Sunday, December 21, 2014

Book Review: 'The Swallow' by Charis Cotter

✰✰✰✰✰ Polly and Rose are two lonely 12-year-old girls who feel invisible to everyone. Set in the 1960s in Toronto during an outbreak of meningitis, the girls live right next door to each other. One day the girls discover that they can communicate through a shared wall in the attic. Besides being the same age, the girls learn that they are nearly exact opposites. Polly comes from a large family, while Rose is an only child. Polly is boisterous, while Rose is reserved. Polly wishes she could see ghosts, while Rose wishes she didn't. In fact, Polly is so convinced that Rose is actually a ghost, she sets out to prove it.

Follow Polly through the many twists and turns of this gothic ghost story with a surprise ending. You won't be disappointed.

The Bottom Line: This is a bittersweet story of friendship.Written from two points of view, each character has a distinctive voice. I enjoyed the use of mood, setting, and hints employed by the author to keep readers guessing. Readers will appreciate the short chapters making this book a very quick read. Check it out if you enjoyed the movie "The Sixth Sense." Very highly recommended for tweens interested in ghost stories and paranormal fiction. This would make a great gift.

Details: The Swallow: A Ghost Story by Charis Cotter. Hardcover published by Tundra Books in 2014. 322 p. ISBN: 978-1-77049-591-3  Note: I received a free copy from Tundra Books in exchange for an honest review. This was made possible by the Early Reviewers program at LibraryThing.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine: A Year in Review 2014

Every year I keep a running list of my favorite stories. In case you were wondering, I really do read every single one. The short stories featured in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine are perfect for when you have a little free time and you need to de-stress your life. Check out these excellent stories.

January: This issue focused on holiday stories which is always a treat. I look forward to reading it every year. My favorite was Doug Allyn's "The Snow Angel." This story drew me in from the first sentence. What a great way to start off the year. Next,  I enjoyed "Heaven Knows" by Marilyn Todd featuring a deceased private investigator sent back to Earth to solve a crime. Very clever. More fun stories to read include "Some Flames Never Die" by Percy Spurlark Parker and "Murder and the Spiderbrusher" by Amy Myers.

February: This issue included not one, but two Sherlock Holmes pastiches by Terence Faherty. Additionally, I was pleased to see the return of a favorite character in "Skyler Hobbs and the Smarter Brother" by Evan Lewis. I also enjoyed "Lily's Beef" by Shannon Schuren and "Admit One" by Loren D. Estleman.

March/April Double Issue: My favorite short story for this issue was "Fruit of All Evil" by Marilyn Todd. Other stories I enjoyed included: "Glory of the Worms and Snakes" by Perri O'Shaughnessy and the Passport to Crime feature by Jutta Motz, "The Russian Woman."

May: The last story in this issue, "Teddy" by Brian Tobin, was definitely my favorite. It's one that I'll read again and again. Be sure to check it out. I also enjoyed "My Mom, the Movies, and Me" by Robert S. Levinson and "A Question of Fathers" by Michael Z. Lewin. I've greatly enjoyed reading Lewin's "alien" mysteries, and I was sad to read that this may possibly be the last one. Please say it isn't so.

June: The story I enjoyed the most in this issue was Liza Cody's "A Hand." I hope there are more stories to come featuring the character Shareen Manasseh. Also, I enjoyed "The Accessory" by Robert Lopresti and "Julius Accused" by Dave Zeltserman.

July: This issue featured so many great stories, but be sure to check out "The Very Old Man" by Jenny Milchman. The story features an insecure first time mom with an active imagination. Another story to check out is "Second Sight Unseen" by Richard Helms. I always enjoy stories featuring psychics. Other stories I appreciated this month: "In Her Fashion" by Frankie Y. Bailey, "Pancras Sullivan" by Peter Turnbull, and "It Couldn't Be Done?" by Bill Pronzini.

August: My favorite story in this issue was also the last story. Belinda Bauer's "Two For the Price of One" is short and fantastic. David Dean is one of my favorite short story writers, and he has impressed me again with "Neighbor." I also enjoyed "Cold Island" by Brendan DuBois and "Murder and the Golden Slipper" by Amy Meyers.

September/October Double issue: It was too difficult to pick a favorite this month, so here are the stories I enjoyed the most: "Jaguar" by Joseph Wallace, "Blood Red Roses" by Marilyn Todd, "The Hobby Cop" by Doug Allyn, "The Very Best Neighbor" by Brendan DuBois, "The E-mail Always Pings Twice" by Greg Herren, and Carl Robinette's first story, "The Hard Type."

November: My top three picks for this month were Joan Richter's story "The Golden Peacock," "Deep Shaft" by Suzanne Arruda, and "The Lure of the Green Door" by Norizuke Rintaro.

December: Joyce Carol Oates' short story, "Equatorial," was dark and sinister. It was a great story to start this issue. Also, be sure to check out "The Tavern-Keeper's Daughter" by Miriam Grace Monfredo.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Book Review: 'Betty Crocker Christmas Cookies'

✰✰✰✰ The holidays roll around just once a year. There's so little time to try out complicated and time-consuming recipes. That's where the Betty Crocker Christmas Cookies cookbook comes in handy. Featuring easy-to-read recipes with full-page, full-color photos, this cookbook is perfect for your baking needs. The book begins with "Cookie Success Secrets" and "Bar and Brownie Success Secrets," which include choosing the proper equipment, storage tips, and choosing ingredients. Each recipe includes nutrition information, preparation time, start to finish time, and the number of cookies or bars each recipe makes. The numbered step-by-step instructions are clear and concise. There is also information on "Cookies as Gifts," a "Metric Conversion Guide," and an Index. Yummy recipes to check out include "Mini Whoopie Pies," "Linzer Cookies," "Chocolate Chip Reindeer Cookies," "Strawberry Cheesecake Bars," "Striped Peppermint Cookies," and Bourbon-Spiked Brownie Truffle Balls." Even if you don't bake throughout the year, there's something for everyone in this cookbook.

