Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Holly's Year in Review

I was really hoping to get a post done that summarized my year in reading. What more fitting day to do that than December 31st! :-)

I try not to set goals for myself in reading or join reading challenges just because I like to read whatever I'm in the mood for at that time. I do read my book club books most months and I try to read ARCs I receive in a timely manner so I guess those are the most goal-oriented books I get to. Everything else just sort of goes with the flow. However, as 2008 was coming to a close I noticed I was very close to 52 total books for the year which would have been an average of one book per week! Considering I had about 35 books in 2007 and 23 or 24 the couple years before that. This year has been very productive in the reading department! I set 52 as a goal for myself. But got distracted by some knitting projects and the holidays so alas, I fell just a bit short at 50. But I'm pretty proud of my almost a book a week progress this year and hold to keep that up in 2009. I'm also pondering a couple challenges. There's an Art History Challenge that is calling my name. So we'll see. I may jump on the challenge bandwagon in '09.

Here's a list of many of the books I read in 2008 by rating:
Five Star Rating (I'm very stingy with this rating):
Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford
The Crossroads by Chris Grabenstein
Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson

Four and A Half Stars:
Masterpiece by Elise Broach
The Plain Janes by Cecil Castellucci
Bobbie Faye's Very (very, very, very) Bad Day by Toni McGee Causey
Sea of Monsters (Percy Jackson #2) by Rick Riordan
Amadi's Snowman by Katia Novet Saint-lot
Naptime is the New Happy Hour by Stefanie Taylor-Wilder

Four Stars:
Fiendish Deeds (Joy of Spooking #1) by P.J. Bracegirdle
Sweetheart by Chelsea Cain
America America by Ethan Canin
Bobbie Faye's (kinda, sorta, not exactly) Family Jewels by Toni McGee Causey
Everyone is Beautiful by Katherine Center
The Innocent by Harlan Coben
Hold Tight by Harlan Coben
Diary of a Fairy Godmother by Esme Raji Codell
In the Woods by Tana French
Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
Real Murders by Charlaine Harris
Grave Surprise by Charlaine Harris
The Beasts of Clawstone Castle by Eva Ibbotson
Marco Flamingo by Sheila Jarkins
The Power of Three by Laura Lippman
The Eight by Katherine Neville
The Patron Saint of Liars by Ann Patchett
Change of Heart by Jodi Picoult
Deadly Decisions by Kathy Reichs
39 Clues: Maze of Bones by Rick Riordan
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer

Three and a Half Stars:
Killer Heels by Sheryl J. Anderson
Woman in Red by Eileen Goudge
The Tail of Emily Windsnap by Liz Kessler
Schooled by Anisha Lakhani
The Fire by Katherine Neville
The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin
The Alchemyst: The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel by Michael Scott
Anatomy of a Boyfriend by Darla Snadowsky

Three Stars:
Heartsick by Chelsea Cain
Off the Deep End by W. Hodding Carter
Iris, Messenger by Sarah Deming
Firefly Lane by Kristin Hannah
Bitter is the New Black by Jen Lancaster
The Pact by Jodi Picoult

Two and a Half Stars:
Sundays at Tiffany's by James Patterson

Two Stars:
Cinderella (As if you didn't already know the story) by Barbara Ensor
Atonement by Ian McEwan
The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett

And here is a list of a few books I hope to get to in the early part of 2009:
Etta by Gerald Kolpan
One False Note (39 Clues #2) by Gordan Korman
Knit Two by Kate Jacobs
The Double Bind by Chris Bohjalian
What Was Lost by Catherine O'Flynn
The Witch's Trinity by Erika Mailman
The Ophelia and Abby Mystery Series by Shirley Damsgaard
Inkheart by Cornelia Funke
Magyk by Angie Sage
Twilight by Stephanie Meyer

Hope you all had a wonderful holiday season and Happy New Year's Eve!!!

Firefly Lane by Kristin Hannah

I read this one for my book club in December. It's a nearly 500-page hardcover (coming out in paperback in January) but quite a quick read. We are introduced to the two main characters Kate and Tully as children, both in need of a real friend. They become instant and inseparable friends. Kate comes from a very traditional family: parents still married, brother, mother cares about what she does. Tully (short for Tallulah) never knew her father, her drug-addicted mother was in and out of her life, she grew up living with her grandparents, and just had a very unstable childhood. Kate was attracted to Tully's rebellious, unconventional nature and Tully loved Kate's homey family.

The book follows these two ladies through the next 3 decades of their lives and their friendship. The two women grow up to have very different lives. Kate becomes a married, stay at home mom to three children while Tully has a very successful career as a TV news journalist. She never marries and has no children. There friendship takes a few hits as they get older and ultimately they end up not speaking for more than a year until tragedy brings them together again. The end of this one is a tearjerker and I spent much of the book wondering when the inevitable tragedy would occur and to whom (I'll keep it to myself so no spoilers!).

Overall, this was a fast read, but it could have benefited from one more edit before publishing. It really seemed to drag out at 500 pages. And I feel a bit of the older years could have been edited down. Tully's selfishness really got on my nerves after awhile. I give it about 3 out of 5 stars. I may try something else by this author just because it was a quick read and she has a few other books that sound interesting. But I'll check the page length before delving into them. The rest of my book club had luke-warm feelings toward this one as well.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Murder for Christmas, Part Three

Part One here!
Part Two here!

