Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Interview with Karleen Koen

Earlier this summer I read and loved Before Versailles and I'm over-the-moon at sharing my interview with author Karleen Koen.

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

My very first piece of fiction would have to be short stories written for junior high.....something about a South American pyramid and time travel or something like that......I did write a send up of the Cinderella story for elementary, in which Cinderella was played by a big guy in a dress.....

Do you have any writing rituals or routines?

I'm always trying different things.....nothing sticks.....nothing makes the not-knowingness of the process any easier. I do have a fairly regular meditation practice, and that seems to help the stress.

Was Before Versailles the original title of your book?

I started with KING......had someone say, "As in Martin Luther?".....then I went to MONARCH.....thinking of the metamorphosis of a butterfly. My agent felt that title was too baldly masculine. Doodling around, I stumbled on BEFORE VERSAILLES, and the more I thought about it, the more I knew I had it....

As you were writing Before Versailles, was there a particular scene or character that surprised you?

Louis surprised me by taking over the book. I thought the book was going to belong to Henriette or Louise. Wrong.

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

Travel, read a lot, garden, play with my grandchildren.

Read any good books recently?

As a matter of fact, yes. I just finished reading for the second time the biography Eleanor and Franklin by Joseph Lash about the Roosevelts. It was so good, and Eleanor Roosevelt was an extraordinary woman, and the Great Depression was an extraordinary time in American history. Now I'm finishing a new biography of Jack London, called Wolf, the Life of Jack London by fellow Texas James Haley. Both are excellent. My taste in fiction has changed. As a writer myself, I notice the sags and bags of written fiction more, feel them more. In olden days, before I wrote, I was a voracious reader. If the story worked, that was all I asked for. These days, I like a little skilled writing style, please ma'am.............

*** *** ***

My thanks to Ms. Koen for taking the time to answer my questions! Learn more about her and her books at her website and Facebook.  To see all the blogs on the tour, check out the blog tour webpage.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness by Alexandra Fuller

Title: Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness
Author: Alexandra Fuller

Genre: Non-Fiction (Biography / Memoir / East Africa / 1960s / Post-Colonial)
Publisher/Publication Date: The Penguin Press (8/23/2011)
Source: TLC Book Tours

Rating: Loved, like I could elope with it loved!
Did I finish?: Yes, in a few nights.
One-sentence summary: A memoirist recounts her mother's life, from her Scottish roots to her childhood in '50s and '60s British-held Kenya and finally, her life in war-torn Rhodesia/Zimbabwe.
Reading Challenges: British Books

Do I like the cover?: I adore the cover. It's a picture of the author's mother with her childhood best friend, a chimp named Stephen Foster. It says everything about this book.

First line: Our Mum -- or Nicola Fuller of Central Africa, as she has on occasion preferred to introduce herself -- has wanted a writer in the family as long as either of us can remember, not only because she loves books and has therefore always wanted to appear in them (the way she likes large, expensive hats, and likes to appear in them) but also because she has always wanted to live a fabulously romantic life for which she needed a reasonably pliable witness as scribe.

Did... I love this book so much that I went out and got Fuller's first book before finishing this one?: YES! I love Fuller's warm sense of humor and wry perception -- she's another memoirist I wouldn't mind having as a friend!

Is... the title amazing?: YES. A real tree on her parents' farm, the Tree of Forgetfulness is where locals resolve conflicts, grievances, and problems. The author's parents have their drinks under the tree nightly, and reflect on their day.

Am... I glad I read this first rather than Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight, which is the memoir of her childhood?: YES -- only because I felt deeply sympathetic toward Nicola Fuller, Alexandra's mother, in this book (but I'm sort of judging her a little as I read Alexandra's memoir).

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow for sure, buy if you can -- an engrossing, compelling read!

Why did I get this book?: I grew up on Out of Africa (the movie and the book) and love all things Kenyan, so it was a no brainer for me!

Review: I'm having such a difficult time writing this review even though I loved this book (or maybe as a result of loving it!).  As a memoir/biography, it had my favorite elements: compelling individuals, a wry writing style, and a tumultuous setting in a location and era I enjoy.

I found myself describing this to friends as a kind of apology to Fuller's mother, Nicola, for Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight, Fuller's memoir of growing up in Rhodesia during the violent conflicts there.  What I've read so far of Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight so far is honest (brutally, amusingly, depressingly) and unflinching, and Fuller's mother isn't the most sympathetic.  In this book, Fuller goes back to look at Nicola's childhood, her parents, her experience in Africa, her love for the land, and the impact of the violent losses in Nicola's life.