Taste Test Notes: There were so many tempting recipes, but I decided to try to make the "Red Velvet Rich-and-Creamy Cookies." The ingredients were super easy to locate at my local grocery store. That's always a plus. Once I had everything gathered, I found that this recipe was very easy to make. While my cookies weren't quite as red as those in the photo, they were very tasty. These cookies aren't big, so you can easily enjoy two or three with your afternoon tea and not feel too guilty.

Here are all the ingredients needed to make this simple recipe!

Here are the finished cookies (without nuts).
Nana's Baking Tip: If you don't like chopped nuts, just omit them and decorate with red sugar crystals instead. Also, these would be a festive treat for Valentine's Day as well.

The Bottom Line: This cookbook will appeal to bakers of all levels. There are recipes for drop cookies, shaped cookies, filled cookies, bars, brownies, and cookie cut-outs. These cookies come in all flavors too like chocolate, raspberry, and peppermint. You can also find a variety of gluten-free recipes. The cookbook is easy to use and the layout is attractive. Baking projects that are fun for kids are indicated, and the inclusion of "Tinsel Time Tips" for festive touches make the book interesting. All in all this cookbook is highly recommended; however, it would have been even better if the editors had included a skill level for each recipe.

Details: Betty Crocker Christmas Cookies by Betty Crocker. Paperback published by Betty Crocker in 2013. 208 p. ISBN: 978-0-544-16664-6

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Book Review: 'No Biking in the House Without a Helmet' by Melissa Fay Greene

✰✰✰½ Award winning journalist Melissa Fay Greene and her husband already had four biological children when they decided to adopt a little boy from Bulgaria. Rather than accept the "empty nest" that their home threatened to become when the oldest children headed off to college, the couple kept adopting. The next child was a little girl from Ethiopia. By the time Greene and her husband were finished adopting, their family included a total of nine kids from three continents.

The Bottom Line: Melissa Fay Greene's writing style is approachable for most readers. She writes with humor, tenderness, and honesty as she covers both the joys and the challenges of raising a large family. Recommended for everyone interested in the study of families. Also, for potential adoptive parents.

Book Club Notes: The short chapters and conversational tone of this book made it a quick read. One member pointed out that it was reminiscent of Erma Bombeck's writing style. The discussion was lighthearted as we worked out way through questions available in the reading guide from Macmillan. The anecdotes made for fun reading, and it was easy to get sidetracked by our own stories as we defined what it means to be a family. The discussion turned lively as we debated the pros and cons of domestic vs. international adoption. Furthermore, many of us agreed that we wanted to hear more about Greene's husband, Donny. Some members commented that the book could have been shorter. Also, several members noted that the stories were not all in chronological order. Overall, the group gave the book 3.75 stars and enjoyed reading it.

Details: No Biking in the House Without a Helmet by Melissa Fay Greene. Paperback published by Sarah Crichton Books in 2011. 368 p. ISBN: 978-0-374-53338-0

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Book Review: 'Dr. Mütter's Marvels' by Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz

✰✰✰✰½ The world-renowned Mütter Museum in Philadelphia features collections of anatomical specimens, medical instruments, and models. Visitors come from around the world to marvel at the various specimens. But how did these collections come to be housed together? Author Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz brings us the story of the man behind the collection.

Thomas Dent Mütter was orphaned as a young boy. Despite suffering from illness all his life, the young Mütter went on to pursue a degree in medicine. Eventually, his curiosity led him to the practice of plastic surgery, where he dedicated his skills to helping people labeled as "monsters" by society. Mütter's ideas and surgical techniques proved to be innovative, but his flamboyant style and popularity with students sometimes clashed with other doctors. Mütter's forward thinking lead to advances in cleanliness in the operating room, the use of anesthetic, and compassionate care.

Throughout his career, Dr. Mütter collected all types of specimens. While some may view these collections as medical oddities, Dr. Thomas Dent Mütter collected the items with the intent of supplementing his medical lectures. Due to continuing ill health, Dr. Mütter died young, but before he did, he left behind the legacy that is now the Mütter Museum.

The Bottom Line: Despite the length of the book, this was a fairly quick read. Author Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz approaches her subject with enthusiasm and compassion. Dr. Mütter was a fascinating man. He was a pioneer in his field who made many lasting contributions to the field of medicine. I especially enjoyed reading the notes written by Dr. Mütter. This well-written biography is highly recommended for readers interested in medicine, surgery, medical collections, and American history. A background in medicine is not required to understand and enjoy this book; however, descriptions of surgical procedures may bother some readers. This book contains more than 80 black and white photos and illustrations.

Details: Dr. Mütter's Marvels: A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation at the Dawn of Modern Medicine by Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz. ARC published by Gotham Books in 2014. 384 p. ISBN: 978-1-592-40870-2 NOTE: I received a free copy from Gotham Books in exchange for an honest review. This was made possible by the Early Reviewers program atLibraryThing.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Book Review: 'The Costume Copycat' by Maryann Macdonald

✰✰✰✰ Big Sister Bernadette always has the best Halloween costumes. Everyone thinks so. That's why little sister Angela decides to wear Bernadette's costume from the previous year. Unfortunately, being a costume copycat doesn't make Angela a star. After several years of being a costume copycat, Angela decides to maker her own costume. She's in for a pleasant surprise when the neighbors see her handmade costume.

The Bottom Line: Sometimes it's better to be yourself than to follow in someone else's footsteps. This is a cute tale of sibling rivalry. Charming watercolor and ink illustrations by Wilsdorf bring the text to life. Enthusiastically recommended for kids in grades Pre-K - 1. This picture book would be great for storytime too.

