Oct 31, 2013

Review: Sure Signs of Crazy by Karen Harrington

I read Karen Harrington's first novel, JANEOLOGY a few years ago and really liked it and SURE SIGNS OF CRAZY is the follow-up to that book.  However, it is a great stand alone novel.  Its now ten years after Jane Nelson's mental collapse when she drowned her two-year old son, Simon and nearly drowned his twin sister, Sarah. Its now ten years later and Sarah lives with her father, Tom, in Garland, Texas and her mother is in a mental institution.

Life hasn't been easy for the Nelson's with all of the publicity surrounding not only Jane's trial but also Tom's trial.for not doing enough to protect his children, even though he was at work when it happened.  Though Tom is a loving parent, he still struggles with what his wife did and his way of dealing with it is to bury it, never talk about it and try to drink it away. Every once in a while, people find out who they are and all the publicity starts all over again, so they move to a place where no one knows them. All their moving around has been hard on young Sarah and it takes a toll on her relationship with her father. His refusal to talk about it and Sarah's need to get answers drives a wedge between them and makes Sarah feel like she has no one in her life she can talk to. So when her teacher offers a voluntary summer assignment to write letters to a favorite fictional character, Sarah turns to her favorite book, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Atticus Finch. Through her letters to Atticus, she divulges her secret thoughts, wishes and plans not to mention her fear of being crazy like her mother.

Aside from her letters to Atticus Finch, Sarah is dreading the summer because her dad always makes her go to Houston to stay with her grandparents. But she has big plans and she's sure they won't happen in Houston.  If only she could convince her dad she's old enough to stay with him in Garland she could have the summer of her life. She may even be able to show him she's old enough to know more about the mother she barely remembers.

My Thoughts:

SURE SIGNS OF CRAZY has a young protagonist that reaches in and grabs your heart. Sarah Nelson is also the narrator and Harrington does a fantastic job of writing this story from her twelve-year old perspective. In my opinion, she nailed it. She may be young and unsure of herself, but Sarah is bright, articulate and she loves words, which makes her even more endearing to me.

As a young adult novel, this is a home run but Sarah's story is appealing to mature readers as well. Her family has suffered a tragedy and since Sarah feels like she can't talk to anybody about it, she writes letters to someone she trusts, even if that person isn't real. Her conversations with Atticus have a child's honesty in them. I loved reading those letters.

Another part of the story I loved was Sarah's friendship with elderly next door neighbor, Mrs. Dupree. That was an unexpected nugget and it even reminded me of a relationship I shared with an older neighbor after moving to Florida and not knowing anyone. That was one of my favorite parts of the book. I also loved another neighbor, Finn. What a great character! Even though he is nineteen and obviously much older than Sarah, he took the time to realize that she was a very intelligent girl. He was kind and he made time for her.

There is so much about this book that I loved. It was engaging, had great characters and the story was believable. The issues Sarah deals with are so current: peer pressure, single parenthood, alcoholism - all dealt with very well in this book. Sarah also has a great sense of humor and the way she explained things made me laugh sometimes.  I think this is a great book for young readers.  In fact, I'm giving a copy to my friend's 13-yr old daughter, who also enjoys reading, with the hope that she will share it with her friends.

It doesn't even matter if you haven't read JANEOLOGY, although I highly recommend it! This is a great second novel for Karen Harrington. It proves to me that there is a definite place for her in the literary world and I'm excited to see what's next from her.  I'd like to thank Karen for sending me an advance copy of this terrific book. I enjoyed it immensely.

By the way, you can read my review of JANEOLOGY here and check out Karen's website at www.karenharringtonbooks.com.

Author: Karen Harrington
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Published:: August 20, 2013
Genre: YA
Length: 304 pp
Source: Author, Karen Harrington
Recommend? Absolutely Yes!!