What I so appreciated about Fuller's writing was her balance of affection for her parents and an awareness of the implications of their choices.  She's no colonial apologist or 'when we' romanticizing the era of British control in Africa.  She writes about the violence of late 20th-century Kenya and Zimbabwe succinctly and in a way that felt fair and accurate, that acknowledged the pain and losses on both sides of the conflicts.

By the end of this book, I felt like I knew the Fullers a little.  I liked them (even if I think Nicola Fuller is probably more fun to read about than live with) and I am wholly an Alexandra Fuller fangirl.  This slender book packs a lot of punch and I can't recommend it enough.  Even if the setting or era is alien to you, give it a try as Fuller's writing sucks you in and makes you care. (Plus, included are extras to guide the reader: maps, a glossary, cast of characters, etc.)

(If you do end up reading this, you absolutely have to check out the photo album on Fuller's website after: it was a delight seeing more of the names and places that were familiar to me. I squealed at the sight of the orange Le Creuset pots on a window sill.)

Monday, August 29, 2011

Just My Type by Simon Garfield

Title: Just My Type: A Book About Fonts
Author: Simon Garfield

Genre: Non-Fiction (Fonts / Typography / History / Graphic Design)
Publisher/Publication Date: Gotham (9/1/2011)
Source: TLC Book Tours

Rating: Loved.
Did I finish?: Yes -- and I couldn't stop babbling about it.
One-sentence summary: A history of fonts, font design, and typography, written in a humorous and accessible style.
Reading Challenges: British Books

Do I like the cover?: Yes -- it captures the playfulness of Garfield's writing style and displays some beautiful font examples.

First line: On 12 June, 2005, a fifty-year-old man stood up in front of a crowd of students at Stanford University and spoke of his campus days at a 'lesser institution' -- Reed College in Portland, Oregon.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow for sure -- even if you're not normally inclined toward graphic design, you'll not look at a sign or book cover the same way again!

Why did I get this book?: I am a font geek and I couldn't wait to read this!

Review: Even if you're not normally one who cares much for fonts or typography, this effortless read will change how you view printed materials. Written in an easy, accessible, humorous style, Garfield explains the history of typography and font design (or type design).

The stories range from generally interesting to oh-my-god-I-need-brain-bleach horrifying (I'm telling you, I'll never view Gill Sans the same way again!).  The chapters are about specific fonts and address specific topics (legibility versus readability, for example) but regardless of the focus, I was engrossed by Garfield's storytelling style.  And the stories are compelling and timely: the IKEA font switch drama, Obama's choice of campaign font, the history of the notorious Comic Sans, pirating and copying of fonts, and the worst fonts in the world (#1 surprised me but upon studying it, I agree!).

Written original for a British audience, this book has a great deal of European examples, which I found a bit of an armchair escape in addition to being generally fascinating.  I can't rave about this book enough -- not just for font freaks, this is a great piece of non-fiction loaded with trivia, history, and humor.

*** *** ***

GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to offer one copy of Just My Type to one lucky reader! 

To enter, fill out this simple form. Open to US/CA readers, closes 9/16.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

My wife gets bitten by the blogging bug...

My wife has gotten bitten by the blogging bug: Big Bad Belly.  She's spearheading a totally insane experiment that I'm witnessing/participating in/commenting on: six diets in six months.  From raw vegan to the Mediterranean diet, we're trying out different ways of eating/cooking to see what we like.  She's doing the hard work; I'm just eating the results.  If you're a foodie or have any cookbook recommendations, pop by her blog and say hello -- I'm sure she'd love the support!

Mailbox Monday, August 29

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 (hurricane-y!) Sunday.   Read any of these?  What did you get?

For Review



A Different Sky by Meira Chand
Me Again by Keith Cronin
The Last Time I Saw Paris by Lynn Sheene

Won



An Accident in August: A Novel by Laurence Cossé, thanks to For the love of books

Purchased/Swapped



The House at Riverton by Kate Morton

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Winners!

My Saturday has been quiet so far -- we're risking hurricane ire, I suppose, and tempting fate, by not stocking up on food.  Instead, I've been cleaning house and dipping into my reading (searching for the perfect rainy day book!). 

This week's winners are...

The winner of The Homecoming of Samuel Lake is ... Amy (ArtsyBookishGal) of Backseat Writer!

The winner of Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day is ... Ti of Book Chatter!

