caught up in their lives (and lies). THIS IS HOW IT ALWAYS IS is a big book -- almost 400 pages; however, I think I read it in just a little over two days. I found these characters to be very real and I couldn't help but care so much about all of them. I think this is a major testament to the author's ability to bring this story to life.

And maybe that's because Ms. Frankel wrote what she knew. Ms. Frankel's adopted child is transgender, and I believe her parenting has made her the exact right person to tell this story. She wrote with a sense of compassion and understanding that, at times, brought tears to my eyes. I loved how supportive Poppy's parents were and just how much they were willing to sacrifice to make her happy. There are a few lessons in this novel for all parents!

Ms. Frankel did a few other neat things with this novel besides having a great premise. For example, the father was a writer who loved to tell bedtime stories to his kids. He actually created a long-running fairy tale to help Poppy and her brothers to deal with their issues. This fairy tale had characters and storylines that were symbolic of what was going on in Poppy's life, and it was definitely interesting to see how she interpreted the tales... especially as she got older.

It probably goes without saying that THIS IS HOW IT ALWAYS IS would make an outstanding book club selection, especially for readers who are also parents. There is a reading guide available with seventeen questions. Some of the themes you might want to explore include gender identity, parenting, sacrifice, forgiveness, secrets, bravery, acceptance, guilt, and gender stereotypes.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed THIS IS HOW IT ALWAYS IS and I highly recommend it to fans of literary fiction.

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

Monday, March 13, 2017

Review: I See You

Summary: Every morning and evening, Zoe Walker takes the same route to the train station, waits at a certain place on the platform, finds her favorite spot in the car, never suspecting that someone is watching her…

It all starts with a classified ad. During her commute home one night, while glancing through her local paper, Zoe sees her own face staring back at her; a grainy photo along with a phone number and a listing for a website called

Other women begin appearing in the same ad, a different one every day, and Zoe realizes they’ve become the victims of increasingly violent crimes—including murder. With the help of a determined cop, she uncovers the ad’s twisted purpose…A discovery that turns her paranoia into full-blown panic. Zoe is sure that someone close to her has set her up as the next target.

And now that man on the train—the one smiling at Zoe from across the car—could be more than just a friendly stranger. He could be someone who has deliberately chosen her and is ready to make his next move… -- Berkley

If you are looking for one creepy and twisted thriller, then I think I have a suggestion for you. The book is called I SEE YOU by Clare Mackintosh, and I have to say that I really enjoyed this one. The premise of the story was definitely intriguing, and the author's ability to create suspense is definitely worth noting.

I SEE YOU tells the story of Zoe Walker, a woman and mother of two, whose life is turned upside down one day when she notices her photo in a classified ad for Zoe isn't quite sure that it's a photograph of her (it's kind of blurry and grainy); and her family is quick to think it's just someone who looks like her. However, when Zoe discovers that different women and appearing in the same ad each day... and that these women are becoming the victims of crimes (including murder), she begins to worry.

Much to Zoe's frustration, the police aren't exactly how serious to take Zoe's report. Fortunately, one young cop (who just happens to have some major baggage) believes her and wants to help. As they learn more and more about the women and the crimes, they discover some very scary things about the  intent of the ad. Naturally, Zoe's concern quickly turns to full-blown panic (and paranoia) -- she evens begin having doubts about her loved ones. Will they get to the bottom of these ads before Zoe becomes the next victim?

I really enjoyed I SEE YOU. It's a gripping suspense novel that definitely plays tricks with readers' minds. The novel has a twist at the end... and then another huge twist; however, I will admit that I wasn't totally shocked by the reveal. Having said that, I did appreciate how the story unfolded and how Zoe learned the truth about who was responsible. The novel was really like a roller coaster ride as I tried to figure out what in the heck was going on; and I actually felt like I was along with Zoe for the ride!