I read three more Christmas mysteries on my Murder for Christmas spree:

Mistletoe and Murder by Carola Dunn: This is the eleventh Daisy Dalrymple mystery, and I've only read the first. However, I had no trouble jumping in and figuring out what was going on. Daisy's mother is Lady Dalrymple, but Daisy is a reporter for Town and Country (shocking!) during the 1920s. She and her family end up (in a convoluted way) staying at Brockdene, a Cornish estate, for Christmas. Questionable parentage, entailed estates, poor relations, and hidden treasure make this a delightful holiday cozy. A wet-blanket priest protests against the Christmas decorations, among other things, but he's mercifully killed off. Daisy and her Scotland Yard husband investigate to uncover the murder. Daisy is a bit more blase than I would be about her child being in the vicinity of a murder, and there are a few too many exclamations of "Blast!" added for period authenticity, but that's fine. A fun holiday cozy.

Mrs. Jeffries and the Silent Knight by Emily Brightwell: I'm not sure why, but I had a little trouble getting into this one at first. This is the 20th in the series, so that's probably it. Once I got into, though, I was hooked, and I'll definitely read this series from the beginning. The premise is that Inspector Witherspoon's servants actually solve his cases, giving him clues without making him aware of it. Mrs. Jeffries, the housekeeper, is the leader, and all the servants get in on the action with their own special skills. I was a bit disturbed that the book began with the servants lamenting that they hadn't had a murder to solve in a long time, but I suppose there wasn't much in the way of entertainment for the serving class back then. Witherspoon's case, the murder of Sir Braxton, is a tricky one--Braxton is some sort of cousin to the Queen and the mystery must be solved quietly before Christmas. Sir Braxton's daughter's don't like him, and neither does anyone else, really--he's not a nice person and he didn't pay his creditors. Once I got into the story, I really liked Mrs. Jeffries and all the servants. It's a fun bunch, and the mystery was entertaining.

A Catered Christmas by Isis Crawford: This was the big surprise out of this batch. I haven't read the first two in the series about sisters Bernie and Libby, who own A Little Taste of Heaven, a store? restaurant? I think just a store. I felt I was missing some background (who was this Bree person and why didn't they tell her to take a hike?) and there were some annoyances (Bernie twists her ring when she's nervous, which is kind of pointless to bring up periodically--adds nothing to the story) and I was annoyed by the wandering point of view, but there was a lot to like in this book. Bernie and Libby participate in a televised competition hosted by Martha Stewart-like Hortense Calabash. When Hortense's holiday preparations literally blow up in her face, Bernie and Libby (and their ex-cop father, Sean) investigate. There's a wealth of suspects, from the competitors, all of whom have secrets, to the producer, to Hortense's assistant. I liked the sisters and the competition was funny. Lots of Christmas preparations make it festive. A decent mystery with engaging characters.

Finding Nouf by Zoe Ferraris

My book club (really more of a wine and gossip club, but we do read...well, some of us do) chose Finding Nouf for our December book, and I found it riveting. Zoe Ferraris, an American formerly married to a Saudi, gives us a unique look at Saudi culture. The action begins with a search for a missing girl, but this is a mystery the way Kate Atkinson's Jackson Brodie novels are mysteries, which is to say it is a literary novel with a mystery at its core. Ferraris does a brilliant job of slowly unraveling the mystery amidst a portrayal of the extreme gender segregation in Saudi culture and its impact on both women and men. At first, I was put off by the point-of-view character being male--how can you look at the restrictions on women through a man's eyes? But Ferraris chose Nayir as her vehicle for showing how gender segregation impacts men, and it's fascinating. Nayir is naive in the way of women, uncomfortable when a woman speaks "brazenly"--that is, without a man first having spoken to her--and can barely think when confronted with the sight of a woman's ankle, much less her face. He is unmarried and frustrated by the ridiculous process of finding a wife. The story begins with Nouf's rich, influential family asking Nayir to look into Nouf's death after they've used their influence to shut down the official investigation. Katya, an assistant in the morgue and fiancee to Nayir's best friend Othman (adopted brother to Nouf), ends up helping Nayir. They struggle to peel back the layers of the family's secrets while avoiding the wrath of the religious police as they meet to share information.

There's an extensive amazon review detailing the "errors" Ferraris has made in matters of Saudi culture and geography. The geography doesn't bother me in the least--it's a novel, for heaven's sake! Does Ferraris really have to stick to the distances between cities in reality? Does it matter for the purposes of the novel that one can't actually take an overnight bus from Jeddah to Muscat? However, some of his points, such as the use of paid escorts (women are not permitted to drive in Saudi Arabia), are more to the point. Googling, though, did turn up discussion of paid drivers for women in Saudi Arabia, so I'm not sure if things have changed since the reviewer lived in Saudi Arabia or if there are regional differences. Ferraris did stay in Saudi Arabia for almost a year following the first Gulf War, so she's not completely inventing the culture she describes. Times may have changed, or she may have made some changes for literary purposes. It's an interesting question, I think--since Ferraris is giving a rare glimpse into Saudi culture (possibly the only glimpse many of us will get), how accurate does she have to be? Does she have as much literary license as a novelist whose work is set in a more well-described culture? I don't think there's an easy answer, and several scenes ring so true (Katya moving her head from side to side to be able to see the contents of her purse, Katya sitting in the drawing room with her future in-laws) that they may outweigh nitpicky details.

Finding Nouf was a riveting mystery (though I wasn't quite satisfied with the resolution) set in a fascinating discussion of a strange culture. The discussion of the limitations on men and women was really interesting, and the development of Nayir's attitudes toward Katya was complex and well-developed. I highly recommend this book.

Finally, a winner!