Congrats to the winners! See my current giveaways if you didn't win.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

What Language Is by John McWhorter

Title: What Language Is (And What It Isn’t and What It Could Be)
Author: John McWhorter

Genre: Non-Fiction (Linguistics / Communications / Anthropology)
Publisher/Publication Date: Gotham (8/4/2011)
Source: TLC Book Tours

Rating: Okay to liked.
Did I finish?: I did!
One-sentence summary: A discussion of what makes a language a language (rather than a dialect or 'tongue'), and how languages change, shape, grow, and shrink over time.

Do I like the cover?: It's a bit boring, but the word balloons make it clear what the book is about.  

First line: Page through a grand old book on what was once known as natural history -- as we all do so often, of course -- and you'll find that almost all drawings of marine life are rendered from the perspective of someone standing on the shore.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow -- my mother was always big into me reading books that might challenge my brain a little and I still pick up something outside of my normal tastes now and then. This might be that kind of book if you like words or have struggled to learn a second language.

Why did I get this book?: I'm a word nerd!

Review: I'm hardly a linguist by any stretch, but I'm chatty and I love trivia. As someone learning a second language as an adult, I'm interested in the ways languages have grown and changed.

The title -- and subtitle -- pretty succinctly summarizes the point of this book: what language is, isn't, and could be. Written for, I presume, an American audience (certainly an English-speaking audience), the book argues that 'normal' languages like English are in fact, not normal, and that many of the obscure, soon-to-be extinct languages spoken by small populations around the world are interesting, complicated, relevant, and evolved. More importantly, because a language isn't written doesn't mean it is less in value, importance, or sophistication.

I found this book a bit heavy at times, or more technical than I anticipated in a piece of popular non-fiction, but my wife found it very readable (but she also reads a lot of non-fiction). As the book progressed, I found it easier to understand -- either McWhorter's style grew less technical or I was starting to 'get' it.

Using 'idiom' as an acronym/frame, McWhorter's argument is that languages are ingrown, dissheveled, intricate, oral, and mixed.  Some of this went over my head (the entire chapter on languages being ingrown might as well have been written in, well, a foreign language!) but other chapters immediately made sense.  McWhorter helps by including charts and maps of the areas and languages he's referring to, which is immeasurably helpful.

McWhorter's writing, while very smart, also is humorous.  He's someone who clearly loves what he does, and he loves untangling linguistic mysteries.  Reading this was like hanging out with a very smart friend -- I might have gotten lost now and then, but ultimately, I enjoyed myself. 

*** *** ***

For more reviews, check out the other blogs on the tour!

GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to offer a copy of What Language Is to one lucky reader. To enter, please fill out this brief form! Open to US/CA readers, closes 9/9.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Interview with Deborah Lawrenson

I fell into hot, heavy, passionate love with Deborah Lawrenson's novel The Lantern. So it's with great delight that I get to share my interview with her. Learn more about her writing, The Lantern, and what she's enjoying these days. Comment for a chance to win this novel -- you'll love it!

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

My first novel was based on my experiences working in London for Nigel Dempster, the most famous national newspaper gossip columnist of his day. It was a great job for a young journalist, meeting everyone from film stars to lords and ladies. In my fevered mind, my book was a cross between Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City and Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies, with lots of topical and rather silly interweaving plots. Needless to say, the publishers didn’t see it quite that way. For them, it was a piece of chick-lit they could market as an insider’s view of the gossip world – and so they did.

Do you have any writing rituals or routines?

Thanks to my training as a journalist I am a very practical writer, wed to my routine to the point of dullness. I treat writing the first draft of a novel as an office job: I sit down at my desk every day and work for as much of the day as I can. When the first draft is done, I relax and enjoy playing around with the words and structure.

Was The Lantern the original title of your book?

I had two prospective titles to suggest to my literary agent: Lost in Provence and The Lantern on the Path. When it came to emailing them to her, I decided that The Lantern on its own was better, and that’s the one she liked. After the book was sold to the US publishers, we all spent a great deal of time trying to think of a better title. Night Lavender was one contender; The Scent of Night was another. There were several attempts to get House in the title. In the end, we stuck with the original – and I was delighted as that had always been my first choice.

As you were writing The Lantern, was there a particular scene or character that surprised you?

I have to say I was surprised how evil Pierre became. I wasn’t quite sure where his character was going when I wrote the first scenes of his visitations to Bénédicte, but did I see that coming when I first began to pin him down on the page? I don’t know – perhaps only subconsciously.

Was Les Genévriers, Eve's new home in Provence, based on or inspired by some place specific?

Absolutely, yes. It is a fair description of the property my husband and I bought a few years ago, in a place we have known and loved for very many years. If anyone is curious to see photographs of it, they can take a look at my blog.

