Sunday, July 31, 2011

Mailbox Monday, Aug 1

Seen both at Mailbox Monday (hosted in August at Life in the Thumb) and The Story Siren, my Mailbox Monday/In My Mailbox...on a Sunday!  (Another crazy week ahead of me!)  Read any of these?  What did you get?

For Review




The Lantern by Deborah Lawrenson
Road from the West (Chronicles of Tancred #1) by Rosanne E. Lortz
Wendy and the Lost Boys by Julie Salamon
Does a Bear Sh*t in the Woods?: Answers to Rhetorical Questions by Caroline Taggart
Two for Sorrow (Josephine Tey #3) by Nicola Upson
Salvage the Bones: A Novel by Jesmyn Ward

Won



When God Was a Rabbit by Sarah Winman, thanks to Nomadreader

Purchased/Swapped



A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway
The Masque of the Black Tulip by Lauren Willig

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Winners!

Another belated announcement, last week's winners and this week's. Sorry to make all of you wait! Without further ado...

The winner of French Lessons is ... Meg of Write Meg!

The winner of Centuries of June is ... Literati Wannabe!

The winner of The Girl in the Garden is ... Colleen Turner!

The winner of Miss Timmins' School for Girls is Carrie of Nomadreader!

Congrats to the winners!  For those who didn't win, I've got plenty of open giveaways and many more coming.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Everything Beautiful Began After by Simon Van Booy

Title: Everything Beautiful Began After
Author: Simon Van Booy

Genre: Fiction (Literary / Contemporary / Greece / Loss)
Publisher/Publication Date: Harper Perennial (7/5/2011)
Source: TLC Book Tours

Rating: L-O-V-E-D! Another to make the top ten of 2011!
Did I finish?: Yes -- inhaled -- I couldn't stop!
One-sentence summary: An exploration of love, loss, and the secrets that weigh and shape our lives.

Do I like the cover?: Yes -- it could easily be the two main characters.

I'm reminded of...: Lawrence Durrell, Jeanette Winterson

First line: Everything was already here and I was last to be born.

Am... I ready to reread this already?: YES. Gorgeous language and such a moving story -- I'm not ready to leave!

Am... I frantic to read more by Van Booy?: YES. This was his first novel (please let another come out soon!) but he has two collections of short fiction I'm desperate to get my hands on.

Did... this book make me want Greek food?: YES, no surprise. I also wanted my apartment in Athens, but spanakopita and a bottle of retsina from a local Greek restaurant was the most I could afford.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: BUY! If you have any literary fiction lovers in your life, gift this to them.

Why did I get this book?: The cover. Honestly, I would beeline for it at a bookstore.

Review: Another staggeringly delicious read, another review where I'm fumbling for the words to express how much I loved this book.

In terms of plot, there's not much, technically: three young ex-pats meet in Athens, each hiding from a secret, hungry to loved. At the start, I was briefly apprehensive this would be just a love triangle novel, American pitted against Brit, fighting for the French girl -- but I was so desperately wrong. There's hardly a triangle, really, just three lonely people who love each other in differing degrees, wanting a family of their own. But loss figures in more greatly, and that's where the novel completely hooked me.

This is certainly literary, philosophical fiction, but it isn't aloof or cold; the story and emotions are very accessible. The writing is poetic and brief, vignette-y at times, but there's still a creative playfulness that made this more than just a maudlin exploration of loss. The point-of-view shifts from third person to second person (I know, but it worked!); a chunk of the novel is told through a one-way correspondence, each page replicating a sheet of hotel stationary. I'm hesitant to say too much more about the story or characters, lest I give away something that is worth discovering on your own but I will say, each time I thought, 'now we must be done with the plot line, the rest will be pretty language', Van Booy surprised me with a small twist or revelation that cast the characters in a new light.

Don't read quickly; savor this novel somewhere sunny (because this and a rainy day is guaranteed to provoke tears). I'm finished reading, but not done with this book; I want to linger a little and reread. Frankly, I'm hesitant to start anything else because I want the taste of this story to remain in mind.

*** *** ***

GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to offer a copy of Everything Beautiful Began After to one lucky reader! Just comment on this review with an email to be entered. Open to US/CA readers, closes 8/19. For another entry, comment on my forthcoming interview with Simon Van Booy.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Reign of Madness by Lynn Cullen

Title: Reign of Madness
Author: Lynn Cullen

Genre: Fiction (Historical / 15th century / Royals / Spain / Netherlands)
Publisher/Publication Date: Putnam Adult (8/4/2011)
Source: TLC Book Tours

Rating: LOVED!
Did I finish?: Yes -- and in my reluctance to stop reading, I missed my stop on the subway, twice!
One-sentence summary: The life of 15th-century royal, Juana of Castile, daughter of formidable Ferdinand and Isabel of Spain, and her tumultuous marriage.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction

Do I like the cover?: I'm not wild about it, until I study it, and then I like it a little more.  The narrow diamond shape creates this sort of closed-in feeling that replicates the feeling of Juana's eventual imprisonment.  The figure reminds me of the woman from the cover of Cullen's first novel, The Creation of Eve.