In addition to Zoe and her story, I also really enjoyed the character of Kelly Swift, the officer who believed Zoe and was doing her best to help her. Kelly was a fantastic character who I actually found much more interesting than Zoe. She had a complicated background, including some baggage from her personal life and her professional one, that made her and her actions intriguing to me. I would love to see her appear in future books by Ms. Mackintosh.

And speaking of Ms. Mackintosh's books, I SEE YOU is her second novel, but it's where I started. Her first one, I LET YOU GO, was a New York Times best-seller; and there is absolutely no doubt that I'm going to track it down... right away. I truly appreciated Ms. Mackintosh's writing and character development as well as the way she incorporated so many twists into the story. I have a feeling that Ms. Mackintosh's books are right up my alley!

I SEE YOU would make a terrific book club selection. I was happy to find a reading guide for this novel -- that's not always the case with thrillers. The guide has nine thought-provoking questions including ones about victims, trust, family, fear, and parenting. I also think many of the characters and their actions are worthy of discussion.

Overall, I enjoyed I SEE YOU very much and I highly recommend it to fans of suspense 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, March 11, 2017

Kid Konnection: Presidents and First Ladies

Every Saturday, I host a feature called Kid Konnection -- a regular weekend feature about anything related to children's books. This week I'm going to share with you two books -- one about Presidents and one about First Ladies.

Summary: TIME For Kids presents a complete overview of our nation's chief executives from George Washington to the newly elected 45th president!

Did you know that James Monroe was the first president to appear without a wig in public? Or that George W. Bush appointed the first African-American secretary of state? Presidents of the United States invites the reader inside the White House to discover fascinating facts about the U.S. commanders-in-chief-their origins, accomplishments, and place in history-as told through famous quotes, important historical dates, and a timeline of events. Special sections cover the election process, the branches of government, and the role of presidents in the expansion of our nation from before the 13 colonies through westward expansion. With more than 200 photographs, illustrations, portrait reproductions, and maps. -- Liberty Street

My son loves books about history, and one that definitely caught his eye these past few weeks is TIME FOR KIDS PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES, This book, aimed at ages 8 - 12, features all of our country's presidents... including our 45th one, Donald Trump.

I think TIME FOR KIDS PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES is a fantastic book! In fact, I love that it condenses the history of the presidents' lives and careers in one easy-to-read book. This relatively short book (around 80 pages) is perfect for kids who want to learn about our executive branch of the government. What's even better is that it's not overwhelming or intimidating because the information is presented in such a concise way. There are even lots of pictures and photographs to break up the text!

In addition to providing brief histories of each president, TIME FOR KIDS PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES also provides interesting information on the history of the office of the presidency as well as a primer on the three branches of government. There is also a discussion of the political party system in the United States and a sections on the First Ladies and the White House.

TIME FOR KIDS PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES is a fantastic resource for both school and home libraries. Highly recommended.

Summary: First Ladies are more than just wives of U.S. presidents! This fun, kid-friendly book of trivia and history shows that First Ladies help influence America in ways both large and small.

Did you know that Mary Todd Lincoln hated slavery and helped to end it in America? Or that Edith Wilson helped decode secret messages during World War I? How about that Sarah Polk didn’t let anyone dance in the White House while she was first lady?

It’s true! In addition to being hostesses, advocates, ambassadors, activists, patriots, and role-models, each first lady put her own stamp on the White House—and on our country. In this fun-filled, fact-filled book, you can find out just what made each first lady unique and why they were so important. As it turns out, first ladies are a pretty big deal after all!

This book is perfect for fans of So You Want to be President? and Rad American Women from A-Z:Rebels, Trailbalzers, and Visionaries who Shaped Our History…And Our Future, and is a great entry point to discussing elections, inaugurations, and all aspects of the White House with children. -- Philomel

WHAT'S THE BIG DEAL ABOUT FIRST LADIES by Ruby Shamir and Matt Faulkner is a picture book that's ideal for kids ages 4 - 8 who want to learn more about our country's First Ladies. Most people recognize the important ceremonial role of First Ladies; however, this book spotlights also the accomplishments of various First Ladies.

