Top Five Friday: Childhood Favorites

Happy Friday! I thought this week I would do something new. I’ve been posting on Tuesdays about new releases, and now I’m going to start “Top Five Fridays.” Each Friday, I’ll post a list of my top five books in a different category. I’d love to hear what your favorite books are from each category, too!

For the inaugural Top Five Friday, I’ve decided to list the books I loved when I was growing up. I had a handful of books that I read over and over until they were falling apart. So without further ado, I present my Top Five Childhood Favorites:

 

 westing game 1. The Westing Game, by Ellen Rankin
I read this book for the first time in my 6th grade English class, and I was totally hooked on it for years afterward. It’s a story about 16 characters who all move into apartments in Sunset Towers and learn that they are heirs to the fortune of recently deceased, self-made millionaire Samuel W. Westing. At the reading of Westing’s will, the heirs are placed into pairs and given a challenge: find out who murdered Westing, and they will win the entire Westing fortune. Of course, the characters all have crazy back-stories – my favorite was Tabitha-Ruth Wexler, a 13 year old girl who insists on being called “Turtle” and has a penchant for kicking people in the shins if they touch her hair. Each pair of characters is given a set of clues, and the narration shifts between each person as they try (or in some cases, don’t try!) to solve the mystery and win the fortune. There are clever references to chess and American history, and it was all great fun. Writing about it now makes me want to go back and read it again.
 mandie 2. Mandie and the Secret Tunnel, by Lois Gladys Leppard
Evidently, my love of mystery stories was established much earlier than I realized. Mandie is ten years old, living in rural NC in 1899. When her father dies, Mandie’s mother remarries a man who clearly wants Mandie out of the picture. Uncle Ned, a Cherokee Indian who was close to Mandie’s father, helps her run away to live with John Shaw, an uncle that she never knew. Once Mandie arrives at the Shaw house, however, she learns that her Uncle John has gone missing. Imposter relatives arrive hoping to inherit if John Shaw is dead, and Mandy finds a secret tunnel while she’s exploring the house that may help her figure out what happened to her Uncle John. This is the only book in the Mandie series I ever read, and I have no idea why I never carried on with it. I do remember being obsessed with Mandie’s white kitten, Snowball.
 felicity  3. Felicity Saves the Day, by Valerie Tripp
Oh, how I loved Felicity. I had all the American Girl books (back when the American Girls had real problems like “The British are coming!”, unlike the modern American Girls that want to grow organic vegetables for school projects), but Felicity was my favorite. I had a Felicity doll and lots of outfits for her, which I can now acknowledge must have cost my parents an arm and a leg – thanks, Mom! Of all the Felicity books though, I read this one the most often. Felicity finds a secret note from Ben, her father’s shop apprentice who has run away to join Washington’s army. Felicity takes off on her beloved horse, Penny, to find him.
 babysitters  4. Babysitters on Board, by Ann M. Martin
I never actually owned this book, but I know I checked it out of the library constantly. I actually read a lot more Sweet Valley books than Babysitters Club books, but I remember loving this one. Mr. Pike wins a contest for an all-expenses paid cruise plus three days at Disney world. Since the Pikes have 8 kids, they invite Mary Anne and Stacey along to help them out. Then Kristy’s stepfather decides to pay for his entire family to go as well, plus Claudia and Kristy, so the bottom line is all the Babysitters are going on vacation! Each girl has her own plot line that you get to follow during the trip – Stacey’s was my favorite. She meets a little boy with a heart defect and they bond. I don’t remember all the details, but there was plenty going on in this book to please my little pre-teen heart: secret admirers, a treasure hunt, and a trip to Disney!
dancing princess  5. Twelve Dancing Princesses, by Ruth Sanderson
I loved this book and kept coming back to it long after I had moved on to reading chapter books. It’s the traditional fairytale about the 12 princesses who puzzle their father by wearing out their dancing shoes every night. The king is stumped – where are the going? How are they getting there? He promises the hand of the oldest princess in marriage to any man who can figure out their secret. The story is great, but the illustrations in this book were unbelievably beautiful. Sometimes I would get this book out and flip through it without even reading it. I think I was hoping that if I stared at the pictures long enough, when I looked up from the book, maybe everything around me would match them!

What are some of your childhood favorites?

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Happy Release Day, Tracy Grant!