Oct 28, 2013

Review: A Fatal Grace by Louise Penny

A FATAL GRACE is the second book in the Chief Inspector Armand Gamache Series that is set in Canada.  Again, the brilliant, thoughtful inspector is called to the tiny village of Three Pines, south of Montreal to investigate a murder. He is not new to the community since he had another investigation there about a year and a half earlier. He took an instant liking to the close-knit and friendly village as well as the townspeople.

In this case, he is investigating the death of a woman who had recently moved to Three Pines but was not well-liked by the villagers. She was a brash, ambitious, rude woman in search of her fortune by way of writing books and selling products to promote her self-proclaimed philosophy of life, which was to not show any emotion. In her mind, keeping your feelings hidden was the secret to success and fortune. Chief Inspector Gamache sets out to learn about her life and to figure out who would profit from her death. Since CC was not a nice person,  there are several prospective suspects to choose from: her unlikely  match of a husband, her lover who really can't stand her, or it could even be a fellow villager since it is obvious no one seems to be mourning the loss of CC de Poitiers.

My Thoughts:

I was so excited to get further into this series because Chief Inspector Gamache is such a wonderful character. His kind, observing eyes and quiet demeanor are attributes for his job of finding murderers. All of the characters of  Three Pines are so interesting and their quirky relationships with each other are genuine and even funny.

In A FATAL GRACE, there are actually two deaths being investigated and though I thought I had the mystery solved halfway though, I still kept questioning if I was right. I thoroughly enjoyed the journey through the story and that is because of the likable characters and well thought out plot. The stories in the series are slow paced and thoughtful, filled with smart characters who know their way around books and art and so much more. They are interesting people and they make for interesting stories.

What I also like about this series is that as we get to know the people, we realize there are many layers to them and even though the book has ended, not all of the revelations have been made. There is always something left to carry on into the next installment.  More layers to peel away, you could say. There is also the underlying notion that someone is out to get Gamache. Maybe even someone from his own team. It wasn't so clear in the first book, but it is undeniable in A FATAL GRACE.

The bottom line is, if you're looking for a  fast, edge of your seat thriller, you won't find it here in this series. What you will find is a carefully revealed mystery woven around many twists and turns so that in the end, the true killer is still a surprise.  I've enjoyed the first two books very much and, in fact, since they take place around Thanksgiving and Christmas, respectively, now is the perfect time to get started with the series. They have helped get me into the holiday spirit that is upon us.

Author: Louise Penny
Publisher: Minotaur Books
Published: May 2007
Length: 332 pp
Source: Borrowed from public library

Oct 26, 2013

Weekend Cooking: Don't Settle for Boring Oatmeal

In today's cooking post I'd like to share an easy, quick way to spruce up your average oatmeal that will turn it into a real treat. Now that the Fall season has arrived (even here in Florida!), I'm turning to warm cereals for breakfast that leaves me satisfied and warms me up from the inside out.

Oatmeal is one of those cereals that is like a blank canvas. Left by itself, its not much to get excited about but by adding a few simple ingredients, it can be a masterpiece. I took a recipe from Bobby Flay's show, Brunch @ Bobby's and changed it just a little to make it work for me. He called it Apple Pie Oatmeal, but I just call is Yummy! Here's what you do:

In a medium saucepan add:

  • 2 tbsp light brown sugar
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/2 c. dried cranberries
  • 1/2 c. water
  • a dab of butter
Bring to a boil, then simmer until sugar is dissolved. While that is cooking down, peel, core and dice 1 Granny Smith apple. Add to mixture and continue simmering until apples are soft but not mushy. While the apples are cooking down, prepare your oatmeal.  I like to add a tablespoon or so of brown sugar to my oatmeal when it is almost done cooking for an added sweetness. When apple mixture is cooked, transfer to glass dish so the mixture will stop cooking so the apples retain their shape and don't get mushy.

Serve oatmeal and top it with apple mixture with a touch of heavy cream or just plain whole milk on top. It's like having dessert for breakfast!

The great thing about this recipe is not only how quick and easy it us, but if you have left over topping, it keeps very well overnight in the fridge and can be heated up quickly the next morning while you make your oatmeal.