I adored WHAT'S THE BIG DEAL ABOUT FIRST LADIES! It's a wonderful picture book that has already received its fair share of praise including a starred review from Kirkus. This book truly makes learning fun. There is interesting text about the roles and responsibilities of a First Lady, but there are also little tidbits that give real life examples of First Ladies' actions and the influence they had.

The text in WHAT'S THE BIG DEAL ABOUT FIRST LADIES is presented is such a friendly format -- it's almost conversational. While there are plenty of books about our presidents, I can't remember seeing one about First Ladies... nevertheless a picture book! Young readers (but especially girls) will be sure to appreciate how this picture book focuses on women and their accomplishments.

WHAT'S THE BIG DEAL ABOUT FIRST LADIES is an excellent picture book and another must-have addition to home and school libraries!

Thanks to Blue Slip Media and Penguin for providing review copies of these books.

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

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Review: The Girls in the Garden

Summary: Imagine that you live on a picturesque communal garden square, an oasis in urban London where your children run free, in and out of other people’s houses. You’ve known your neighbors for years and you trust them. Implicitly. You think your children are safe. But are they really?

On a midsummer night, as a festive neighborhood party is taking place, preteen Pip discovers her thirteen-year-old sister Grace lying unconscious and bloody in a hidden corner of a lush rose garden. What really happened to her? And who is responsible? -- Atria

I missed posting on Monday of this week -- the day I almost always devote to reviewing a mystery or thriller. I guess you could say that this review of THE GIRLS IN THE GARDEN by Lisa Jewell is kind of/sort of my replacement for that post; however, I'm not sure that I'd primarily classify this book as a mystery. It's more of a women's lit kind of story, but there is definitely an element of a whodunnit. There are also lots of secrets and questions about trust. So basically, it's a tantalizing read from one of my long-time favorite authors.

THE GIRLS IN THE GARDEN tells the story of Clare who has moved to a new home in urban London after her husband is committed after a psychotic breakdown. Clare has two daughters, Pip and Grace, and is happy that she has found a home that backs to a communal garden area. Her daughters have become fast friends with the neighbors; however, things might not be as safe as she first thought.

The novel begins when Pip discovers her teen sister Grace lying unconscious in the peaceful garden behind their home. Grace is left bloodied and it's obvious to Pip that something horrible happened to her sister. The novel then goes back in time as it explains the past and introduces the various characters in the story. The story is told through pre-teen Pip's eyes as well as Adele's, a woman and mom who lives in the neighborhood. There is also insight from Pip's mom Clare.

There are no obvious suspects for the crime against Grace, but no one in this small community appear to be above suspicion. What happened to Grace brings to light a similar crime that took place in the neighborhood many years ago... which definitely places suspicion on those individuals who lived there at that time. As the novel unfolds and tension builds, more and more questions seem to come to light about what could have happened to Grace.

THE GIRLS IN THE GARDEN was definitely an intriguing read! I have been a huge fan of Ms. Jewell's (for many years!), and it was terrific to see her write this type of novel. I thought she did a great job with the pacing of this novel -- there were little cliffhangers throughout, and an even better job with building suspense. In addition, she created some memorable and complex characters.

One thing I really appreciated was how she wrote about the garden that exists between the characters houses. It almost was a character in its own right in how she described its appearance. She did a very good job in contrasting the natural beauty of the garden with the danger and threats that were obviously in existence.

Another aspect of this story that I really appreciated was the character development. The story was told through the eyes of three people, and I thought Ms. Jewell gave each one of them an authentic voice. I especially enjoyed Pip's letters to her dad which updated him on her family's lives. They were  extremely touching as Pip tried to figure out her family's new life without their father. She shared with him her concern for her sister as she made new friends and distanced herself from Pip and her mother.

