Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Toddler Library Finds

It was only a matter of time before E started taking over the blog. We all knew it would happen, right? Well, I'm not totally handing over the reigns yet, but I'm allowing him to have a new feature that I hope will become a regular posting.

Before summer started, we were in the library about once a week, but not on a consistent basis. Since our local summer reading program, Dig into Reading, began in June, I've made sure that one day a week (usually Mondays or Fridays) is designated as library day, for us to return books, pick out new ones, and pick up his reading program coupons and prizes.

One small irritant about our summer program: I love that birth and up can participate, but the prizes for the little kids are terrible. One sticker for reading 5 books? A coupon to the county fair for 15 books read? He gets in free for being under 4! I get that there are budgets and this program is offered for free, but the lack of imagination is a little irritating. He certainly doesn't understand, but a preschooler will!

I've started letting E pick out a few of his own books, while the attention span lasts, but I've also just been randomly choosing ones. Never know when we'll find a gem, right? Below are a few "old" books -- published years ago -- that the kid has just fallen in love with. 

Sam's Bath by Barbro Lindgren (published 1983)
The Little Train by Lois Lenski (published 1940)
Hop Aboard! Here We Go! by Richard Scarry (originally published 1967)
Truck Stop by Bonnie Dobkin (published 1994)

The transportation books were no surprise, as he loves anything that includes trucks or trains. Truck Stop is actually an older Rookie Reader, but it's perfect for toddlers. Very short text with large illustrations. 

Sam's Bath is part of a small series of Swedish books featuring a little boy named Sam and his dog named Doggie. The dog usually gets in trouble for things Sam makes him do, but other than using the word "dumb" often (I change to "silly"), these have been a big hit with both of us. Lots of repetition and cute pictures. 

These are Elliott approved, so I definitely recommend checking them out if you have a young toddler at home. 

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Mirrored World review

Born to a Russian family of lower nobility, Xenia, an eccentric dreamer who cares little for social conventions, falls in love with Andrei, a charismatic soldier and singer in the Empress's Imperial choir. Though husband and wife adore each other, their happiness is overshadowed by the absurd demands of life at the royal court and by Xenia's growing obsession with having a child -- a desperate need at last fulfilled with the birth of her daughter. But then a tragic vision comes true, and a shattered Xenia descends into grief, undergoing a profound transformation that alters the court of her life. Turning away from family and friends, she begins giving all her money and possessions to the poor. Then, one day she disappears. (Publisher)

I love a good historical fiction novel and especially one centered on a country or time period I don't know a whole lot about. Russia in 1736 fit the bill. I really enjoyed getting a peek into the Russian royal court and the events that surrounded the years the book spanned, without going too deep into the history. Books like this are great, because they encourage further research, if interested, rather than being a timeline. That's why I like historical fiction. 

The pacing was excellent -- moved quickly enough to keep me interested -- but, unfortunately, I really didn't connect with any of the characters. I felt it odd that a secondary character was doing the narrating, rather than Xenia, and though that often works in other books, I feel it created that disconnect here. Dasha definitely was the more rational of the pair, so I guess I do understand why she was the more reliable narrator, however I wanted to feel connected to Xenia and I did not. 

The detailing in everything from outfits worn to the settings and levels of excess the court exhibit was fantastic and showed the beauty of Dean's writing. Though I didn't fall in love with the book, I did very much appreciate the beautiful writing and the historical aspects. 

Thank you to TLC Book Tours for the review copy. You can find the rest of the tour here

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Weekend update: A cabin in the woods

Wasn't there a horror movie called "A Cabin in the Woods" that came out a few years ago? Our cabin was absolutely perfect, so no comparison to the movie, I promise. We rented a cabin outside of Harrisonburg, VA, only a couple of hours away from us, but it seemed like it was in a whole other world!

We were lucky enough to get a property that also had two ponies, a dozen or so chickens, and three adorable baby goats. Not only could we hear the stream rushing across the street, but Elliott was totally entertained by the animals the entire time we were there. We hiked, played in the water, took walks, and the kid slept in every single day. It was fantastic. 

We also visited the Explore More Discovery Museum in downtown Harrisonburg. It was fabulous! Absolutely perfect for preschoolers. Hands down the best museum we've visited with Elliott (and the cheapest). I highly recommend going if you're in the area. 

You should also hit up the coolest playground EVER if you happen to be passing through that area. I've never seen anything quite like Dream Come True Playground. We happened upon it by accident, but stayed for almost an hour. Separate areas for younger and older age groups, hammocks, rock walls, drawing walls, a roadway for scooters, and so much more. There's even a handicap accessible swing for wheelchairs! SO impressed. 