I'm reminded of...: Melanie Benjamin, Sandra Gulland, Anya Seton

First line: A birdcage might be gilded, but it is still a cage.

Did... I enjoy this novel despite knowing next to nothing about Juana of Castile?: YES. Cullen's story is detailed but not overwhelming, and her characters so vivid, I was sucked in.  Literally -- missed my stop when reading on my commute!

Would... I love to have author Lynn Cullen 'come' to a book club discussion of this book?: YES!  You can email her via her website to have her Skype with your book club!  How cool is that?!

Did... I love the Author's Note almost as much as the novel?: YES. In addition to outlining what was fact and what was conjecture on her part, there's a lovely respect and admiration in Cullen's writing that made me smile at her last few paragraphs.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Buy or borrow, as you can -- this is probably in my top five historical novels I've read this year.

Why did I get this book?: The title -- it promises so much! -- and really, I can't turn down a historical.

Review: I loved this book. It ranks in the top five historical novels I've read this year. From the first page, I was totally enamored of Juana, our heroine, and sucked in to her world.  I'm sort of mentally flailing my arms in my enthusiasm, so I apologize if this review is less substance and more squee.

Juana's parents are the Isabel and Ferdinand of Columbus/New World fame. A bright child, Juana is married off to a handsome, playful, vivacious Duke whose opulent, decadent world is the opposite of the stolid, stifled court she grew up.  Born in an era of immense change -- Cristóbal Colón has returned from the Indies -- and political upheaval -- her mother dominates her parents' royal reign -- she and her sisters are traded for the most power and best alliance.  In this, Juana knows her place -- but she's also mystified and confused by the shifting way everyone behaves in court and around her.  Crossing that uncomfortable place from child to adolescent, Juana learns what loyalty and fidelity is when her beloved father and much desired husband prove themselves far from devoted.

In this, I was reminded a bit of Sandra Worth's Pale Rose of England and even Melanie Benjamin's Alice I Have Been, as this novel articulates the awful imprisonment that comes from power -- or the perception of power -- and women's place in society.  Cullen imagines what happened to Juana in the years leading up to her imprisonment when she was labeled as a madwoman, and the story she envisions is heartbreaking.  And yet, there is some hope come the end: Juana is never broken and at the last page, I wanted to squeeze the novel to me, as if I were hugging Juana.  It was that good.

*** *** ***

GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to be able to offer a copy of Reign of Madness to one lucky reader! To enter, leave a comment with your email. Closes 8/19, US/CA readers only.


Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Interview with Daisy Goodwin

Last week I reviewed the delicious The American Heiress by Daisy Goodwin.  I'm thrilled to share my interview with her.  Read on to learn more about her and her book, and see the end for another chance to win a copy of her novel!

What was the plot of your very first piece of fiction?
This book is my very first piece of fiction, although I did try and write a film script about spies in the 1930's when I was a student.

Do you have any writing rituals or routines?
My only rule is to keep going until I hit a thousand words. And I don't re-read or revise until I get to the end. It is too easy to pick things to bits and forget the big picture.

The title of your book changed when released in the U.S.: it went from My Last Duchess to The American Heiress. Was My Last Duchess always the title you had in mind? What do you think of the American rename?

I took the title My Last Duchess from the poem by Robert Browning and I have to say that I had that poem very much in mind when I was writing my first draft which was darker and gothic in tone than the book that was published. I winced a bit when my US Publishers decided to change the title, I find it a bit literal, but if it means that more people read the book then I can't complain.

As you were writing My Last Duchess/The American Heiress, was there a particular scene or character that surprised you?

Yes indeed. The scene where Mrs. Cash is dressed as the Spirit of Electricity and then bursts into flames surprised me when I wrote it. I can honestly say that when I sat down that day I had no idea how the scene would end, but obviously my unconscious mind had been hard at work. That is the most wonderful thing about writing: the alchemy between what you think you know and what is really going on inside your head.

You edit poetry anthologies in addition to working in television. Was writing a novel a natural next step or an usual departure from your work and creative endeavors?

I had always wanted to write a novel but never quite had the nerve. I wrote a memoir called Silver River, five years ago, and while that was non-fiction I wrote a lot of passages in it imagining life in nineteenth century Argentina. I enjoyed that process so much that I realised that I could write a historical novel. The good thing about working in television is that it has taught me how to tell a story and the importance of getting the reader's attention and keeping it. You can't be self indulgent in tv and that is no bad lesson for a novelist. 'Murder your darlings!" as Oscar Wilde said.

When you’re not writing, what do you like to do?

Reading, quilting, riding my bike, cooking and lying on my back looking at the sky.

Read any good books recently?

I loved Gillespie and I by Jane Harris. A brilliant piece of unreliable narration. One of the best novels I have read this year.  The French Lieutenant's Woman by John Fowles. Just re read this and very glad I did. Tricky but splendid. King of the Badgers by Philip Hensher. A sort of gay Cranford.

