Saturday, December 31, 2011

Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder

The boys and I spent the later part of this summer and fall slowly reading Little House on the Prairie. I was putting Penelope to bed a lot of the nights while Ben read to the boys so it took a while. Now that she goes to bed fairly quickly, we quickly finished Little House on the Prairie a couple of months ago. I seem to be consistently running about two posts behind on my blog, but I’m finally finding time to write this review!

Little House on the Prairie was given to me by my Great-Grandma Kile on my eighth birthday and was one of the most beloved books of my childhood. I read it so many times that it is a very tattered worn copy that is falling apart when I now read it to my children.

My sons are five and three and the loved listening to Little House on the Prairie. The three-year old did have some attention problems when the pictures were few and far between on some chapters, but the action always soon roped him back in.

The beginning of the book is the Ingalls family journey from Wisconsin to the prairies of Kansas. The journey is arduous, but also a great adventure. Jack the dog has a nail-biting adventure of his own, which left my kids in tears one night, but very happy another. Once they arrived in Kansas, Pa found the perfect spot to build their little log cabin on the prairie. The detail on how exactly the home was built including the stable, roof, chimney, and digging of the well intrigued my boys. I think Kile is ready to build his own cabin on the prairie.

The adventures continue while they are building the cabin and after they make it a home. They meet a bachelor neighbor named Mr. Edwards. Ma does not approve of his rough ways, but Laura takes an instant shine to him. Mr. Edwards helps Pa with putting the roof on the cabin and Pa helps him with his place. My favorite chapter of the book (and one of the boys’ as well) is “Mr. Edwards Meets Santa Claus.” After much rain, the Ingalls girls are told that Santa Claus will not be able to make it to their place for Christmas. Mr. Edwards meets Santa Claus in Independence and brings the Ingalls gifts over the flooded river to surprise them for Christmas. Even Ma’s heart is melted towards Mr. Edwards as he relates his journey and he makes Laura and Mary’s day complete. It is wonderful how the spirit of Christmas can be found in having a tin cup of your own. This chapter alone is one of my favorite Christmas stories.

Little House on the Prairie gives a view of the Native Americans as white settlers viewed them at the time. Although Pa seems more open minded then Ma, he is technically squatting on Indian reservation land that he has no right to be on. I never really thought about this when I was a child. After such comments in the book as “The only good Indian is a dead Indian,” I tried to give the boys a more enlightened views of Native American/Settler relations. I told them how the Native Americans were here first and the settlers took the land away and there was much fighting involved. That didn’t stop the boys from playing, “The Indians are going to attack!!” later that day. I tried!

It was an amazing life the settlers lived on the prairie. When the Ingalls family comes down with an illness and all pass out in their home, they are lucky that a passing Indian doctor (Dr. Tann) is able to help them to survive. I think it is interesting that Dr. Tann is actually an African American doctor. It is interesting to read about fascinating African Americans of the 19th century. A deadly prairie fire, chimney fire, and near fatality in the digging of the well, made one wonder how people survived. As my husband Ben said, many did not.

Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote about the details of her life and I always consider this book to be “non-fiction.” It is in reality historical fiction as Laura changed some facts to make the timeline smoother. The Little House on the Prairie adventures actually took place before Little House in the Big woods in real life and Laura was too little to remember. She supplemented her memories with the memories of Ma and Mary. This book is my 22nd and final book for the Historical Fiction Challenge 2011.

Overall, Little House on the Prairie is a wonderful, enthralling, educational adventure story that is enjoyable for young boys, girls, and their parents.

Book Source: I received this book for my eighth birthday many years ago!

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Best of Me by Nicholas Sparks

The Best of Me is the January pick for my FLICKS Book and Movie Club and is the latest novel by bestselling author Nicholas Sparks.

The Best of Me is the story of Amanda Collier and Dawson Cole. Amanda was a pampered princess of their small Southern town and Dawson was from the wrong side of the tracks. Back in the 1980’s, they were each other’s first love. After learning that Amanda was accepted to Duke, but her parents wouldn’t pay for her to attend if she kept dating Dawson, Dawson broke up with her. They wouldn’t see each other again for twenty-five years. Dawson was soon after involved in a tragic accident and Amanda moved on with her life with marriage and kids. After the death of their mentor Tuck, they both end up back in Oriental North Carolina to say goodbye and rediscover each other.

While I have enjoyed Sparks books in the past (especially The Wedding), I didn’t think this was one of his best. It was immensely readable and the action kept the plot moving, but the plot seemed like a rehash of previous Sparks novels. The overall theme for me seemed to be even if you were in a tragic accident beyond your control and you spent your life trying to make up for it, it was never good enough. That is more than a depressing message. I also guessed the ending before the end and I didn’t like the end.

I never felt like I really liked Amanda or Dawson. I didn’t care as much about their love for each other as I should have.

I also didn’t like how Amanda and Dawson broke up to begin with. I guess I figure if you are that in love, you don’t have to break up so that Mommy and Daddy can pay for you to go to college. I thought that was more than a bit lame. Maybe I am biased since I had to actually work and take out loans to pay for my entire college education myself.

I am also usually against novels where there is an affair or leaving of a spouse and your children. Yet in this case, Amanda has been unhappily married to alcoholic Frank for years. Although they’ve gone to counseling and she’s talked to Frank about the problem, things do not change. I guess I’m all for keeping your family together, but when you have your kids living with an alcoholic, I’m not sure you are doing anyone any favors.

Tuck was an important part of the book, but I didn’t feel that you got to know him that well. I think there should have been more Tuck. I also couldn’t wait to read the letters he left both Amanda and Dawson, but I thought they were a bit of a let-down when you actually got to read them.

Overall, The Best of Me was readable, but I would skip it and read one of Sparks other much better novels such as The Wedding.

Book Source: The Kewaunee Public Library

Winner of Carrie Goes Off the Map by Phillipa Ashley

The winner of Carrie Goes Off the Map by Phillipa Ashley is Leah of The Polliwog Blog.  Leah was chosen using and has been notified via email.  She has one week to respond with her mailing address, otherwise a new winner will be chosen.

Thank-you to Phillipa Ashley for the fantastic guest blog.  Thank-you to Sourcebooks for allowing me to host this giveaway, and thank-you to all who entered.

I still have one giveaway currently going if you check out my right sidebar!

Friday, December 23, 2011

Carrie Goes Off the Map by Phillipa Ashley

Carrie Goes Off the Map is a very enjoyable road trip novel through England. Carrie is two weeks away from marrying her long-time boyfriend Huw, when he drops a bombshell; he is breaking up with her. Carrie had put aside her own dreams of becoming an actress for Huw and had spent the years since graduating from college helping Huw run his family dairy farm.

Suddenly, without a purpose in life, Carrie moves in with her friend Rowena and tries to determine what her next move will be. Rowena tries to cheer Carrie up by planning a European road trip in a vintage VW camper named Dolly. Unfortunately, Rowena is unable to go at the last minute and has found a new companion for Carrie, the handsome Dr. Matt Landor.

Matt is back from his work in Tuman after an unfortunate accident. Commanded to take four months off to rest and get himself back together, he is not sure what he is going to do with his time off. Matt was friends with Huw back at the University, and after meeting Carrie again at a bad moment (it’s a classic moment in the book, I don’t want to ruin it for those who haven’t read it yet!) he is officially intrigued. Together they go on a tour of Southern England and learn how to move on with life. And also learn more about each other.