And finally, the biggest peanut butter and honey sandwich ever:

 We're back and I'm ready to get back into the swing of blogging. I have a few great reviews coming up this week, as well as a new feature. Check it out on Wednesday!

I also finally started a Facebook page for this blog. It only took me 6 years! If you enjoy reading the posts, head on over and "Like" me!

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Stargazey Point review

As she's mentally and emotionally working through an intense tragedy, Abby Sinclair heads to Stargazey Point to stay with a trio of octogenarians in their plantation house. She's hoping to find a refuge from her life and that's exactly what she finds. No longer a tourist attraction, Stargazey Point has fallen to ruins, leaving the residents scrambling to make money and the residents tempted to sell their homes to developers. 

What I loved most about this beachy read was the beautiful setting. I grew up in Upstate NY, land of lakes, and currently live outside a major metro area, so when an author writes of a beach setting and does it well, as Shelley Noble very much does, I'm immediately sucked in. The descriptions of the town and it's seaside local had me from the very beginning and transported me to Stargazey Point. 

As the protagonist, Abby was intriguing and emotional. She had a depth to her that a lot of characters in "lighter" reads don't necessarily have and her extreme grief was not only evident from the start, but was able to be transferred to me as the reader. 

I absolutely loved the whole plot point about restoring a carousel and Cab's obsession with staying true to what Stargazey Point was all about. He was an excellent character, as well. 

If you still have a beach trip planned this summer, grab this one to throw in your bag. It was a great read!

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for the review copy. Check out the rest of the tour here.

Friday, July 19, 2013

New YA reads

The Rules of Disappearing by Ashley Elston

When I read the words: "Witness Protection Program" on the cover flap, I was sold. I've always been really intrigued by the whole idea of a program like this and how it works and how families actually survive after having their identities removed and replaced. Elston did an excellent job at creating a main character that felt realistic, with a vulnerability that I can only imagine other teens in this program must feel. 

The story flew by and the ending was kind of an OMG moment for me and that doesn't happen nearly enough. Highly recommended for a quick read this summer. 

Far, Far Away by Tom McNeal

This one was a tad out of my comfort zone, but so many bloggers were loving it that when it showed up at my door I knew I had to take a chance. It's a quirky fantasy with great main character and the added bonus of having the Grimm fairytales play a huge role. Who doesn't love Grimm?!

Jeremy hears the voice of one of the Grimm brothers, obviously setting him apart from his peers and making for a very interesting twist. The plot is both creepy AND whimsical (not that the combo makes any sense), and secondary character Ginger is really the star of the show. She's awesome in an often terrible way. 

This one won't be for everyone, but I encourage you to give it a try. Follow my lead and step outside your comfort zone!

Since You Asked by Margaret Goo

Snark, romance, and cultural all crammed into one book. I laughed my way through this entire book in one afternoon. Main character Holly is Korean American and loves her family and culture, despite the high expectations placed upon her, but she works throughout the book to find a balance to the craziness of her parents and the ups and downs of high school in general. 

The solution apparently was getting out all her angst in a hilarious newspaper column. I loved the characters, I thought the plot was fresh and fun, and Holly had a realistic teen voice. 

Thank to Disney Hyperion, Knopf, and Scholastic for the review copies. 

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Orphan Train review

Molly has been in foster care most of her life, but is about to age out of the system. She's an incredibly lost girl, unsure of herself (and really who could blame her) and in a difficult moment, steals a book from the library. Rather than sending her to juvenile hall, the judge orders her to do community service. 

Placed with Vivian whose attic desperately needs cleaning out, Molly is unable to understand how she'll possibly learn anything. Vivian is old and that's all Molly really sees. What actually unfolds is a beautiful friendship of understanding. 

From both being shunned for their outward appearances and heritage to being orphans and experiencing incredibly hardship, both women have truly inspiring stories and quite a bit in common. The reader gets to know both of the characters through flashbacks to Vivian's life at the turn of the 20th century and Molly's current status as foster care kid/juvenile delinquent. 

Molly's heartache for her situation and her process of acting out was done in a way that made me want to help her. It wasn't over-the-top, but instead, realistic and an excellent precursor to meeting Vivian and learning her story. 

I've always had a strange fascination with orphan trains, though I haven't found many stories about them. The historical detail in this story was excellent and I finished the book knowing more about both the trains and the current foster care system than I had going in. Pair that new knowledge with two beautifully written characters and this book really was a winner for me. 

