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As of my "maternity leave," here are the stats of the past year: 74 books reviewed 9 guest posts 4 independent bookstores 3 d...

Friday, November 29, 2013

If You Were Me and Lived In...KENYA!

If you recall from Children's Book Week this summer, I fell madly in love with Carole P. Roman's If You Were Me series. So when I get a call from her to look at her new book, the answer is a resounding YES.

If I were you and lived in Kenya, I would call your mother a different name, I would play much different sports, and the food would be so different and delicious! This book explores the different ways children grow up in Kenya from names of everyday objects to activities, customs, holidays and daily living. 

I am absolutely, positively, madly in love with this book series. Kenya does not disappoint--I learn as much as any child would by reading these books! From geography and everyday basics to special events and activities, Roman covers all of the bases with strong vocabulary to boot. I particularly love the personal angle that she puts on these books; she allows young children the opportunity to identify with the main character in a way I haven't seen in many other children's books.

I would also like to point out the Roman puts a pronunciation guide in the back of the book to aid in the development of morphemes that children might otherwise be unaware. I also thoroughly enjoy her illustrations--they feel realistic while still being child-friendly. Her educator roots shine!

Kindle version on left, hard copy on right. Get this for the small person in your life.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Lima Bear Stories: The Labyrinth, The Megasaurus, & The Cave Monster

You may remember how much I loved Bully Bean, the newest of the Lima Bear Series during last Children's Book week. Well, I have a little more loveable Lima goodness, and I couldn't be happier. Links below to buy for the upcoming holiday season! 

We begin with The Labyrinth. Good King Limalot Bear names his lovely young daughter, Belinda Bean, as queen of the land. Everyone was thrilled except for the jealous Mean ol' Bean. He tries to sabotage Belinda by luring her into a labyrinth to see a beautiful garden only to leave her trapped in the maze. However, Mean ol' Bean's cousin, L. Joe Bean, finds out in enough time to rescue Belinda and trick Mean into getting lost in the labyrinth himself. Being mean to others gets you nowhere. 

The Megasaurus brings us back to King Limalot and his land, only this time there is a MEGASAURUS on the loose--and he loooooves beans! He consulted with his wise counsel (of owls, of course), but every plan they concocted only made the Megasaurus more angry and determined to eat the beans. Finally, King Limalot summoned L. Joe Bean, who came up with the brilliant idea to scare away the Megasaurus--that worked! Sometimes you should listen to what everyone has to say--the best ideas may be where you least expect them.

The Cave Monster has captured L. Joe Bean and is holding him hostage in his deep, dark cave. Lima Bear and his friends hatch a plan to save him, but they don't expect the Cave Monster to fight back. Only with bravery and valor can they save Joe in time. When friends work together they are stronger than when they work alone--teamwork is everything. 

These books are not just fun--they also carry strong messages with them. I have said time and time again that my preference in children's books are those that have great illustrations, fun stories, and strong messages (or morals of the story) that are not so in-your-face. This is what I love about the Lima Bear series--they really hit this trifecta of goodness in children's lit. I love hitting kids with a message that is embedded in the story. The importance of friendship, teamwork, and not being afraid to take on something big and scary are all great messages for kids in early grades. Be brave! Be strong! Be a good friend!

My favorite part of these books is that they have a section for parents in the back with suggestions for extending the book. For example, in The Megasaurus, one of the suggested activities is for caregivers to make monster masks with their small readers and to discuss things that frighten them. I also love the vocabulary of the books and that the Werk's do not shy away from using big words such as "labyrinth" or "megasaurus" (while still providing a glossary in the back for full definitions). 

I also love the idea of the "beans" being characters--L. Joe Bean is a pinto, Lima Bear is a lima bean, etc. The illustrations of big, bold, and colorful, and I am so excited to have these on my shelf. These books put a big smile on my face and make me so happy. They are worth a purchase for your own shelves.

For your small reader:

Monday, November 25, 2013

Stella Batts: A Case of the Meanies and Pardon Me

Happy Thanksgiving Week, everyone! 

In honor of the upcoming holiday season, I am featuring some fabulous children's books I have read as of late to help facilitate your small-person shopping. I urge you to visit your local bookstore (or the links below) to buy books for those in your life this season--the world is so much better with a good story. 

For my favorites for larger people, visit my blog birthday post for suggestions.