*** *** ***

GIVEAWAY!  The publisher has generously offered a giveaway of The American Heiress to one lucky reader!  To enter, leave a comment with your email address.  Open to US/CA readers, closes 8/5.  For another entry, be sure to comment on my review.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Eromenos by Melanie J. McDonald


Title: Eromenos
Author: Melanie J. McDonald

Genre: Fiction (Historical / Ancient Rome / LGBT)
Publisher/Publication Date: Seriously Good Books (3/11/2011)
Source: Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

Rating: Liked a great deal.
Did I finish?: Yes, gobbled up in a few hours.
One-sentence summary: The 'memoirs' of Antinous, lover to the Roman emperor Hadrian.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction

Do I like the cover?: Yes -- it's very dark but quite beautiful and I think it alludes to a scene in the novel quite poetically.

I'm reminded of...: Penelope Fitzgerald, Mary Renault

First line: Such a quiet night, after Alexandria.

Did... I love McDonald's story about seeing Hadrian and Antinous' statues and how it gave her the idea for this book?: YES.  It made me a little teary and got me properly primed for how wonderful this novel would be.

Did... I wiki Antinous to see some of the sculptures Hadrian commissioned?: YES, and Antinous is quite a looker.

Did... I tear up at the end?: YES!

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Buy -- support a small press! 

Why did I get this book?: There's a scene in Tipping the Velvet in which the characters act out a tableau involving Antinous, which put him on my radar.  I knew only the vaguest details about him so was very excited to see him fleshed out in fiction.

Review: This slender, quiet novel packs quite a punch and is so easy to slip in to, I challenge anyone not to finish it in one sitting! Set in the second century A.D., the story is told by Antinous, a handsome boy from a rural province who ends up the lover of the emperor Hadrian.

Despite the possibility for some serious torridness, McDonald's writing as Antinous had a kind of restraint that felt aloof at first. But as the story progressed, the facets of love, possession, power, and privilege emerged and created a complicated portrait. Was this love? Abuse? Both?

Very little is known about Antinous' life, but I greatly enjoyed McDonald's envisioning of what it would have been like: the competitive schooling and classmates jockeying for power, the tension between Greek and Roman, the jealousies that emerge when one is privileged above all others, and the pain that comes from an unequal love. Additionally, Antinous lived in a fascinating era historically and McDonald included those tidbits -- which made me want to head to a library immediately and read more!

Even if you're not typically a reader of 'gay' fiction, I strongly recommend this novel. It's far from salacious or shocking for the sake of shocking; instead, McDonald envisioned what this historically notorious relationship could have been like, and the result is moving and enjoyable.

*** *** ***

Check out the other blogs on the tour for more reviews and guest posts from the author!


GIVEAWAY! I am so excited to offer a giveaway of Eremenos, thanks to the publisher. To enter, leave a comment with your email address. Open internationally, closes 8/12. On August 1, I'll be posting my interview with Melanie McDonald with another chance to enter this giveaway.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Interview with Nayana Currimbhoy


Last week I read and reviewed Miss Timmins' School for Girls, a delightful coming-of-age novel set in 1970s India.  It's unusual and unique and incredibly compelling and I can't rave about it enough.  I'm excited to share my interview with the author, Nayana Currimbhoy, as well as another chance to win a copy of her book.

What was the plot of your very first piece of fiction?

My very first piece of fiction was a short story, when I was nine, and for some reason I still remember how good I felt when I wrote it, and how great it felt when it was read aloud in class by the teacher. It was something about a jewel hidden in an umbrella.

That was when I decided to write a novel. It has only taken me more than forty years to get to it!

Do you have any writing rituals or routines?

I write at night, mainly, when the family is asleep, and in short, intense bursts when I am in my country cabin in the summer…the thing I really need is to have a stretch of time where I have the comfort of letting my mind play.

Was Miss Timmins' School for Girls the original title of your book?

I still marvel at how the title dropped.

It took me five years to write the novel. Throughout, there was not a single title that stuck. I had a file on my laptop, called titles. None of them worked for more than a few months. Drove friends and family crazy whining for title ideas. Even with my agent, Dorian Karchmar of William Morris, we went back and forth until the VERY morning she was sending it out to sell.

Suddenly I get a phone call from her “two other agents from William Morris, came up to me after the meeting where the book was discussed,” she said, very excited, ‘they suggested we call it Miss Timmins’ School for Girls’ “.

We both knew that was the true title, and so it is! To answer your question, the title came at the very last minute, from someone I have not even met.

As you were writing Miss Timmins’ School for Girls, was there a particular scene or character that surprised you?

That is a good question. A lot of scenes went in ways I did not expect, and many characters meant to be small became huge as the story went on. But the character that surprised me was Nandita, my schoolgirl narrator.