A little bit historical, a lot of emotions, and great characters. Christine Baker Kline is a talent, that's for sure. Highly recommended!

Check out the rest of the tour stops here. Thanks to William Morrow for the review copy!

Monday, July 15, 2013

Return to Oakpine review

4 friends grew up together in Oakpine, Wyoming, some going their separate ways after graduation and others sticking around. Craig and Frank stuck out life in the small town, while Mason moved to Denver after college and became a lawyer. Jimmy, however, ran away to NYC after a family tragedy, never returning to the town or his friends. Until now -- 30 years later. 

While the guys were in high school they had a rock band that took over their lives. When they're all back together in one place, they start to think that getting the band back together might just help them all deal with the latest curveball life has thrown. 

I wasn't sure what I was going to think going into this. Though I'm not typically biased about books with male main characters, this one had 4 men in the main roles and the whole story centered around their issues. I wasn't sure I would be able to connect with any of them enough to invest myself. I was definitely wrong. 

Author Ron Carlson made me care about each of the men and their unique friendship. I found myself flashing back to my tiny high school class, wondering if any of the groups of guys I know were close then are still close now. The bond these men had was pretty amazing and the idea of getting a band back together really was the best thing they ever could have done. 

The plot was believable, the characters well-written, and I definitely needed a tissue box by the end. My favorite part though was Larry and his amazing descriptions of running. If Ron Carlson isn't a runner then I want to know where his inspiration came from, because he totally gets it! 

Thanks to Penguin for the review copy! 

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Some catching up

My current state of reading is definitely bordering on meh. I've had a hard time getting really invested in books lately, though I did finish several. I'm watching the shelf that holds my library books become fuller and fuller, while review books are still landing at my door. I'm drowning in books and though it's a great problem to have, it's becoming overwhelming and something has to be done about it.

A huge load of library books is being returned, unread, on Monday. It will be fine. I'm going to read review books until I get those shelves a little more under control and meet a few deadlines, then will return to the land of the library. I also really want to read a few of my own books that have just been sitting around forever, including these:

Fitness-wise, I've reached a frustration point that I've learned may be fixable. Without going too far into  boring details, I've always struggled to breathe while exercising, even way back in high school when I played sports. I had a hard time keeping up with everyone and always just assumed I wasn't in great shape. Fast forward to now, I've been consistently running for well over a year and am still having serious breathing issues. For as much as I've trained, I should be able to do much more than I can physically do at this point and have really been getting down on myself.

Thanks to Best Body Bootcamp, I've had a professional to bounce symptoms off of and I'm actually heading to the doctor on Monday morning. She gave me her honest thoughts on what could possibly be causing these issues and excellent tips for improving my running, as well as the thought that a doctor may be needed. I'm listening, Tina! This bootcamp is so good for me -- keeps me motivated, mixes up my workout routine, and Tina really is available to answer any questions. Loving it. 

Finally, some photos from the week:

Teaching E to do the dishes (or make a huge water mess), "King Solomon" fresh out of Sunday school, and a giant mango frozen yogurt with fruit and chocolate. Perfect.

Vacation next week. We rented a cabin, deep in the woods, with a 2 minute walk to hiking trails and I just can't wait. Goats and chickens on the property, our dogs can come with us, and we'll finally have a bit of quiet. Very much looking forward to it. Have a great week!

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Belle Epoque review

I was both appalled and delighted with the concept of this novel. A young girl, Maude, runs away from her home in Brittany when pledged to a frightening man, and sets her sights on Paris. Once in the city, she's forced to take a unique position as the ugly friend to a beautiful woman of society. The idea is that more attention will be on the socialites, making them more attractive, because of the plainness of their "friend." A friend being who is paid quite well to play the part. 

I felt totally immersed in Paris and the time period, losing myself in Maude's story. She's a strong main character who I found myself truly liking from the very beginning. I was absolutely fascinated by the plot and almost couldn't believe what I was reading in those first few scenes. Craziness!
It's rare to find a subject I've not yet read about, but this whole "beauty foil" thing was definitely unique. I loved it!

Everything about the book was well-researched and detailed, making for a great read. Highly recommended! 

Thanks to Random House for the review copy!

Monday, July 8, 2013

Ten Things I've Learnt About Love review

If it's possible for a novel to be both incredibly lovely and terribly sad at the same time, this debut by Sarah Butler is definitely that. The story of Alice, a young woman who returns home from being lost in Mongolia just in time to watch her father die from a quick illness and Daniel, a man living out his life on the street, in search of the daughter he's never had the chance to meet, this book has tears and tissues written all over it. 