She's baaaack!!! It's my absolute favoritest in the world heroine, Stella Batts. I loved the first two books in the series so much that when I was given the offer to read her next two I am not even sure I breathed before shouting (through email), "YES!"

You may remember that in a previous book, Stella's best friend, Willa, moved away--across the country! Now, in Pardon Me, Stella is best-friend-less, and no one wants to be that. But finding a new best friend is harder than it looks. Stella's father introduces her to the new girl in town, Evie, and they become fast friends. Stella cannot wait to introduce Evie around school, but when they get there Stella learns that friendship is not always a closed-off event. Sometimes you must share friends.
In A Case of the Meanies, Joshua the mean kid is back with a vengeance--would you believe he didn't invite Stella to his birthday party? He invited everyone else in the class, and to make it worse, he is having it at Batts Confections! Stella wants to avoid the party altogether, but circumstances beyond anyone's control forces her to play hostess to her arch nemesis. Can Stella behave herself and be the bigger person?

Le sigh. These books are just the cat's pajamas. I love reading about Stella and her hijinks, but more than that I love the moral that comes out of each of these books. In Meanies, it turns out that the invitation never made it to Stella (because of Joshua!), but understanding that perception is reality for our heroine helps us learn that just because you are angry at someone doesn't mean that you shouldn't do what is right. In Pardon Me, Stella must learn that friendship isn't as black and white as she believes it or wants it to be.

These are hard lessons for even adults to learn, and I love how they are addressed in these books with such pathos and ethos, in such an accessible way for children, particularly girls. Finding strong female protagonists who can serve as a role model for children as young as 7 or 8 is not an easy task, and I am so thankful for these books. I have a solid series that I can recommend to parents of young girls (and boys--let's not leave them out!), and that makes me the happiest camper on earth.

Thank you, Courtney, and please keep these coming!!!

Kindle versions on left, hard copies on right:

Friday, November 22, 2013

Anna Karenina

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy is one hell of a Russian soap opera that goes on, and on, and on...

So there's this chick, Anna, who is married to a pretty powerful guy in Russia like, forever ago. She is, however, unsatisfied with having married rich (and frankly, how is). She needs love. So it's no surprise when one day she catches the eye of the ultra handsome and debonair Vronsky. He's everything she's looking for--virile, young, and sexy. So she has an affair with him. And no, this won't end well. In the meantime there is a ton of stuff. Like, characters coming out the wazoo.

I will be upfront and say Anna is one of my least favorite characters in all of literature. Never have I come across such a whiny, weak, and annoying woman--everything that I hate in characters. She cheats on her husband, which is completely forgivable because he sounds like a total numb nut, but then she proceeds to go all crazy-girlfriend on Vronsky. She accuses him of loving others, of not loving her, and she generally alienates him until she can't take it and throws herself in front of a train for no good reason other than that she has thrown herself into a tizzy. Ok, ok, sure--she was probably depressed and who wouldn't go crazy having nothing to do but worry over your super hot lover all day. (Because it's not like she has a new baby for whom she needs to be caring and loving.) Lesson learned--cheating begets jealousy. I mean, if he cheated with you, he will most likely cheat on you.

I get why this book is so convoluted; back in the day you had to keep the masses entertained when there was no television. (Don't you think the late nineteenth century Russian intelligentsia would just die over Scandal???) After a while though, it was all like, I get it, Leo. Look, I realize that many out there love this book, and I have mad respect for you over this. I wish I could say I will revisit this classic over and over again, but the truth is I won't. I had no sympathy for Anna as she walked toward the station to give herself over to the grief that she created for herself in her head. I wanted to care, and I wanted to be waiting with baited breath. But I didn't, and I wasn't. Look honey, I get it--I have been cheated on and cheated with. (That's another story for another blog.) But you have to stand up, dust yourself off, and live with your choices. Sometimes life is rough.

Kindle versions below:

Hard copy versions below:

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Scarlet Letter

Ah, it's classics time. And really, what gets more classic than adultery and public shaming in The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne?

Hester Pryne cheats on her husband. She gets knocked up. She has to wear a bright red "A" on every dress she owns. The baby turns out to be kinda awesome and fairy-like--Hester names her Pearl. Lots of stuff goes down, we find out the father, and we are all like, "Whoa. Really? That dude?" Pearl grows to love him. It's all good.