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

Probably unsurprisingly, I like to read! Reading is one of my favourite pastimes in the world, and without at least one book on the go I feel bereft. I like painting, and walking in the countryside and being by the sea. In case that makes me sound too solitary, I also love chatting and hanging out with friends. Unlike Eve and Dom’s situation, our house in the south of France is often full of people having a good time!

Read any good books recently?

Lots! I’ve really enjoyed Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. Margaret Drabble’s The Seven Sisters is a clever, fun read with lovely writing and an underlying seriousness. I was so enraptured by Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife, inspired by Hemingway’s first wife Hadley that it sent me on a lovely book trail beginning with Hemingway’s autobiographical A Moveable Feast. Nothing like a lovely book trail where one leads on to another and then to another…!

*** *** ***

My thanks to Ms. Lawrenson for her time! To learn more about her book, check out her website and Facebook. For more reviews, see the other books on the blog tour.

GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to offer a copy of The Lantern to one reader. To enter, simply comment on this entry with an email address. Open to US/CA readers, ends 9/2.  For another entry, comment on my review.  

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Q by Evan Mandery

Title: Q: A Novel
Author: Evan Mandery

Genre: Fiction (Contemporary / New York City / Relationships / Writers / Time Travel)
Publisher/Publication Date: Harper Paperbacks (8/23/2011)
Source: TLC Book Tours

Rating: Okay to liked at moments.
Did I finish?: I did, although it was tough at some parts.
One-sentence summary: A man bails on marrying the love of his life after his future self warns him not to, unleashing more unhappy future selves.

Do I like the cover?: Yes, although it gave me the impression this was more of a hipster-y novel than it is.

I'm reminded of...: Scarlett Thomas, Gary Shteyngart

First line: Q, Quentina Elizabeth Deveril, is the love of my life.

Did... I develop a bit of a crush on Q: YES. The courtship of Q and the narrator is too cute for words. Luff.

Did... I sigh, happily, at the end: YES. The last chapter was just perfect.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow, I think, as it has a lovely romance at the heart of the story that's unusual and appealing.

Why did I get this book?: The opening line grabbed me and the story of love lost always gets me.

Review:  With the novel's opening chapter, I found two things: enchanting sweetness and overly quirky forays that ran a bit too long.  I immediately loved Q as much as our unnamed narrator did; their very cute courtship charmed me.  But just as I started to get seriously excited for the story, Mandery tempered my enthusiasm with four pages describing the stroke-for-stroke mini golf game the narrator and Q play on their second date. Amusingly, the course is owned by Neo-Marxists and so the obstacles are all Communist themed, but the literal recounting of the course bored me and was one of many passages where Mandery went on a bit too long about a pet idea he clearly loved.

That's how the rest of my reading of this novel went.

I'm really of two minds about this book.  I enjoyed it enough but I often found myself skimming.  Our narrator writes speculative fiction (what if Robespierre took up transcendental meditation, etc.) and this novel is just an extension of that what-if theme.  I wanted this novel to be a serious look at the impact of leaving the love of one's life (and what future event would be so awful to make one travel back in time to prevent marriage) but that's not this book -- and ultimately, Mandery isn't responsible for my (erroneous) expectations.

I had mentally resigned myself to being underwhelmed -- then I got to the last chapter.  It was a surprise, a moving, tender, sweet, and satisfying conclusion that almost saved the entire book.  Suddenly, the long rambling asides didn't seem so exhausting in light of the payoff.  I reread the last chapter twice, actually, to savor the language and sentiment, and bask a little longer.

New Yorkers will absolutely want to get this novel as the city is a literal backdrop (opening each chapter) and a background player to all the action.  Fans of cerebral silliness will also get a kick out of the narrator's ruminations; lit fic lovers might also like the nerdy narrative and variation on romance.

*** *** ***

GIVEAWAY!

I'm pleased to offer a copy of Q to one lucky reader. To enter, leave a comment on this review with your email address. Open to US/CA readers, closes September 9. For more reviews, be sure to check out the other blogs on the tour.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Interview with David Liss

Last week I read The Twelfth Enchantment by David Liss which I loved, like love-it-so-much-I-wanna-marry-it loved. Thus, I'm psyched to share my interview with the author. Read on to learn more about him and his writing, and be sure to comment for another chance to win your own copy of The Twelfth Enchantment.

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

The first piece of fiction I ever remember writing was in the second grade. I don't recall the details, but it involved a crashed spaceship and carnivorous plants. The carnivorous plant phase lasted until about the 4th grade.

Do you have any writing rituals or routines?