The characters were strong and beautifully deep, yet relatable and readable. I loved feeling Alice's raw emotions when seeing her father ill, as so many people in the world experience in their lives. Her relationships with her older sisters was also both realistic and honest, as we are able to witness her both love them and want to be anywhere except home. 

Daniel was the character that I truly loved. His heart was all over the pages and his desire for finding his daughter so very pure. I didn't find myself feeling sorry for him, as I might with other characters in his situation, but rather I just wanted to give him a hug and the answers he was looking for. 

I was impressed upon learning this was Butler's first novel -- she'll definitely have a big career ahead of her! I definitely recommend checking this book out and adding it to your beach bag. Just make sure you have a few tissues stuffed in there too. 

Thanks to Penguin for the review copy!

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Gus the Dinosaur Bus

The day this book showed up at my house, we immediately read it about 20 times back-to-back. There's something about a dinosaur turning into a bus that just enamored my toddler -- and, if I'm being honest, I was totally enamored too. 

The story is simple -- Gus is a dinosaur that also serves his friends as a bus service. Obviously, with the size of him, problems come along with that friendly service, so Gus and the community have to figure out a way to spend time together without getting into trouble. Easy enough to understand for young ones and a really fun idea. Dinosaurs are always a hit. 

The illustrations remind me of old school 80's pictures books, which is probably why I love them so much, so hats off to illustrator Bei Lin. E continuously pointed to Gus with a big smile on his face, so I assume those illustrators were a hit with him too. 

It's not every picture book that can hold the attention of a 19-month-old, but the quick text and the fast flow made for a great read together. Check it out from your library or bookstore!

Thanks to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for the review copy!

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Together Tea review

This story of a mother wanting the best possible husband for her daughter and a daughter who just wants her mother to stay away from matchmaking is completely charming. Darya simply wants her daughter, Mina, to find a good Iranian-American husband and her poor daughter just wants to be left alone and allowed to choose her own path. 

After  yet another failed matching attempt, mother and daughter decide to journey to Iran together. Though raised mostly in America, Mina feels out of place there and feels a pull towards her past in Iran. The pair not only begin to see each other for who they really are once in Iran, but also get a few unexpected surprises. When the surprise comes in the form of a man who is not of Darya's choosing, Mina has to decide how she'll break her new relationship to her mother. 

I loved the banter of the two women and appreciated the lack of constant fighting amongst the pair. I've read many books with a similar subject line, but typically the parents and daughter are just at each other's throats the entire time and the daughter is totally unhappy w
ith life. Mina is resigned to the fact that her mother is going to try to find her a husband, yet still loves and appreciates her. There's a bit of annoyance and resentment on Mina's part, yet she isn't running away from her mother.

The traveling portions were excellent and I really loved getting a glimpse into what it may have been like growing up in a country with such conflict. The author managed to include the serious nature of that time period with the wit of her characters, allowing for a lighter tone. I really enjoyed it!

You can check out the rest of the tour here. Thanks to TLC Book Tours for having me on this tour!

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures review

In 1920, Elsa Emerson is born to the owners of the Cherry County Playhouse in Door County, Wisconsin. Elsa relishes appearing onstage, where she soaks up the approval of her father and the embrace of the audience. But when tragedy strikes her family, her acting becomes more than a child’s game of pretend. While still in her teens, Elsa marries and flees to Los Angeles. There she is discovered by Hollywood mogul Irving Green, who refashions her as an exotic brunette screen siren and renames her Laura Lamont. But fame has its costs, and while Laura tries to balance career, family, and personal happiness, she realizes that Elsa Emerson might not be gone completely. Ambitious and richly imagined, Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures is as intimate—and as bigger-than-life—as the great films of the golden age of Hollywood. (Goodreads description)

I really liked the concept of being given the whole story in briefer snapshots of Elsa/Laura's life. When it began, I thought Elsa would be lost in the Hollywood world, as she grew up the shadow, but she held her own after marrying someone with the same ambitions in life. Well... for awhile at least. 

Though the title gave somewhat of a lighter feel to the book, once I started it I realized what heavy material was in the pages. Elsa/Laura started from nothing, moved on to fast Hollywood life, and then hit a downward spiral -- as many stars still do today. The story is probably quite realistic from what we see in the media with celebrities and their sad stories. 

Unfortunately, I didn't really fall in love with any of the characters, but the plot was interesting and moved quickly. As I mentioned above, I enjoyed the flow of the book, after getting used to it, and it definitely made for a quick read. If you're interested in this time period or life of movie stars, give it a try! 

The paperback is out today! Thanks to Penguin Group for the review copy!