I don't know what I was thinking having a giveaway deadline right before the holidays! Lilah and I just got around to picking a winner for the Death by Cashmere giveaway. Lilah pulled Wrighty's name out of the mixing bowl today. Congratulations to Wrighty and a thank you to all who entered. Happy New Year, everyone.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Picture Book Thursday!

This week we have another wonderful picture book to feature from Tilbury Publishers: Under the Night Sky from Amy Lundebrek. This charming book is a great read for kids during the winter. And here in Minnesota it is a balmy 3 degrees. Perfect weather for curling up and reading with the kiddos!

Under the Night Sky begins with a mother (who works nights) coming home to wake up her son and rush him outside to view a spectacular sight, the Northern Lights. Their whole building bundles up and cuddles together to watch the dancing lights across the night sky. I found this book to be a very touching reflection of a mother/child relationship. In the beginning, although the son is in bed every night before his mother comes home from work, he never falls asleep before she comes in to say goodnight. There is another moment later in the book where the mother says to the boy, "Just remember these lights, how they dance. And if you ever feel angry that I'm not letting you have your way, remember I'm on your side. I promise I will always try to give you the best things in life." Just a sweet, tender moment and since I have young two girls, I only hope they can remember that sentiment when we enter the teen years down the road. :-)

The thing I really liked about this book, and actually all three Tilbury books I've seen so far, is the illustrations. They are very artistic. Meaning, each illustration could be a piece of art in itself. In this book, you can tell the illustrations were done on canvas from the look of them. And in the previous Picture Book Thursday about Give a Goat, the illustrations were watercolors. Coming from an art background, I get very excited to share any sort of artistic experience with my children so this particularly draws me to these books.

I think it is fun to do an art project related to a book to help solidify the story in a child's mind. Doing a project together also leaves time to talk more about the story or the elements in the book. And my girls are very big into art projects! I love the blog Art Projects for Kids and was inspired to combine a few of the projects Kathy lists to create one for Under the Night Sky. I have small children ages 3 and 5 so I can't do anything too difficult. Here's an idea if you'd like to try a project with your child inspired by this illustration from the book:
Have your child take a white crayon and draw stars on piece of white paper. You could have them color trees in black crayon toward the bottom of the page. Then, have them paint in the picture with watercolors. Using greens, blues, pinks, and purples, fill in the middle of the sky to depict the Northern Lights. Greens and blues for the rest. The crayon should show up through the watercolor paint. If you try it, I'd love to hear how it worked for you!

I like to support local people and the author of Under the Night Sky lives just a few miles away from me in Champlin, Minnesota! So if you live in the Midwest and you're looking for a more locally relavant book, check this one out! Or, just check it out, no matter where you live! :-)

About the author: Amy Lundebrek lives Champlin, Minnesota, with her husband, Ryan. She has a degree in Biology and works as a research associate in a cell culture lab. She enjoys hiking and camping, canoeing and kayaking, painting and sculpture. Under the Night Sky is her first published book.

About the illustrator: Anna Rich says her career as an illustrator began in kindergarten, where she preferred coloring and drawing to her other classwork. She received her BFA from the Rhode Island School of Design and has illustrated many picture books, including From My Window by Olive Wong, Just Right Stew by Angela Medaris, Cleveland's Lee's Beale Street Band by Arthur Flowers, and Saturday at the New You by Barbara Barber. She lives in Elmwood, New York, with her son and husband.

Thank you to Tilbury House for letting us be a part of the blog tour for Under the Night Sky. Here is a list of the other blogs on the tour. Please take moment to visit them as well!

Monday, Dec. 8: Shelf Elf
Tuesday December 9: Bri Meets Books
Wednesday, Dec. 10: The Wild Rumpus Starts (You Are Here)
Thursday, Dec. 11: In the Pages
Friday, Dec. 12: The Well-Read Child
Saturday, Dec. 13: Read These Books and Use Them
Sunday, Dec. 14: Ready, Set, Read
Monday, Dec. 15: Becky's Book Reviews
Tuesday, Dec. 16: NatureMoms
Thursday, Dec. 18: On My Bookshelf
Friday, Dec. 19: The Green Hour

Click Here To Order Under the Night Sky
There's also a teacher guide for the book.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Another contest

The blogosphere is full of contests for the holidays! Check out this one, for a copy of Matrimony, from Tome Traveler's Weblog. If you're a crazy book-gifting person like me, you get extra entries!

Monday, December 15, 2008

Author Interview and Giveaway: Death by Cashmere

I received a copy of Death by Cashmere by Sally Goldenbaum, the first in the Seaside Knitters series, and loved it! My full review is right here, but there's more! I was lucky to have the chance to "interview" Sally Goldenbaum by e-mail and to receive a brand-new copy to give away to one lucky reader. Contest information is after the interview. I hope you enjoy the chance to learn a little more about Death by Cashmere and Sally Goldenbaum!

One of my favorite parts of Death by Cashmere was the fantastic town of Sea Harbor. You draw the town and its inhabitants so vividly that it was almost a main character. Is it based on a real place you've lived, or a composite of different towns?

It made me quite happy to have you refer to Sea Harbor as ‘almost a character’ because I tried very hard to do exactly that. Since this was the first book in a series, I wanted the town to come alive, to welcome readers, to be a place they would feel at home and would want to visit again and again. It’s also great fun to create a town (how many times does one get such a chance?) especially one in which I’d love to have my own private retreat.