Well, kinda. I mean, Hester goes through some major stuff, y'all, and it's rough for a bit. But she is super stoic. She's all like, "I'm proud of my baby. She's so much better than yours." Which is kind of true according to Hawthorne. She's a little Sprite. And adorable. Super adorable.

Overall, yeah, I enjoyed it. There were times though, when I was all like, "Nat, get to the point dude!" I loved the conclusion, but that might have been because Hester came across as far more elusive than anywhere else in the book--and that is saying something. I am happy that I finally had a chance to read this piece of classic literature, but I can't say it has been my favorite.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Brooklyn: A Novel

My sister gave me a huge stack of books about a year or so ago, and I have been slowly making my way through them. Brooklyn by Colm Toibin was one of them.

 A young Irish woman is encouraged to leave her home and travel across the ocean to a faraway land called Brooklyn, where she can work and attend school to become a bookkeeper--her life-long dream. With the help of a local priest and some rare jewels of friendship, Eilis makes her way through those first agonizing months in a new culture. When she meets a gentleman that could be something special, Eilis discovers that life can change in an instant and that sometimes love is more than just butterflies in the stomach.

This book has the epic feel of a Bronte novel with sprinkles of classic New York literature thrown in for good measure (in the vein of The Godfather or A Tree Grows in Brooklyn). I enjoyed reading about places I know but decades prior to my familiarity. I liked that Eilis attending Brooklyn college was such a big deal at the time, and I knew well the living situation described in the book. Reading it felt deep and involved.

It was, however, the relationship between Eilis and Tony, her beloved, that I enjoyed exploring the most. I respected Eilis's practicality and level-headedness about love and her relationship, and it was wonderful to read about a young woman in the 1950's care so deeply about starting and holding on to her career as a bookkeeper. When, in the final section, she returns home to Ireland for a visit, I sat in fear the whole 60 pages that she wouldn't return to Brooklyn. Whether she does or not is not the point; rather, it's the terror the reader feels that she will lose the life she has built and will break Tony's heart that drives to reading of that last section.

Kindle copy on left, hard copy on right.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Six Months Later: A Novel

I love a solid premise, so when I heard about Natalie D. Richard's Six Months Later, I jumped at the chance to be intrigued and baffled.

Chloe is a just-fine student who finds mooning over boys with her best friend Maggie to be much more fun. When she is startled awake after falling asleep in study hall, she finds it is six months later, she has aced her SAT's, and her boyfriend is the most desired bachelor in school. What happened to her? Why can't she remember anything? How did she become such a wiz kid? The answers are far darker than anything she could imagine--and if she digs too far, she may pay the ultimate price.

I love a good thriller. I find when something is intriguing and somewhat mind-boggling I am nose-to-the-book and really can't be bothered to accomplish anything in life. I was fascinted by Richards' weaved story and her ability to pull back layers of a mystery in a reveal that kept me reading and reading and reading until I found I had plowed through  it.

The end of the story felt a bit melodramatic and far-fetched, but I am willing to look past this in favor of the storytelling throughout the book as a whole. If I were a young adult I would eat the end up. It would have totally been my cup of tea, and since this is a YA novel, my personal opinion of the ending can be set aside in favor of viewing it from the point of view of the intended audience. I enjoyed the characters, I enjoyed the intrigue, and I would absolutely recommend this book for the young adult in your life. Or yourself, because you will like the book. (I said so.)

Kindle version on left, hard copy on right.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Triumphs and Tragedies: A True Story of Wealth and Addiction

I am always on the hunt for a memoir that keeps my eyes on the page, so I opened up Karl B. McMillen, Jr.'s Triumphs and Tragedies: A True Story of Wealth and Addiction this week.

Karl and Thelma build a life for their young family in California, growing their business and raising two sons close in age. The pull of the 1960's, however, is too much for their teenagers on a search for freedom from thought and from life. The drugs that are available to them are cheap and free-flowing, and soon Karl realizes that both of his sons are addicts. The next few decades bring struggle, heartbreak, and ultimately forgiveness to the McMillen family.

This was an interesting exploration of the pain that comes with loving an addict (or two, in their case) and the desperate search for help. Each person goes through their own journey in learning how to deal with the addict in his or her life, and this was one journey of many. What was the most interesting about it was the time period in which Karl's boys became addicts, which was the 1960's. It's a time far removed from my lifetime; I would have liked to see more of an exploration of the drug culture during that time.