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I have been anxiously awaiting The Berkeley Square Affair since I finished The Paris Affair a year ago. I love this series. Teresa Grant (whose name is actually Tracy) has been writing about Malcolm and Suzanne Rannoch since 2011. I found out about Tracy’s books through an “if you like” recommendation on Lauren Willig’s website. When I looked up the first book in series, Vienna Waltz, I saw recommendations from Tasha Alexander, Deanna Raybourn and C.S. Harris, too. All of these authors have their own historical mystery series that I have really enjoyed. Those recommendations (plus the unbelievably gorgeous cover – I mean, look at this thing: Image ) made me start this series, and I’m so glad I did. The Berkeley Square Affair is the fourth full-length novel in the series. There are also two e-novellas.

Here is what Kensington Books has to say about The Berkeley Square Affair:

A stolen treasure may hold the secret to a ghastly crime…

Ensconced in the comfort of their elegant home in London’s Berkeley Square, Malcolm and Suzanne Rannoch are no longer subject to the perilous life of intrigue they led during the Napoleonic Wars. Once an Intelligence Agent, Malcolm is now a Member of Parliament, and Suzanne is one of the city’s most sought-after hostesses. But a late-night visit from a friend who’s been robbed may lure them back into the dangerous world they thought they’d left behind.

Playwright Simon Tanner had in his possession what may be a lost version of Hamlet, and the thieves were prepared to kill for it. But the Rannochs suspect there’s more at stake than a literary gem–for the play may conceal the identity of a Bonapartist spy–along with secrets that could force Malcolm and Suzanne to abandon their newfound peace and confront their own dark past…

This book will be different from the others in the series, because Malcolm and Suzanne have been living abroad, either in Vienna or Paris, for the previous books. England is home for Malcolm, but in a way, it’s behind enemy lines for Suzanne. It will be interesting to see how the change in location and the supposed transition away from intelligence work for both Malcolm and Suzanne will impact the story. Also, I’m excited that Tracy is adding Shakespeare into the mix!

Happy Release Day, Lucinda Riley!

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Today’s book birthday is Lucinda Riley’s latest novel, The Midnight Rose.  Here is what Atria Books has to say about it:

Spanning four generations, The Midnight Rose sweeps from the glittering palaces of the great maharajas of India to the majestic stately homes of England, following the extraordinary life of a remarkable girl, Anahita Chaval, from 1911 to the present day…

In the heyday of the British Raj, eleven-year-old Anahita, from a noble but impov­erished family, forms a lifelong friendship with the headstrong Princess Indira, the privileged daughter of Indian royalty. As the princess’s official companion, Anahita accompanies her friend to England just before the outbreak of World War I. There, she meets young Donald Astbury—reluctant heir to the magnifi­cent, remote Astbury Estate—and his scheming mother.

Ninety years later, Rebecca Bradley, a young American film star, has the world at her feet. But when her turbulent relationship with her equally famous boyfriend takes an unexpected turn, she’s relieved that her latest role, playing a 1920s debutante, will take her away from the glare of publicity to a distant cor­ner of the English countryside. Shortly after filming begins at the now-crumbling Astbury Hall, Ari Malik, Anahita’s great-grandson, arrives unexpectedly, on a quest for his family’s past. What he and Rebecca discover begins to unravel the dark secrets that haunt the Astbury dynasty . . .

A multilayered, heartbreaking tale filled with unforgettable characters caught in the sweep of history, The Midnight Rose is Lucinda Riley at her most captivating and unforgettable.

According to the Library Jounral, this book is “a sure bet for fans of Lauren Willig, Kate Morton, or Maeve Binchy.”  All I see when I read that quote is “WIN WIN WIN.”  Also, thanks to my discovery about two years ago of The Far Pavilions, I have a fascination with books set in India during the Raj.  I’ve read two of Riley’s previous books (The Lavender Garden and The Girl on the Cliff), but this one seems like it has the potential to be my favorite.  If it sounds interesting to you, the first 42 pages are available to read for free on Riley’s website.

The Chase

Chase

Thanks to NetGalley and Random House – Bantam Dell, I had the chance to read an advance e-copy of The Chase, coauthored by Janet Evanovich and Lee Goldberg.

The basic premise: Everyone in the FBI knows that Agent Kate O’Hare is hunting notorious thief and con artist Nick Fox.  She’s caught him once before, and after his escape, her coworkers worry that she has become obsessed with finding him.  What only a handful of people know is that Nick didn’t actually escape – the FBI released him after extracting a promise that he would work for them in an unofficial capacity, privately helping the FBI catch “major crooks” while publicly remaining on their Top 10 Most Wanted list.  Kate works as Nick’s handler for this project although she’s officially the agent in charge of the FBI manhunt to catch him.  In The Chase, the Smithsonian Museum has recently agreed to return a valuable bronze sculpture called The Rooster to the Chinese government.  A Chinese art expert will be arriving in DC in less than a week to authenticate the sculpture and transport it back to China.  The problem?  The Rooster was actually stolen from the Smithsonian 10 years ago.  The one on display is a fake.  Nick Fox, under Kate’s supervision, has to find out who has the Rooster, steal it, and swap it for the fake at the Smithsonian in order to avoid an international incident.  In order to do this, Nick and Kate plan an elaborate con that will set them against one of the most dangerous, wealthy, and ruthless men in the US.