Although Sea Harbor is imagined, it was surely inspired by the wonderful small towns that dot Cape Ann, Massachusetts—by the architecture and shops and art galleries and seaside neighborhoods in that area north of Boston. I combined things, took away others, until I had exactly the kind of town in which I knew the knitters would live and love (not to mention solve murders) —and never want to leave. Birdie’s big home is one I spotted in Gloucester, Massachusetts, though I never saw its inside. And Nell’s is a home I want to live in some day—she has my dream kitchen.

There are many movies filmed on Cape Ann, which I watch for atmosphere and inspiration (and it provides a nice break from writing when I am stuck on a scene-- all in the name of research!). The Love Letter is one that captures a lot of what I see in Sea Harbor. But strolling the streets of these charming seaside towns with my family who live in that area, sitting together on an actual breakwater with the salty breeze whipping through our hair, talking to the fishermen and shop owners, and pushing my grandson on a swing in a park that overlooks the ocean—these things provide the best inspiration of all.

Did your experiences as a Catholic nun inform your writing? I imagine it must have given you the insight to create such nuanced characters.

It was an important life experience, that’s for sure, and as such became a part of who I am, and, consequently, of what and how I write. I met many wonderful people during those years. Probably one of the things that affected me most deeply was the power and richness of female friendship—and that is one of the pivotal elements in the lives of the Seaside Knitters—the bonds of such friendship.

There is one character in the book, especially, who was drawn in some ways from a wonderful mentor, philosophy teacher, and friend I had (and have) from convent years. Birdie Favazza (in Cashmere) has my nun friend’s wisdom, humor, and insight—her generous spirit and kind, lively personality. My friend marched during the civil rights struggle in Selma, Alabama—and Birdie, I am sure, would have done the same thing given the right circumstances. (Clearly Birdie’s four husbands show that she and my nun friend are not an exact match-up!)

I thought Birdie was a delight, and I want to be like her when I grow up! Do you have a favorite character in the series? Which character is the most like you?

I love that you love Birdie. And as I said, she’s important to me, too. I suppose Nell, though, is most like me. That’s partially because we are the closest in age, and I have lived out some fantasies through her — her house near the beach, her running so easily, her kitchen, her cooking for friends every Friday night (I’ve always wanted to start a tradition like that!). Nell’s niece Izzy is about the same age as my own daughter (who similarly went to school in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and now lives in a seaside town). So the concern Nell sometimes has for her niece—and her sometimes-interference in Izzy’s life—comes about through my own urges.

I would guess I’m like many fiction writers, creating characters who say things that we might like to say, or do things that we would like to do. Our alter egos in print.

When/where did you learn to knit? What made you decide to incorporate knitting into a mystery?

My grandmother taught me to knit a lifetime ago, sitting in her rocking chair in Manitowoc, Wisconsin. And I picked it up now and again through the years. But it was when my grandson Luke was born that it began growing to the obsession level. And now I find it hard to leave home without needles and yarn in hand. I’m not a great knitter, but most definitely a dedicated one!

In discussing the development of a new mystery series with my agent (I had previously written a mystery series that revolved around quilters), I suggested knitting because I love it—and one of the agents, an accomplished knitter, loved the idea. In researching the market, we thought there might be room for another series using knitting as the bond that pulls the main characters together, and so the Seaside Knitters were born. When Penguin gave them a home, I was very happy, indeed!

Do you have a favorite type of knitting? Favorite pattern? Yarn you just love?

I love knitting little sweaters and hats in organic cotton or soft wool. I tried a shawl in seasilk yarn because it figured in Death by Cashmere. It’s lovely yarn! And I’m determined to master socks. My knitting shop friends tell me it’s “easy.” Hmmmm. But the seaside knitters have been trying them, and with their encouragement, I will, too. I hope that readers will send me the socks they knit so I can add photos on my website:

I have a knitting blog, so for my readers, I have to ask: English or Continental?

Oh, dear. Such a sticky question. I knit the way my grandmother taught me to knit—and that is English. I love the way the women in the knitting studio look when they are knitting continental—it looks so much faster. But I’ve tried…and failed…and am back to the way my Grams taught me to do it.

Thanks so much for the chance to reach readers through your blog and reviews, Allison. I hope they will come visit and drop me a note. Also, the next Seaside Knitters mystery, Patterns in the Sand, will be out in May 2009. Hope you enjoy it!

I really appreciated the opportunity to have my nosy questions answered! Thank you to Sally Goldenbaum for taking the time to respond!

If you would like a brand-new, hardcover copy of Death by Cashmere (and I know you do!), here's what you do:
1. For one entry, leave a comment on this entry telling me your favorite cozy mystery series OR your favorite pattern to knit (a bonus entry if you share both!).
2. For another entry, leave a comment on my review and tell me why you want to read the book.
3. For THREE bonus entries, link to this contest on your blog and tell me that you did.

U.S.-only entries must be received by Monday, December 22 at noon, EST. Make sure I have a way to reach you (valid e-mail address, blog, etc.). Thank you for entering!

Contest winner!

Thank you to everyone who entered the Interred With Their Bones giveaway! Lilah picked Anya's name out of the mixing bowl this afternoon. Anya, check your email and send your address.

The 39 Clues: One False Note

My review of Book 1 here
Holly's review of Book 1 here

I really wish I had read The 39 Clues series as a child, because they don't have the same timeless charm of Harry Potter or Percy Jackson. I can see the wheels turning, and I remember reading a review of the first book that compared the series to a boy band, a particularly apt comparison. This is a high-concept, multimedia, take-the-world-by-storm marketing force. But it's a fun one. My main gripe with book 2 is that it's short--160 pages, compared with 224 pages in Book 1. Sure the pace is brisk, but there really was less "there" in book 2, and is it any cheaper? Of course not! There are 10 books projected in the series, each written by a different author. Each book comes with 6 cards, and there are card packs to buy separately. You enter the codes for your cards into your online account at, which gives you more puzzles to solve. Although the premise is ridiculous, really James Bond villain-ish in scope, it's a fun ride once you suspend disbelief, and the multimedia aspect is intriguing to me. I'd love to know how many reluctant readers are devouring the books to be a part of the online game/trading card part of the action. Scholastic gets bonus points for pushing the envelope.