Details: The Costume Copycat written by Maryann Macdonald & illustrated by Anne Wilsdorf. Hardcover picture book published by Dial Books for Young Readers in 2006. 32 p. ISBN: 9780803729292

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Book Review: 'The Teeny Tiny Ghost and the Monster' by Kay Winters

✰✰✰½ The Spook and Spirit Club is sponsoring a Make a Monster contest for Halloween. All the ghosts in the teeny tiny classroom are excited except for one, the teeny tiny ghost. For the teeny tiny ghost, making a monster is too scary. As the other ghosts draw their monsters and make fun of him, the teeny tiny ghost finds inspiration in an unexpected place. With the help of his two teeny tiny black cats, the teeny tiny ghost just might have a chance of entering the contest after all.

The Bottom Line: This story is for any child who has been picked on and bullied. It can be read to a class, to open up a conversation about bullying. Best for kids in grades 1 and 2.

Details: The Teeny Tiny Ghost and the Monster written by Kay Winters & illustrated by Lynn Munsinger. Hardcover picture book published by HarperCollins in 2004. 32 p. ISBN: 0-06-028885-X

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Book Review: 'Pumpkin Cat' by Anne Mortimer

✰✰✰✰ One late spring day, Cat wonders how pumpkins grow. Cat's friend, Mouse, decides to show her by helping her plant pumpkin seeds. As the days and months pass, the seeds grow into plants. With time and attention, flowers appear followed by little pumpkins. By the time Halloween rolls around, Mouse has a wonderful surprise for Cat.

The Bottom Line: This gentle story is perfect for any time of the year. It's a charming tale of friendship and gardening. Mortimer's beautiful illustrations are soft and colorful. This picture book will appeal to little ones and their parents. Teachers for grades K - 2 will find the "Instructions for Growing Pumpkins" at the back of the book useful as well.

Details: Pumpkin Cat written & illustrated by Anne Mortimer. Hardcover picture book published by Katherine Tegen Books in 2011. 24 p. ISBN: 978-0-06-187485-7

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Book Review: 'Then Came Life' by Geralyn Lucas

✰✰✰½ The journey from cancer diagnosis to treatment to survival is different for each patient. Geralyn Lucas has lived under the shadow of cancer for nearly two decades. With lipstick as her shield, she has endured it all to come out on the other side with two miracle babies, a supportive husband, and a “normal” everyday life. Lucas writes with brutal honesty and humor as she describes everything from preschool interviewing and potty training to interacting with her mean tween daughter and couples counseling. Meanwhile, she must face her fears as people important to her face their own battles with cancer. As the years go by, Lucas learns to move beyond the fear of a cancer recurrence and really embrace life.

The Bottom Line: This is a very quick read. Nonetheless, it is repetitive in several spots. For example, there were several references to the challenges of putting on Spanx and the quest for Botox. Each chapter is an essay from a different point in her life, and it is the last few chapters of this book that make it a worthwhile read. Readers will laugh and cry along with the author. Fans of the author's first book, Why I Wore Lipstick to My Mastectomy, will want to pick up a copy. Also, recommended for anyone who has survived an illness and is struggling to move forward. Readers interested in mother-daughter relationships would enjoy this book as well.

Details: Then Came Life: Living with Courage, Spirit, and Gratitude After Breast Cancer by Geralyn Lucas. Advance Uncorrected Proof published in 2014. 240 p. ISBN: 978-1-592-40895-5 NOTE: I received a free copy from Gotham Books in exchange for an honest review. This was made possible by the Early Reviewers program at LibraryThing.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Book Review: 'The Cruelest Miles' by Gay Salisbury & Laney Salisbury

✰✰✰✰ The harsh winters of Alaska are legendary, but in 1925 a deadly diphtheria epidemic raged through the land and created a crisis like none before. Earlier in the year, the town doctor had realized that his supply of diphtheria antitoxin had expired. Although he ordered more, it failed to arrive on the last ship before the town became icebound. In all his years practicing medicine in Nome, Dr. Welch rarely had call to use the medicine, so he wasn’t worried. Unfortunately soon children were suffering from symptoms of severe sore throats. At first it looked like tonsillitis, but the germs at work proved to be a lot more deadly and fast. With a blizzard rapidly approaching, the only chance to save the people of Nome depended on teams of sled dogs. Twenty mushers and their dogs, the most famous of which was Balto, participated in the 1925 Serum Run. This is the thrilling journey that inspired the Iditarod Sled Dog Race in Alaska.    

The Bottom Line: While this debut book by two cousins is sometimes repetitive, it is a quick, compelling read that keeps you hanging. With no roads, rails, flights, or boats available, this is a story of courage, survival, and adventure. It became a race against both time and the elements where the slightest miscalculation can cost you your life. Additionally, this book explores the bond between man and dog. Also, included in the book are many fascinating historical tidbits, black and white photos, and a map. Enthusiastically recommended for dog lovers, nonfiction aficionados, and history lovers.

Book Club Notes: This was a quick read for the group to tackle. While many of us were familiar with the story of Balto, it was interesting to learn about the other mushers and dogs involved in the serum run. The men pushed themselves and the dogs to their physical limits. Without hesitation, many sacrifices were made, not for glory, but simply to help fellow humans. It was also interesting to learn about life in Alaska including local folklore and native culture. It's all about survival and helping others in need. Overall, we gave this book an average of 4 stars. Most of us enjoyed the history and trivia included in the book. However, a few members disliked the trivia while others simply lost interest in the writing style. Groups considering this book can find a reading group guide at W. W. Norton & Company, Inc

Details: The Cruelest Miles: The Heroic Story of Dogs and Men in a Race Against an Epidemic by Gay Salisbury & Laney Salisbury. Paperback published by W. W. Norton & Company in 2003. 320 p. ISBN: 978-0-393-32570-6

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Book Review: 'Millhouse' by Natale Ghent

✰✰✰✰ Misfits know how difficult it can be to try to fit in. Millhouse, also known as Milly, is a gentle creature who loves the theatre. Once a beloved pet, Milly is put up for sale at a pet shop when his previous owner suddenly dies. Being the new animal in the shop isn’t easy. To make matters worse, Milly is hairless which makes him a target of the pet shop bullies. Life in a pet shop isn't easy, but Milly stays optimistic.