I am a morning writer. Regardless of what time I get up, I begin to run out of steam around noon, so I like to get to work as early as I can. In the mornings I write at a local coffee shop, where they take ridiculously good care of me, even reserving my space every day. I work on my prose fiction for about four hours, eat lunch, and then get to work on the comics side of my career. I do this until it's time to start the after-school parenting shift.

Was The Twelfth Enchantment the original title of your book?

No, the original title was The Darkening Green, which is taken from a Blake poem.

As you were writing The Twelfth Enchantment, was there a particular scene or character that surprised you?

I think most characters tend to evolve in ways their writers don't entirely suspect. I don't know that it surprised me, because I knew it had to go that way, but I did really enjoy Byron's arc. He was always such an interesting character to work on since he is always a little bit good and a little bit (or a lot) bad. Writing a character like that, and keeping him human, is always tricky, and I enjoyed walking that line.

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

I'm a little bit of a fitness nut, and I spend an hour and a half at the gym every day. I love to cook, drink good wine, spend time with friends and family, spend time outdoors (at least when there is not a triple-digit heatwave going on) and, of course, read.

Read any good books recently?

Some recent titles I've enjoyed include The Warsaw Anagrams by Richard Zimler, Diabolical by Hank Schwaeble, Company Man by Robert Jackson Bennett, The Devil's Plaything by Matt Richtel and Witches on the Road Tonight by Sheri Holman.

*** *** ***

My thanks to Mr. Liss for his time. For more reviews and info about the book, check out the blog tour.

GIVEAWAY!

I'm so excited to offer a copy of The Twelfth Enchantment to one lucky reader. To enter, simply leave a comment. Open to US/CA readers, closes 9/2. For another entry, comment on my review.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Mailbox Monday, Aug 22

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 (which might need to be the new scheduled time!)  Read any of these?  What did you get?


For Review



The Taker by Alma Katsu
Q: A Novel by Evan Mandery

Won



You're Next by Gregg Hurwitz
Grace Interrupted (A Manor of Murder Mysteries #2) by Julie Hyzy

Purchased/Swapped




Mark of the Lion (Jade del Cameron Mysteries #1) by Suzanne Arruda
Strapless by Deborah Davis
The Native Star by M.K. Hobson
Lisey's Story by Stephen King

and of course, given Sourcebooks' $1.99 Heyer sale, a metric ton of Heyers including...



The Corinthian, The Grand Sophy, The Masqueraders, and Reluctant Widow.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Winners!

Have some prize winners!




The winner of Eremenos is ... Col of Col Reads!

The winner of Reign of Madness is ... Holly of Bippity Boppity Book!

The winner of Everything Beautiful Began After is ... Diane of Bibliophile By the Sea!

Congrats to the winners!  Check out my other giveaways if you didn't win!

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Becoming Marie Antoinette by Juliet Grey

Title: Becoming Marie Antoinette
Author: Juliet Grey

Genre: Fiction (Historical / French / Marie Antoinette / 18th century / Royals)
Publisher/Publication Date: Ballantine Books (8/9/2011)
Source: TLC Book Tours

Rating: Liked a great deal!
Did I finish?: Yes -- I'm dying for the sequel.
One-sentence summary: A detailed, human novel of the early years of Marie Antoinette's life.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction

Do I like the cover?: It's okay -- I'm not wild about it although I do appreciate that the model's entire face is shown rather than cut off at the eyes like so many hist fic covers.

I'm reminded of...: Sandra Gulland

First line: My mother liked to boast that her numerous daughters were "sacrifices to politics".

Did... I wish there was a Who's Who in this book?: YES. There are so many courtiers and nobles I kind of lost sense of who was who from time to time.

Did... I want to cry at the horrible dental word Marie Antoinette had to suffer through?: YES.  Eighteenth century dentistry.  YUCK!

Did... I want this novel to continue on?: YES.  At nearly 450 pages, it's a nice, chunky read but I so liked Marie Antoinette's character, I wanted more!

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow for sure: this is the first in a meaty trilogy you don't want to miss!

Why did I get this book?: I love French historicals with my whole body.

Review: I love novels that humanize notorious figures so I was eager for Grey's take on Marie Antoinette. From the first page, I immediately liked our famously despised heroine.  Starting with her childhood, Grey introduces us to the pretty, jubilant young girl who is sacrificed to her mother's political aims.  There's a staggering amount of research in this novel -- and it shows.  The novel is written in first person, as Maria Antonia (as she's known in Austria) is polished and shaped and improved for her politically expedient marriage to the dauphin of France, and as she learns, we the reader learn.  From the torturous gold braces required to straighten her smile to the ponderous, painful, ridiculous traditions of the French court, I was mesmerised.