I often found myself frustrated with Karl over the simple matter of enabling. It seemed throughout the entire book that he was the enabling force in his son's addictions; if they were arrested, he did what he could to get them out and save them from themselves. If they screwed up, he would seek answers for them. By the middle of the book I wanted to scream at him--could he not see that his willingness to right the wrongs of his addict sons was simply adding fuel to the fire? On one hand, no one can understand what having an addict as a child is like until it happens; I understand the desire to protect your child in any way that you can if the ability and means are there. On the flip side, however, I also understand that fixing things for your children (doing their homework for them or continuously bailing them out of jail) will teach them to never be self-sufficient or give them an avenue to learn to care for themselves.

Overall this was one man's story of his triumphs and tragedies, and I think it is wonderful that McMillen has gone to the effort to share his experience with others going through similar travails.

Kindle version on left, hard copy on right.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity

After winning the 2012 National Book Award for Non-Fiction, of course I picked it up. This is Katherine Boo's Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and  Hope in a Mumbai Undercity.

A young man, his father, and his older sister are arrested for beating and setting fire to a one-legged woman in the slums of Mumbai. But this case is not as clear cut as it initially sounds. The people in question are neighbors, and the woman was their next door neighbor who set herself on fire. How did this all get so tangled? It's a story you can only understand from the beginning--and through the lens of a life so many of us will never see. Right on the other side of the airport wall in Mumbai is the Annawadi slum, and the course of events over three years are chronicled in Boo's tale of life, work, and just trying to stay afloat.

Holy moly, there is not a single shred of doubt in my mind as to why this book took home the National Book Award. It reads like an incredibly thoughtful and intense novel, but it is so much more than that. I had to remind myself several times throughout the book that this was something that truly happened, not just an intricate and deeply moving tale weaved by an ingenious mind. It could have easily been that.

But as they say, truth is always stranger than fiction.

I was so taken with this book from the very beginning. Boo sets up this story with a hook that grabs you from the moment you crack open that cover. Abdul and his family, his neighbors, the crooks and the thieves, all of these people make up the story that you will read. (And you will read it; links below to buy the book for yourself.) It breaks my heart that this kind of corruption exists, and with it there is pain, suffering, and a desperate daily fight to keep your head above water. It is astounding and amazing and stabbingly painful to inhale these stories.

This book was absolutely incredible and is a must-read for your upcoming edification.

Get this amazing piece of work for yourself. Kindle on left, hard copy on right:

Friday, November 8, 2013

Father of the Rain: A Novel

Once in a while a novel comes along that hooks you in like an octopus's tentacles in the middle of an ocean whirlpool, clinging to your soul. That was Lily King's Father of the Rain.

Daley's relationship with her parents is complicated to say the least. Her liberal, free-spirited mother takes Daley and leaves her New England WASP alcoholic father one summer in her childhood and things are never the same. Her father falls into a deeper abyss and remarries her best friend's mother. He becomes even more verbally brutal than he was before they left. As Daley reaches adulthood she begins to accept that she cannot control her father's treatment of her and that she must move on in order to be whole--until she is called back to her father's bedside as he hits rock bottom. Can she learn to move on, or will she always be in the grasp of the man who filled her heart and summarily broke it over and over and over again?

I found this book to be heartbreaking, lovely, and angering all at the same time. There was one point where I was so mad at Daley's choices I threw the book across the room. I mean I actually lifted up the book and launched it across my living room I was so mad. I won't tell you the exact choice, but it was one where I felt she gave her father more credence than he deserved. She gave up a piece of her soul, I felt, and I couldn't handle the anger I felt at her willingness to throw away an amazing opportunity to stand by the man who so forcefully broke down her psyche for so many years. 

What I mean by this is that King's characters are so real, so genuine, and so well-developed that I cared about them. She is an adept writer and I found myself living in Daley's life. I wanted the best for her, and I wanted her to choose well. I hated the power her father had over her, and I wanted to shake her and make her aware that she didn't have to take it--that she had choices, and she could say no. This was such a beautiful book and I am so thankful I was able to live with it for a few hours.

Kindle version on left, hard copy on right.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Instructions for a Heatwave: A Novel

I want nothing in life more than a beautiful book. I had that in Maggie O'Farrell's lovely Instructions for a Heatwave.