I used the device of a schoolgirl narrator for three reasons: I wanted to a counterpoint to Charu, to let the reader see her from another point of view, I wanted to get into the daily lives and rituals of boarding school life, and I wanted to provide some comedy.

I thought of the school girls initially as my Greek Chorus, my commentators. But Nandita became more and more dynamic as she moved through the story, and eventually took matters into her own hands, with heartbreaking results.

When you’re not writing, what do you like to do?

I spent so many years of my life NOT writing fiction, that right now, its my most favorite thing to do, my main hobby. Right now, I am in my little cabin in the mountains in upstate New York, spending time with my family, taking long walks and cooking huge meals. That is a combination of my favorite things to do.

Read any good books recently?

So many great books, so little time! I love books that give you a window into another world. I am reading Huckleberry Finn right now, and it is proving to be most excellent. Recently read Moth Smoke by Mohsin Hamid which I loved, it is set in Pakistan and shows one young man falling apart in a spectacular fashion.

*** *** ***

My thanks to Ms Currimbhoy for her time!  You can find her on Facebook and Twitter.

Giveaway!  I'm thrilled to offer a copy of Miss Timmins' School for Girls to one lucky reader!  To enter, just leave a comment with an email address.  Open to US/CA readers, ends 7/29.  For another entry, be sure to comment on my review!

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

My Year with Eleanor by Noelle Hancock

Title: My Year with Eleanor: A Memoir
Author: Noelle Hancock

Genre: Non-Fiction (Memoir / Contemporary / New York City / Self Discovery)
Publisher/Publication Date: Ecco (6/7/2011)
Source: TLC Book Tours

Rating: Liked enormously!
Did I finish?: Yes -- in a day or so!
One-sentence summary: A laid-off blogger spends a year inspired by Eleanor Roosevelt, confronting the things that she fears.

Do I like the cover?: Yes, it's adorable and quirky and doesn't take itself too seriously -- much like the tone of this book!

First line: I was lying on a beach in Aruba, mulling a third piña colada, when I received a phone call announcing I'd been laid off from my job.

Did... I love the blending of Eleanor's life with Hancock's?: YES.  Hancock wasn't just inspired by a quote of Eleanor's but found parallels in her life and Roosevelt's and that made this memoir meatier and more enjoyable.

Did... this book inspire me to contemplate my own fears?: YES. And not just the big things, like sea monsters and tripping down stairs to my death, but the small things too, like correcting people when they mispronounce my name. (I'm terrible at that; I spent a summer at a temp job answering to 'Andrea' because I didn't have the courage to correct anyone!)

Did... I love the recommended reading list Hancock included at the end?: YES.  Short, but to the point -- books about Eleanor that she used.  I've added them to my ever-growing TBR.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow for sure -- entertaining and funny -- and a bit inspiring!  I think this would be another great book club selection or one to share among friends.

Why did I get this book?: I'm an Eleanor Roosevelt fangirl.

Review: I confess right now that I was a bit dubious when I started this memoir, apprehensive that I -- not much of a celebrity gossip fan -- wouldn't enjoy what this former celebrity blogger had to say or care about her year of transformation.

Boy, was I wrong.

By page five I was ready to like Hancock and by page twenty or so, was totally charmed by her. Erroneously I had mentally decided Hancock's Manhattan-centered world and celebrity blogging meant one thing, but in reality, she was like any of my friends: overly dedicated to work, sociable but anti-social, insecure, apprehensive, and a little bit paralyzed by 'what now?'.

Frankly, I wanted her to be my friend.

Actually, one of the aspects of Hancock's book that stood out to me was her small coterie of loyal friends, who featured in her adventures as much as she did. I so appreciated that Hancock's journey allowed for others to participate and that in sharing the story with us, she highlighted those relationships and connections.  I also enjoyed Hancock's sense of humor: she's wry and sarcastic (without being cutting) with a lovely sense of introspection that allows for reflection that felt meaningful rather than self-absorbed.

Even though this seems a bit like a trendy project-a-year memoir, I found this book to be insightful, charming and inviting.  As someone who is greatly inspired by women from history, I adored Hancock's premise and found it to be deeper than a mere gimmick.  I'm a few years past 30 but I feel some of the same apprehensions about who I am and where my life is heading, and Hancock's book gave me ideas for being bolder and braver as well as some comfort that I'm not alone in my feelings.  A real delight to read!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The American Heiress by Daisy Goodwin

Title: The American Heiress
Author: Daisy Goodwin

Genre: Fiction (Historical / late 19th century / American / British / Peerage / Marriage)
Publisher/Publication Date: St. Martin's Press (6/21/2011)
Source: The publisher

Rating: Liked a great deal -- ice cream sundae delicious!
Did I finish?: Yes -- gobbled it up like the aforementioned sundae.
One-sentence summary: A rich American girl sets off for Europe and lands a prize catch in the form of of a Duke -- but is it happily ever after?
Reading Challenges: British Books, Historical Fiction

Do I like the cover?: Love it -- although I'm not sure the dress exactly resembles one from the late 1890s.  Still, it's a striking cover that evokes the luxury and elegance of the era.