As the days and months go by, Milly makes a friend or two. He also makes an enemy in the form of the Pepper Brown ferret, who makes Milly’s life miserable. Despite many challenges, Milly never stops being his eccentric self. More than anything else he dreams of being adopted, but will anyone ever notice this quiet, sensitive creature? Only time will tell.

The Bottom Line: This charming tale about friendship and just being yourself will appeal to kids ages 7 – 11, who have guinea pigs as pets or who adore animals in general. This is a quick read that is perfect for reading aloud in a classroom setting. This chapter book is also a suitable choice for beginning readers. Finally, Millhouse includes sweet and nostalgic pen and ink style illustrations by the author.

Details: Millhouse by Natale Ghent. Hardcover published by Tundra Books in 2014. 192p. ISBN: 978-1-77049-639-2 NOTE: I received a free copy from Tundra Books in exchange for an honest review. This was made possible by the Early Reviewers program at LibraryThing.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Book Review: 'Lighthouse Christmas' by Toni Buzzeo

✰✰✰✰✰ The Flying Santa Service has been serving families since 1929. Toni Buzzeo brings this Christmas tradition to life with the story of two siblings. Frances and Peter are new to Ledge Light; their father is the lighthouse keeper. There are only two days until Christmas and the children wonder if Christmas will come to the island. With dwindling supplies, the chance for a festive holiday seems grim. When a nor'easter blows in, Frances must keep the light shining while her papa attempts to rescue a fisherman. The storm even keeps the much needed supply boats away. Yet, somehow without cookies, music, or fancy gifts the children learn about the true meaning of Christmas, especially when a surprise delivery is made to the island.

The Bottom Line: This story was inspired by a true holiday tradition that continues to this day. Buzzeo's heartfelt tale focuses on the importance of families and tradition. Meanwhile, Nancy Carpenter's illustrations are nostalgic with soft colors. Very highly recommended for kids in grades 1 - 4.

Details: Lighthouse Christmas written by Toni Buzzeo and illustrated by Nancy Carpenter. Hardcover picture book published by Dial Books for Young Readers in 2011. 32 p. ISBN: 978-08037-3053-3

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Book Review: 'Fletcher and the Snowflake Christmas' by Julia Rawlinson

✰✰✰✰½ As Fletcher makes his way through the woods to the rabbit family's new burrow, he wonders how Santa Claus will ever find the new home. With the help of his animal friends, Fletcher devises a way to make a trail through the woods. However, when snow starts to fall and cover up the trail, Fletcher continues to worry. Fortunately, Santa always finds a way to deliver his presents much to Fletcher's surprise.

The Bottom Line: This is a charming tale for kids in grades K - 2. With a focus on friendship, little ones will learn that a little faith goes a long way. Kids will also love Tiphanie Beeke's soft and beautiful pastel illustrations. Enthusiastically recommended for Christmas Eve storytelling.

Details: Fletcher and the Snowflake Christmas written by Julia Rawlinson and illustrated by Tiphanie Beeke. Hardcover picture book published by Greenwillow Books in 2010. 32 p. ISBN: 978-0-06-199033-5

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Book Review: 'Christmas Farm' by Mary Lyn Ray

✰✰✰✰½ Wilma has grown flowers in her garden for many years. However, when winter arrives she decides that she needs a new challenge in the spring. Thus, she orders dozens of balsams for planting. Together with her five-year-old neighbor, Parker, they nurture the little trees. The years go by, and they keep track of how many trees survive. As Parker grows up, so do the trees until one year the trees are ready. The trees are tagged and sold to families looking for the perfect Christmas tree. The next spring, Wilma and Parker are ready to begin planting again.

The Bottom Line: This charming book is perfect for little ones wondering about how Christmas trees are grown and harvested. The story features a heartwarming friendship between two neighbors, one young and one old. It also emphasizes the value of hard work and patience. Beautiful, wintry illustrations in watercolor and gouache bring the story to life. Highly recommended for kids in grades K - 4.

Details: Christmas Farm written by Mary Lyn Ray & illustrated by Barry Root. Hardcover picture book published by Harcourt, Inc. in 2008. 40 p. ISBN: 978-0-15-216290-0

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Book Review: 'Little Santa' by Jon Agee

✰✰✰✰ Little Santa lives at the North Pole with his family. There is always more wood to be chopped and snow to be shoveled at the North Pole. Little Santa loves it, but his family doesn't. On the night before his family moves to Florida, a terrible blizzard arrives and traps them all inside. Little Santa is the only one who can climb out of the chimney and go for help. Along the way he finds a very special reindeer and a houseful of helpful elves. With the help of his new friends, Little Santa rescues his family. Things are good for a while, but when winter rolls around again, Little Santa must make a choice. Will he move to Florida with his family or stay at the North Pole?

The Bottom Line: Jon Agee's sweet story is a different take on the story of Santa Claus. This is a fun story to read, especially for kids asking questions about Santa. Kids ages 2 - 5 will love the adorable illustrations and the story of Santa as a kid himself.