It's  a hot July day in 1976, and London is the midst of a heatwave. Robert leaves for the store and doesn't return. His wife, Gretta, is at a standstill while her children gather around her from as far away as New York City. She holds on to a secret that might lead them to Robert, yet if she shares it will change everything. Her children, estranged from her and from one another, must rally together and look past their own difficulties in life to band together for something bigger than themselves. 

So I don't know how I managed to gloss over O'Farrell's first five books, but shame on me. This book was as lovely as floating on a cloud, unsure of your direction but with a willingness to go along for the ride. O'Farrell's story doesn't cover a lot of time, but she packs it full of familial revelations that are game-changers. Nothing blows up; these are revealed with a certain grace and unfolding that resembles an out-rolling carpet.

There is a certain amount of grace to O'Farrell's prose that reminded me of a well-trained ballet dancer. If you are looking for a well-written book that will keep you involved and mesmerized, this was that very book for me. The characters were created with such layered depth that it seems almost easy to write them off until you realize how simply complicated they are--just like most people I know. It becomes hard not to root for them, and for the Riordan clan overall. After a while you realize that finding Robert is secondary to the healing that must happen both between family members and internally as well .

Kindle version on left, hard copy on right.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Havisham: A Novel

While I would not categorize myself as the biggest Great Expectations fan on Earth, I have always found myself intrigued by Miss Havisham. So when I found out Ronald Frame had written a prequel of sorts to the classic novel exploring the history of Miss Havisham I jumped on it like a hot donut.

Catherine Havisham is the privileged only daughter of a respected brewer with an educated and bright future ahead of her. She lost her mother during childbirth and has always been the apple of her father's eye. She is a sheltered girl, and after she is sent away to be educated she finds herself enchanted by a charming young stranger--who, in time, abandons her at the altar. The betrayal cuts even deeper than being left; the reasons behind his abandonment will destroy Catherine forever.

I was utterly, completely, and lovingly charmed by this book. I am not usually a fan of period pieces, but I have been thrilled lately by the gems I have found (this and this, for example), Havisham included. I was having a conversation with my favorite professor just today based on our frustration with finding beautiful prose. I would put this book in the category of "beautiful prose," and I enjoyed the story immensely as well. Catherine, the first person narrator of her own story, is positively charming and an incredibly interesting character.

I also enjoyed Frame's depiction of Estella's early years and her introduction to Pip. But most of all I loved Frame's desire for us to know the character of Miss Havisham as Catherine and not just the crazy, rich old woman in a tattered wedding gown and a table full of old food. Catherine is a whole person with a past that defines who she is, and her character arc in this book is so full and authentic. I am so glad I picked up this book and spent time in it for a bit.

Kindle version on left, hard copy on right.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Revenge Wears Prada: The Devil Returns

Yes, my friends, even I love Miranda Priestly and her hardened, ice-cold stare. Revenge Wears Prada: The Devil Returns by Lauren Weisberger.

When we last left Andy giving Miranda the kiss-off in Paris, she was soon-to-be-jobless, soon-to-be-single, and overall down on her luck. Things have turned out not so bad after all. A decade later she is married to publishing royalty, expecting a bundle of joy, and the editor in chief of her very own magazine with her best friend--Emily! When the two business partners receive word about a deal that could change their lives, Andy discovers that maybe she is not on the same page after all--with anyone in her life. Will Miranda's claws sink into her life once again? Or will Andy be able to hold her back and claim what is rightfully hers?

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It was entertaining and earnest and fun. I am so happy that I picked it up in the middle of my exams; it was pure escapism. I loved languishing in Andy's new found wealth and her simple acceptance of it while still being herself. I loved that she had a man who loved her so much, and when she was betrayed I couldn't blame her. It was not overreacting; in fact, I say "was" betrayed instead of "felt" betrayed, because if you feel the initial hurt sucks, you just wait until you get to the end of the book.

I won't say much more since you will either read the book or you won't, probably based on whether or not you read the first. It's worth the ride if you just want to dive into a book and love some great characters for a while, because they are truly well-developed characters. I felt myself wanting to go home to finish reading the book. I cared about Andy and the gang, and I love when that happens. Weisberger has this fabulous way of not making you hate her characters regardless of how fabulous a life they live and you do not. It's what makes me pick up her next book, over and over again. It also makes me want to go find a rich husband.

Kindle version on left, hard copy on right. And just for fun, the original too!