The novel ends just as Louis becomes king and Marie Antoinette queen; she's eighteen.  What I appreciated the most about Grey's writing is that I never forgot our heroine was a child, essentially, and yet, I didn't find the story childish or young.  Marie Antoinette's behavior -- recorded and memorialized by numerous courtiers and writers -- is made human, realistic, and believable in Grey's hands.  I felt deeply sympathetic toward most of the characters in this novel, even the villains (especially the infamous Madame du Barry), because Grey provided such great context and grounding for their behavior.  

I'm excited for the second novel (this is a trilogy) and eager to see how Grey humanizes Marie Antoinette during some of France's most notorious historical moments.  Another marvelous historical escape for the summer!

*** *** ***

GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to offer a copy of Becoming Marie Antoinette to one reader! To enter, leave a comment with your email address. Open to US/CA readers, closes 9/9.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Wendy and the Lost Boys by Julie Salamon

Title: Wendy and the Lost Boys
Author: Julie Salamon

Genre: Non-Fiction (Biography / New York City / Playwright / Broadway / 1970s / Women's College / Family)
Publisher/Publication Date: The Penguin Press (8/18/2011)
Source: TLC Book Tours

Rating: Okay to liked.
Did I finish?: I did!
One-sentence summary: Biography of Pultizer and Tony prize winning playwright, Wendy Wassterstein.

Do I like the cover?: I adore the cover. It resembles a Playbill cover, and I can't imagine anything more fitting for a biography of a Broadway playwright.

I'm reminded of...: Nancy Milford

First line: When Wendy Wasserstein died on January 30, 2006, at age fifty-five, hers was a rare obituary considered important enough to make the front page of the New York Times.

Am... I seeking out Wasserstein's works now?: YES. Just raided the local library!

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow, especially if you enjoy reading about the '60s and '70s (there's some fun stuff about many favorite actors who crossed paths with Wendy Wasserstein).

Why did I get this book?: I love reading about women writers.

Review: I was wholly unfamiliar with Wendy Wasserstein but I love reading about writers, and her life featured so many elements I enjoy reading about -- women's colleges, New York City, the arts scene, and complicated families. This is an authorized biography and I was apprehensive at first that would mean a glossing over of anything unsavory about Wasserstein or her family. Instead, I found it to be measured, fair, and detailed (albeit dry from time to time).

Wasserstein's life has elements of the fairy tale -- a secret brother squirreled away in an asylum, her mother's 'forgotten' first marriage, rollercoaster success as a playwright, her secret pregnancy -- and Salamon presents Wasserstein's story with respect and a kind of calmness. At some points, I wanted a little less distance: Salamon writes very openly about the Wassersteins' intense secrecy, and even though she shares painful revelations, I still felt at arm's length. Perhaps it was the subject herself; as Salamon explains in her Acknowledgments: "Untangling Wendy Wasserstein's story required constant triangulation between her dramatic interpretations of her life and times...; her 'nonfiction' essays; and everything else...".

The snapshots of Wasserstein's life at Mount Holyoke were especially fascinating to me -- I love reading about women's colleges in the '60s -- and learning about the Off-Broadway theater scene was very eye-opening (especially in regards to how women were treated).

I enjoy taking risks with my reading now and then and I appreciated this biography of a new-to-me writer. Wendy Wasserstein is now on my TBR; having this background will make reading her work richer, I think, and I'm curious now about other female playwrights from the '60s and '70s.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Lantern by Deborah Lawrenson

Title: The Lantern
Author: Deborah Lawrenson

Genre: Fiction (Contemporary / Historical / Provence / Gothic / Marriage / Mystery)
Publisher/Publication Date: Harper (8/9/2011)
Source: TLC Book Tours

Rating: LOVED, like top 10 of 2011 l-o-v-e-d!
Did I finish?: Yes, another record read in 3ish hours.
One-sentence summary: One rambling house in Provence connects two women as both struggle with the secrets that permeate their lives.
Reading Challenges: British Books, Historical Fiction

Do I like the cover?: Yes -- it's so pretty and reminiscent of the architectural feel of the novel's setting.

I'm reminded of...: Daphne du Maurier, Kate Morton, Amanda Prantera

First line: Some scents sparkle and then quickly disappear, like the effervescence of citrus zest or a bright note of mint.

Do... I wish I could live at Les Genévriers?: YES. Though falling apart, the hamlet seems to have this Anthropologie, French shabby chic thing going that I eat up with a spoon. I want!