I know this is just a simple idea, but I've enjoyed it so much this week, I had to share it with y'all today. Please let me know if you tried it and what you thought..I promise, you'll never look at oatmeal the same again!  Have a wonderful Saturday and thanks for stopping by today!

For more Weekend Cooking posts, stop over at Beth Fish Reads, who hosts this fun weekly event. I'm sure you'll come away with some great foodie ideas.

Oct 25, 2013

Audio Review: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

I don't know why I put off reading this book for as long as I did, but thank goodness I finally got the good sense to read it. Even though I've had the book in print version for several years, I decided to go with the audio after sampling it on Audible.com. And it proved to be a great decision.

About the Book (Taken from Goodreads):

It is 1939. Nazi Germany. The country is holding its breath. Death has never been busier, and will become busier still.

Liesel Meminger is a foster girl living outside of Munich, who scratches out a meager existence for herself by stealing when she encounters something she can’t resist–books. With the help of her accordion-playing foster father, she learns to read and shares her stolen books with her neighbors during bombing raids as well as with the Jewish man hidden in her basement. 

 My Thoughts:

Simply put, this book was outstanding.  I've read many books about WWII but not from the prospective that Markus Zusak painted for us with these wonderfully human characters.  My heart was stolen by Liesel from the very start and also with her foster father, Pappa. But singling them out isn't fair to all of the other people in her life like Rudy, her best friend, and Max, the Jew secretly living in their basement. Each one of the amazing characters had such a special purpose in this story and Mr. Zusak did a brilliant job bringing them to life. 

The story takes place in such a bleak time in our world's history and Zusak shows us how it was for the German people under Hilter's rule living in this small town. He shows that not all German's agreed with what was happening and the reader is shown the fear they lived in even from their own neighbors.  Liesel's foster parents showed so much courage by hiding Max in their basement, but they were terrified each and every day that someone would find out. 

The thing that intrigued me the most was that the narrator of this story was Death. In my opinion, that decision took this book to a whole other level. Not only did Death tell the story but also gave insight and even put feelings to the job he had to do.  And that takes me once again, to the writing. I was blown away by the phrasing - taking a simple act or thought and putting it in a way that just made me stop for a moment and think about what I'd just heard. The writing in this book is without a doubt at the very top of my list of all the books I've ever read in my life. That's a huge statement, I know, but I absolutely stand behind it.  

Now I get to the audio review. Allan Corduner did an amazing job. His deep, penetrating tone was spot on for the character that he portrayed.  I've read some audio reviews that said it was too much, but I strongly disagree. For this book and that character, he was perfect. Death is scary and even daunting to some and his voice brought that and much more. If you haven't yet read this book, try a sample of it on Audible.com and see for yourself. Personally, I'm so glad I chose to listen to this modern classic. This book moved me to the point of hot tears and has stayed with me. It is a wonderful book. 

With the release of the movie version coming soon, now I am expecially excited to see these characters come to life. You can watch teh movie trailer here

Author: Markus Zusak
Publisher: Listening Library
Published: September 2006
Length: 13 Hrs 56 Min
Recommend? YES, YES, YES, YES YES!!!!!

Oct 23, 2013

Audio Review: The Last Original Wife by Dorothea Benton Frank

After nearly thirty years of marriage to Wesley Carter, a very successful Atlanta business man, Leslie Ann Carter has an epiphany in a hospital in Scotland. There she is following her golf-loving husband half way across the world so he can live out his dream of playing golf at the best courses and when she falls and breaks her arm, he basically leaves her to fend for herself. Feeling hurt and and frustrated, that event sets off alarms in Les's mind and she begins questioning her life. The circle of friends she used to have is gone because her husband's friends have moved on to much younger women who Les feels no connection to whatsoever. She feels completely taken for granted by her entire family, especially Wes, so she decides to do something about it. She packs up and goes to her hometown, Charleston, South Carolina to house sit for her brother for a month. Its the best place in the world to recuperate from her injury and to figure out if she wants to change her life. Who wouldn't want to stay in the stately historic home in the heart of Charleston with its beautiful surroundings, divine food and ...her first love from high school? 