Details: Little Santa written & illustrated by Jon Agee. Hardcover picture book published by Dial Books for Young Readers in 2013. 40 p. ISBN: 978-0-8037-3906-2

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Book Review: 'Katie the Candy Cane Fairy Storybook by Tim Bugbird

✰✰✰✰ Katie Candy Cane is a singer who lives in Fairyland. Every year Katie and her sisters put on a festive holiday show that is famous throughout the land for its magical candy canes. But this year something goes awry. As rehearsals get underway, the stripes on the magic candy canes disappear. What will they do now that their groove is gone? With an audience waiting, they sisters decide there’s only one thing to do. The show must go on. Much to their surprise, the fairies discover that when you follow your heart, you can’t go wrong. 

The Bottom Line: This picture book is charming, cute, and festive. The vibrant illustrations will appeal to kids, especially girls, ages 4 – 7. The large print makes it easy for little ones to follow along too. This is just one of many Fairy Storybooks written by Tim Bugbird.

Details: Katie the Candy Cane Fairy Storybook written by Tim Bugbird and illustrated by Lara Ede. Hardcover picture book published by Make Believe Ideas in 2013. 32 p. ISBN: 978-1-78235-526-7

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Book Review" 'The Christmas Cobwebs' by Odds Bodkin

✰✰✰✰ This take on the legend of the Christmas spider takes place in Chicago. When a shoemaker and his wife leave German, the only thing they bring to remind them of their homeland is a box of beautiful glass Christmas ornaments. Business is going well for the cobbler when a fire breaks out and destroys the cobbler's shop and home. The family escapes with just their lives and the precious box of ornaments. 

With nowhere else to go, the family moves into an abandoned shack filled with cobwebs. In order to start over, the shoemaker must make a decision to sell the ornaments. On Christmas Even when the family cuts down a fir tree, the children are saddened to learn about the fate of the ornaments. That night the spiders come out and work their magic transforming the tree into a Christmas miracle. The family wakes up to discover the true meaning of Christmas.

The Bottom Line: Each retelling of the legend of the Christmas spider is unique in its own way. Bodkin's story is charming with a focus on family and love. Together this gentle story and the beautiful illustrations reveal the true meaning of Christmas. Enthusiastically recommended holiday reading for kids ages 3 - 7.

Details: The Christmas Cobwebs written by Odds Bodkin & illustrated by Terry Widener. Hardcover picture book published by Gulliver Books in 2001. 32 p. ISBN: 0-15-201459-4

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Book Review: 'A Very Fuddles Christmas' by Frans Vischer

✰✰✰✰✰ Fuddles is a very pampered cat. He likes to eat and take naps. His life is purr-fect. Then one day he follows his nose to a delicious meal, but his family shoos him away. It's the same with the presents, treats, and twinkling tree. What's a cat to do? Fuddles decides to run and finds himself outside where it's cold and icy. To make matters worse, those pesky squirrels won't leave him alone. So up the tree he goes to chase them. When the squirrels jump, Fuddles jumps too. Then down, down, down the chimney he goes to find a Christmas surprise waiting just for him.

The Bottom Line: This clever picture book will delight both the young and the young at heart. Vischer's fantastic illustrations are colorful and playful. A Very Fuddles Christmas is the purr-fect holiday treat for kids ages 3 - 7. The large print and easy words also make this a great pick for story time. 

Details: A Very Fuddles Christmas written & illustrated by Frans Vischer. Hardcover picture book published by Aladdin in 2013. 32 p. ISBN: 978-1-4169-9156-4

'Christmas in July' Book Reviews for 2014

Although I enjoy reading books and writing book reviews all throughout the year, I especially enjoy the opportunity to review holiday books during the month of July. This year I have chosen several holiday themed picture books. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing my frosty and sweet selections including reviews about Christmas spiders, a clever cat, a tiny Santa, and more. Enjoy!

P.S. I found this free clip art at

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Book Review: 'Murder, She Wrote: A Palette for Murder' by Jessica Fletcher & Donald Bain

✰✰✰½ Jessica Fletcher is back in this fast-paced cozy mystery. After teaching a writing workshop at New York University, Jessica decides to take some time off. She arrives in the tranquil Hamptons looking for some peace and relaxation. Hoping to get in touch with her creative side, Jessica signs up for an art class under an assumed name. Unfortunately when the model ends up dead while posing during class, Jessica must put on her sleuthing hat and help solve the crime. She is suddenly plunged into the world of art crime involving the death of a local artist, a missing painting, and lots of money. On top of everything else, Jessica’s own sketch is stolen as well. Follow Jessica Fletcher as the picks her way through the twists and turns of this art themed mystery.

The Bottom Line: This is a fun book to read if you enjoyed the television show. Written in the first person, the books are very much in line with the series. As a quick read, it's the perfect book to take to the beach. Recommended for fans of cozy mysteries.

Details: Murder, She Wrote: A Palette for Murder written by Jessica Fletcher & Donald Bain. Paperback published by Signet in 1996. 304 p. ISBN: 978-0-451-18820-5

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Book Review: 'The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency' by Alexander McCall Smith

✰✰✰✰ Mma Precious Ramotswe is the type of person who just wants to help people. When her father dies, she uses the money from the sale of his cattle to pursue a lifelong dream. With no training, Mma Ramotswe opens a detective agency. She wastes no time getting started by diving into the drama of the people of Botswana. As the first and only lady detective in Botswana, Mma Ramotswe accepts all the cases that come her way. Along the way she must find a missing husband, expose a con artist, and follow a troublemaking daughter. Mma Ramotswe is clever and lucky as one by one she works her way through the cases in her own quirky way. Follow Mma Ramotswe on her journey as she learns her trade. Indeed the mystery of Mma Ramotswe herself is revealed as she solves these mysteries.