I really enjoyed this book. At one point, a barber cuts Matt’s hair and says that he looks like a modern Mr. Darcy. There were indeed elements of that classic story in this book with Carrie and Matt meeting again after so many years and having a misunderstanding that sets the two at odds at first. Carrie was much more against Matt than he is against her. Their delightful friction kept me entranced throughout the book.

I also loved the description of the road trip in the campervan. It sounded like a lot of fun. Phillipa Ashley wrote a great guest post for this blog describing her travels in a campervan as part of the research process for this novel. The post is intriguing and if you leave a comment by midnight tonight, you have a chance to win a copy of this great book!

I also really liked an odd thing too, that Huw was a dairy farmer. The descriptions of the mega farm and life on the farm reminded me a lot of life around Wisconsin, aka Dairyland USA. It made me realize that things really are not that different between the United States and England. It was funny that Huw was considered quite a catch as he was a rich farmer, which is the same as some of the farmers in my county who are millionaires. Family farms are not the same as they used to be anywhere anymore it seems.

Overall, I found Carrie Goes Off the Map to be a delightful book with great characters, romance, and a wonderful journey. Phillipa Ashley has become one of my new favorite contemporary romance authors.

Book Source: Review Copy from Sourcebooks. Thank-you!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

I’d Know You Anywhere by Laura Lippman

All I can say is “wow” after finishing I’d Know You Anywhere. It is a powerhouse of a book, one that I literally could not put down. I’d Know You Anywhere is a riveting suspense thriller that causes one to question your position on the death penalty and the justice system.

Eliza Benedict has returned from England with her family and settled near her hometown in Maryland with her loving husband Peter, her troubled teenage daughter Iso, and her precocious young son, Albie. They seem the picture perfect family (except for troubles with their teenage daughter) until the day that Eliza receives a letter from convicted murderer Walter Bowman.

As a teenager, Eliza was kidnapped by Walter and held captive for weeks. She was also his only victim that was left alive. Eliza has spent her time since trying to stay out of the spotlight and to let no one know her past. Changing her name from Elizabeth to Eliza and taking her husband’s last name helped. But what helped most of all was staying out of the area. After seeing her picture with her husband at a society event in the paper after her return, Walter knows that Eliza is his last chance to get off of death row. His execution by the state of Virginia is eminent, and he plays a game of manipulation with Eliza as his one chance to save himself.

What follows is a riveting story. The novel flashes back and forth from the past to the present. As Walter starts his life of crime in 1985 and kidnaps Elizabeth in the past, in the future Eliza tries to hold her family together and protect her privacy. I found myself wanting to know how the situation ended in 1985 and also what was going to ultimately happen to Eliza and Walter in the present.

Also riveting was the sheer canvas of fascinating characters. Lippman had a wonderful cast of three-dimensional characters that were captivating. Even if I didn’t agree with their motivations or ideas, I could understand where they were coming from. Such characters included Barbara, an activist against the death penalty and Trudy, the mother of one of Walter’s victims. The characters all came alive and seemed like ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.

The crimes itself are every mother’s worst nightmare. It disturbed me to think that such evil could exist in the world and makes me want to lock up my children. To imagine your 13-year old daughter kidnapped from the end of your driveway is horrifying. What was great about this book is that it doesn’t focus on the violence of the crimes, but more on the effects on the people involved.

I’d Know You Anywhere was our book club pick for the Kewaunee Library Book Club in December. Our book club has been on hiatus, but I’m glad it’s going again. Everyone loved the book (except for one person who did not read it and shall remain nameless) and it provided riveting discussion.

As Kathy pointed out at book club, one of the best quotes in the novel is as follows:

“They were well today, but that could end tomorrow. Of course that was true of every happy family. The difference was that the Lerners knew. Having been unlucky once, they could be unlucky again. There was no protection, no quota system when it came to luck. It was like that moment in math when a child learns the odds of heads or tails is always one-in-two, no matter how many times one has flipped the coin and gotten heads. Every flip, the odds are the same. Every day, you could be unlucky all over again.”

A quote I enjoyed (being a Janeite myself) was “No. I shortened my name in high school to avoid . . . complications. Then I met Peter, and we decided to marry, and well, do you know your Jane Austen? Can you imagine what it’s like to be wonderfully close to Elizabeth Bennet, if only on legal documents? It’s pretty much every Janeite’s fantasy.”

This is my second Laura Lippman novel that I have loved this year (after The Girl in the Green Raincoat). I can’t wait to read The Most Dangerous Thing, which is on my shelf taunting me.

Overall, I’d Know You Anywhere by Laura Lippman is one of the best books I’ve read this year and will definitely be on my “top ten” list for the year. I can’t say enough good things about it and I feel like I’m not describing it as great as it was. Just believe me and pick up a copy for yourself! As Stephen King states, I’d Know You Anywhere is “the best suspense novel of the year.”

Book Source: Review Copy from HarperCollins Publishers. Thank-you!

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Matched by Ally Condie (audiobook)

Title: Matched

Author: Ally Condie
Read by: Kate Simses
Publisher: Penguin Audio
Length: 8 CDs (unabridged)
Source: Kewaunee Public Library

In the future, the world has been perfectly engineered to end all violence and prolong life and happiness. Everything is rigidly controlled by the Society from the food that is eaten to the spouse chosen for each individual. Cassia has chosen to be “matched” with the perfect spouse chosen for her rather than to remain single. She is more than a little surprised at the match banquet to discover that she has been matched with her childhood friend, the handsome Xander. Cassia has always trusted the Society, but the morning after the match when she goes to view her match’s data card, Ky Markham’s face flash up rather than Xander’s. Ky also goes to school with Cassia. A Society official tells Cassia that is was a mistake by the society, but as Cassia’s dying grandfather implores her, Cassia starts to wonder.

Is the Society always right? Can you wonder about a different future than the one plotted by the society?

Matched has been on the top of my “to-read” list for the past year. I was lucky enough to be able to review the second novel in the series (Crossed) and decided I better listen to book one, Matched, first. I really enjoyed listening to this novel. Reader Kate Simses has a voice that sounds like a teenage girl and it very much sounded to me as if Cassia was narrating her life story to me.

Matched is a young adult dystopian novel in the same vein as The Hunger Games. While The Hunger Games focused on the action of the games, Matched focuses more on love and the love triangle of Cassia, Ky, and Xander. I enjoyed the love story and think that it would appeal to my FLICKS Book and Movie Club members. The action picks up in Crossed.

As I listened to Matched, I was reminded a lot of 1984 by George Orwell. The novel even referenced a particular scene at the end of 1984 in a conversation between Ky and Cassia where they promise never to break under torture and give each other up. Like 1984, the repressive society tells the citizens that there is an endless nameless war that they are winning on the fringes of society. The people are treated as sheep or cogs in the society machine that are always monitored and watched. They must fulfill their role in the society, or the society gets rid of the malfunctioning piece.

Overall, I really enjoyed Matched. It was a great start to a new series and definitely has me interested. I enjoyed the love story and young adult reimagining of 1984.

Matched is my fourteenth item for The Audiobook Challenge 2011.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Charles Dickens by Jane Smiley (Review and GIVEAWAY!)

I am a fan of the Penguin Lives series. I own a copy of Jane Austen by Carol Shields and was more than happy to be asked to review Charles Dickens by Jane Smiley (and James Joyce by Edna O'Brien). The Penguin Lives series is a set of books where famous current authors examine the lives of famous past authors. This leads to insightful reads that give you the highlights of the authors’ lives and works, without becoming tedious lengthy tomes. Jane Smiley is the author of the Pulitzer Prize winning author of A Thousand Acres (which I read by in the 1990’s long before this blog).