Finally, as much as I enjoyed the intrigue of THE GIRLS IN THE GARDEN, I think I most enjoyed what the topics that this novel explored. The book delved into trust, secrets, new beginnings, peer pressure, family dynamics, growing up, and more; and it really did make me think. As a result, you won't be surprised when I tell you that this novel would make a great book club pick. There is a reading guide available with fourteen really good questions along with some ideas for ways to enhance your book club experience.

Lisa Jewell does not disappoint... ever. Highly recommended!

Thanks to Kathy (Bermudaonion) for sharing this novel with me.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Review: A Piece of the World

Summary: From the #1 New York Times bestselling author of the smash bestseller Orphan Train, a stunning and atmospheric novel of friendship, passion, and art, inspired by Andrew Wyeth’s mysterious and iconic painting Christina’s World.

"Later he told me that he’d been afraid to show me the painting. He thought I wouldn’t like the way he portrayed me: dragging myself across the field, fingers clutching dirt, my legs twisted behind. The arid moonscape of wheatgrass and timothy. That dilapidated house in the distance, looming up like a secret that won’t stay hidden." To Christina Olson, the entire world was her family’s remote farm in the small coastal town of Cushing, Maine. Born in the home her family had lived in for generations, and increasingly incapacitated by illness, Christina seemed destined for a small life. Instead, for more than twenty years, she was host and inspiration for the artist Andrew Wyeth, and became the subject of one of the best known American paintings of the twentieth century.

As she did in her beloved smash bestseller Orphan Train, Christina Baker Kline interweaves fact and fiction in a powerful novel that illuminates a little-known part of America’s history. Bringing into focus the flesh-and-blood woman behind the portrait, she vividly imagines the life of a woman with a complicated relationship to her family and her past, and a special bond with one of our greatest modern artists.

Told in evocative and lucid prose, A Piece of the World is a story about the burdens and blessings of family history, and how artist and muse can come together to forge a new and timeless legacy. -- William Morrow

I have a pretty big backlog of books that I need to review, some from a few weeks or even months ago, but I couldn't wait to tell you about A PIECE OF THE WORLD by Christina Baker Kline. Many of you came to know and love Ms. Kline's writing after reading her hugely successful novel ORPHAN TRAIN, and I think you will appreciate her latest story too. I adored it!

A PIECE OF THE WORLD was inspired by Andrew Wyeth's painting Christina's World -- see the cover of the novel. I was fortunate enough to hear Ms. Kline speak at last year's SIBA about this book, and I walked away from Savannah knowing that this was one book that I had to read. (I was also fortunate enough to sit with her for the Harper Collins author breakfast -- squeee!) She explained how she took facts from the real Christina Olson's life and incorporated them with fiction.

Christina Olsen lived on her family's farm in the small town of Cushing, Maine. She lived with a great deal of pain and her illness continued to get worse so Christina had limited mobility... and limited interaction with others. No one, including Christina, ever would have thought that she would have ended up not only hosting Andrew Wyeth in her home for decades, but that she'd also end up be the inspiration for his best-known painting Christina's World.

Ms. Kline did a remarkable job of creating Christina and "Christina's World" in this novel. She developed a remarkable complex character who had a unique bond with one of the most famous painters of the 20th century as well as difficult relationship with her own family and friends. I found Christina to be an intriguing woman, and one that I felt an incredible amount of sympathy towards. Her family life, especially her ties to the farm, as well as her illness made her life both difficult and, in many ways, tragic. Her character was so real that I felt her pain, both physically and emotionally; and my heart broke as I realized how truly sad her story was.

Another aspect of the novel that I really enjoyed was how Ms. Kline decided to tell Christina's story. The book is written through the eyes of Christina, and there is absolutely no doubt that the author captured her voice perfectly. In addition, the story moved back and forth between her childhood and adult life, and I felt like the transitions were extremely well done. I especially appreciated the difference in how Christina's character was portrayed as a child and then an adult. There was so much hope in the character's childhood when she thought she had the opportunity to be a teacher, and then the bitter reality as she realized that her destiny would always be tied to her family and their land. I loved the the book went back and forth, and Christina's entire story was eventually revealed to the reader.