The Bottom Line: This is an entertaining, engaging, and quick read. It makes you appreciate the simple things in life like reading a good cozy. I enjoyed the structure of this book in which each case is like a short story. The mystery stories are then woven together by the search for a missing boy who may have been kidnapped by a witch doctor. The story of Mma Ramotswe herself is revealed layer by layer as she solves the mysteries. I also enjoyed Mma Ramotswe’s romance with Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni. The characters are clever, original, and fun. Enthusiastically recommended for fans of cozy mysteries. The setting in Botswana is a nice change of pace.

Details: The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith. Paperback published by Anchor Books in 2003. 235 p. ISBN: 978-1-4000-3477-2

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Book Review: 'The Poisoner's Handbook' by Deborah Blum

✰✰✰ The carefree spirit of the Jazz Age included music, dance, corruption, Prohibition, and modern technology. However, it was also a time when murder by poison flourished. At the time, most poisons were largely undetectable; thus, murders were easy to get away with. Poisons were everywhere. The poisons made their way into food, beverages, cosmetics, and the environment. They were used in everything from rat poison to tonics used to restore vigor and health to facial creams used to promote beautiful skin.

When Dr. Charles Norris became the chief medical examiner of New York City in 1918, he inherited a department that was understaffed and underfunded. Corruption was rampant in New York City, and the department suffered. Norris set out to completely overhaul the department. He purchased supplies at his own personal expense and tirelessly advocated for his department. Additionally, Norris created standards that would one day set the tone for laboratories all over the country.

The Bottom Line: This book is about how one toxicology laboratory in New York City modernized the field of forensic medicine. This book is heavy on science, especially chemistry, and includes information about both the poisons and the tests for detecting them are included. Some people may want to skip over the gory parts. Each chapter of the book focuses on a different poison and includes stories about its discovery and how it was commonly used. Plus, ample anecdotes about murders involving each poison are included. Additionally, there are the broader tales of Prohibition and the political corruption in New York City to keep the reader interested. While the writing style was sometimes disjointed and somewhat dry, the biographical information about Norris and Gettler was fascinating.

Recommended for nonfiction book clubs with an interest in science and crime. The classic cases of murder by poison featured in each chapter of Blum’s book are sure to appeal to fans of true crime and television shows like CSI and NCIS as well.

Book Club Notes: It’s always an extra challenge when the book chosen for a book discussion does not include a discussion guide. Thus, for groups interested in picking up this book, here are questions that I gathered as I read.

1.     What did you know about forensic science before reading this book?

2.     Did you know anything about this time period before reading the book? Did you learn anything new?

3.     Did you struggle with any of the chemistry? Did you feel that the science in this book was presented well for a layperson to understand? Were there any concepts that are still fuzzy to you?

4.     Discuss chief medical examiner Charles Norris and toxicologist Alexander Gettler? Was one more interesting than the other?

5.     Norris was able to use his own funds to shape the department. What if the other candidates had been chosen?

6.     Discuss the animal experiments performed by Norris and his staff. Did this bother you? Discuss the contributions to science.

7.     During Prohibition the government deliberately poisoned alcohol. How do you feel about that?

8.     If you were writing a mystery novel, which poison would you choose?

9.     Does anyone have a personal story connected to the Poisoner’s Handbook or any of the topics discussed in the book?

10.   Discuss the writing style. Each chapter is dedicated to a poison. Did it draw you into the story?

11.     How did you find the pace of the book? Did the author’s method of unfolding the events make you feel you were living through the era?

12.     What are the book’s strengths and weaknesses?

13.   Which story stood out the most for you?

14.      Do you have any unanswered questions? If the author were here, what would you ask her?

15.      Rate from 1 – 5 (5 being the highest)

Details: The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum. Paperback published by Penguin Books in 2011. 336 p. ISBN: 978-0143118824

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Book Review: 'The World Outside' by Eva Wiseman

✰✰✰½ Chanie Altman is a seventeen year old high school senior who lives in Crown Heights, New York, an area know for its Lubavitcher community. Chanie knows she is expected to finish school and marry. Chanie never thinks twice about the strict rules that govern her life until she happens to meet two very different people. Both Jade, an African American, and David attend college. Both bring outside views into Chanie's fundamentalist world. For the first time Chanie begins to see there is another world out there, one filled with music and singing. More than anything else, Chanie wants to become a singer, but will her strict upbringing stand in the way of her dreams? Before the riots of 1991 have simmered down, Chanie must make the most difficult decision of her life. She will have to choose between what everyone expects her to do or to follow her dreams. With the help of her friends she must find a way to be happy.

The Bottom Line: The World Outside provides a fascinating glimpse into the closed Lubavitcher community of the early 1990s. Although it was slow to start, the story grew in interest. The book takes an honest look at the barriers we face in ourselves and those we meet in the environment. Recommended for young adult readers, especially women, interested in coming of age stories. A glossary is included; however, I wish more words had been included.

Details: The World Outside by Eva Wiseman. Hardcover published by Tundra Books in 2014. 240 p. ISBN: 978-0-88776-981-8

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Book Review: 'The Great Trouble' by Deborah Hopkinson

✰✰✰½ Eel is a young orphan just trying to scrape by on what he finds as a mudlark. As he struggles to save what he earns in order to protect a secret, a disease descends upon Victorian London. Hundreds of people in the Broad Street district succumb to what is believed to be bad air. In an effort to help his neighbors, young Eel turns to Dr. John Snow. However, instead of doctoring to the people of Broad Street, Dr. Snow takes a different approach. Drafted into helping the untiring Dr. Snow, Eel works ceaselessly to help create a map that will both enlighten the scientific community and help solve this medical mystery. Eel must race against the ravages of the disease to find where it all began, before it starts all over again.

The Bottom Line: This book will appeal to young fans of historical fiction. While cholera is an unpleasant topic, this fictional story brings to light a disease that rears its ugly head even in modern times. Recommended for middle grade readers and young adults who enjoy Dickensian tales and historical fiction set in London.