As someone who has never read one of Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum novels, I went into The Chase with no expectations.  This was a really quick read with a fun plot.  It reminded me a bit of Ocean’s Eleven – cheering for the good-hearted thieves while they attempt to pull off a con of David-and-Goliath proportions.  I really enjoyed all the planning and set-up for Nick and Kate’s theft, and the other characters they bring in to be their crew were funny.  There are countless pop culture references sprinkled throughout (Pitbull, Jay Z, Downton Abbey, etc.) that will eventually make this book feel dated, but as I read through, they made me laugh.

If you’re looking for deep themes and serious character development, you won’t find them here.  But what you do get is a story that will hook you quickly and keep you interested.  This would be a great vacation read – something to entertain you without requiring a lot of concentration.  I remember thinking about halfway through that the Nick and Kate partnership seemed like a good basis for a TV series.  Then I read that Lee Goldberg is actually a screenwriter and TV producer, so that explains a lot.

I did realize about fifty pages in, because there were some heavy-handed references to Kate and Nick’s backstory, that this is actually the second novel of a series.  The first is called The Heist, and it was published in June of 2013.  Fortunately, there was enough explanation of what happened before that I didn’t feel lost at all.  I actually enjoyed this one so much that I’ll probably go back and read the other.

The Lost Sisterhood

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I was excited to get an advance copy of Anne Fortier’s new novel The Lost Sisterhood from NetGalley.  Several people have recommended Anne’s first novel (Juliet) to me.  I even own a copy – but I’ve never gotten around to reading it.  This book called to me because I love Greek and Roman mythology, and I am a sucker for these dual-time mysteries.

This story shifts between the present day and the ancient world, telling the stories of two women who embark on dangerous journeys, thousands of years apart, that both lead to the same end: the truth behind the legend of the Amazon sisterhood.

For Myrina and her sister Lilli, the story begins in North Africa late in the Bronze Age. Myrina and Lilli are searching for the temple of the Moon Goddess their mother used to describe for them, hoping to find a cure for the mysterious sickness that left Lilli blind. What begins as a simple quest to save her sister becomes a mission to rescue 3 priestesses kidnapped by Greek pirates, and ultimately lands Myrina right in the thick of the Trojan War.

In modern-day England, Diana Morgan is having a career crisis. Several influential people at Diana’s college, and in her personal life, have been urging her to quit chasing the myth of the Amazons and focus on more scholarly subjects. Diana is beginning to question her path and her motivation when an enigmatic benefactor offers her the opportunity of a lifetime – the chance to decipher the text on the walls of an excavated temple which may confirm the existence of an ancient Amazon society. Diana can’t resist the opportunity, and she hops on a plane without asking too many questions. But things around Diana start to go wrong, a number of increasingly severe “accidents” occur, and Diana realizes that she has no idea what she’s gotten herself into or what sort of people she may be dealing with.

This is exactly the kind of time-slip novel that I love, with the story weaving back and forth between time periods and the details of a mystery coming gradually into focus. As is typical for me, I preferred the historical heroine to the modern one, but their stories were both interesting to me. The Trojan War is one of my favorite subjects in Greek mythology, and I thought Fortier’s take on it was very different than anything that I’ve read before. There were some places in the modern storyline that felt a bit rushed or forced, but I was so interested in getting to the conclusion that I didn’t let it bother me much. Fortier does a great job of making you believe that something as seemingly obscure as the history of the Amazons is a secret that someone in 2013 would kill for.

If this sounds interesting, you should head over to Anne’s website and check it out.  You can listen to a part of the audiobook, see a book trailer, and check out some excellent pictures from the research trips she made while working on the book.

Happy Release Day, Anne Fortier!

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In keeping with my enthusiasm for books with mythological influence, I am so excited that The Lost Sisterhood is out today!  I actually got to read an advance copy of this thanks to Ballantine and NetGalley, so I will share my review tomorrow.

For today, here’s what Ballantine Books has to say about The Lost Sisterhood:

From the author of the New York Times bestseller Juliet comes a mesmerizing novel about a young scholar who risks her reputation—and her life—on a thrilling journey to prove that the legendary warrior women known as the Amazons actually existed.

Oxford lecturer Diana Morgan is an expert on Greek mythology. Her obsession with the Amazons started in childhood when her eccentric grandmother claimed to be one herself—before vanishing without a trace. Diana’s colleagues shake their heads at her Amazon fixation. But then a mysterious, well-financed foundation makes Diana an offer she cannot refuse.

Traveling to North Africa, Diana teams up with Nick Barran, an enigmatic Middle Eastern guide, and begins deciphering an unusual inscription on the wall of a recently unearthed temple. There she discovers the name of the first Amazon queen, Myrina, who crossed the Mediterranean in a heroic attempt to liberate her kidnapped sisters from Greek pirates, only to become embroiled in the most famous conflict of the ancient world—the Trojan War. Taking their cue from the inscription, Diana and Nick set out to find the fabled treasure that Myrina and her Amazon sisters salvaged from the embattled city of Troy so long ago. Diana doesn’t know the nature of the treasure, but she does know that someone is shadowing her, and that Nick has a sinister agenda of his own. With danger lurking at every turn, and unsure of whom to trust, Diana finds herself on a daring and dangerous quest for truth that will forever change her world.

Sweeping from England to North Africa to Greece and the ruins of ancient Troy, and navigating between present and past, The Lost Sisterhood is a breathtaking, passionate adventure of two women on parallel journeys, separated by time, who must fight to keep the lives and legacy of the Amazons from being lost forever.

A Week in Winter

week

Since we’ve been experiencing an unusual bout of wintery weather, it seemed like a good time for me to pull this book off the shelf.  I’ve had it for a while, but I’ve been putting off reading it.  Maeve Binchy is the author of one of my all-time favorite books (Circle of Friends) and several others that I’ve really enjoyed.  Since this is the last book she wrote before she died in 2012, I felt like I wanted to save it.

This book is more of a collection of short stories than a novel.  Every chapter is told from the perspective of a different character.  The very first chapter is about Chicky Starr, a girl who grew up in a small Irish town called Stoneybridge.  She spent her whole childhood wanting to get out of Stoneybridge and see the world, but when she finally has her chance, she realizes that she may have taken her home for granted.  Although she lives for nearly 30 years in America, she returns to Stoneybridge for a week every winter to visit her family.  It is her week to rest and recharge.  Since Chicky is a hard worker and spends almost no money on herself, she has a considerable amount of savings by the time she’s in her forties.  When she decides it’s time to make a change in her life, she returns to Stoneybridge permanently and buys a crumbling Edwardian mansion called Stone House from an eccentric old lady called Queenie.  Chicky plans to restore the mansion and run it as a bed-and-breakfast.  Chicky’s story is the glue that holds the book together, because every chapter following hers is narrated by someone who either works for Chicky at Stone House or comes to stay for the opening week.

The first few chapters are told from the perspective of Rigger, a boy whose mother was Chicky’s friend years ago, and Chicky’s niece Orla.  Rigger’s mother sends him to Stone House as a last-ditch effort to keep him out of jail.  He’s been in and out of trouble since he was ten, and after a few years at a reform school seem to make no difference, Rigger’s mother decides that Stone House is his final opportunity to turn his life around.  Then Orla arrives to work for Chicky as a business manager and cook.  Between them, Chicky, Rigger, Orla, and Queenie transform Stone House into a functional, beautiful guest house.

I thought the most interesting chapters were those told from the perspective of the first guests.  There is an American movie star who comes to escape the spotlight for a bit.  There is a couple, both doctors, who want a break from the tragedy they witness so regularly.  A woman named Winnie books the trip hoping for a romantic week with her boyfriend, but through an unfortunate mix-up, winds up traveling with her boyfriend’s unpleasant mother instead.  One couple receives their week at Stone House for free as a runner-up prize in a contest, and they are disappointed to be missing the grand prize week in Paris.  The guests are an odd mix of people, but each has an interesting backstory.

I absolutely love Maeve Binchy’s writing.  It’s heartfelt and hopeful but still realistic.  Even though the stories that she tells most often have happy endings, she acknowledges that life isn’t perfect.  Bad things do happen.  People make poor choices, relationships don’t work out, and one guest even leaves Stone House early because she can’t relax and unwind enough to enjoy a simple week of vacation.  But for the most part, this is a book about the way that things tend to work out for the best, and it is about the way that people’s lives overlap and impact others even if they are only staying at the same B&B for a week.