I also loved how the author chose to portray the relationships in Christina's life. The one I appreciated the most was between Christina and Wyeth. Christina definitely felt an affinity to Wyeth, and their friendship was something special. I also found the story of Christina and her love interest to be interesting (I guess that's the right word), as well as the ones between her and her parents and her and her brother. All in all, I'd say that the author did a wonderful job in making these characters both interesting and their relationships complex.

A PIECE OF THE WORLD would make a fabulous book club selection. I wasn't able to find a link to a discussion guide, but I seriously doubt you'd need a formal one. There are plenty of issues to discuss, namely Christina and her relationships. In addition, you might want to talk about family, obligations, illness, guilt, sacrifice, and love.

I think fans of ORPHAN TRAIN are going to love A PIECE OF THE WORLD. Highly recommended!

I received an autographed (yay!) copy of this novel at last year's SIBA.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Kid Konnection: Duck and Hippo in the Rainstorm & 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 from the Duck and Hippo series.

Summary: Duck and Hippo may be completely different, but they are best friends. When playful Duck invites careful Hippo to go for a walk in the rain, they have trouble sharing Duck’s umbrella. But Duck and Hippo won’t let that stop them. Soon they are puddle-jumping and sailing down the river! Until…WHOOOSH! A terrible wind sends the umbrella flying up, up, up into the air, with one friend holding on. What will Duck and Hippo do now? Jonathan London’s charming text and Andrew Joyner’s delightful art bring to life two lovable friends in this fun new series. -- Two Lions

DUCK AND HIPPO IN THE RAINSTORM by Jonathan London and illustrated by Andrew Joyner is a great picture book for kids ages three to seven. Duck and Hippo are a bit like the odd couple -- Duck is kind of carefree while Hippo is definitely more cautious. As you can imagine, their personality differences provide some fun entertainment for readers!

In DUCK AND HIPPO IN THE RAINSTORM, Duck invites Hippo to go for a walk in the rain. Of course, Hippo is reluctant to go but Duck assures him that she will share her umbrella. As you can probably imagine, it's rather difficult for a hippo and a duck to share an umbrella. That is until Hippo realized he could hold the umbrella. The two unlikely friends are soon jumping puddles and riding down the river until... a big wind lifts Duck into the air! Naturally, Hippo follows his floating friend until Duck gradually returns to the ground, and the two share a cup of tea.

I thought DUCK AND HIPPO IN THE RAINSTORM was adorable. These two characters are so much fun, and their unlikely friendship is good for a few laughs. I found their antics in the rain to be sweet, and I like how the author features two very different animals who can still manage to get along... and actually bring out the best in each other!

Mr. London is the bestselling author of the Froggy series, so I don't need to tell you that he is a terrific author. The illustration by Mr. Joyner are just precious and complement the text perfectly. I actually think these two men are on to something with DUCK AND HIPPO IN THE RAINSTORM, and I suspect we might be seeing more of these two lovable friends in future books.

And just in case you can't wait to get more of Duck and Hippo, there are free downloadable activity sheets to check out!

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

Giveaway alert: Two Lions is offering a copy of DUCK AND HIPPO IN THE RAINSTORM to share with one lucky reader. To enter, just fill out the form below before March 17th 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!

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, March 3, 2017

Review: Life on Mars

Summary: In this sneaky, silly picture book for fans of Oliver Jeffers and Jon Klassen, an intrepid—but not so clever—space explorer is certain he’s found the only living thing on Mars

A young astronaut is absolutely sure there is life to be found on Mars. He sets off on a solitary mission, determined to prove the naysayers wrong. But when he arrives, equipped with a package of cupcakes as a gift, he sees nothing but a nearly barren planet. Finally, he spies a single flower and packs it away to take back to Earth as proof that there is indeed life on Mars. But as he settles in for the journey home, he cracks open his cupcakes—only to discover that someone has eaten them all!

Readers will love being in on the secret: Unbeknownst to the explorer, a Martian has been wandering through the illustrations the whole time—and he got himself a delicious snack along the way. -- Dial Books for Young Readers

I know I'm a day early for my Kid Konnection feature, but I wanted to share LIFE ON MARS by Jon Agee with you right away! It's that darn special! Don't worry, I have another fun picture book and a giveaway for tomorrow.

LIFE ON MARS is a delightful picture book about one little explorer's visit to Mars. After traveling a very long way, a young astronaut is sure that he's going to discover life on Mars -- so sure that he brings a box of chocolate cupcakes to share. He's very sad to discover that there doesn't seem to be any sign of life, but then he finds a small flower to take home... and prove his case.  When he returns to his spaceship, he decides to eat one of his chocolate cupcakes. Imagine his surprise when he realizes that they have mysteriously disappeared!

LIFE ON MARS is too darn cute! I absolutely loved it and think parents and kids alike will find a lot to like about this silly book. The illustrations are extremely cute and the story itself is rather funny... especially the surprise ending. I loved the little astronaut and how determined he was to prove his point, and I couldn't help but smile at his oblivious nature. My smiles actually turned to a laugh when he realized that someone had eaten his cupcakes!

I think LIFE ON MARS could become one of those family favorite picture books! Highly recommended!

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

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Review: The Wicked City

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

I've been remiss in posting my review for my book club's latest selection THE WICKED CITY by Beatriz Williams. We met over a week ago, and while I did a quick recap of our meeting, my review kind of slipped through the cracks. But I always say, "Better late than never."

THE WICKED CITY tells the story of two women, separated by over seventy years, who live in Greenwich Village next to an old jazz nightclub -- Gin and Ella. Gin is a flapper girl living in New York (aka the wicked city) in the 1920s. She grew up in the mountains of western Maryland and wanted to escape her difficult home life. She is dating a Princeton man from a very wealthy family (whom she knows she should marry); however, she is also attracted to Oliver, a Prohibition agent. Gin decides to help Oliver catch her stepfather, a major bootlegger and an overall horrible guy.

The (almost) present day story is about Ella. Ella is a forensic accountant (the job is way more interesting than it sounds!) who has recently left her husband after catching him with a prostitute. She abandons their gorgeous loft (not very smart) and rents out a small apartment on Christopher Street -- the very same house where Gin lived. There she meets Hector, a handsome guy who shares her taste in jazz music; and she finds herself drawn to him despite still being married.

The novel goes back and forth between the two women's stories, and readers can't help noticing that there are a few similarities in the women -- although probably many more differences. Gin is a bit of a firecracker while Ella is a bit of a wallflower. Although as the two stories play out, Ella takes on some of Gin's more free-spirited behavior!

Overall, I really enjoyed THE WICKED CITY. But that's not altogether a surprise because I love, love, love Ms. Williams' novels. I always appreciate how she ties together a present day storyline with one from the past as well as how she brings different time periods to life. In the case of this novel, I will admit that I enjoyed Gin and her story more than Ella's. Who can really argue with a spunky flapper living in Greenwich Village in the 1920s who falls for a Prohibition agent that is trying to capture her wicked stepfather? It's just a great story!

I also really enjoyed how there were a few twists in the novel. Naturally, I can't tell you what they are, but suffice it to say that I, and my fellow book clubbers, were all surprised and didn't see one of them coming! Another fun thing about THE WICKED CITY is that Ella ends up being related to the Schuyler family. If you have read Ms. Williams' other novels, then you know how everything seems to come back to these characters!

THE WICKED CITY was a terrific book club selection. There is a reading guide with ten questions that will definitely get your conversation up and going. Some things you might want to discuss include marriage, secrets, plot twists, class structure, love, family, responsibility and more!

THE WICKED CITY is the first in a new series and I, for one, can't wait for the next installment THE WICKED REDHEAD!

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