In Book 1, we learned a lot about Benjamin Franklin as the kids traveled (scheming relatives hot on their heels) to various world locations. Book 2 focuses on Mozart, the clue-to-the-Clue being a scrap of music, and takes the Cahill children to Vienna and Venice. This introduces a history/art/geography component that elevates these to a more educational level--almost as if Scholastic thought, "Hey, while we've got them reading, let's throw in some other stuff, too." The history is presented in an accessible way, with even Dan "This is so Boring" Cahill getting interested in Mozart's biography. Dan and Amy are fun siblings, and their au pair provides some strategy and grounding for them. The overarching premise that all the important people in the world are Cahills, more than stretches credibility, but the action never stops. I'll certainly read Book 3 when it comes out in March, and if you'll excuse me, I have to enter my Book 2 cards into the website...

Girl Week!

I stumbled across Girl Week over at Reviewer X and I'm hooked! A whole week of posts about girly books, with lots of giveaways. So pop on over and check it out.

And another giveaway!

I found this holiday giveaway from author Brenda Janowitz for a box full of fun books! Just the thing for the holiday season.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Murder for Christmas, Part Two

Read Part One here!

Christmas Cookie Murder by Leslie Meier: If I'd realized that the first in the Lucy Stone series was Mistletoe and Murder, I would have started there! But my amazon searching only brought me to this, the 6th entry, and that's fine. I had previously read Leslie Meier's novella in Candy Cane Murder and enjoyed it, and I think I'll be reading more about Lucy and Tinker's Cove, Maine. Things are grim in Tinker's Cove with lobster quotas playing havoc with the local economy and an influx of drugs. But Lucy is trying to have a merry Christmas anyway, probably the reason she agrees to host the Christmas cookie exchange. The cookie exchange is hilarious, with backbiting and backhanded compliments the order of the day. And backed-up plumbing that brings the disastrous "party" to an end. An overzealous cop complicates her family's lives, and she struggles with her teenaged son, more interested in marijuana than in college applications, making this a little less cozy than the usual cozy mystery. Things are complicated in the Stone family, but interesting, and I liked Lucy. She decides to investigate when a young daycare assistant is found murdered and the cop's focus is on a dentist she's sure is innocent. The mystery is fine, but Tinker's Cove and the Stone family really make this a pleasant holiday diversion.

O Little Town of Maggody by Joan Hess: I haven't read the Maggody series, but I love the Claire Malloy series by the same author. This series is quite different, featuring Arly Hanks, who returned as "police chief" for her Arkansas hometown of Maggody where the people are inbred and closed-minded. At first, I wasn't sure about this series. Arly looks down her nose at the Maggody folk and the usual jokes about inbreeding and moonshine made me uncomfortable (I know that sounds goofy, but my mom drilled into us not to make fun of other people). But at its heart, it seems affectionate toward the town and its people, not mean-spirited. Maggody is thrown into an uproar when country star Matt Montana "returns" to his "hometown" in a carefully constructed PR move. Though no one remembers him (he really just spent a couple of summers there with his great-aunt, mostly raising hell), they are happy to boost the local economy by renaming all the businesses in his name and selling kitschy Matt Montana souvenirs. A couple of murders have Arly scrambling for clues, and there was much more Christmas spirit in this one than I expected from the beginning. This is the seventh in the series.

A Highland Christmas by M.C. Beaton: This one starts out with cranky policeman Hamish MacBeth thinking about the gloomy lack of Christmas spirit in Calvinist Lochdubh, so I didn't expect it to have much Christmas spirit. No murder in this novella, but the two crimes--a lost cat and missing Christmas lights in an adjacent village--lead to a really sweet little story that's perfect for reading by the fire. I will definitely revisit Hamish MacBeth from the beginning. This is 16th in the series, but I didn't feel lost at all--quite an accomplishment by Beaton.

Kissing Christmas Goodbye by M.C. Beaton: Private investigator Agatha Raisin is obsessing over the "perfect" Christmas, complete with snow and reconciliation with her ex. Meanwhile, a woman has asked for Agatha's help because she's sure one of her children is plotting to kill her before she can change her will to leave the money to the state. Her new assistant, Toni, is young and perky enough to make Agatha feel extra old, and her Christmas seems destined to disappoint her. The mystery was good fun (I love when the head of the family assembles all the ungrateful children to announce a change of will, and this one had some nice twists). Agatha is quite a piece of work, very sarcastic and witty, and her developing friendship with Toni is sweet. The story is bogged down a bit by Agatha's obsession over her ex and a bit about Toni's brother, but on the whole, this was a nice holiday mystery, and is 18th in the series.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Picture Book Thursday!

Thank you to Tilbury House Publishers for the opportunity to be part of this Virtual Tour! For more information on Give a Goat, including curriculum ideas for teachers, visit the publisher's web site.