I love Charles Dickens and have enjoyed reading several of his novels in the past and also watching countless screen and stage productions of his works. Smiley presents Dickens as the father of Victorian literature (and who can argue that point?) and the most famous English author besides Shakespeare (ahem, Jane Austen?). “Nevertheless, between December 1, 1833, when his first piece ran in the Monthly Magazine, and November 9, 1838 when Oliver Twist was published in three volumes, Charles Dickens had become the most important literary figure of his day, the first Victorian novelist.” She writes the book from a great point of view, the point of Charles Dickens as he becomes an author with details of his traumatic childhood past only becoming apparent as he grew older and started to explore his past in his writing. Smiley also explores each of his novels; the plot, the process in writing the novel, and the critical and popular reception of the novel. From The Pickwick Papers to the unfinished The Mystery of Edwin Drood, it was fascinating.

Charles Dickens was an incredibly gifted artist with a life that seemed to be a stuff of legends, or one of his novels (which parts of it were included in many of his novels). This book gave me a good overall view of the man, but also included many tidbits that I didn’t know. I didn’t realize that Dickens was also an amateur actor. While he didn’t become a famous actor as a young man, he used his acting abilities to entertain his friends and also to create the characters in his novels. I found his process to be fascinating. His children reported in later years that he would speak in strange voices in front of a mirror and then would rush back to his desk and furiously write. Later in life, he used his acting abilities to his advantage and had reading tours for the last ten or fifteen years of his life where he would read and perform passages from his books on stage. What I wouldn’t give to have been in an audience listening to Charles Dickens read from A Christmas Carol. As Smiley states, “That appropriating, mimicking, and delighting in the plentiful varieties of the English speech was one of Dicken’s signal traits, all of his acquaintances agreed upon, and he was perfectly alive to how speech and characteristic action revealed character.”

Dickens love life was also fascinating. He had a four year “obsession” with his first love Maria Beadnell, but was unable to marry her due to opposition from her family. Hilariously when he met her in later years, he found her to be fat and talkative and therefore created an annoying character in her image in Little Dorrit. He then shortly thereafter married Catherine Hogarth. This marriage was an unhappy one that also produced ten children. He seems to have liked Catherine’s sisters rather than her. Catherine’s sisters Mary and Georgina lived with them at various points in their marriage to help with their children. Some of my favorite passages in this book were where author Jane Smiley let her thoughts be known on how Dickens treated his wife Catherine. One such passage is as follows. “Catherine was pregnant again, with the Dickenses’ eight child, sixth son. As Frederick W. Dupree notes, ‘To his more and more open dismay, she continued to bear him children at brief intervals. . . ‘ The modern reader must wonder how he expected her to stop bearing these children, but nineteenth century sources don’t engage substantively with the harder dilemmas of reproductive rights and choices.” After separating from his wife in 1858, Charles Dickens had a long term relationship with actress Ellen Ternan until his death. There seems to be some debate on whether they were lovers or not . . . I tend to think they were.

I was also fascinated by Charles Dickens philanthropy. In 1839, Dickens met Angela Burdett-Coutts, a wealthy heiress. Together they worked on projects to benefit the needy. As Dickens had been a poor boy with his father in debtors’ prison, working in a blacking factory, he uniquely understood the problems. Unlike other authors of his era, Dickens was a self-made rich man that had lived on the other side. He was also a great walker and liked to walk around the depths of London, seeing the other side of life. He brought his social message into his novels. Oliver Twist explored the underworld of London for a poor boy, Bleak House explored the broken legal system in Britain, Little Dorrit explored the world of debtor’s prison, etc. Dickens pointed out situations that needed to be fixed and that perhaps people in the other classes at that time were not even aware. It makes for a fascinating portrayal of British Victorian society when one reads them our modern perspective. No one was above Dickens critique or use as characters in his novels including friends.

Overall, I found Charles Dickens by Jane Smiley to be a fascinating, succinct portrayal of Dickens life and works. I recommend it to all who would love to learn more about this famous, beloved author, but don’t want to read an in-depth, lengthy analysis.

Interested in Victorian authors? I just posted the sign-up for a Victorian Challenge 2012. As I read this book, I realized that Charles Dickens 200th birthday is in February 2012. Therefore in February, we will focus our challenge on Charles Dickens. I’m going to read Oliver Twist as I must admit I have never read it!

Giveaway Details

Penguin books has graciously offered a giveaway of one copy of Charles Dickens by Jane Smiley and one copy of James Joyce by Edna O'Brien.

If you would like to win both of this books please leave a comment about what intrigues you about the the books, Charles Dickens, James Joyce, or this review of Charles Dickens by Jane Smiley.

As part of your comment, you must include an email address. If I can't find a way to contact you I will draw another winner.

For an additional entry, blog about this giveaway or post it on your sidebar. Provide a link to this post in your comment.

I will be using (or a monte carlo simulation in excel) to pick the winners from the comments.

This contest is only open to US and Canadian residents (Sorry!).

No P.O. Boxes.

The deadline for entry is midnight, Friday December 30th.

Good luck!

Winner of Merry Christmas Stories by Jeff R. Spalsbury

The lucky winner of an autographed review copy of Merry Christmas Stories by Jeff R. Spalsbury is traveler.   Traveler was chosen using and has been notified via email. Traveler has one week to respond with her mailing address. If I don't hear from her within that time frame,  new winner will be chosen.

Thank-you to TLC book tours for allowing me to be on this tour, author Jeff R. Spalsbury for writing great stories and sending me this copy of the book, and all of you who entered the giveaway. 

I still have one giveaway currently going . . . and will be adding another shortly so stay tuned!!

Monday, December 12, 2011

Victorian Challenge 2012 Sign-up

I’m trying something new this year on Laura’s Reviews, a Victorian Challenge. I hosted the All About the Brontes Challenge in 2010 and greatly enjoyed it. Last year I had a newborn baby girl, and with her I had three children ages four and under so I took a year off! In October I opened up a survey to readers of this blog to determine whether I should bring back All About the Brontes or a new challenge. It was determined from the poll and the comments that most people were looking for a new challenge in which the Brontes were included, but other authors could also be explored. A Victorian Challenge won the poll by a slim margin, and I look forward to a new challenge.

For the Victorian Challenge, we will focus on the reign of Queen Victoria from 1837 to 1901. We will count books that were written by Victorian authors during this time period, books set during the Victorian age, or books about a Victorian author, history, manners, architecture, Queen Victoria etc. Also besides reading books, short stories, audiobooks and movies will also be accepted. The sky is the limit; I would love to make this a true celebration of all things Victorian.

I would also like to challenge myself to have one Victorian author to focus on for each month of 2012. I will post something about that author each month and will read, listen, or watch something related to that author as well. Fellow challenge goers can join me if they would like, or can take the challenge in any direction that they choose. I had a poll in November to help pick the twelve Victorian authors readers of this blog were most interested in focusing on and the following authors were picked:

January: The Bronte Sisters

February: Charles Dickens

March: Robert Louis Stevenson

April: Emily Dickinson

May: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

June: George Eliot

July: Oscar Wilde

August: Anthony Trollope

September: Elizabeth Gaskell

October: Mark Twain

November: Lewis Carroll

December: Louisa May Alcott

I was part of a great Victorian Challenge in 2009. If you need ideas for books you would like to explore, take a look at this site.