Details: The Great Trouble: A Mystery of London, the Blue Death, and a Boy Called Eel by Deborah Hopkinson. Hardcover published by Alfred A. Knopf in 2013. 256 p. ISBN: 978-0375848186

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Book Review: 'Ollie's Easter Eggs' Olivier Dunrea

✰✰✰✰ Ollie is hopping. While Gossie, Gertie, BooBoo, and Peedie are gathering and dyeing eggs for Easter, Ollie is hopping. Ollie wants colorful eggs too, but he doesn't have time to gather or dye them. He's hopping, and he has a plan. When Gossie, Gertie, BooBoo, and Peedie look for the eggs, they can't find them. Ollie's friends search and hunt for the eggs until the trail leads them back to Ollie, who has a surprise for them.

The Bottom Line: This gentle story about friends is perfect for bedtime reading. It's short and sweet. The simple story and watercolor illustrations in soft pastel colors will appeal to little ones ages 2 - 5.

Details: Ollie's Easter Eggs written & illustrated by Olivier Dunrea. Hardcover picture book published by Houghton Mifflin Books for Children in 2009. 32 p. ISBN: 978-0-618-53243-8

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Book Review: 'It's April Fools' Day!' by Steven Kroll

✰✰✰✰½ Horace is a bully. He likes being mean, and his favorite target is Alice. By the time April Fools' Day rolls around, Alice is afraid to leave the house. When she finally does, Horace is waiting for her. He dumps water on her, pulls her tail, and chases her. Each time he plays a trick on Alice, he yells, "April Fool!" After Alice decides she has had enough, she sneaks back to her house and comes up with a plan to turn the tables on Horace. Now it's Horace who ends up all wet, but Alice is still worried. What will Horace do next? Horace is full of surprises, and the ending is the best surprise of all.

The Bottom Line: Despite being an older title, this picture book has retained its appeal with a charming story about friendship. The illustrations in soft pastel colors are cute and easy to follow. Highly recommended for the little ones. This title will appeal to both boys and girls in preschool and kindergarten. Highly recommended for both bedtime reading and storytime.

Details: It's April Fools' Day! written by Steven Kroll and illustrated by Jeni Bassett. Hardcover picture book published by Holiday House in 1990. 32 p. ISBN: 0-8234-0747-0

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Book Review: 'The Ghost Map' by Steven Johnson

✰✰✰½ During the summer of 1854, a cholera epidemic broke out in Victorian London. It began with a single case, but the outbreak spread like wildfire. With over two million people in the city and without the proper infrastructure to handle all the waste, it became a race against time to stop the spread of the disease. While families left the city in fear, two men with vastly different viewpoints set out to find answers. At the time theorists believed disease spread via noxious or bad smelling air. The Reverend Henry Whitehead, who believed in the miasma theory, visited his flock both to bring comfort and gather valuable information. But something was amiss with the miasma theory. Dr. John Snow, a respected physician, decided to pursue another course to identify the source of disease. Dr. Snow was on the search for microscopic waterborne pathogens, but he needed evidence to make his case. With the help of a skeptical Reverend Whitehead, Snow was able to create a groundbreaking map. Snow’s map visually showed that most of those who died from the cholera outbreak were clustered around a single source of water. The map helped debunk the theory of miasma and shut down the pump. The tireless efforts of these two men would impact the way scientists looked at disease for years to come. The Ghost Map is a thrilling chase through Victorian London to find the cause of a deadly outbreak before more people died.

The Bottom Line: This was an era when drinking water could be hazardous to one’s health. Dr. Snow’s forward thinking about germs and how they are passed on was at odds with the scientific community at the time. While it is obvious today, the poor disposal of human waste contributed to the unsanitary condition that caused the epidemic. Although this book was somewhat repetitive and slow in places, I found it to be informative. In fact, the information in this book has come up time and time again in other books, films, and conversations. The brief biographies about Snow and Whitehead were fascinating as was the shift away from miasma theory. Cholera is still a problem in some parts of the world today making this is a very timely topic. Recommended for those who enjoy medical mysteries and history. Also, recommended for students of public health or medicine. The book could benefit from better illustrations, especially of the famous map.

Book Club Notes: While the group agreed that this was an informative book, many took a pass on this one. Talking about human waste isn’t for everyone. Overall, this was an interesting discussion, and we agreed that we all learned something by reading this book. For book clubs wishing to discuss this book, there are discussion questions provided at Penguin. Also, be sure to check out the “Notes” section at the back of the book as well for more information. Finally, I ended up searching online for a better map for discussion purposes as the one in the book wasn’t adequate. Two sites that contain useful information are Cholera and the Thames and Professor John Mackenzie's GIS Analyses of Snow's Map.

Details: The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic--and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World by Steven Johnson. Hardcover published by Riverhead Books in 2006. 320 p. ISBN: 978-1594482694

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

5 Tips for Attending a Writers' Conference

Maybe you've thought about attending a writers' conference for years. Perhaps you've worked on a manuscript and are looking for an agent. Then again, maybe you just enjoy reading books and would like to learn more about the craft of writing. These are all great reasons to attend a conference. However, for the first time participant, the prospect of attending a conference can be daunting.

Here are 5 tips to help you make a good first impression:

  1. Dress comfortably, but professionally. Keep in mind that these conferences are packed with lots to do. You'll be on your feet a lot, so wear comfortable shoes if possible.
  2. Take a notebook and pen. The sessions are chock full of information, so it's best to come prepared to take notes.
  3. Take business cards, but leave your manuscript at home. You'll be meeting lots of people at the conference. Business cards are handy for exchanging contact information quickly.
  4. Attend all meals. This is an excellent way to meet new people. Take some risks and try sitting next to a different person at each meal.
  5. Be polite. It's great to be friendly, but don't approach your favorite author in the restroom, for example. Also, please silence the cell phones.
Writers' conferences are a great opportunity to meet authors, agents, editors, and publishers. Whether you are an unpublished writer, a reader, a librarian, or a seasoned author, writers' conferences have something to offer for everyone. Best of all, these conferences are so much fun. So smile and have a great time!