My Thoughts:

Its been quite awhile since I've read anything by Dorothea Benton Frank. I've read many of her previous books and always enjoyed the stories and locations but mostly the characters. The same can be said of THE LAST ORIGINAL WIFE.  The characters were very believable and most of them were likable. But I must say that the thing that really drew me to this audiobook was the incredible narration by Robin Miles. I was flitting through Audible.com's new releases one day and I sampled this book and it had me from the first sentence. Southern accents can be tricky and if not done right can put off listeners very quickly. But Ms. Miles' performance, not only of Leslie Carter, but the entire cast, including the male characters, were absolutely spot on. Les's exasperation and Wes's hostility towards his wife's change in attitude were very well done. Wes is a man used to getting his way and his wife seldom questioned him or his actions. After Les woke up and realized her life wasn't what she thought it would be at her age, she decided to do something about it and Wes was clearly not having any of it. 

I loved the relationship between Les and her brother, Harlan and I really loved that she packed up and went to Charleston, one of my all-time favorite cities, to stay in his beautiful old home to re-assess her life. Honestly, I was a little jealous of Les and her lovely surroundings and the slow and casual tempo of her summer spent in her hometown. 

The writing was true DBF. She made me feel like I knew this woman and I had no trouble relating to her story at all. I thought it was clever how she started off with Les and Wes each in their therapy sessions. It gave insight and background to each of the characters and it showed their personalities, both good and bad. I thought it was a interesting way to show the development of the characters.

Overall, I'm glad I took the time for this book, however,. I can't say that I was blown away by the story, though it was a completely satisfying experience for me. It is a character driven story with flair and a genuine storyline. I appreciate the bravery Ms. Frank showed in Les to go out and make her life what she wanted it to be, even after 30 years of marriage. 

Author: Dorothea Benton Frank
Publisher: HarperAudio
Published: June 11, 2013
Length: 11 Hrs 38 Min
Recommend:? Yes, especially for a beach or vacation read. 

Oct 7, 2013

Review: The Girl You Left Behind by Jojo Moyes & Giveaway!

Until now, I had never read anything by Jojo Moyes, so when my book club chose THE GIRL YOU LEFT BEHIND as our October selection I was very excited. The reviews I'd read about her books were really great so I had high expectations.

About the Book:
(No Spoilers)

This is the story of two women who are willing to do whatever it takes to fight for what is special to them. They are so similar yet separated by distance and time. The thing they have in common is a portrait painted in the early 1900's that, if possible, would tell an amazing story.

The book begins with Sophie, a French woman living in a German occupied village in 1916. Her husband Edouard, an artist, is on the front lines fighting in the war while Sophie tries to keep her family safe under harsh German rule.

The second part of the book takes place in 2006 and introduces Liv, a young English widow living in London still trying to come to terms with the loss of her husband even though its been four years since his death.

Like Sophie, Liv feels she is losing her grip on everything that is dear to her. She can barely afford the magnificent home her architect late husband built and she's facing the reality of having to sell it. The one thing that comforts her is the painting he bought for her ten years ago while on their honeymoon in Spain. The painting has become a living, breathing thing to Liv that she treasures more than anyone else possibly could. When she receives legal papers on behalf of the artist's family that the painting was part of stolen collection of art confiscated by the Germans during the war, Liv is determined to fight the suit. The more she learns of the painting and it's muse, the more determined Liv is to win at any cost.