Challenge Details

1. The Victorian Challenge 2012 will run from January 1st to December 31st, 2012. You can post a review before this date if you wish.

2. You can read a book, watch a movie, or listen to an audiobook, anything Victorian related that you would like. Reading, watching, or listening to a favorite Victorian related item again for the second, third, or more time is also allowed. You can also share items with other challenges.

3. The goal will be to read, watch, listen, to 2 to 6 (or beyond) anything Victorian items.

4. Please sign-up by posting your blog entry on the number of items and what items you would like to do for this challenge below in Mr. Linky (Don't just post your blog's URL). Don't worry, you can do different things than you have listed. I myself am not always good at sticking to lists! 

5.  You can still join even if you do not have a blog.  Just post the title of the book you read (movie you watched, etc.) in the comments along with your thoughts on the item to promote discussion.

6. I will put up a post each month with Mr. Linky on it for posting your reviews. Look at the right sidebar for the latest link.

7. Enjoy!

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Mr. Billy Saves St. Nicholas Day

As a parent, it is hard to find good music for the kids that doesn’t make me want to tear my ears off instantly or that will take its time to slowly drive me insane. Ben and I are always on the lookout for good music that is enjoyable for the kids as well as for adults. We were pleased to discover Mr. Billy at Thomas the Tank Engine day at the National Railroad Museum in the summer of 2010. We saw him again at Thomas this past summer and he also had a concert at our local Kewaunee library.

The boys loved seeing Mr. Billy live. They not only enjoy his music, but he gets the kids involved in the production by playing instruments, having bubbles, etc. I also like that his music is a family affair with his son on drums and his daughter playing a variety of instruments.

The boys (and girl) love to listen to Mr. Billy’s CDs. They have his CD Batteries Not Included memorized. Their particular favorite song is “Something Fishy.” It is such a catchy tune that Ben and I find ourselves singing it around the house. They also have Big Pumpkin, Mr. Billy’s Halloween CD memorized. It is great Halloween music for kids, it is not scary, but enjoyable Halloween tunes. The boys particularly like to sing along with “Big Pumpkin” and “Melvin the Skeleton.”

And that leads me to my story about how Mr. Billy saved St. Nicholas Day. St. Nicholas Day is on December 6th and celebrates the feast of the Catholic Saint Nicholas who is the basis for our modern day Santa Claus. Growing up in downstate Michigan, I had never heard of St. Nicholas Day, but I soon discovered it when I went off to college at Michigan Technological University in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. My roommate and many students up there are from Wisconsin (with a few like my husband from Minnesota) where St. Nicholas day is celebrated as a sort of precursor to Christmas. Children leave their boots or stockings out the evening of the 5th and St. Nicholas fills them with candy and small presents in the night.

As the boys love Mr. Billy so much, I ordered his newest CDs Rock and Roll Railroad and Rockin’ All Over the World from Mr. Billy himself for St. Nicholas Day gifts. I also ordered Mr. Billy’s Christmas CD, It’s Christmas Everywhere. It’s Christmas Everywhere was on backorder, but Mr. Billy himself made sure that the boys got their music on time by making a trip to Luxemburg (the Wisconsin village, not the small European country) to drop off the CDs to my husband this past Monday. I was surprised and pleased at how Mr. Billy went the extra mile to make sure the kids had a special day.

On the morning of the 6th, the first thing Kile noticed in his boot was Mr. Billy’s Rockin’ All Over the World which he then wanted to listen too while he made his way through the rest of the items in his boot. The boys promptly listened to the rest of the CDs yesterday and are thrilled to have new Mr. Billy CDs to memorize.

My husband Ben particularly loves Rock and Roll Railroad. It has a hard rock undercurrent throughout that Ben (and myself) enjoyed. The boys LOVE trains and they love an entire album with train themed songs. Rockin’ All Over the World matched the summer library program from 2011. Kile and Danny instantly recognized many of the tunes they had heard Mr. Billy sing at the library from the album and really enjoyed it. They also like It’s Christmas Everywhere, particularly “Winter in Wisconsin” as it mentioned nearby Green Bay and their home state of Wisconsin. It will be interesting to see as we listen to these CDs more, which songs will become favorites.

While Mr. Billy is from the nearby Green Bay area, he tours across the country during the summer. Check out his webpage for more details, and check out his music. It is music that is not only enjoyable for kids, but for their parents as well.

Also leave a comment if about St. Nicholas Day and/or children’s music. Do you celebrate it? Have you found good music for kids that is enjoyable for adults as well?

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

From Road Trip to Fiction: Writing Carrie Goes Off the Map by Phillipa Ashley (and GIVEAWAY!)

I am happy to have author Phillipa Ashley as a guest on Laura's Reviews today talking about her new novel, Carrie Goes Off the Map. I posed the following question to Ms. Ashley and got a very entertaining guest blog response.

 From road trip to fiction, what about your research trip made it into the book and what was left behind?

I think the old ’iceberg rule’ holds true. You only really use a tiny fraction of the research you’ve done in the finished book. Even with a contemporary novel, it’s very easy to get carried away with dumping knowledge into scenes and that holds up the pace of the story for the reader.

On saying that, my road trip in South West England in a vintage VW campervan trip did made a big difference to the book, both in terms of atmosphere and plot. I’m convinced that if I hadn’t actually sampled such a journey myself, the book would not be the one it is now.

I’d actually started the draft before I went on the trip and had a good grip on the characters and an idea of where the plot was heading, but I knew it would be so much better and more fun to actually experience the campervan lifestyle.

VW campervans have iconic status in the UK. You see them rattling down the motorway, adorned with bright colours and surfboards on the roof, heading for the beaches of Devon and Cornwall. I chose a VW van for Carrie’s journey because it was quirky and individual, like the characters. The van also seemed the perfect vehicle for bringing Carrie up close and personal with her own emotions, challenges and goals in life - and of course, with the gorgeous but infuriating Dr Matt Landor.

I’d been camping with my husband as a student, but this trip was to be the first time we’d stayed in such a small vehicle without technology, home comforts or a bathroom. Not a problem, I thought, I can rough it and camping out under the stars always looks so idyllic...

There was only once slight concern. Carrie and Matt travel in high summer but we needed to take the trip in March!

In early spring, the UK can be reasonably mild, with daffodils are in bloom and lambs in the fields but it can just as well bring thick snow, gales and lashing rain! Plus we were heading for the north coast of Devon, to a stunning campsite that was exposed to the full force of nature. In the end it was fine every day – but boy, was it cold. We definitely had to snuggle up to keep warm, with only the canvas roof between us and the elements.

I thought carefully about Carrie’s itinerary because it had to reflect her emotional journey after she loses everything – her fiancĂ©, her job, her home, self esteem and belief in happy endings. So she starts off by throwing away her engagement ring, feeling bitter and cynical and with no real sense of direction.

In our five day trip, there wasn’t time to do the whole route that Matt and Carrie take, but I had already been to the other main novel locations including St Ives, an old fishing village in Cornwall and the Minack Theatre, an amazing open air amphitheatre carved out of the cliffs. I used North Devon, where we took the campervan, the first place that Carrie and Matt stop. It’s a big surfers’ hang out as you’ll find out from the novel.

Other experiences made it into the book. What a shock it was to take wheel of a 40 year old van! The driving made for some fun scenes and actually provided the idea for a major turning point in the novel. The cramped conditions were ‘interesting’ and I realised the van didn’t have physical space for one scene I had in mind... as you’ll read.