I'm reminded of...: Jeanne Kalogridis, Amanda Prantera, Suzanne M. Wolfe 

First line: The visiting hour was almost over, so the hummingbird man encountered only the occasional carriage as he pushed his cart along the narrow strip of road between the mansions of Newport and the Atlantic Ocean.

Did... I love richer-than-words Cora Cash?: YES.  Typically this isn't the kind of heroine I'd fall for, but from the first page I found Cora a really marvelous mix of boldness and insecurity that felt real and compelling.  I cared, from the first page to the last, about her.

Did... I enjoy this novel despite being unfamiliar with the Browning poem, 'My Last Duchess'?: YES, although after the fact I found the poem and it's fantastic -- short and delightful!

Does... this book have hints of Gothic, a la Henry James and Daphne du Maurier?: YES, and those are two of my favorite authors.  Yum!

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: The paperback has just been released -- get it!  It's exactly what I love in a summer read and as I describe it in my review, it's frothy like a sweet cocktail.

Why did I get this book?: The era is a favorite of mine and I just fell in love with the cover.

Review: This might win for best vacation fluff of the summer, and I mean that in the awesomest way.  I've seen Anna Godbersen's YA Luxe series described as Edith Wharton meets Gossip Girl, and I would say that this novel is a grown-up version of the Luxe books.  Or, how about this: ever had a gin fizz?  This is the book equivalent of that light, frothy, fruity, delicious cocktail.

I had to post a Teaser earlier today because I was literally delighted by this story from the first handful of pages, and it honestly gets better from there.  Set during the Gilded Age, the story follows American heiress Cora Cash as she hunts, and marries, an English noble.  Even though Goodwin's writing is effortless it isn't thin: it's clear she's done her research and her tone balances the utterly serious way high society viewed itself with darkly comedic moments and pointed commentary offered in a very pointed manner.  It has Gothic elements, fantastic descriptions of houses and dresses and meals, plenty of intrigue, and a heroine who is self-absorbed and guileless in equal part.  Cora actually sold me on the story, from the first: she's outrageous and out-of-touch, but young and unsure in her own way.  She made me care for her eventual happiness, even if I'm not normally the type to cheer for rich heiresses!

Bottom line: get this book, pour yourself a silly cocktail, and settle in for some very ostentatious fun!

*** *** ***

GIVEAWAY!  The publisher has generously offered a giveaway of The American Heiress to one lucky reader!  To enter, leave a comment with your email address.  Open to US/CA readers, closes 8/5.  I have an interview with the author, Daisy Goodwin -- comment there for another chance to enter!

Teaser Tuesday, July 19

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along! Just do the following:

- Grab your current read & open to a random page
- Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page (be careful not to include spoilers!)
- Share the title and author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers

This week's teaser is from the delightful The American Heiress by Daisy Goodwin. My review is coming this morning but I just had to share a bit of what hooked me early on.  This is our first introduction to the heroine, Cora Cash, and honestly, I laughed and gasped and read on eagerly for more.

In the Blue Room, Cora Cash was trying to concentrate on her book.  Cora found most novels hard to sympathise with -- all those plain governesses -- but this one had much to recommend it.  The heroine was 'handsome, clever, and rich', rather like Cora herself.  Cora knew she was handsome -- wasn't she always referred to in the papers as 'the divine Miss Cash'?  She was clever -- she could speak three languages and could handle calculus.  And as to rich, well, she was undoubtedly that.  Emma Woodhouse was not rich in the way that she, Cora Cash, was rich.  Emma Woodhouse did not lie on a lit à la polonaise once owned by Madame du Barry in a room which was, but for the lingering smell of paint, an exact replica of Marie Antoinette's bedchamber at le petit Trianon.  Emma Woodhouse went to dances at the Assembly Rooms, not fancy dress spectaculars in specially built ballrooms.  But Emma Woodhouse was motherless which meant, thought Cora, that she was handsome, clever, rich and free.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Before Versailles by Karleen Koen


Title: Before Versailles: A Novel of Louis XIV
Author: Karleen Koen

Genre: Fiction (Historical / French / 17th century)
Publisher/Publication Date: Crown (6/28/2011)
Source: TLC Book Tours

Rating: Liked very much!
Did I finish?: Yes -- I kept daydreaming about returning to it whenever I had to stop.
One-sentence summary: Seven months in 1661 at the king's palace in Fontainebleau, France are filled with intrigue, romance, mischief, and mystery as a young lady-in-waiting navigates life at court.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction

Do I like the cover?: Yes, although it's a bit simple, it appeals to me, and has hints of Koen's previous covers (plus I love it when the covers accurately portray the setting -- in this case, Fontainebleau Palace).

I'm reminded of...: Sandra Gulland, Anya Seton

First line: Intelligent, virile, handsome, a man who made himself master of all he surveyed, Louis XIV was the foremost figure of his age.

Did... I get lost in this book every time I picked it up?: YES. This is a deliciously chunky historical that sucked me in from the start.

Was... I slightly apprehensive that I wouldn't dig this novel since it's loosely part of a series?: YES.  But it was an unwarranted fear -- this a fantastic stand alone novel (and I've read some reviews that say the connection to the other novels is very slight).

Did... I want Louise to be my bestie?: YES.  Sometimes the innocent-among-the-wolves grates on me, but I just loved Koen's articulation of her character -- brave and cautious in equal part, mesmerised by the glittering world she's in, growing more and more aware of how her life and expectations are being shaped and changed.  I would love to be a lady-in-waiting with her!

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy as you can afford, but definitely consider this novel whether you're new to Koen's works or an old fan.  It's a perfect summer getaway read.

Why did I get this book?: I'm a big Francophile and have heard nothing but rave reviews bout Koen's previous novels.

Review: I understand now why Koen has such a devoted following.  This deliciously huge novel has a fantastic cast, a fabulous setting, delicious intrigue, romance, and drama.  Set during 1661, after Louis' prime minister Cardinal Mazarin died, the novel follows Louise, a lady-in-waiting for the stunning, energetic, and inspiring Madame Henriette -- the king's sister-in-law.

Those who've read Dumas' The Man in the Iron Mask (or seen one of the films) will immediately notice one of the stories plot lines, but it is one of a few threads woven through the novel.  Koen blends historical fact and historical legend to create an engrossing and bittersweet story about privilege, love, loyalty, and excess.

I found I loved all the characters, heroes and villains alike, especially as the heroes and villains shifted and changed as the story went on.  No one felt stock or cardboard flat which made the shimmering changes in loyalties feel realistic.  I can't imagine what it would be like to live as a courtier at Fontainebleau but Koen's storytelling made it real for me -- and so, at moments, I wanted to be one of the ladies there and at other moments, I was so grateful I wasn't.

I really enjoyed Koen's writing style; I would almost describe it as literary hist fic.  She has her solid frame of historical detail that make up the bulk of her narrative -- but she punctuates a scene or moment with a lovely line or two that mixes presentiment and fact, poetry and prose.  For me, it enhanced the general bittersweet tone to the story; we know what the characters don't: how Louis will change as he grows, how his court will change, the courtiers, the country.

For anyone who wants a royal armchair escape, I recommend this one!

*** *** ***

GIVEAWAY!  I'm thrilled to offer a copy of Before Versailles to one lucky reader. To enter, leave a comment with an email address. Open to US/CA readers, closes August 5th. For another entry, be sure to comment on my interview with author Karleen Koen -- coming soon!

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Mailbox Monday, July 17


Seen both at The Printed Page (hosted in July at A Sea of Books) and The Story Siren, my Mailbox Monday/In My Mailbox...on a Sunday!  I've got a crazy review week ahead of me so I'm doing my mailbox today.  Lots of fascinating books to review plus some guilty pleasure purchases!  Read any of these?  What did you get?




For Review




Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness by Alexandra Fuller
The American Heiress by Daisy Goodwin
The Magicians by Lev Grossman
The Magician King by Lev Grossman
The Twelfth Enchantment: A Novel by David Liss
Eromenos by Melanie J. McDonald
The Homecoming of Samuel Lake: A Novel by Jenny Wingfield


Purchased/Swapped



A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray
Rebel Angels by Libba Bray
The Sweet Far Thing by Libba Bray
Bedelia by Vera Caspary (an original hardcover from 1945!)

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Winners!

I missed posting last week's winners, so I'm combining two week's worth of giveaway results into this single post -- sorry for keeping all of you waiting!

From last week...

The winner of Mr. Bishop and the Actress is ... Jenna of Literature and a Lens!

The winner of The Hypnotist is ... karenk!

And for this week...

The winner of The Art of Forgetting is... Tiffany Drew!

The winners of The Seven Year Bitch are ... Jenn of Picky Girl and Lisa of Lisa's Loves (Books of Course)!

Congrats to the winners!  If you didn't win, I still have many open giveaways and more great ones coming this week!

Friday, July 15, 2011

In Her Wake by Nancy Rappaport

Title: In Her Wake: A Child Psychiatrist Explores the Mystery of Her Mother's Suicide
Author: Nancy Rappaport

Genre: Non-Fiction (Memoir / Contemporary / 1960s / Divorce / Suicide)
Publisher/Publication Date: Basic Books (7/12/2011)
Source: TLC Book Tours

Rating: Liked a great deal.
Did I finish?: Yes -- it really was un-put-down-able!
One-sentence summary: A Boston-based psychiatrist recounts the story of her parent's marriage, her mother's suicide, and the subsequent impact on her family's life.
Reading Challenges: None.

Do I like the cover?: Yes -- it features a picture of the author's mother and feels a bit retro to me, reminiscent, perhaps, of the 1960s setting.

First line: The day my mother killed herself, she had just finished preparing her house on Marlborough Street for the anticipated return of her children after a fierce custody battle with my father.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow for sure -- I think it could appeal to many readers for the myriad of angles Rappaport explores, and it's very low on the salacious scale.  I'm planning to buy a few copies as gifts for the Boston history buffs I know.

Why did I get this book?: Primarily the Boston connection.

Review: I don't read many memoirs, especially family-oriented ones: I'm prone to flash judgments and over empathizing; I can shake off fiction that rattles me but nonfiction sticks a little more.  Still, this Boston-based memoir attracted me so I started it with some apprehension.

Very quickly, I saw how courageous Rappaport was as she tackled the story of her parent's marriage, her mother's suicide, and her father's subsequent parenting choices since she, her father and stepmothers, and many of her siblings still live locally.  Her professional training as a psychiatrist showed through on every page: she acknowledged when her research frightened her family and offered many opportunities for her father to have his say about the story she was telling.  At moments, I was impatient with her fair-minded and even-handed presentation: I wanted her to be critical or judgmental -- even mean.  But in the end, she won me over (despite my muttering about her father and stepmothers) by going beyond simply recounting the days leading up to her mother's death.  She explored the facets of abuse, infidelity, mental illness, addiction, and grief that impacted everyone in her family in a readable way that didn't feel too technical or dry nor too salacious or torrid.  As her family has enormous connections in Boston's history, politics, and development (her grandfather was the lawyer for Vanzetti of Sacco and Vanzetti, for example) and Rappaport provides enough background to give the reader some appreciation of how publicly her parent's lived.

This is another book I've spent all week talking about to almost everyone I know.  While I've never had someone close to me commit suicide, I was still able to appreciate Rappaport's looks at her family and how this painful event (and the moments before and after) impacted all of them -- and see some of my own familial pain, however dissimilar, in her story.  This quiet memoir is moving but not soul-crushing, readable and genuine.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Miss Timmins' School for Girls by Nayana Currimbhoy

Title: Miss Timmins' School for Girls
Author: Nayana Currimbhoy

Genre: Fiction (India / Historical - 1970s / Girls School / Murder Mystery / Post-Colonial)
Publisher/Publication Date: Harper Paperbacks (6/21/2011)
Source: TLC Book Tours

Rating: Liked immensely!
Did I finish?: Yes -- I couldn't stop thinking about this book.
One-sentence summary: A young teacher's life is changed by love (and sex), the murder of a colleague, and family drama in 1970s India.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction, South Asian

Do I like the cover?: Yes. It references a rather iconic moment from the story.

I'm reminded of...: Charlotte Greig, Zoë Heller

First line: Today Charu came back to me, suddenly.

Did... I greatly appreciate the glossary in the back?: YES! It made my wiki-ing a lot less!

Did... I stay up multiple nights because I couldn't stop reading?: YES! At 491 pages, this was not one of my three-hour reads, but it was so good I didn't want to go to bed.

Do... I love the font used in the novel for the chapter initials and page numbers?: YES!
Sadly, this book didn't have that page at the end that explains the history of the fonts used so I've no idea what it is. But it's pretty!

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow for sure! I think this would make a smashing book club novel as there are so many fascinating elements that beg discussion.

Why did I get this book?: The title!

Review: Even though there is a murder mystery that is central to the novel, I actually found Miss Timmins' School for Girls to be an engrossing kind of coming of age story, following 20-year old Charulata Apte as she struggles to discover the woman she is, be it a bellbottom-wearing hippie in Bombay or simply a graceful beauty like her mother. Charu occupies that awkward place where one feels (and should be) grown up and yet, feels (and often behaves) childishly.  As she leaves her parents for her first job as a teacher at a boarding school, her life turns especially tumultuous and confusing when a white teacher is murdered and she's involved.

Currimbhoy creates an evocative setting in the British all-girls school in rural Panchgani, especially the fishbowl living between students and teachers. Secrets and scandals -- large or small -- constantly threaten to be exposed, and the confusing mix of hormones, isolation, and differing social classes create an explosive brew.  Reading, I was reminded very much of other British school fiction from The History Boys to Notes on a Scandal: What Was She Thinking? to the St. Trinian's series.

In fact, literature and popular culture play a huge role in this novel, from the iconic music of the late '60s and early '70s as the soundtrack for Charu's social life to books by Nabokov (shocking and daring), Enid Blyton (the aspiration of the school), or William Golding (what the schoolgirls are really like).  As I measure my own life in music and books, this really struck a chord with me and added a sense of realism to the story and gave me a place to empathize with Charu.

I found I liked all the characters and found their stories compelling; the novel is long (and perhaps a little too long at moments) but I enjoyed the way the various story lines played out and were resolved, and I had no problem keeping everyone straight.  From the trio of mischievous students who set out to solve the mystery to Charu's extended family (and the drama that came with them), there was a feast of tensions that gave Charu and this novel the oomph that made it more than murder mystery.  I recommend this book for a long trip, when you've got many nights available to curl up and read (and don't mind waiting until the very end for the mystery to be solved!).

