Sunday, October 10, 2021

Book Review: 'No Zombies Allowed' by Matt Novak

✰✰✰½ Witch Wizzle and Witch Woddle are planning their annual monster party, but first they need to do some cleaning. As they tidy up, they discover a photo from last year's party. Looking at the photo gives them pause for thought. So they decide it might be best not to invite the zombies, and they put up a sign. As they continues cleaning, more photos reveal other party disasters like the werewolves, skeletons, and ghosts, and more signs follow. Last but not least, let's not forget the witches, but wait a minute. The last photos reveal a surprise that lead Witch Wizzle and Witch Woddle to reconsider and put up one last sign. Will this be the party of the year or a complete disaster? You'll have to find out for yourself because what happens at the party, stays at the party.

The Bottom Line: This humorous book illustrates what happens when everyone is excluded, and the two witches discover that it's more fun when everyone can participate. Colorful watercolors illustrate the antics. Fun seasonal reading for ages 4 - 6.

Details: No Zombies Allowed written & illustrated by Matt Novak. Picture book published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers in 2002. 32 p. ISBN: 0-689-84130-2

Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Book Review: 'Mrs. McMurphy's Pumpkin' by Rick Walton

✰✰✰✰½ Mrs. McMurphy is a sweet lady who lives all by herself on a farm with pigs, cows, and chickens. There's lots to do before Halloween when she finds a large pumpkin with a wicked grin has let itself inside her house. She takes it out, only to find it inside again the next day. Mrs. McMurphy kindly takes it back outside again...and again...and again. When the pumpkin reappears on Halloween, Mrs. McMurphy has a surprise for it that you won't see coming. Check out this frightening tale for some fun seasonal reading.

The Bottom Line: This sweet, but scary picture book with a surprise twist ending is perfect for kids ages 7 - 8 who are just beginning to enjoy a little bit of horror. Illustrator Delana Bettoli created idyllic farm scenes in gouache and acrylic on watercolor paper for this book. Enthusiastically recommended for seasonal reading.

Details: Mrs. McMurphy's Pumpkin written by Rick Walton & illustrated by Delana Bettoli. Picture book published by HarperFestival in 2004. 32 p. ISBN: 0-06-053409-5   

Saturday, September 18, 2021

Book Review: 'Molly's Game' by Molly Bloom

✰✰✰✰½ Molly Bloom spent her life competing, first with her brothers, then on the ski slopes. She was used to living fast and working hard. Eventually, she moved to L.A. and was groomed to be the perfect personal assistant. Whatever was required, she could figure out how to get it. So when her boss decided to host a poker game at his club, The Viper Room, Molly was intrigued. She knew nothing about playing poker, but when she got thousands in tips, she was hooked.

As the game grew, everyone who was anyone wanted an invite, and as the game’s gatekeeper, Molly soon had access to the contact information of Hollywood’s rich and famous. She quickly learned to cater to Hollywood royalty, athletes, and billionaires, and in turn lived the high life. It was a world of privilege, secrets, glamour, and danger.

Follow Molly on her adventures as she reaches new highs and lows. No matter how many times, Molly loses the game, she always comes back with a bigger game and higher stakes until she meets her downfall, a brush with the Russian mob. Will she be able to rebuild her life? Or will she lose everything to a game? Check out this nonfiction book that reads more like fiction to find out for yourself.

The Bottom Line: This is a fast paced read that lets readers escape their current lives and enter (albeit vicariously) the world of (very) high-stakes, underground poker. With unabashed honesty, the author shares the highs and lows of a world most of us will never see. This story of ambition, power, and escape is highly recommended for just about anyone who enjoys stories of the underdog coming out on top. 

P.S. Molly sprinkled handy tidbits of poker wisdom throughout the book. Enjoy!

Book Club Notes: This was the surprise hit of the summer for our book club. We really enjoyed both the book and the movie. On a scale of 1 – 5, with 5 being the highest, the book rated an average of 4.5 stars, and the movie came in with an average of 4.2 stars. If you are looking for an escape from your everyday life, but can’t get away, pick up a copy of Molly’s Game for an entertaining read. Then watch the movie, it picks up where the book left off. You'll find yourself rooting for Molly even when the chips are down.