I also learned a valuable lesson: never let research take precedence over the characters. I had planned to have a rescue at sea in the book and so I arranged a visit to an RAF Search & Rescue base in Devon. The visit was thrilling, we saw the SAR helicopter landing and I got to sit in the pilot’s seat and interview one of the crew. But when I’d finished the draft I realised the scene didn’t really fit in, no mater how much I wanted it there, so I deleted it. It stung to cut out all those words and rewrite but I'm so glad I did.

The story always comes first and I can always save that research for a new book!

Carrie Goes Off The Map

ISBN: 9781402241451
By: Phillipa Ashley
Published: 06 Dec 2011

"Wonderfully romantic and funny... fulfills all the best fantasies, including a gorgeous, humanitarian hero and a camper van!"

-Katie Fforde, UK Best Selling Author of Love Letters

Carrie lets her best friend talk her into a scenic European road trip as the perfect getaway from a nasty breakup. Unexpectedly along for the ride is the gorgeous Matt Landor, MD, who sorely tests Carrie's determination to give up men altogether. Careening through the English countryside, these two mismatched but perfectly attuned lonely hearts find themselves in hot pursuit of adventure and in entirely uncharted territory.

Giveaway Details

Sourcebooks is going to send one lucky winner a copy of Carrie Goes Off the Map by Phillipa Ashley.

If you would like to win a copy of  Carrie Goes Off the Map please leave a comment about what intrigues you about the novel or this guest blog.

As part of your comment, you must include an email address. If I can't find a way to contact you I will draw another winner.

For an additional entry, blog about this giveaway or post it on your sidebar. Provide a link to this post in your comment.

I will be using (or a monte carlo simulation in excel) to pick the winners from the comments.

This contest is only open to US and Canadian residents (Sorry!).

No P.O. Boxes.

The deadline for entry is midnight, Friday December 23rd.

Good luck!

Monday, December 5, 2011

Merry Christmas Stories by Jeff R. Spalsbury (and GIVEAWAY!)

 I am a great fan of short stories. I love that particular form of fiction and I actually like some authors’ short stories better than their longer novels (Hemingway and Faulkner in particular). Christmas short stories are a particular favorite of mine. I have a dog-eared children’s book of Christmas short stories that I used to read each year as a child during the Christmas season. As an adult I’ve loved revisiting Louisa May Alcott and O. Henry’s short stories during the holiday seasons. With this background in mind, I was very happy to review a short story collection, Merry Christmas Stories by Jeff R. Spalsbury this holiday season.

Merry Christmas Stories is an enjoyable collection of holiday stories in the vein of my favorite Christmas sentimental short story writers, O. Henry and Louisa May Alcott. The collection contains twenty-five short stories that range in genre from romance, detective stories, ghost stories, science fiction, family, road trip, etc. In general the stories are heart-warming stories about personal redemption, finding true love, or the lonely finding someone with whom to spend their Christmas.
I enjoyed all of these stories, but I think my favorites were “Tiny and the Bear,” “The Last S-2,” and “My Christmas Ghost.” “Tiny and the Bear” is a story about a father and a son that help out troubled travelers on Christmas Eve, but it has a great twist at the end. “The Last S-2” is a sci-fi story. I thought it was very a very unique Christmas story about a robot that is given an assignment to raise a colony of children and teach them about the first Christmas. “My Christmas Ghost” is about a man who finds love with a ghost. I always love a good ghost story.

Overall, Merry Christmas Stories is an entertaining collection of Christmas stories that will warm your heart and appeal to the romantic in all.

I reviewed Merry Christmas Stories as part of the TLC Book Tours. For a complete listing of stops on this tour, check out this link.

Book Source: A signed copy from the author

Giveaway Details

I am going to send one lucky winner my review copy of Merry Christmas Stories that is signed by the author.

If you would like to win a copy of Merry Christmas Stories by Jeff R. Spalsbury please leave a comment about what intrigues you about the novel.

As part of your comment, you must include an email address. If I can't find a way to contact you I will draw another winner.

For an additional entry, blog about this giveaway or post it on your sidebar. Provide a link to this post in your comment.

I will be using (or a monte carlo simulation in excel) to pick the winners from the comments.

This contest is only open to US and Canadian residents (Sorry!).

No P.O. Boxes.

The deadline for entry is midnight, Monday December 12th.

Good luck!

Winners of Lady Sophie's Christmas Wish

The two lucky winners of Lady Sophie's Christmas Wish are Sophia Rose and Suko of Suko's Notebook.  Both winners have been notified via email and have one week to send me their mailing addresses or new winners will be chosen.  Both winners were chosen using  Congrats to both!  I hope they enjoy the book as much as I did.

Thank-you to Grace Burrowes for the great guest blog, Sourcebooks for providing the giveway copies, and for all who read the post and entered the giveaway.

I have more great giveaways coming up this week so stay tuned!!

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Lady Sophie’s Christmas Wish by Grace Burrowes

Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is my favorite Christmas novel, but my secret favorite genre of Christmas novels is the regency Christmas romance. I read at least one each year, although sometimes I have a hard time finding them at the store or library. I was more than a little excited to be able to review Lady Sophie’s Christmas Wish by Grace Burrowes.

Vim has traveled around the world to try to forget an unpleasant Christmas memory. After receiving letters detailing his aunt and uncle’s decline, he is finally traveling home this Christmas to visit. At least he starts to travel home, but is stuck in London due to a huge snowstorm. He helps out a young woman with a crying infant at an inn, only to discover that the baby has been abandoned and the woman knows nothing about children.

Putting his knowledge about babies (obtained from helping with his younger half-siblings) to use, Vim accompanies the young woman, Sophie home. They are trapped together alone through the snowstorm raising a young baby. Romance blossoms, but both are not quite being truthful to each other. Especially as Sophie is a Lady and Vim is a Lord. Once Sophie’s three elder brothers arrive, Sophie and Vim have to understand the past and themselves before they can move on to the future.

I thought Lady Sophie’s Christmas Wish was a good Christmas romance novel. It was very romantic and it kept me guessing throughout. What exactly was Vim’s secret? How will the two get back together? I also always love a good story with an abandoned baby being rescued. And a hero that loves children? How can Sophie not love him! It was also great that the Windham family is involved from Grace Burrowes best-selling novel, The Heir. It was great to see favorite characters again, but this story is also a stand-alone novel so one does not need to have read any of the other Windham books.  My only negative was that I had a hard time believing that Sophie would be left home alone in the ducal manor although she is the ripe old age of 27.

Overall, I enjoyed Lady Sophie’s Christmas Wish. It was an enjoyable Christmas regency romance. It is the perfect book to read and relax with when you are stressed out by the holiday season.

Tomorrow (Friday December 2nd) is the last day to enter the giveaway to win one of two copies of Lady Sophie’s Christmas Wish by Grace Burrowes, sponsored by Sourcebooks. Giveaway details are located at this post (see also the right sidebar), but also leave a comment on this post with your email for an extra chance to win. Don’t let this entertaining Christmas romance slip through your fingers!

Book Source: Review Copy from Sourcebooks. Thank-you!

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Heights: Anatomy of a Skyscraper by Kate Ascher

 On our family trip to Michigan a week ago, we passed through Chicago. Although it was hazy, our eyes couldn’t help but be drawn to the impressive and distinctive skyline created by the skyscrapers. It was therefore fitting that the book I brought along with me to enjoy on our journey was The Heights: Anatomy of a Skyscraper by Kate Ascher.

The Heights is a coffee table sized book that is packed full of information about the history, design, construction, maintenance, and future of the skyscraper. It is full of great pictures and graphics. I thought the graphics were particularly well done and a wonderful way for a person to really understand what is going on in the text of the book. From showing how test boring is performed by a geotechnical engineer to how a wind tunnel works, the graphics were fantastic. The graphics are so amazing that my two sons (5 & 3) are also intrigued with this book. They like to flip through and have us read to them about the graphics that particularly intrigue them such as fire safety and construction of the skyscraper. My favorite graphic was actually at the beginning of the book which showed the steady progression of the height of skyscrapers over the past 150 years.
Beyond the excellent graphics, Ascher has a gift of being able to take quite complex topics and write them in a way that is accurate, but easily relatable to anyone.

As an engineer, I was very pleased to see that Ms. Asher pointed out that the design and construction of a skyscraper is very much a team effort. Too often architects end up with all of the glory, while the engineers are left in the shade.

I will admit that when I first received The Heights in the mail, my husband was very enthused and looked through the book before I did. He is a structural engineer (I am a water resources engineer) so it is right up his ally. I let him read this book too to give his opinion. He also thought it was very interesting and also very accurate. While Ben designs buildings himself, his company specializes in curtain wall design. What is a curtain wall? The Heights answers that question for you!

I have worked on sustainable projects in my career and thought that section in this book was very well done. I will admit I really loved the “drainage and sewage” bit on page 116. That is my specialty and I was more than a little disturbed to discover that in Dubai, the buildings have grown faster than the sewage systems. They actually have to deliver the waste from their skyscrapers via waste truck to the wastewater treatment plant. I could hardly believe it! I think they need to hire my firm ASAP to design a better system, preferably with me on the job. Seriously though, I thought it was very strange overall planning to forget about your sewage system.

I also was intrigued with the last section which has the future of skyscrapers. It is a little sad to me that while the skyscraper was an American invention, over the past ten years we have been far surpassed in the construction of skyscrapers by Dubai, Asia, and the rest of the world.

Overall, The Heights was an excellent book about a fascinating topic. The graphics and explanations of the design, construction, and workings of the modern marvel of the skyscrapers are perfect. The Heights is not only technically accurate, but written in a way that anyone with an interest can understand from my three-year old son to his structural engineer father.

I reviewed The Heights as part of the TLC Book Tour. For more stops on this tour, please check out this link.

Book Source: Review copy from the The Penguin Press. Thank-you!

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

A Watershed Year by Susan Schoenberger

 Some novels grab you and don’t let you go until you have finished a marathon reading session. Even afterwards, you find yourself thinking about the novel and wondering about various characters and plot points. A Watershed Year is just such a novel.

I will admit that I initially wanted to read A Watershed Year because of its very cool title. I am a dorky water resources engineer, and one item I do in my job is to draw watershed maps to determine where rainfall will drain once it hits the earth. A watershed is the boundary between two different drainage areas, although in the title to this book, the watershed is the division between the period of Lucy’s life before and after the death of her best friend (and secret love) Harlan.

Although I had my own nerdy reason for initially picking up A Watershed Year based on its wonderful title, I found myself soon swept into Lucy’s life. The book begins at Harlan’s end. He knows he is at the end of his life although he is only thirty-three and asks Lucy to be with him at the end. When she comes to be with him, she discovers he died before she got there. She grieves for him, but two months after his funeral, she starts to receive monthly inspirational, informative, and confessional emails from Harlan that outline his love for Lucy when it was too late and also explain past decisions.

The book moves on in Lucy’s life, but also flashes back to how they first met as students and ended up as professors together at the same college. Harlan was engaged for most of their relationship until he contracted cancer. Lucy and Harlan never seemed to be on the same page for having their relationship work out.

Lucy tries to move on with her life by becoming what she has always dreamed of becoming, a mother. She adopts a 4-year old boy, Mat, from Russia, but the adoption is put into jeopardy when his father arrives stating that he never signed the papers to give Mat up. Will Lucy get her happy ending?

I loved this book, the characters, the setting, and the story. Although the emails from Harlan were reminiscent of the letters after death in P.S. I Love You; it was still a wonderful and unique story. Lucy was a wonderfully complicated character that I wanted to sit down and have coffee with. I loved her friends and her family. Her problems and life seemed very realistic. I liked how the book did not turn itself into a starry eyed fantasy that Lucy would instantly find love after Harlan’s death, or that Mat would be an angelic boy. Her adoption of Mat and trying to cope with his behavior was very believable to me as a mother of three. Love in all of its complications was portrayed in a wonderfully nuanced way in A Watershed Year. I also enjoyed that the story was about a thirty-something year old woman with a career of her own trying to find her second chance at happiness.

I also loved the timeframe that this story was set in. Harlan first discovers that he has cancer when he faints as the World Trade Center towers collapse on September 11th. The novel ends shortly after America enters the War in Iraq. It brought back memories of some of our most terrible times as a country, and it was interesting to see the times reflected in Lucy’s life and her ultimate move towards hope. I also thought a side story about Lucy’s brother and sister-in-law and their hard financial times was also very relevant. After the hard financial times of this past three years, it is hard to remember that the early 2000’s also had a downturn in the economy.

Another key part of the story was that Lucy’s professional research was into the lives of saints. There were fascinating tidbits about saints throughout the novel. Lucy was a bit of a saint herself. She sacrificed a year of her life to care for her dying friend Harlan and also adopted an older boy that may have been left in the orphanage system to live a life of deprivation. She had her human failings as well – pushing Harlan and not accepting his decision to stop treatments, and not willing to realize that Mat’s father might want to keep his son. As a Catholic who became Catholic later in life, I thought the saint information was riveting, and as a reader, I liked how it played itself out throughout the novel.

Some of my favorite quotes in this novel were related to the saints including:

“If you want to know what the human spirit is capable of doing, read about the life of a saint.”

“Beyond that, small groups devoted themselves to particular saints, supporting shrines and societies that offered hope to people who couldn’t live without it. And those people came week after week, even day after day, to petition, say novenas, move rosary beads swiftly through practiced fingers. They didn’t make the news, even if their prayers were answered, but that never stopped them.”

Lucy was very perceptive about people including her sister-in-law, which inspired her to think another one of my favorite passages.

“But then again she thought, no one sees themselves as others do. The tics the fears, the neediness, the vanity – all of it could be laid bare in one conversation.”

Overall, A Watershed Year is a wonderfully complex novel with great, moving, and realistic characters and a captivating plot. I loved reading this novel, my only complaint was that it had to end. I would love to read more about these characters. The book club questions and interview with author Susan Schoenberger at the end of the novel were also very interesting.

I read A Watershed Year as part of the TLC Book Tour. The complete list of tour stops can be found here.

Book Source: A Review (and signed!) copy from author Susan Schoenberger. Thank-you!

Monday, November 21, 2011

The End of Normal by Stephanie Madoff Mack (audiobook)

The End of Normal is a riveting look into the downward spiral of the Madoff family. Stephanie Madoff Mack is the widow of Mark Madoff, Bernie Madoff’s eldest son that committed suicide two years after the Madoff scandal broke.