Did... I love every character in this book?: YES. Even the unlikeable ones felt real, bursting from the pages, and I loved to love -- or loved to hate -- all of them.

Am... I searching for lavender scents now?: YES. One of the characters works harvesting lavender and the myriad of descriptions of the fragrance have me in the mood to wallow in the smell.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Buy, right now. Read it this weekend. It's absolutely wonderful.

Why did I get this book?: Rebecca is one of my all-time favorite reads and when I saw this book being compared to Rebecca, I was intrigued. Plus, it's set in France and I can't say no to an armchair escape.

Review: Here's my advice: buy this book and then put aside a whole morning or afternoon to dive in because I promise you're not going to want to stop. Interruptions will be painful. (Have someone bring tea or wine, though, because the story begs for that.)

At first, I thought this was going to be a literal retelling of Rebecca. The heroine, a younger woman, has a whirlwind romance with a moody older man -- Dom -- who is tight-lipped about his charismatic first wife, Rachel. Like du Maurier's book, the heroine in The Lantern is unnamed (although Lawrenson kindly has Dom give her a nickname for us to use, 'Eve'). The Lantern even has the iconic 'Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again' scene, when Eve dreams of Les Genévriers, the rambling hamlet she and Dom reside. Very quickly, though, it came clear that this novel is an homage to du Maurier's classic but still its own creature.

Alternating Eve's story is Bénédicte's, a woman who grew up at Les Genévriers during World War II and worked in the lavender fields and faced her own dark mystery. At first, I was impatient with the switching stories -- I just wanted to know what was going on with Dom -- but within two or three chapters, Bénédicte's story grabbed me as well. Her twisted, dangerous brother Pierre and her talented sister Marthe were as much a part of Les Genévriers and the story as the swimming pool and gorgeous countryside.

Eve had the right mix of naivete and obliviousness to make the story work realistically, without making me want to shake her for being a mouse (something I occasionally wanted to do to du Maurier's heroine). I greatly appreciated that Lawrenson didn't just wave away technology -- Eve does internet research, like an reasonably curious person would do -- and she gives Eve modern attitudes and behaviors. Eve confronts Dom in a way that du Maurier's heroine never could.

Lawrenson's writing style is lovely: evocative enough to give a strong sense of place but without too much ornamentation. The story races with impending danger even in the pensive places (although perhaps that was just me, unwilling to slow down!) and has the same sort of romantic gloominess of du Maurier's novel. Wisely, Lawrenson's novel is more than just what-happened-to-Dom's-wife -- du Maurier's novel set the bar so high I'm not sure any other book could do it well without seeming contrived -- and her mixing of historical mystery with a modern day Bluebeard is delightful.

Bottom line: get this book now (and thank me later!).

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GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to offer a copy of The Lantern to one reader. To enter, simply comment on this entry with an email address. Open to US/CA readers, ends 9/2. For another entry, be sure to come back for my interview with Deborah Lawrenson.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Interview with Noelle Hancock

Earlier this summer, I read and was absolutely charmed by My Year With Eleanor, Noelle Hancock's memoir about overcoming her fears the year she was laid off and facing 30. It was an unexpectedly moving read, one I still think about -- in fact, I have to credit her with introducing 'time-release weirdo' into my vocabulary.  Read on to learn more about Ms. Hancock's transition from web blogger to memoirist, what element she didn't expect to include in her memoir, and what she's been reading lately.

Can you recall the subject or plot of the first piece of writing you did, whether as a kid or an adult, that you felt was the start of your writing career?

When I was in fourth grade, my teacher had us tear out a picture from a magazine and make up a story about it. I found a picture in Highlights of a puppy holding a fedora in his mouth. I made up a story about a burglar who’d robbed a house but dropped his hat on the way out. (Why I thought a burglar would be wearing a fedora, I have no idea. Maybe I thought all criminals dressed like Hamburglar?) Anyway, the family puppy found the hat and when the cops arrived, the puppy carried to hat to a policeman, who discovered the crook had written his name on the tag inside, and solved the case. My teacher said my story was the best in the class and posted it on the bulletin board. It was a thrilling moment.

Was My Year With Eleanor the original title of your book?

Originally I titled it ‘The Eleanor Roosevelt Experiment’. But a week after my agent sent the partial manuscript to all the publishing houses, she called me and said, “I have to tell you: Everyone is really hating ‘The Eleanor Roosevelt Experiment’. They find it cold and they think it lacks heart. They don’t think it works at all.” She went on like this for a few more minutes; meanwhile I’m tearing up because I think she’s talking about the book itself. Finally she said, “So I think we should change the title to My Year With Eleanor. It’s warmer, don’t you think?” Then I realized she’d been referring to the title, not the book.