Details: Molly’s Game: The True Story of the 26-Year-Old Woman Behind the Most Exclusive, High-Stakes Underground Poker Game in the World by Molly Bloom. Paperback published by First Dey Street in 2015. 262 p. ISBN: 978-0-06-283858-2   

Sunday, May 23, 2021

Book Review: 'Julie & Julia' by Julie Powell

✰✰✰ Julie Powell is just your average, bored secretary in New York City. As she approaches her thirtieth birthday, she's feeling extra dumpy. Faced with few prospects and a mother nagging her about her biological clock, Julie is looking for a change. But what?

One night after an especially soul crushing day, Julie whips up a simple potato soup that just happens to be Julia Child's recipe for Potage Parmentier. And just like that, Julie and her husband come up with an idea. Why not cook her way through Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle, and Simone Beck and blog about it? It was a win-win idea. Not only would they get to eat French food, but Julie would learn cooking techniques, and be able to write about it. And so, the Julie/Julia Project was born.

But as with Potage Parmentier, the project wasn't as easy as it sounded. Cooking 524 recipes in one year would prove to be hard work. Julie worked full-time and ingredients were sometimes hard to find. Little by little, people began to read her blog. And despite her use of snarky, foul language, brutal honesty, and some mean spirited comments, Julie began to learn. Not only did she learn about French food, but through taking chances and trying new things, like eggs, she began to grow as a person. The result is humorous a book about being yourself and perseverance.

The Bottom Line: Although the concept is interesting, Powell's liberal use of foul language and whining was difficult to read through.  As she writes about herself, her friends, and her family, Powell seems to have no filter. She  complains throughout the book; and yet there are a few interesting observations and, of course, tantalizing tidbits about Julia and Paul Child before Julia became a celebrity chef.

At the time she worked her way through Julia Child's recipes, blogging was new and perhaps being able to connect with readers near and far was a novelty. Stories about Powell's friends make the book mildly  entertaining. Was the Julie/Julia Project a stunt or was Powell serious about French cooking? No one can say, but the author. Some fans of culinary biographies might enjoy this.

Book Club Notes: Prior to our actual discussion I heard grumblings about this book in particular. While many had previously viewed the movie, which received rave reviews, the book just couldn't compare. First, the language: Powell swears like a sailor. Second, the complaining:  Powell just doesn't seem like a happy person. Third, the project: Sometimes it did indeed sound like a stunt as Powell seemed to lack sincerity. Nevertheless, Powell did hit on a cool idea and had the persistence to complete the challenge she set for herself. As a group we discussed how Powell did seem to be very honest in her feelings, and there appeared to be some personal growth by the end of the book.

While the book was not a hit with us, the movie was enjoyed by all. We agreed that Meryl Streep's portrayal of Julie Child was phenomenal, and Amy Adams was adorable in her role as the author. What made the movie great was that screen time was almost evenly split between Julia Child and Julie Powell. Additionally, the movie was able to highlight similarities between the two women that wasn't so evident in the book. If you are looking for an entertaining & humorous film, check out Julie & Julia. By the way, the food in the film looks yummy, so it's a good idea to have some snacks on hand before you begin viewing.

All in all, our book club discussion was animated and fun. We gave the movie an average rating of 4.25 (on a scale of  1 - 5, with 5 being the highest). The book didn't fair so well with an average rating of only 3.

On a final note, our group has been meeting via Zoom for almost a year now, so technical challenges are few. We still have to work on making sure everyone gets their fair share of time to speak in our shortened meeting though. 

Discussion questions can be found at the Theology of Work Project, LitLovers, and StudyLib

For information about where Powell is now, visit Biography.com 

And those interested in taking a look at the original blog can find it via the Internet Archive WayBack Machine here

Details: Julie & Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously by Julie Powell. Paperback published by Back Bay Books in 2006 and includes a Reading Group Guide. 310 p. ISBN: 978-0-316-01326-0 

Sunday, May 9, 2021

Book Review: 'The Secret Starling' by Judith Eagle

✰✰✰½ From the moment Clara Starling was taken in by her Uncle, her life has been full of routine and gloom. Nothing ever exciting ever happened until the day her uncle dropped her off at a cafe and disappeared. With no other options, Clara heads home to Braithwaite Manor only find an orphan named Peter and his cat. With no adults around to spoil the fun, the children can do whatever they want. Soon their games uncover a worn ballet slipper that takes them on an adventure to London and the Royal Opera House. As Clara begins to uncover information about her parents the duo are chased by villains and uncover a tale of glamour, romance, and murder. With time of the essence, it's up to Clara and Peter to unravel the secrets of the Starling family.

The Bottom Line: Although the beginning was a bit of a slow read for me, the pace picked up to reveal family secrets and twists and turns that kept me turning the pages. Although the final interior images were not available in the advance reading copy, the preliminary sketches were charming. An enjoyable treat for middle grade readers who favor historical fiction about dance and friendship.

Details: The Secret Starling written by Judith Eagle & illustrated by Jo Rioux. Advance reading copy published in 2021. 256 p. ISBN: 978-1-536213652 [NOTE: I received a free copy in exchange for an honest review. This was made possible by the publisher and the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.] 

Monday, April 26, 2021

Book Review: 'Amber and Clay' by Laura Amy Schlitz

✰✰✰✰½ Travel back in time to Ancient Greece through the poetry and prose of Newbery Medal Winner Laura Amy Schlitz. It was a time when people were restricted to the boundaries of class. A time when households owned slaves. Melisto was born into a noble family, but unloved by her mother; while Rhaskos was born to a slave woman, who loved him with all her heart. This girl and boy with nothing in common would someday forge a friendship that would free them both. This is their story told in their voices and in the voices of others like the Greek god Hermes and the philosopher Sokrates. This haunting tale of a wellborn girl and a slave boy illustrates power of friendship and love that knows no bounds.

The Bottom Line: Don't be dissuaded from picking up this book because of its page count; the mix of poetry, prose, and illustrations of archaeological exhibits makes for quick reading. The author deftly transforms the reader into the audience, and the story is like watching a play. Once I started reading, I was transfixed. Very highly recommended for young adults and adult interested in historical fiction, Greek mythology, and supernatural tales of friendship. 

Details: Amber and Clay written by Laura Amy Schlitz & illustrated by Julia Iredale. Advance reading copy published by Candlewick Press in 2021. 544 p. ISBN: 978-5362-0122-2 

[NOTE: I received a free copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. This was made possible by the Early Reviewers Program at LibraryThing. Some interior images were not final at the time this review was written.] 

Monday, April 12, 2021

Book Review: 'A Night to Remember' by Walter Lord

✰✰✰✰½  It was the height of opulence. An era when First Class traveled in style and servants catered to their every whim. Society had never been more confident of its advancements, and the Titanic was a testament to this. At eleven stories high and four city blocks long, she featured the best there was to offer. Her maiden voyage began on April 11, 1912. Just three days later, other ships began reporting sightings of ice. Many would heed those warnings, but so confident was Captain Smith in the Titanic's reputation for being unsinkable, that he ordered the ship to forge ahead at top speed straight into an ice field. Shortly before midnight, they struck an iceberg. What happened in the next few hours would forever change history.

The Bottom Line: At the time this book was published, it had been nearly 40 years since the Titanic had sunk. As the first major written work on the topic at the time, Lord had the rare opportunity to interview over 60 survivors and piece together the final hours of the Titanic. Back in the day, Lord's book climbed the bestseller list and remains the go-to resource on the disaster even today. It is very well researched and detailed. Highly recommended for history buffs and those interested in shipwrecks. Even today the fascination with the Titanic continues, and this book would appeal to anyone wanting to learn more.

Book Club Notes: As we continue to meet virtually via Zoom, we are finally getting the hang of it. Our discussions are more organic with less hesitation, and we are much better are navigating the technology. This was a lively discussion on a timeless topic, the Titanic. Even after 100 years, the event still manages to captivate people. It was an end of an era we will never experience, and it was fun to discuss the extravagance and luxury of the time. We admired the volumes of research author Walter Lord had to sift through to produce a highly readable book. Never again will an author be able to speak to so many survivors. We agreed this book was chock full of details, and as a docudrama, the movie is likely as real as possible in its portrayal of the disaster. Ultimately, this is a survival story, and the individual stories of how each survivor made it onto a lifeboat were varied and fascinating. On a scale of 1 - 5, with 5 being the highest, we rated both the book and the movie and average of 4.75. Both the book and the movie are highly recommended for discussion groups looking for something a little different to tackle. A Night to Remember will transport you back to an era of stunning grandeur.

Discussion questions can be found at LitPlan Teacher Pack & a study guide at CPB

Details: A Night to Remember: The Classic Account of the Final Hours of the Titanic by Walter Lord. Paperback published by St. Martin's Griffin in 2004.182 p. ISBN: 978-0-8050-7764-3