The End of Normal details Stephanie’s first meeting with Mark, their dating life, and fairy tale marriage. Stephanie and Mark had a wonderful life with each other and a deep love that only seemed to be threatened by control issues with Mark’s ex-wife. Although Mark came from the uber-rich Madoff family, he made his own wealth by running a successful enterprise in his father’s firm. Mark and Stephanie had a wonderful daughter and were expecting a new son when their world came crashing down.

Mark and his brother Andy sat down with their father to discuss some irregularities at work only to receive a bombshell from their father; he was running a Ponzi scheme and was trying to get rid of the last millions to family and friends before he would be discovered. Mark and Andy left enraged and Mark turned his father in to the authorities later that day.

Although Mark and Andy had nothing to do with Bernie’s Ponzi scheme and had in fact turned him over to the authorities, having the Madoff name became a curse rather than a blessing. Hounded by the press and lawyers, Mark and Stephanie’s marriage started to falter. Mark was also the most hurt by his mother who chose to stay by Bernie’s side at the expense of her sons’ feelings. With their marriage on the mend, Stephanie and her four-year old daughter are at Disney World when the unthinkable happened.

The End of Normal was a fascinating book to listen to at times, but also a very hard book to listen to at other times. Stephanie Madoff Mack read her own work in the audiobook, which gave it the personal touch, but also made it hard to listen to during emotional events. One could hear the crack in Mack’s voice like she was doing all she could to keep it under control. I give her much credit for reading her own memoir for the audiobook version as it must have been fraught with emotional landmines.  I had a hard time stopping this book as I wanted to keep listening to it all of the way through!

The End of Normal gave me a new view of the Madoff scandal. I read Tangled Webs earlier this year, which gave me the clinical view of what went wrong, but this gave me more of the emotional view of how Bernie Madoff’s crimes tore apart his own family, ultimately resulting in his son’s suicide. It also disturbed me how in our society today, a person can be literally hounded to their death. I think Mark Madoff thought he would be helping his family by his death in hopes that the lawsuits would stop, but they only went on to his children.

I just can’t understand how Bernie Madoff could swindle not only the entire world, but his family as well. What did he think would happen to his own family when his crimes would eventually come to light? It makes one wonder if he had any soul at all.

On a side note, I just listened to Silver Girl by Elin Hilderbrand last month and I’m amazed at how much of that novel actually followed the real life circumstances of the Madoff family. It almost makes me want to read it again!

The only negative I had with The End of Normal is that Mack tried to write about how they were a normal family and not living the jet set life of Bernie and Ruth Madoff. While this worked on some level, it had the major effect that it made me believe she didn’t realize how the other 99% lives. Most people do not have three homes and a nanny, especially after losing your job. I think this comes from living an upper middle class life in New York City for her entire life.

Overall, The End of Normal is a captivating personal account of how the Bernie Madoff scandal affected his son’s family. It really made me think about the witch hunt mentality of our society and how that can extend to innocent bystanders.

The End of Normal is my thirteenth item for The Audiobook Challenge 2011.

Audiobook Source: Review Copy from Penguin Audio. Thank-you!

Friday, November 18, 2011

Victorian Challenge 2012

I had a very scientific poll on this blog last month with the question of what challenge should be on Laura’s Reviews for 2012. I talked about bringing back the All About the Brontes Challenge, or opening it up to new authors. From the comments and poll, I gathered that most people would like to have a broader challenge where the Brontes can be celebrated along with other authors.

The poll results were as follows: Victorian (31%), Gothic Fiction (23%), All About the Brontes (23%), 19th Century Authors (15%), and Women of Suspense (8%). Victorian had a narrow victory, and I am excited to have a new challenge for next year.

I need help from my loyal readers for this challenge. I will post a sign-up in December, but one of my problems is my lack of artistry. I’m an engineer and I’ll admit to appreciating art, but I have an inability to produce beautiful graphics unless they are detailed diagrams of sewers or streams. If any of my artistic readers would like to put together a logo for this challenge, I would really appreciate it.

For the Victorian Challenge, we will focus on the reign of Queen Victoria from 1837 to 1901. I think we will count books that were written by Victorian authors during this time period, books set during the Victorian age, or books about a Victorian author, history, manners, architecture, etc. Also besides reading books, short stories, audiobooks and movies will also be accepted. The sky is the limit; I would love to make this a true celebration of all things Victorian.

I would also like to challenge myself to have one Victorian author to focus on for each month of 2012. I will post something about that author each month and will read, listen, or watch something related to that author as well. Fellow challenge goers can join me if they would like, or can take the challenge in any direction that they choose. I need help choosing these twelve authors. I’m going to post a large poll on my right sidebar with various authors from this time period. Pick the top authors that you would like to see focus on with this challenge! If your favorite Victorian author is not included in the poll, please leave a comment below.

Please leave any comments for what you would like to see in the Victorian Challenge 2012 to make it a fun and exciting challenge. I appreciate all comments and tips. Stay tuned for a sign-up for this challenge to appear in December!

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Betsy-Tacy Treasury by Maud Hart Lovelace

 I had never heard of the Betsy-Tacy series until I started to see reviews pop up on different blogs. I was astonished to discover a series of beloved books for girls that I never discovered as a child. As a great fan of such classic series as Little House on the Prairie, Anne of Green Gables, Nancy Drew, etc., I knew I must rectify this situation. Therefore I was happy to be a TLC tour stop for Harper Collins new edition of The Betsy-Tacy Treasury in order to discover what all of the fuss is about.

The Betsy-Tacy Treasury is the first four of the Betsy-Tacy books: Betsy-Tacy, Betsy-Tacy and Tib, Betsy and Tacy Go Over the Big Hill, and Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown. Included in the book are great forwards by current authors that are also fans including Judy Blume, Ann M. Martin, and Johanna Hurwitz. There are also sections at the end with background about Maud Hart Lovelace, illustrator Lois Lenski, and each of the four books included. I loved all of this information and found it very interesting. Also interesting was the praise at the beginning of the book for Maud Hart Lovelace from such personalities as Anna Quindlen, Meg Cabot, Laura Lippman, Bette Midler, Nora Ephron, Lorna Landvick, etc. In particular, Anna Quindlen stated, “There are three authors whose body of work I have reread more than once in my adult life: Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, and Maud Hart Lovelace.” This is praise indeed!

Was this book truly worthy of all of this praise? I am more than happy to say a very emphatic “YES!” By the end of the first book, I had fallen in love with Betsy Ray and Tacy Kelly and their world in Deep Valley, Minnesota. Deep Valley is the Mankato of Lovelace’s childhood around the turn of the nineteenth century. (For fellow Little House on the Prairie TV series fans, this is the same Mankato that characters from Walnut Grove visit to get trade goods.)

Five-year old Betsy is excited when a new family with lots of children moves into the house across the street. One girl appears to be her age. After a slight misunderstanding, they soon become fast friends and the people of Hill Street and Deep Valley can’t remember a time when Betsy-Tacy were not friends. Soon a new girl moves in to the chocolate house on the way to school, and Tib becomes their fast friend. Betsy wants to be a writer and is full of imaginative stories. Tacy is shy, but loyal and fun. Tib is very matter of fact and also very pretty. The books move through their lives. By book two they are eight, book three they are ten, and book four they are twelve.

What did I like so much about this book? Although the adventures took place long before my childhood, the spirit of their life and adventures perfectly captures the spirit and joy of childhood that does not change through the ages. The wonder of the world and how one street and one city can seem so giant and faraway places like Milwaukee can be viewed with imaginative delight are just how a child views the world. Their adventures playing and making up stories reminded me of the fun I had as a child with my best friend Stephanie and sister Kristi doing very similar things. It was wonderful how Lovelace was able to capture her childhood and to remember what it was like to be a child and to have a fantastic imagination that can make climbing a hill the most exciting journey.

What really brought these books to the next level to me was when in book one, tragedy strikes. Tacy’s baby sister, Bee, dies from a childhood illness. Tacy and Betsy go for a walk and Tacy is very sad about her sister’s death. Betsy tries to cheer her up and talks to her about Bee’s adventures in heaven. “Of course she can see us. She’s looking down right now. And I’ll tell you what tickles Bee. She knows all about Heaven, and we don’t. She’s younger than we are, but she knows something that we don’t. Isn’t that funny? She’s just a baby, and she knows more than we do.”

Betsy brings the death down to the level of a child’s understanding, and is able to make Tacy think of all of the fun that Bee is having in heaven being a big girl and watching out for her family. I found it to be a very moving conversation and quite touching. Betsy and Tacy are the best kind of friends; the kind of friends that can help you out in a moment of crisis and be what you need them to be.

I also really enjoyed how Betsy, Tacy, Tib befriend a little girl (Naifi) from “Little Syria” in Deep Valley in Betsy and Tacy Go Over the Big Hill. They defend her when she is picked on by some rather nasty boys. Tib’s mother (Mrs. Muller) had some wise words to say about it, “I’m glad Tib stood up for that little Syrian girl. Foreign people should not be treated like that. America is made up of foreign people. Both of Tib’s grandmothers came from the other side. Perhaps when they got off the boat they looked a little strange too.”

Overall, The Betsy-Tacy Treasury was a wonderful, delightful series of books that I am very happy to have finally read. They are great adventures of childhood wonder and also have beautiful illustrations. I will definitely be reading these stories to Penelope when she gets older and I’m already planning for making a future trip to Mankato to check out Big Valley. I also want to read the rest of their adventures as they grow into teenagers and beyond! My only complaint is that poor Tib is always left off of the title of the books.

I am counting the Betsy-Tacy Treasury as my 21st historical fiction book this year for The Historical Fiction Challenge 2011. Lovelace’s historical detail brings the world of Mankato circa 1900 to life. The notes at the end of the book also illustrate how much research she did to make sure her memories matched the historical detail.

Book Source: Review Copy from HarperCollins. Thank-you!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Rose Garden by Susanna Kearsley

Eva Ward’s famous actress sister, Katrina, has just died tragically young. Returning to a place they both loved as children, Eva brings Katrina’s ashes to Trelowarth House in the small town of Polgelly in Cornwall, Great Britain. Katrina’s former teenage boyfriend and their family friend, Mark Hallett now owns the family estate and is trying to keep it and its beautiful rose garden solvent.

Eva fights off her depression over Katrina’s death by trying to help Mark and his sister Susan advertise Trelowarth and start a new tea shop that will cater to tourists. An old childhood friend named Oliver has popped back in the scene and is a very attractive man. One day Eva “slips” into another time. She is still at Trelowarth, but it is Trelowarth of the early eighteenth century. At that point, two brothers, Jack and Daniel Butler together with their Irish comrade Fergal live at Trelowarth. They are smugglers and about to get involved in an ill-fated upraising to restore James Stuart to the thrown of England. Eva is unable to control when she slips back and forth between the two time periods, but finds herself falling more and more in love with Daniel Butler. Will Eva be able to find happiness between the two worlds? And will the Butler brothers escape their fate?

I enjoyed this novel. I am a big fan of time travel novels. It always fascinates me on the method of time travel. In this novel, Eva fades away or slips through time only while at Trelowarth at unexpected times. I liked all of the secondary characters too and the setting was described beautifully and vividly. The love story between Eva and Daniel was also very romantic as was the story of love between Mark’s father George, and stepmother Claire.

I liked the ending. There were a couple of surprises that I didn’t catch on to as I read the book that really made it the kind of book I couldn’t put down at the end. I really wanted to see where it was going!

Susanna Kearsley has been compared to Diana Gabaldon, Daphne Du Maurier, and Mary Stewart. These are three of my favorite authors so this naturally intrigued me. With the Cornwall setting I felt shades of Du Maurier and the time slip and subsequent love affair reminded me of Gabaldon. I will be blunt though that while I really enjoyed this book, I didn’t think it was as good as a Gabaldon or Du Maurier novel. It was missing the detail and spark that puts both of those authors on a higher level than most. With that being said, I still thought this novel was wonderful and the next best thing to a new Gabaldon or Du Maurier novel. I will definitely be reading Kearsley’s other novel, The Winter Garden.

I long to visit Cornwall someday. After reading the magnificent novels of Daphne Du Maurier and now Susanna Kearsley, it sounds like a beautiful and unique place. I also want to taste a real Cornish pasty. I lived for six years in the Upper Peninsula (U.P.) of Michigan while obtaining my bachelors and masters degrees at Michigan Technological University. While there I learned the fascinating history of copper mining in the area. Expert miners came from the tin mines of Cornwall. The Cornish left their mark on the area, with the greatest mark of all being the pasty which is now a regional treat. It is basically a meat and potato pie that the men would heat up by holding their shovels over a candle for lunch while in the mines. I cook mine in the oven, but it is a favorite meal in the Gerold household.

Overall, The Rose Garden was a wonderfully imaginative tale with true love, time travel, and a fascinating setting.

Book Source: Review copy from Sourcebooks. Thank-you!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Help by Kathryn Stockett (audiobook)

I read The Help two years ago and loved it. It was one of my top ten reads for 2009. I was excited when my FLICKS Book and Movie Club picked this book for our December read. It was good to revisit a book I loved; although this time I decided to revisit it in a new format, audiobook. I had read several reviews that stated that this was an audiobook not to be missed.

It was a riveting audiobook. Read by Jenna Lamia, Bahni Turpin, Octavia Spencer, and Cassandra Campbell; each of the main characters (Skeeter, Minnie, and Aibileen) has their own distinctive voice and personality. I found myself listening to the audiobook everywhere I could to find out how the story would end. Listening to the audiobook seemed like listening to my favorite characters tell the story in their own words. I loved it. My only complaint was that the ending seemed rather abrupt, more so than when I read the novel. I was ready to listen to even more of the story!

My original review of the novel is located at this link. For a quick summary of the plot, this book takes place in racially charged Jackson, Mississippi during the early 1960’s. Aibileen is an African American woman that works for a young family and takes care of their daughter. She is troubled by the lack of love that Elizabeth displays towards her daughter, and also about the racially charged death of her own son. She gets to know one of Elizabeth’s friends, Skeeter, and together they work towards changing their world. Skeeter is a young white woman who is dissatisfied by her current life and expectations for a female during this era. She does not like how her friend Hilly treats the African American servants and wonders why the woman that raised her, Constantine disappeared right before she graduated from college. Aibileen and Skeeter start to work with different maids to put together their stories anonymously on what life is like as a maid in the segregated South. One of these maids is Minnie. Minnie tells it the way it is, which does not make her a popular maid, although her famous cooking skills make up for it. She tries to raise her kids and deal with an abusive husband, while also trying to keep a job.

The Help is a novel that adapts particularly well to the audiobook format. It is my twelfth audiobook for The Audiobook Challenge 2011 – I have made my goal for the year!

I have yet to see the movie The Help and will probably watch it whenever I can get a copy of the DVD from the library. Have any of you seen the movie? What did you think?

Audiobook Source – The Kewaunee Public Library