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Giveaway!  I'm thrilled to offer a copy of Miss Timmins' School for Girls to one lucky reader!  To enter, just leave a comment with an email address.  Open to US/CA readers, ends 7/29.  For another entry, be sure to stop by and comment on my interview with Nayana Currimbhoy!

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Teaser Tuesday, July 12


Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along! Just do the following:

- Grab your current read & open to a random page
- Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page (be careful not to include spoilers!)
- Share the title and author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers

Today's teaser is from Nayana Currimbhoy's fabulous novel Miss Timmins' School for Girls.  Set in 1974 at a girl's school in the Panchgani region of India, the story follows Charulata Apte, a young Indian woman who is an English teacher there.  The excerpt below is from early in the novel, as Charu is chatting with a few other teachers. They're telling her about monsoon season and how hard it is to keep the students cooped up inside.  Miss Manson, one of the teachers, suggested Charu help her teach the students Scottish dance.

I really knew nothing about the dancing habits of the Scottish.  But I wanted to help.  "I could teach them Indian folk dances," I offered, scrounging my mind for school dances in gaudy garments.

"Well, I'm not sure that they would be complex enough for competitions," she said.  Pursing her lips, she blushed a dark, deep red.  I knew I had said something wrong, but it took me a few days to understand the reason for Miss Manson's disapproval and discomfort.  She blushed a beetroot red because I had unwittingly questioned the core belief of the school: British was Better.

Monday, July 11, 2011

The Girl in the Garden by Kamala Nair

Title: The Girl in the Garden
Author: Kamala Nair

Genre: Fiction (Contemporary / India / Family / Relationships)
Publisher/Publication Date: Grand Central Publishing (6/15/2011)
Source: TLC Book Tours

Rating: Loved -- top 10 for 2011!!
Did I finish?: Yes -- another book I picked up around 1ish on Sunday and finished a few hours later -- I couldn't stop!
One-sentence summary: An Indian-American woman recounts the tumultuous summer she spent in India, more than a decade ago, when she learned the dark secrets about her mother's family.
Reading Challenges: British Books, South Asian

Do I like the cover?: Yes. Despite seeming a bit stock, the imagery of the peacocks comes directly from the story, and the cover has this lovely embossed frame around the title.

I'm reminded of...: Diana Abu-Jaber, Kamila Shamsie

First line: By the time you read this I will be flying over the Atlantic on my way to India.

Did... I know things bode well when the novel opened with a poem from Mirabai?: YES. She's a favorite of mine and her small role in this novel made me love it even more.

Did... I get sucked in from the first line?: YES. Honestly, I wish I could quote the whole first page -- I was immediately captured by the narrator and the story she was telling.

Did... I cry at the end?: YES! The last page was perfect -- I got teary at the satisfying conclusion.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: BUY! One for yourself, maybe gift one to a friend. In addition to the exotic armchair escape, this is a fabulous novel for discussing and chewing over.

Why did I get this book?: I'll admit -- the cover.

Review: The feel of this story is American Southern Gothic, just set in India: noble family decaying from long-held secrets, countered by the lush, untamed landscape of their estate. Small town gossip, age old sins, and a child watching everything implode without fully understanding what she's seeing.

From the first sentence, I was immediately engaged.  The narrator, Rakhee, is an Indian-American woman from Minnesota, now finishing grad school at Yale.  At the start of the novel, she has left her fiance (and engagement ring) behind in Connecticut, heading for India to see her mother for the first time in more than a decade.  The novel is essentially the letter she left for her fiance to explain why she doesn't talk about her mother and why she has to go to India.  We learn about her childhood in Minnesota and her impressions of her parents and their marriage, and the life changing trip to southernmost India where she met for the first time her mother's relatives.

Nair is wonderful at painting the landscape, making Malanad easy for me to visualize, and I found her equally skilled at creating mood.  This novel effectively calls up that confusing anxiety when one transitions from child to young adult; when things seems nebulous, strange, frightening and marvelous.  While reading, I felt Rakhee's curiosity and fear, but I also had an adult sense of forboding: I knew better than she that what might have been a she-demon was something far more mundane, possessing a far darker story.

I found all Nair's characters to be quite real and human: at any given point, I could have slapped one and hugged another, and who would receive what changed page by page.  I could appreciate why everyone behaved as they did; and I could judge them for their behavior.  It was a narrative dance performed brilliantly by Nair because I cared even if I disliked someone.  And at the end, I teared up and finally exhaled, having literally gobbled this book in a few hours, satisfied and delighted and thoroughly moved.

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Learn more about Kamala Nair at her website or her Facebook page.  For more reviews, check out the other blogs on the tour.

GIVEAWAY!  I'm thrilled to offer a copy of The Girl in the Garden to one lucky reader!  To enter, simply leave a comment with an email address.  Open to US/CA readers, closes 7/29.