I can think of few books more suited to Christmas giving than the delightful Give a Goat written by Jan West Schrock and illustrated by Aileen Darragh. This is a plot-heavy book with a message, but it's a valuable message and told in a lighthearted, easy to understand way, accompanied by whimsical watercolor illustrations. One of Mrs. Rowell's fifth grade students tells the story of a rainy day when Mrs. Rowell read them a book, Beatrice's Goat, in which a goat changes the life of a little Ugandan girl. The students immediately want to give a goat to help someone. They are even more excited when they learn that recipients of livestock through Heifer International are asked to pass on offspring of their gift animal to other needy families. Mrs. Rowell warns them that it'll be a lot of work to raise the money and they'll have to work together. They come up with a simple business plan and sell snacks to teachers, with a small initial loan from Mrs. Rowell. They expand their successful business to sell to students as well. Along the way, other classes are inspired to help others (a canned food drive to benefit a food pantry, a car wash to benefit the Red Cross). At the end, Mrs. Rowell's class has raised enough money to give a goat...and some chickens and ducks! My favorite illustration is the chickens flying in a vintage plane.

This book was fantastic. It's hard enough for adults to think about all the needy people in the world, but to explain to children that there are people who need help is a challenge. And Give a Goat is an action plan, not just building awareness of a problem, but teaching how to find a solution. It could be a lesson plan for caring. The children in the book are inspired to help others, and they find a way to do it (guided by a very smart teacher). At the same time, they learn valuable skills about business and math and are empowered by their teacher's hands-off approach to their plan. I defy anyone to read this book and not be inspired (and empowered) to help others. This would be a great book to give as a gift along with a donation to Heifer International or another charity.

Author Jan West Schrock's father, Dan West, was a midwestern farmer who served as a relief worker during the Spanish civil war. As he was handing out milk to needy children one day, he realized, "These children don't need a cup. They need a cow." When he returned home he founded Heifers for Relief, and its first shipment of heifers was sent to Puerto Rico in 1944. Jan herself spent twenty-eight years as a classroom teacher, special needs teacher, and administrator, both in the United States and abroad. She is now a senior advisor for Heifer International, an organization that has grown to serve over 8.5 million people in more than 125 countries. Jan lives in Westbrook, Maine, but travels the world to talk about "passing on the gift."

Monday, December 08, 2008

Interred With Their Bones - Review AND Giveaway!

I debated over whether or not to read this one before giving away my spare copy (from Reading Group Choices, but I thought, "Eh, it's Shakespeare meets DaVinci Code. I'm sure I'll love it!" So I decided to post the giveaway with the review, which means that I'm saying, "I really didn't like this book! Don't you want a copy?" This is very reminiscent of my little brother at the dinner table as a small child. He would take a tiny bite of something he hated and then offer up big bites to everyone else at the table. "Mmmmm," he'd say, "This is SO good. Dad, you should try some! Mom, have a bite!" So let me assure you, I planned to give this away all along, and I'm still going to because everyone's taste is different, and you may love it. Rules for the giveaway after the review.

I was excited to read Interred With Their Bones by Jennifer Lee Carrell, which was being touted as The DaVinci Code meets Shakespeare. Carrell knows her stuff; she has a Ph.D in English and American Literature from Harvard, among other qualifications, and like her protagonist, she's directed Shakespeare. Unfortunately, this "stuff" is conveyed via long lectures in the text. It's not a good sign when I plow through a book just to get to the end and then am riveted by the Author's Note. It means that something went awry with the storytelling. The plot is promising: Former academic Kate Stanley has a visit from her estranged mentor, Roz, the night before Kate's production of Hamlet opens at the Globe Theater. Roz tells Kate she's found something and gives her a box. After the Globe burns down and Roz's body is found, Kate opens the box to find a brooch and a cryptic note that seems to point to Cardenio, Shakespeare's lost play. With her friend, Sir Henry, she determines that she has to get to Harvard, where she is menaced by mysterious bad guys with Shakespearean threats and meet Roz's nephew Ben, a security expert hired to protect her. Oh, and the British police think Kate might have killed Roz, but they don't really do much about it. Kate and Ben run from library to library on two continents, fleeing bad guys and police and looking for more clues. The bodies are piling up, but since Kate barely seems to care, the reader doesn't either. I'm not sure if Carrell is being ironic when she has Kate say "My God!" when a new piece of mildly interesting inconclusive information seeming to point to Shakespeare's true identity is found. I'm not sure it matters.

I'm not saying The DaVinci Code is great literature; Dan Brown's writing "style" drove me to distraction, but it was good for what it was. Brown kept me interested in the story with high stakes, breakneck pacing, and pieces of the puzzle coming together quicky. He did not have elegant prose or three-dimensional characters, but he didn't need one to make the book entertaining. For some reason, I just didn't get the same sense of high stakes in Interred. Okay, there's a lost play by Shakespeare. And someone might kill to get it. But the question of Shakespeare's true identity overshadowed the search for Cardenio, and I just wasn't buying it as something a person would kill so many people (in dramatic, Shakespearean fashion, no less) to conceal. And I just didn't get Kate. She decides to investigate herself despite the rising body count, instead of turning her information over to the police. She decides to trust or mistrust other characters on some whim, and she makes wildly speculative assumptions in one moment, only to declare "It's not proof positive" in the face of fairly convincing proof in another. The plot pacing was not very exciting for me. The pattern went: find a clue, get chased by bad guys, run to the next library, find a clue, get chased... You get the idea. There were plot twists, but nothing that really redeemed it for me. And if one more bad guy announced his presence in the dark with the hiss of a knife being pulled from its sheath, I thought I might scream.

In short, I thought this was much ado about nothing. The blurbs on the back of the book take pains to portray the book as "literary," "high class," and "intellectual." They certainly describe the author, but I'm not sure they describe this not-very-thrilling thriller.

Okay, so after all that...who wants a copy? Leave a comment here telling me what makes you want to read the book (or if you're planning to give it as a Christmas gift--it is brand new). For a bonus entry, tell me about your favorite suspense novel! For three bonus entries, post about this contest on your blog and tell me that you did. You have until Monday, December 15 at noon EST to enter! My postage budget for the year is shot, so I have to make this one U.S.-only. Good luck!

Friday, December 05, 2008


Bookish Ruth is giving away a copy of J.K. Rowling's new book Tales of the Beetle Bard! Go here to check it out! There are multiple entries and you can comment on which Hogwart's house you think you would be in. :-)

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Picture Book Thursday!

We have a couple more book tour stops coming up on Picture Book Thursday so Allison and I decided to do Christmas books this week. There are so many great Christmas/holiday books out there. It's really hard to narrow it down.

Let's start with Merry Christmas, Curious George. In this installment, George and the man with the yellow hat go in search of a Christmas tree. George becomes curious about a large tree on a truck and winds up taking a ride to the hospital where the tree is being delivered. My girls and I enjoy all the Curious George books and this one is no exception. My daughter actually asked Santa for this last year. I was so thrilled that she actually asked for a book (well, she also asked for an Ariel Barbie too). There were no books on her list this year for Santa, but he's bringing her some anyway. ;-)

We received this next book as a gift a couple years ago and its so fun! Santa's Coming to Town by Tish Rabe. The book comes with an attached reindeer finger puppet. It has a magnet in the nose. On each page, the child is supposed to find certain things (like all the elves with striped hats) and the reindeer "sticks" to the correct answers. This is a nice sturdy board book and part of the The Nose Knows series of books. Also in the series, a Halloween version called Spooky Night and another called Puppy Love.

The last book: Once There Was a Christmas Tree is a very sweet tale. Mr. and Mrs. Bear get a very large Christmas tree. It doesn't fit into their house so they cut off the top to give to Mr. Fox and his son, saying to them, "We took our tree and made it two. One half for us, one half for you." This line is repeated through the book as one tree is shared among many animals getting smaller and smaller. I really like the giving and sharing storyline in this Jerry Smath book.


I picked up McDuff's Christmas by Rosemary Wells at the Highland Games this year (if it's remotely Scottish, SOMEONE sells it in a booth there!). It was our first McDuff book, and it won't be the last. The sweet little white terrier saves Christmas when the family (and Santa) are snowed in. Susan Jeffers illustrates in a lovely, yet realistic style, and both text and illustrations are evocative of Christmas in a simpler time. The text is simple, and Lilah will listen to the whole thing.

The Peek-a-Boo books by Marie Torres Cimarusti are really cute, simple text with lift-the-flap surprises and bright, appealing illustrations by Stephanie Peterson. This Christmas version is really cute, with the flaps revealing an elf who asks "Naughty or Nice?", a toy train, a snowman, and more. The last page has several small flaps, each concealing a previous page's surprise, with a hint for each--in the shape of a gingerbread house! This is a cute one for younger children.

I've mentioned the Bear series by Karma Wilson and Jane Chapman before, but Bear Stays Up For Christmas is really sweet. Bear's friends set out to keep him awake to celebrate Christmas, but they fall asleep! Bear happily prepares their presents and treats before his friends wake up to give him a truly thoughtful gift. Santa makes a cameo, but the real star is the friendship between Bear & Co. If you've read any of the Bear books, the rhyme scheme and illustration style will be familiar and welcome.

Some of Lilah's very first books were by Sandra Boynton, and she remains a favorite for all three of us. This is an oversized board books with seven one-page rhyming stories accessed by lifting the tabs on the side to choose one. My personal favorite is A Really Big Box, about a child looking for a really big box for a gift he wants to give "so the hippo's ears don't squish." The first six poems are delightful holiday silliness, and the seventh is a sweet Christmas lullaby, complete with sheet music.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Taking a Break

I haven't been reviewing much lately (or reading at all really). I have read more this year than I have since college and its been so fun! I've really enjoyed escaping into all the books I've read this year and I plan on doing a year in review post soon. The last several weeks, I've been knitting up some Christmas and baby gifts. I'd been putting these projects off because I had so many books in my TBR pile that I couldn't wait to get to. I finished everything that I was feeling obliged to review at the moment and thought it would be a good time to get some knitting projects completed.

So I'll leave you with a photo from about a month ago that I've been meaning to post. While I was visiting my mom in Iowa, Mary GrandPre (illustrator of the American edition Harry Potter books) made an appearance at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art. The museum exhibited her illustrations and she did a book signing. My mom, stepdad and I brought my hardcover editions (I only have first editions in 5 of the 7 books) and had her autograph them. Here's the photo of me with her (unfortunately, my stepdad cut off my head, but oh well). :-)

Murder for Christmas, Part One

Inspired by holiday releases by two of my favorite mystery writers, I decided to sample several (okay, a LOT) of Christmas-themed mysteries. I'm breaking my "always read a series in order" rule for this purpose, figuring that a holiday entry might be a fun way to try out a new series. I found what may be the most extensive possible list of Christmas mysteries right here, though it's a bit outdated. It still has more mysteries than anyone can read between Thanksgiving and Christmas!

Six Geese A-Slaying by Donna Andrews: This is entry #10 in the Meg Langslow series, a series I've read from the beginning. Meg is in charge of the Caerphilly Christmas parade that includes camels, her mother hilariously in charge of the Dickens float, the meanest Santa Claus ever, an excess of SPOOR (Stop Poisoning Our Owls and Raptors) members shedding feathers in their goose costumes, and a snarky photographer sent from a big-time newspaper. When the mean Santa meets his end, Meg investigates along with Chief Burke. I figured out whodunit, but not why, which made the mystery plot interesting. I always enjoy a Meg Langslow mystery, and this was no exception, with the added element of a crazy Caerphilly Christmas!

Santa Clawed by Rita Mae Brown: I am a die-hard fan of Mrs. Murphy, Pewter, and Tucker (and their person, Harry), but even I have had some less than enthusiastic reactions to a few of the more recent mysteries. Brown tends to incorporate her opinions on everything under the sun in her books, which sometimes bogs down the narrative enough to lessen the fun, so I was delighted to see her back in fine form in this, the 17th entry, and a holiday treat, no less! The Brothers of Love, a monastic order in Crozet, run a Christmas tree farm to raise funds for their work with the dying. This year, one of the brothers is found at the farm, throat slit, and a strange coin under his tongue. The brothers each have a shady past, and the plot is complicated by a homophobic doctor and a paranoid wife. Christmas in Crozet is a delight, and the mystery is satisfyingly complex. Harry & Co. are in fine form, and the animals are a delight (did I say delight already? a couple of times? well, that's how delightful the book was). I really enjoyed the musings at the beginning on whether or not a leopard can change its spots, as well as Brown's explanations of Southern courtesies.

Sugarplum Dead by Carolyn Hart: This is #12 in the Death on Demand series (named for the mystery bookshop owned by the main character, Annie Darling), and my theory about publishers getting lax on the editing late in the series holds true here. I read the first book in the series at some point, but it didn't make much of an impression, I guess, because I didn't pick up any others. I actually thought the plot here (at least the main mystery plot) was well-done, a satisfying mystery with some twists and turns, but the characters and subplots were a problem for me. Annie's father turns up after 20 years out of her life (with a lame explanation for his absence), and she and her husband seem strangely cold and unaffected by what should be a major emotional upheaval. She rejects him at first, then sort of accepts him for no real reason. This bogged down the plot quite a bit, as did a subplot about Max's mother. Perhaps dedicated readers would be excited about her role, though--I'm not sure. Annie's father is in town to help his siblings and their spouses persuade an aging former Hollywood star to keep her money in the family instead of giving it to a charlatan who claims to communicate with the dead. There are a lot of characters, and it seemed Hart was afraid we might forget one, because she had several instances of listing what every single member says or does, one after the other, in tedious fashion. The mystery plot was intriguing, but I found myself skimming quite a bit to get to the interesting parts. And Annie and Max left me kind of cold. I didn't feel very invested in either of them. I got that Max was rich, and that Annie has read every mystery under the sun, but I really didn't get to know them. I was told some of their character traits, but I didn't feel much was shown. I liked Broward's Rock, the bookstore, and the mystery, but the main characters don't really scream "Buy the rest of the series so you can spend a few hours with me!" Also, as a holiday mystery, there wasn't much Christmas there. Annie and Max talk about presents for each other, and Annie decorates the shop, but it didn't feel much like a Christmas mystery. I may try the first in the series again to see if I like it.

Benjamin Franklin and a Case of Christmas Murder by Robert Lee Hall: I was predisposed to like this book. In elementary school, I used to check out the Benjamin Franklin biography from the school library, and I read Ben and Me I don't know how many times. But in the first five pages, the long sentences, long paragraphs, and historical diction were driving me to distraction. Within just a few more pages, though, I'd gotten used to the style, and I was completely sucked in. This book balances mystery and historical atmosphere brilliantly, bringing Franklin to life through the narration of his young assistant, Nick Handy. When merchant Roddy Fairbrass is murdered very publicly, during a mummer's play at his home, his wife is reluctant to answer Ben's questions, his son is evasive, and there are numerous threads including a local gaming hell, a criminal mastermind, a brother in Jamaica, and a ghost spotted in the Fairbrass home by Roddy's daughter. All this is wound together in a tight narrative at turns charming and suspenseful. The Christmas element is strong and gives an interesting look at Christmas celebrations in London circa 1757. I will definitely be picking up the first in the series (the Christmas one is #2), Benjamin Franklin Takes the Case.

Masterpiece, again!

Holly reviewed Masterpiece by Elise Broach right here. I agree with everything she said, but I so enjoyed the book that I wanted to add my two cents.

Elise Broach is amazingly creative, truly gifted with originality. When I started Masterpiece, I thought, "Oh, dear. I think I may be too old to suspend disbelief for a protagonist who is a beetle." But Broach somehow makes it work, and Marvin is a delightfully sympathetic character, a beetle who doesn't quite fit in his family. He is too curious, too interested in the world outside, too enamored of the human way of life, and when he discovers a stunning talent, he is further torn between the human and beetle worlds. His sympathy for James, whose father is mostly absent and whose mother ignores him until Marvin's drawings give her something to brag about to her associates, is believable and sweet. Though his communication with James is limited by their huge differences, they manage to work together. Neither fits in, and Marvin's artistic talent brings them together. On top of this sweet two-fish-out-of-water story is a major art world mystery. Who has been stealing pen-and-ink drawings by Durer, and is James's (really Marvin's) talent for drawing the key to unmasking the thief? Every aspect of this story is wildly improbable, but Broach pulls it off. Both the friendship between James and Marvin and the complicated mystery are fun to read, and the art history aspect adds an extra dimension that could interest children in the arts. Highly, highly recommend.