As you were writing My Year With Eleanor, was there a particular moment or person that you were surprised to find you included?

Initially I didn’t intend to write about my family, especially my little sister who was only fourteen at the time. It felt exploitative, mining their private lives for my memoir and offering it up to the public. I thought I could tell my story without them. But when my editor, Lee Boudreaux, read the manuscript she said, “Something is missing. Where are your parents in all this? Surely they have some thoughts about their daughter embarking upon this wild project.” She was right. Without my family, the story lacked depth. So I asked their permission and they agreed to be in the book. I let them read it before I turned it in, and they thought it was great. “You captured me perfectly!” my mom said.

Was the switch from writing for blogs to writing a memoir difficult or challenging?

Oh man, it’s like a track & field sprinter deciding to run a marathon! Before writing this book, the longest paper I’d written was maybe 15 pages, and I’d probably secretly narrowed margins and bumped up the line spacing to 2.5.

But the lessons I learned during my year of fear-conquering were surprisingly applicable to the writing process.

In the book I recount a conversation I had with my guide on Mt. Kilimanjaro. We were about to start our final day of climbing -- the hike to the summit -- and I asked the guide why we were starting the hike at midnight. It seemed counterproductive. Isn’t it harder climbing a mountain in the dark? He said that when people try hiking to the summit during the day, all they see is how steep the mountain is and how much farther they have to go. Most of the time they give up and quit before they reach the top. But if you’re hiking at night with a flashlight, all you can see is the small circle of light at your feet. When all your focus is on putting one foot in front of the other, the task seems smaller, more manageable. Just take it one step at a time, and eventually you’ll reach where you’re trying to go.

The same is true for writing a book. To avoid getting overwhelmed, I focus on what is exactly in front of me. Rather than worrying about the hundreds of pages I need to write, I focus on one chapter at a time, or even one page at a time. Writing an entire book sounds like this arduous task, but if you write just one page a day, in ten months you’ll have finished a book. When you think about it that way, it’s not so insurmountable.

Do you have any writing rituals or routines?

When I write at home I end up procrastinating, checking email, browsing websites, playing with my pets, etc. I also have a nervous habit of biting my nails and fiddling with my hair when I’m trying to write (my therapist, who’s also in my memoir, thinks it’s another means of procrastination -- a subconscious way of keeping my fingers off the keyboard so I have an excuse not to write). So I started writing a coffee shop that didn’t have wi-fi, so I couldn’t distract myself with the internet. To keep myself from fiddling with my hair, I’d cover it with a ski cap while I wrote. I covered my fingernails with band-aids so I couldn’t bite them. Ridiculous, I know. But it worked! I stopped procrastinating and started cranking out chapters. Then one day as I was writing I accidentally hit the webcam button on my Macbook and suddenly there I was, filling the entire screen. And as I looked at myself -- wild-eyed, surrounded by four empty coffee cups, wearing a ski cap indoors, fingers bandaged -- I thought, "Oh girl, it’s time to dial it back.” The only thing missing was a collection of Troll Dolls across my computer. And maybe a court order ruling me mentally incompetent. I still prefer writing at coffee shops because it keeps me on task -- I just try not to look like a total lunatic.

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

I’ve caught the travel bug! Before I wrote my book, I wasn’t much of a traveler because it was out of my comfort zone. And I certainly wasn’t impulsive. But after my year of fear, I was craving more adventure. So I left Manhattan and moved to this small Caribbean island with a population of 5,000, got a job and an apartment there. Next I’m thinking I’ll move to Ireland or Australia in October.

Read any good books recently?

I just finished Bossypants and am currently reading A Visit from the Goon Squad. Next I’ll probably read either Unbroken or Room. At some point I’ll probably have to give in and read The Hunger Games, right?

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My thanks to Ms. Hancock for her time! If you'd like, you can follow her on Twitter. Check out the blog tour for My Year With Eleanor for more reviews and see my review for why you need to read this entertaining memoir!

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Mailbox Monday, 8/15

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!  (Again!)  Read any of these?  What did you get?


For Review



The Last Nude by Ellis Avery
A Man of Parts: A Novel of H. G. Wells by David Lodge
Lionheart by Sharon Kay Penman

Won



A Wife for Mr. Darcy by Mary Lydon Simonsen, thanks to Diary of an Eccentric


Bought/Swapped



The Annotated Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov