Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Featured Book: Impressions and Memories by Thomas Noel Smith

About the book:

In Impressions and Memories, poet Thomas Smith draws on a wide array of inspirations and reflections to create a collection of poems that speak to the song burning deep within each of us. 

Using the rhythm, melody, and language of traditional poetic forms, these verses distill the essence of daily experience, from the beauty of the world around us to the poignant nostalgia of cherished memories. 

Lyrical and thoughtful, deeply felt and broadly accessible, Impressions and Memories will remind you of the richness and wonder of the world around you, and give you a moment of healing calm to refresh your spirit.

About the author:

Thomas Smith grew up as an “army brat.” He lived in France and Germany, as well as several different states. His interest in the arts developed early. He performed as a magician, and attended Ringling Brothers Clown College. He traveled for two years with a small one-ring circus as a professional clown. Thomas earned a degree in English from the University of Tampa; a degree in theatre from the University of South Florida; and an MA in directing from Chicago College of Performing Arts. Currently, he is a film actor in Florida. In addition to writing, Thomas’ interests include exploring his Irish heritage. He is currently learning Gaelic, and hopes to visit the land of his ancestors.

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Review: Above All Things by Tanis Rideout

A New York Times Editor's Choice 

1924. George Mallory is arguably the last great British explorer, having twice tried—and failed—to conquer Mount Everest. The mountain has haunted him, but his attempts have captivated the hearts of a nation desperate to restore its former glory after World War I. Yet George has sworn to his wife, Ruth, that he will not mount a third attempt. He will remain with her and their three children instead of again challenging the unreachable peak. 

Then, one afternoon, Ruth reads a telegram addressed to George: “Glad to have you aboard again.” And with this one sentence, the lives of the Mallorys, and the face of the nation, are irrevocably changed. 

A beautifully rendered story about the need for redemption and the quest for glory, Above All Things is a captivating blend of historical fact and imaginative fiction. It is a heartbreaking tale of obsession, sacrifice, and what we do for love and honor.

Received for review.

I have to admit that initially I was a bit confused, and even irritated at points, that the story was told from three different perspectives - that of Mallory himself, his wife Ruth, and another climber Sandy.  It really seemed like overkill at first but by a few chapters in I got used to it and things went smoothly from there.

This was a lovely blend of historical fact and fiction.  It was truly difficult to believe that it was not all fact by the way the author beautifully handles the material.  She skillfully show us George's determination and Ruth's heartbreaks and struggles.  Sandy's story didn't do as much for me but it was still interesting and added a new dimension to the book as a whole.

What I found especially interesting was that the group climbed without the sophisticated technology and climbing gear available today.  These men actually climbed the mountain on their own power.  It really made me look at the people who climb Everest now as almost cheating as they use oxygen and specialty gear.  It's an interesting new perspective that I hadn't really thought about before this book.  

Overall this was a fascinating read which provided a fresh new look into the people behind the history.  I highly, highly recommend it.

★★★★ = Really Liked It

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Monday, August 18, 2014

Review: Treat Yourself by Jennifer Stainhauer

If you grew up on corner-store treats, memory lane is paved with Ho Hos, Yodels, Oreos, and Ring Dings. And while your taste buds may have grown up a bit, chances are you still crave these classic flavors. Now you can re-create the lunch-box delights that made you the envy of other kids, with all-natural homemade versions.

After much obsessing and experimentation, Jennifer Steinhauer has cracked the code for 70 iconic treats to re-create in your own kitchen. There are cookies with a perfect crunchy base for cream filling, snack cakes with frosting so thick you can peel it off all at once, candies dipped in chocolate and dusted with sugar, and ice cream pops so juicy that they drip down your arm. A self-taught baker, Jennifer had no interest in complicated techniques or chemical gunk, just easy hacks that break down and remaster these throwback snacks.

So go ahead—treat yourself to your own homemade version of these favorites:

• Samoas, Pecan Sandies, Chips Ahoy!, and other classic cookies
• Nutter Butters, Mint Milanos, Oatmeal Creme Pies, and other sweet sandwich cookies
• Twinkies, Drake’s Coffee Cakes, Devil Dogs, and other snack cakes
• Fig Newtons, Lemon Mini-Pies, Strawberry Pop-Tarts, and other fruity, filled treats
• Soft Pretzels, Pizza Pockets, Funyuns, and other salty, savory snacks
• Cracker Jacks, Goo Goo Clusters, Candy Dots, and other candy favorites
• Orange Creamsicles, Strawberry Shortcake Ice Cream Pops, Nutty Buddies, and other frozen treats

Received for review.

I adore cookbooks and I simply could not pass up this one featuring beloved snacks.

I knew I'd love this book as soon as I saw recipes for both Samoas and Thin Mints in the very first chapter. As a Girl Scout cookie addict I almost fainted from joy! Then I discovered the Drake's Coffee Cakes recipe in a later chapter and almost fainted again! I was also happy to come across recipes for Fritos and Cheez-Its. I was very impressed with the sheer variety of recipes offered from sweet to savory.

I love that almost every recipe has a lovely photograph of the treat which is a huge bonus so you know what to aim for when you're making your own.

If you've ever lovingly (and longingly) remembered a Pudding Pop or Twinkie then this is the book for you. It would also make a lovely gift. I definitely highly, highly recommend this!

★★★★★ = Loved It

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Featured Book: If These Trees Could Only Talk by Theodore L. Kazimiroff

About the book:

Ever wished for a “read”, intense and compelling, with life and death adventures? Add characters with real emotions and personalities that “ring true.” Here is an amazing journey of mind and spirit, bound to get your blood racing. You will vicariously experience fear, pain, even death, at the hands of real villains. Here is the “Catharsis” Aristotle defined as the necessary goal of “drama.” What makes this story so different? It is real! The Earth-shattering cataclysms, blizzards of Ice age proportions, invasions, piracy, theft of homeland, wars and much more have all happened. Through a prequel, the author of the highly acclaimed book The Last Algonquin takes us on a virtual safari to the dawn of time, and forward to the near present. The world of the Algonquin natives springs alive: Kazimiroff leads us through a New York City park where ancient as well as more modern history is still evident. Experience the Indians’ rise and fall, the colonial era and modern times through a series of interrelated first-person stories, events and anecdotes. The author was raised and taught Indian lore, history, woodsmanship and survival skills in Pelham Bay Park, The Bronx, which is actually the largest by far of all New York’s public parks. The book includes maps and a self-guided multi-disciplinary walking tour which is separate from the official “Kazimiroff Nature Trail.” Go! Stand in the foot-print of a malicious devil. Listen for the “spirit voices” on the wind, and study the many natural sciences available in the protected sanctuaries of this park treasure. Whatever you do, enjoy your park as the unique heritage it certainly is.

About the author:

Theodore L. Kazimiroff, BA, MS, CH, prefers being called “Ted”. Ted is retired from teaching in the New York City Public school system. His specialty was the identification, motivation and instruction of gifted and talented students. He served proudly in the United States Army as an artilleryman and guided missile specialist, both here and at several overseas duty posts. Ted’s interests run the gamut from A for archaeology to Z for zoology, and in this regard he has followed his father’s footsteps. Fishing, boating and skin diving have always been favorite activities. He was a certified skin diving instructor from 1957 on, and taught S.C.U.B.A diving at the Y. M.C.A. He belongs to the Golden Key National Honor Society for academic excellence, The Veterans of Foreign Wars, The American Legion, and the Disabled American Veterans. At present he is exploring a very old Spanish wreck in the Caribbean Sea with high hopes of salvaging treasure, or at least some lobsters.

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Review: Writing with the Master by Tony Vanderwarker

With seven unpublished novels wasting away on his hard drive, Tony Vanderwarker is astonished when John Grisham offers to take him under his wing and teach him the secrets of thriller writing. “The beginning and the end are easy,” Grisham tells him. “It’s the three hundred pages in the middle that’s the hard part.” 

To ensure his plot doesn’t run out of gas, Grisham puts Tony though his outline process. Tony does one, and then Grisham asks for another … and another … and another. As they work together, Grisham reveals the techniques that have helped him create compelling bestsellers for more than two decades—for instance, “You’ve got to hook your reader in the first forty pages or you’ll lose them.” After a year of constructing outlines, Grisham finally gives Tony the go-ahead to start writing. 

Writing with the Master immerses the reader in the creative process as Tony struggles to produce a successful thriller. It’s a roller coaster ride, sometimes hilarious, and often full of ups and downs. Grisham’s critiques and margin notes to Tony reveal his nimble imagination and plot development genius. For Grisham fans, Vanderwarker’s memoir pulls back the curtain on his writing secrets, and for aspiring writers, it’s a master class in thriller writing. 

In the end, Tony resolves to take Grisham’s teachings to heart and eventually decides to write what he thinks he was meant to: a book about the creative process and his incredible two years working with John Grisham.

Received for review.

I'm not the biggest fan of John Grisham's latest books but I loved A Time to Kill, The Pelican Brief, and The Firm so I simply had to read this.

The important thing to note is that this is not really about John Grisham at all, it's about the author's experiences with him and his reactions to Grisham's input.  As such it was a bit disappointing.  

This wasn't bad or anything but it was a bit on the whiny side.  The author constantly whined about Grisham's input and how tough it was to write.  It was hard to sympathize with a rich guy writing as a hobby.  
Authors may find this more interesting, but as a reader I found it rather dry and borderline amusing at best.  It's certainly educational but it is definitely not entertaining.  If you're an author looking to learn this is worth a peek but if you're a Grisham fan you'll probably be let down.

★★★☆☆ = Liked It

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Sunday, August 17, 2014

Review: Em and the Big Hoom by Jerry Pinto

“Profoundly moving . . . I cannot remember when I last read something as touching as this.” —Amitav Ghosh, author of The Glass Palace 

First published by a small press in India, Jerry Pinto’s devastatingly original debut novel has already taken the literary world by storm. Suffused with compassion, humor, and hard-won wisdom, Em and the Big Hoom is a modern masterpiece, and its American publication is certain to be one of the major literary events of the season. 

Meet Imelda and Augustine, or—as our young narrator calls his unusual parents—Em and the Big Hoom. Most of the time, Em smokes endless beedis and sings her way through life. She is the sun around which everyone else orbits. But as enchanting and high-spirited as she can be, when Em’s bipolar disorder seizes her she becomes monstrous, sometimes with calamitous consequences for herself and others. This accomplished debut is graceful and urgent, with a one-of-a-kind voice that will stay with readers long after the last page.

Received for review.

This was actually quite an interesting and mildly amusing novel until the very end which ruined the entire thing for me.

The entire book is quite difficult to follow at first.  It jumps around a bit and characters are referred to by numerous, completely different names.  It did come together about the midway point though and became quite readable.

Despite their clear love for one another I was not drawn to any of the characters as people.  They were all rather shallow and rather selfish.  It was difficult to really become engrossed in their stories when they were such disagreeable people.

What ruined this the most for me was the final few pages where the main character makes two unfortunate comments - the first when handing out food to homeless people "Beggars can't be choosers." which I thought was in extremely bad taste until I saw the second comment - "Do the poor have allergies?".  That was just beyond bad taste and made me sincerely dislike the character even more, if possible.  I was frankly shocked at his callous attitude.  It was completely uncalled for and quite disgusting behavior.

So, while this is interesting at parts it didn't do much for me in the way of an emotional connection with the characters.  The final few paragraphs completely ruined the entire book for me and I was tempted to throw it against a wall but, thankfully, the book was already over.  I really cannot recommend this.

★★☆☆☆ = Just Okay

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Saturday, August 16, 2014

Review: The Magician's Land by Lev Grossman

The stunning conclusion to the New York Times bestselling Magicians trilogy 

Quentin Coldwater has lost everything. He has been cast out of Fillory, the secret magical land of his childhood dreams that he once ruled. Everything he had fought so hard for, not to mention his closest friends, is sealed away in a land Quentin may never again visit. With nothing left to lose he returns to where his story began, the Brakebills Preparatory College of Magic. But he can’t hide from his past, and it’s not long before it comes looking for him. Meanwhile, the magical barriers that keep Fillory safe are failing, and barbarians from the north have invaded. Eliot and Janet, the rulers of Fillory, embark on a final quest to save their beloved world, only to discover a situation far more complex—and far more dire—than anyone had envisioned. 

 Along with Plum, a brilliant young magician with a dark secret of her own, Quentin sets out on a crooked path through a magical demimonde of gray magic and desperate characters. His new life takes him back to old haunts, like Antarctica and the Neitherlands, and old friends he thought were lost forever. He uncovers buried secrets and hidden evils and ultimately the key to a sorcerous masterwork, a spell that could create a magical utopia. But all roads lead back to Fillory, where Quentin must face his fears and put things right or die trying. 

The Magician’s Land is an intricate and fantastical thriller, and an epic of love and redemption that brings the Magicians trilogy to a magnificent conclusion, confirming it as one of the great achievements in modern fantasy. It’s the story of a boy becoming a man, an apprentice becoming a master, and a broken land finally becoming whole.

Received for review.

While I'm not a hardcore fantasy fan I do find the genre quite enjoyable so I was quite excited to read this final book in this well crafted trilogy.

This was everything a reader could have hoped for in the final book of a series.  It was a brilliant book on its own, but it also provided the perfect ending for our much loved characters.  By the end, although there were some tears along the way, I felt like everything had been resolved satisfactorily and I was able to close the book feeling fulfilled rather than resentful.

This is an excellent book and the trilogy definitely deserves a place next to Lord of the Rings.  It really is that good.  I definitely highly, highly recommend this.  If you haven't read the first two books start from the beginning.  I promise it will be well worth the journey and rather significant time investment!

★★★★ = Really Liked It

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Friday, August 15, 2014

Featured Book: Toto's Reflections by Kevin Fickenscher

About the book:

In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy’s Toto was clearly a dog of character. He knew when to sit still, when to bark, and when to make a fuss. He was simply a real dog with real observations about real situations. And the Oz experience reinforced what his parents taught him as a small pup: Care deeply. Bark only when necessary but then, forcefully. Be curious. Express yourself. Embrace the world and have no fears. The story of Dorothy’s journey to Oz has captivated generations of children and adults alike since it was first published by L. Frank Baum in 1900. Dorothy’s adventures have been analyzed from virtually every perspective—psychological, historical, economic, and the like—except from the perspective of the only other character that was with her every step of the way: Toto! Dorothy’s little dog wrote this book and buried his manuscript in a can with an old bone on the original Gale farmstead. Dr. Fickenscher came upon it quite accidently and was given the opportunity to edit Toto's original thoughts on the Leadership Lessons from The Wizard of Oz, which he now shares with you. Of course, there are the usual thoughts on brainpower, heart, and courage, but in this book, there is much, much more. The many lessons of Oz will captivate your imagination and, no doubt, serve as a guide in your quest to become a better leader! Toto's Reflections will help you contribute to making a difference in the world, and challenge you to consider what you can do, starting right now, to make the world a better place!

About the author:

Kevin Fickenscher, MD is a dynamic, visionary healthcare leader with worldwide experience. He is consistently ranked among the Most Powerful Physician Executives in the US. As a leader of complex organizations, he brings his unique understanding of leadership through the voice of Toto, the only individual—aside from Dorothy—who experienced all of the events in Oz.

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Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Featured Book: Career Wonders and Blunders: If I Knew Then, What I Know Now by Claudia A. Samuels Newton

About the book:

As you embark into the world of work, wouldn’t you like to hear the practical advice of successful employees who have already gone down their career path? Wouldn’t you like to learn from their mistakes? Build a unique and successful career path by reading this guide of unwritten workplace rules. It’s what you will not find in your company’s books of policies and procedures. Claudia Samuels Newton knows that experience is the best teacher and that you can avoid making devastating mistakes on the job that can stunt your career. In Career Wonders and Blunders: If I Knew Then, What I Know Now, she has provided the advice, insight, and experience of others who have walked this path in the world of work before you. Dr. Linda Salane, Executive Director The Leadership Institute at Columbia College states, "Career Wonders and Blunders is a comprehensive career guide with direct, concrete, and basic advice for success in the first job, and for positioning oneself for advancement. The author identifies fundamental realities that this generation of new workers may not consider: understanding the company’s culture, cultivating good work ethics, dealing with difficult bosses, navigating office politics, establishing value, choosing a mentor, networking, personal wellness to establishing a professional image. The book is honest and readable. It covers essential blunders (do not sleep on the job; do not call in sick when you are going to a ballgame). More interesting are the complex “wonders” (how do you evaluate a company’s culture? how do you successfully establish value?) that give a new employee insight into what he or she can do to be more effective. Filled with personal stories and chock full of good advice, Career Wonders and Blunders is a great present to a new graduate or a new employee." Read the powerful advice of successful executives including CEOs and COOs. Equally powerful are the candid stories of people just like you - acquired over the course of their working years. This is Career 101 - what you were not taught in school. Use the wonders and blunders of real people with real experiences at the end of each chapter to ascertain you are on the correct path. Now you have an essential tool to prevent you from repeating their mistakes on your career journey.

About the author:

Claudia Samuels Newton is an adjunct professor of Communications, a manager in Corporate America, and the owner of Rewarding Career and Resume Services. Her career articles have been published on numerous websites and she has been published in newspapers. She has been a guest on local television and is a sought-after presenter at colleges and state agencies around South Carolina. Claudia earned a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration from Thomas Edison State College in Trenton, NJ and a master’s degree in Human Resources Management from the University of Phoenix in Arizona. The author identifies fundamental realities that this generation of new workers may not consider: understanding the company’s culture, cultivating good work ethics, dealing with difficult bosses, navigating office politics, establishing value, choosing a mentor, networking, personal wellness to establishing a professional image.

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Review: Days of Rage by Brad Taylor

In former delta force operator and New York Times bestseller Brad Taylor’s latest Pike Logan thriller, the Taskforce must stop their most devastating threat yet—a weapon of mass destruction. 

The Taskforce is used to being the hunter, but this time they’re the hunted. 

Intent on embroiling the US in a quagmire that will sap its economy and drain its legitimacy, Russia passes a potential weapon of mass destruction to Boko Haram, an extreme Islamic sect in Nigeria. A relic of the Cold War, the Russian FSB believes the weapon has deteriorated and is no longer effective, but they are wrong. Boko Haram has the means for mass destruction, which will be set loose upon a multitude of unsuspecting innocents on one of the world’s grandest stages. 

Trying to solve the riddle of who might be stalking them, Pike Logan and the Taskforce have no idea what’s been set in motion; but there’s another secret from the Cold War buried in the Russian FSB, and exposing it will mean the difference between life and death—not only for Pike and his partner, Jennifer, but for perhaps millions more around the globe.

Received for review.

Having recently finished Brad's previous book The Polaris Protocol I was dying to find out what would happen next so I rushed to get Days of Rage.

There is simply no other writer who can write military fiction like Brad Taylor.  I'm not even a big fan of the genre and I love his books!  His books feel like a combination of the authentic detail of a Vince Flynn with the emotional impact of Robert Ludlum and his Jason Bourne series.

Once I started this there was just no putting it down.  I sat for hours and read with my eyes barely blinking I was so engrossed.  The action and suspense were so unrelenting that I was so stressed I simply couldn't stop at the end of a chapter and had to keep flipping the pages as fast as I could read them.  I was up well past my bedtime several nights in a row as I devoured this.

The scariest thing, and what makes this such a fascinating book, is that it is based in so much real life.  The situations in the book could actually happen and that's really disturbing on so many levels.

I highly, highly recommend this excellent book.  Military fiction lovers will find it especially good but general fiction fans will enjoy it just as much.  I am eagerly awaiting the next Pike Logan novel.

★★★★ = Really Liked It

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Monday, August 11, 2014

Featured Book: Barbed Wire and Daisies by Carol Strazer

About the book:

As the Russian army advances on war-torn Prussia at the end of World War II, Marike Wiens gathers her four young children and flees for Denmark, the only place willing to accept German refugees. Marike arrives in Danzig just as the Allied bombs begin to fall. She and her children pick their way through the rubble to reunite with Marike's gravely ill father and the rest of her family. Together, they board an overcrowded, disease-infested ship bound for Denmark. Arriving at the refugee camp, Marike's hopes for a safe haven are dashed when she discovers the Danes have been forced to create the camps under orders from the occupying German army. Danish hostility toward the mostly women and children who cross their borders is palpable. Behind the barbed wire, Marike and her family face near starvation, illness, mistreatment, and heart-rending conditions. Moved from camp to camp, Marike struggles to keep her family alive and to hold onto their Mennonite faith. Her only hope for survival lies with her husband, Horst, who is missing in action on the Eastern Front. But as the months go by and thousands of refugees perish around her, Marike must find a new solution to save her family.

About the author:

Carol Strazer is a freelance writer who has published numerous articles in local and regional publications and edited a community newsletter. Three of her essays have appeared in Chicken Soup for the Catholic Soul: Living Catholic Faith and Chicken Soup for the Soul: Tough Times, Tough People and recently in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Answered Prayer. In March 2009, her essay was selected a winner in the Woman's Day and American Library Association's contest and was published in Woman's Day. Her poem, Snow Falling like Commas, was a third place winner in a poetry contest and appeared in Sunflowers and Seashells: Nature's Miles. Carol has a bachelor's degree in speech/English from Northwestern University and a master's degree in counseling psychology from Lewis and Clark College. This is her first novel. She lives in Colorado and Arizona.

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Review: The Wild Dark Flowers by Elizabeth Cooke

“I found myself addicted to Rutherford Park, much as I was to Downton Abbey” (Margaret Wurtele on Rutherford Park). Now comes the new novel of Rutherford Park by the acclaimed Elizabeth Cooke…... 

When May came that year in Rutherford, it was more beautiful than anyone could ever remember. More beautiful, and more terrible…... 

From inside their sprawling estate of Rutherford Park, the Cavendish family had a privileged perspective of the world. On the first morning in May, 1915, with a splendid view that reached across the gardens to the Vale of York, nothing seemed lovelier or less threatening. And yet...… 

At the risk of undoing the Cavendish name with scandal, William and Octavia Cavendish have been living a lie, maintaining a marriage out of duty rather than passion. But when their son Harry joins the Royal Flying Corps in France, the Cavendish family are forced to face the unavoidable truths about themselves, the society in which they thrive, and the secrets they can no longer bear. 

In the wake of a terrible war, the emotional shifts between a husband and a wife, a wife and her lover, and a mother and her children, will shake the very foundation of the Cavendish family, and change the uniquely vulnerable lives of all who reside at Rutherford Park.

Received for review.

This was a very interesting read for me.  I've read many books set in the time period (mainly Agatha Christies) but I've never really considered the lives of the characters beyond their involvement in the mystery.  This provided an intriguing look into the lives of the wealthy men and women of the time.

I didn't particularly care for any of the characters.  Their "poor me" attitudes were a bit wearying since they had every luxury money could buy but were still whining and behaving badly.  

I was especially irritated by Octavia's incessant whining about how tough it was to be a woman and how the war never would have started if women were in charge.  This really became a main focus of the book and turned it from amusing historical fiction into a grating feminist commentary on the times.  It just really took away from what could have been an interesting story.  If I'd wanted to read about the oppression of women in the early 1900s I would have picked up a nonfiction book.

So, while this had promise and was very well written, the characters were annoying at best and the political views were overwhelming enough to take away most of the reading enjoyment.  Some historical fiction fans may still find it an interesting read though.

★★★☆☆ = Liked It

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