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Book Review: 'Shannon and the World's Tallest Leprechaun' by Sean Callahan

✰✰✰✰✰ Shannon loves stepdancing, but she doesn't have the fancy wigs, new shoes, or expensive costumes like the other girls. All the same, she keeps practicing for the Saint Patrick's Day stepdance contest. Unfortunately, when the heel of her shoe snaps off, her chances of winning are ruined...or are they? Even though things look hopeless, Shannon closes her eyes and remembers what her dad once told her about how to get a leprechaun to appear and grant a wish. When she opens her eyes again, Liam, the world's tallest leprechaun, is standing there.

Shannon is skeptical. After all Liam doesn't look like what she expected. However, she makes a wish, and he grants it...sort of. The same thing happens the next day and the day after that. With all three wishes used up, Shannon shows up at the contest ready to dance her best. After all the practice, will Shannon win the leprechaun's pot of gold at the end of the rainbow? Liam knows the answer, but Shannon must find out for herself in this charming Saint Patrick's Day tale.

The Bottom Line: Sean Callahan's tale of a little girl and her three wishes is perfect for Saint Patrick's Day. The main character learns that things may not always be what they seem, but hard work, tradition, and lots of practice can make a lot of difference. Kathleen Kemly's pastels perfectly compliment this heartwarming tale. Highly recommended for kids interested in Irish-American traditions, stepdancing, and Saint Patrick's Day lore.

Details: Shannon and the World's Tallest Leprechaun written by Sean Callahan & illustrated by Kathleen Kemly. Hardcover picture book published by Albert Whitman & Company in 2008. 32 p. ISBN: 978-0-8075-7326-6

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Book Review: 'Cy in Chains' by David L. Dudley

✰✰✰✰✰ The 1890s were a difficult time in American history. After slavery had ended, African Americans were free; however, they were still expected to obey the white men. Punishments for disobedience in rural Georgia at the time included being whipped, abused, and killed. Thirteen-year-old Cy Williams has grown up with this unsavory fact of life. He lives with his father on the Strong plantation. He, also, knows how to stay out of trouble and mind his own business. However, when the plantation owner's son, Travis, runs away, Cy goes after his young friend. The result is a tragedy that is unfairly blamed on Cy.

Cy is promptly sent to a chain gang, where the challenges he faced before pale in comparison to life in the labor camp. Conditions at the camp are horrific and leave little hope for freedom or joy. Faced with brutal beatings and sexual abuse over four years, Cy changes from an innocent young boy into an angry young man and finally into a leader the others look up to. Before the story is finished, Cy will risk everything for his friends, himself, and freedom.

The Bottom Line: I received an advance reading copy from the publisher while I was attending the 2013 ALA conference. When I finally got around to reading it, I was hesitant at first. To be honest, I don't read a lot of historical fiction. That being said, Cy in Chains drew me in from the very first page. In fact, I couldn't put it down. Author David L. Dudley has a talent for making the reader feel as if she is right there witnessing the atrocities of the era. The images were so vivid, and the characters were so believable. With each chapter, I just had to know what would happen next. Although the bittersweet ending brought me to tears, I will remember this book for a long time to come.

Highly recommended for mature young adult readers and adults interested in historical fiction. This fast-paced and compelling book explores justice, race relations, and what it means to be free. This would be an excellent pick for a book club as well. NOTE: This book includes graphic depictions of abuse which may not be appropriate for younger readers.

Details: Cy in Chains by David L. Dudley. Advance reading copy published by Clarion Books in 2013. 336 p. ISBN: 978-0-547-91068-0 NOTE: I received a free ARC from the publisher in exchange for nothing.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Book Review: 'Guest of Honor' by Deborah Davis

✰✰✰ Is it possible for a simple family dinner to change history? That’s exactly what happened in 1901 when President Theodore Roosevelt, also known as TR, invited Booker T. Washington to dine with the First Family. TR had a habit of combining business and dining, and he was the first president to do so. When he found himself pressed for time, TR simply did what he always did; he invited Booker T. to dinner.

While the dinner itself was quite unremarkable, the president had set a precedent. It was the first time an African American had been invited to dine at the White House. The negative press that followed triggered a political firestorm that would impact both men for decades.

The Bottom Line: This quick read features a little known event in American history. Told in short chapters, readers of biographies will enjoy the comparison between the two men. One was born into privilege while the other was born into slavery; yet, their lives mirrored one another. Together they formed a political alliance that would benefit each.

Guest of Honor is a fascinating look back at a time when slavery had ended, but social slavery persisted. Recommended for history buffs and those interested in race relations. This book includes several pages of black and white photographs and illustrations.

Book Club Notes: As a group, we noted that this book is an engaging read; it would be a great addition to high school and college history classes. Also, it was a good choice for Black History Month. It was interesting to discuss the similarities and differences between TR and Booker T. Also, while times have changed since this event took place, we took a look at race relations then and now. Overall, the book received a high rating of 4.5 on a scale from 1 - 5; there was so much to talk about. Highly recommended for book clubs interested in history and episodic history. Book discussion leaders can find a reading guide with discussion questions at Simon & Schuster.

Details: Guest of Honor: Booker T. Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, and the White House Dinner That Shocked a Nation by Deborah Davis. Paperback published by ATRIA Books in 2012. 320 p. ISBN: 978-1-4391-6982-7