My Thoughts:

This one was easy - I LOVED it! It was so beautifully told, especially Part 1 which was Sophie's story of enduring war-torn France and all the injustices to the French people.  I liked how Jojo Moyes dedicated the entire first part of the book to that character and time period. When I began the second part, it was such a contrast, I almost felt I was reading a different book except for the common denominator - the painting. That painting brought the two stories together seamlessly. What I noticed right away when reading Liv's story was the drastic change in the writing. They were both spot-on and true to the time periods and people they represented.  Moyes' storytelling talent is amazing. Even though you're pretty certain what's going to happen, its still a surprise when you read it.

I've discovered lately that I have a fondness for novels written about art and this book only made that more evident to me. I was taken in by the history of the painting and how it traveled over the years to finally end up with Liv in 1996. The painting became one of the main characters and I loved that about it.

The characters, both from the past and present, were so life-like and genuine. I even felt bad for the German Kommendant for the life he led in the German army. There really isn't much else for me to say. This is one of my favorite books this year and once again, I have She Reads Book Club to thank for introducing it to me. THE GIRL YOU LEFT BEHIND is wonderful and I recommend it highly, especially if you enjoy historical fiction, art or just great literature.

GIVEAWAY!! The She Reads Book Club with the generosity of Pamela Dorman Books is giving away copies of 3 Jojo Moyes books to one lucky winner! For details and entry information, go to http://www.shereads.org/2013/10/october-book-club-selection-3/ Good luck to you!!

Author: Jojo Moyes
Publisher: Pamela Dorman Books (Viking/Penguin)
Published: August 2013
Length; 384pp
Source: Publisher/She Reads Book Club

Oct 5, 2013

Review: Still Life (A Chief Inspector Gamache Novel) by Louise Penny

I came across this book while perusing Goodreads a few weeks ago. It seemed to be exactly the type of mystery I was looking for. I love mystery series and this one seemed a little different than the 'cozy' mysteries I've been reading, though I suppose, technically it still is classified as a 'cozy'.

In STILL LIFE, the first book of the series, veteran Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, with the Surete du Quebec, is called to a crime scene on Thanksgiving Day to the small village of Three Pines outside of Montreal where an elderly woman has been killed, possibly murdered, by an arrow through the heart. Gamache and his team quickly descend on the tight-knit community and begin their investigation. With it being hunting season, the suspect list starts out very broad, but as Gamache observes the residents and gets to know some of them, important clues come to light. On top of heading this disturbing investigation, he is also tasked with training a new recruit to his team, Agent Nichol. Though she first appeared bright and promising, she soon shows her immaturity and lack of respect to both the residents of Three Pines and to Gamache, himself.  For reasons that are beyond some, Gamache continues to try to help her learn not only how to be a good investigator, but also to learn something of herself as well.

My Thoughts:

I am so happy that I found this series! When I was on Goodreads, I noticed that several of my friends had read it and really enjoyed it and I wondered how I'd missed it. The characters, especially the chief inspector completely drew me in. Gamache has a fatherly sense to him that makes you instantly trust him to do what's right. What I also enjoyed was getting to know the different residents of Three Pines and their quirks. Some of them are likable right away, while others were not likable at all to me. But they were all so believable and they each added to the story.

Speaking of story - Louise Penny sure knows how to write a compelling tale. Let me be clear, this is not a fast-paced who-dun-it. It is a slower paced, methodical mystery that patiently weaves through time and character to create a suspenseful outcome. I also have to mention that I love the title of this first book, STILL LIFE. Before reading it I thought I knew what the title meant, but as I read on, other meanings began to develop in my mind.   A great title always gives me an added appreciation for the author and their work that was definitely the case here.

 I'd heard of Louise Penny before, but had never taken the time to look into her work. Now that I have, I am a big fan. For me, all other series are going to be put on the back burner for awhile until I read a few more of this wonderfully engaging series. I guess you could say I'm hooked. For lovers of mystery series, in my opinion, you can't go wrong with this series. If you hurry, you can pick it up for $2.99 at the Kindle Store!

STILL LIFE (Chief Inspector Gamache #1)
Author: Louise Penny
Publisher: September 2008
Published: Minotaur
Length: 321pp
Source: Purchased as Kindle Daily Deal