Thursday, September 29, 2011

Winter's Tales by Isak Dinesen

Title: Winter's Tales
Author: Isak Dinesen

Genre: Fiction (Short Stories / Danish / 19th century / Fairy Tales / Historical Figure Fictionalized)
Publisher/Publication Date: Vintage (6/1/1993)
Source: My public library

Rating: Liked.
Did I finish?: I did, over a week, about a story or two a night.
One-sentence summary: Twelve short stories on love, faith, courage, family, obligation, wonder, and death.

Do I like the cover?: I don't -- I know it matches the cover for Seven Gothic Tales, but I don't think it reflects the flavor or tone of the stories.

I'm reminded of...: A.S. Byatt, O. Henry,

First line: In the first half of the last century there lived in Sealand, in Denmark, a family of cottagers and fishermen, who were called Plejelt after their native place, and who did not seem able to do well for themselves in any way. From "The Dreaming Child"

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy: there's some lovely, poetic language in these stories for those who are in love with gorgeous quotes.

Why did I get this book?: My GoodReads book group picked it and I'm always willing to read Dinesen.

Review: Like many Americans (I suspect), my introduction to Isak Dinesen was via the film version of Out of Africa. I actually never saw it until an adult, but my mother bought the film tie-in copy of Out of Africa and Shadows On the Grass which I read cover to cover two or three times in high school -- and my Dinesen obsession was born.

This collection of eleven short stories has the feel of a 19th-century fairy tale collection; while reading, I found myself musing if these stories were the ones Karen recounted to Denys while they were in Kenya. Some were pure magic while others were meditations on religion, family, or obligation. There were delightful passages in every story, wryly funny and very true, such as:

"Jensine would never have married a man whom she did not love; she held the god of love in great respect, and had already for some years sent a little daily prayer to him: "Why doest thou tarry?" But now she reflected that he had perhaps granted her prayer with vengeance, and that her books had given her but little information as to the real nature of love." (page 109, from "The Pearls")

For those who are new to Dinesen, this is an excellent introduction as she is a writer of more than just memoir; those who have read Out of Africa have gotten a taste of the dreamy, meditative way she tackles life, and these stories are an extension of that.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Call Me Princess by Sara Blædel

Title: Call Me Princess
Author: Sara Blædel

Genre: Fiction (Crime / Mystery / Denmark / Police Procedural )
Publisher/Publication Date: Pegasus Book (8/16/2011)
Source: NetGalley

Rating: Okay
Did I finish?: Yes, but I skimmed a good deal.
One-sentence summary: Danish police detective races to find a rapist before he strikes again, all while juggling stresses in her personal life.
Reading Challenges: E-Book

Do I like the cover?: Eh -- the book is about internet dating, not the dangers of walking alone at night, so the cover doesn't feel quite right to me.

First line: The pain cut into her wrists, and she couldn't react because her hands were tied so tightly behind her back.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow if you're a Scandinavian crime fic addict and you're in need of a new fix.

Why did I get this book?: I like some crime and mystery series, and I love things set in Denmark.

Review: This is Blædel's American (or English-language) debut, which is unfortunate, because this novel is the second in Blædel's series featuring Danish detective Louise Rick. By page 44, I noted on GoodReads that I was feeling a disconnect with the characters and I wondered if it was because I was coming in midseries -- so I feel slightly vindicated that is, indeed, the case.

The novel opens with a graphic, detailed rape so I knew immediately that this wasn't going to be my kind of book. I was expecting a little more nuanced plot, but instead, the crime is straight-forward: a man is raping women he meets online. I wasn't wild about the writing style (or translation, I'm not sure which): despite the detailed scenes of violence, the rest of the book detailing the investigation felt very vague and aloof. I didn't connect with the lead character, Detective Louise Rick, her bestie Camille, or anyone else in the story. Louise had interesting potential: she displayed a mixture of empathy and impatience with the victims, which felt real to me, and I would have liked to learn more about her. Sadly, despite the foreign locale, so much of the story felt familiar, from our heroine's failing romantic life to her tension with her supervisor. I didn't get a sense of Copenhagen or Denmark, either: the story really could have been set anywhere in the US.

In the end, not a favorite for me, but something must have grabbed because now, about a week or so later, I'm still wondering about some parts of Louise's life and I've been searching for info about the possible next English-language translation in the series.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

Title: Salvage the Bones: A Novel
Author: Jesmyn Ward

Genre: Fiction (Hurricane Katrina / Southern Fiction / Dog Fighting / Teen Pregnancy)
Publisher/Publication Date: Bloomsbury USA (8/30/2011)
Source: TLC Book Tours

Rating: Loved/hated in that this book totally effed me up.
Did I finish?: Yes.
One-sentence summary: Fourteen year old Esch is pregnant, caring for her absent, violent alcoholic father and three brothers, each needy in their own way, against the backdrop of Hurricane Katrina.

Do I like the cover?: Yes, as much of the story centers around a pit bull named China.

First line: China's turned on herself.

Did... I cringe from the first page?: YES. The writing is stellar and so the violence packs a punch. I was winded, and it was good/painful/awful/amazing.

Did... I inhale this book in a single night?: YES. Really, I couldn't shake this book, even when I was horrified and uncomfortable. I had to read on.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy: this is a hard book but one that is moving, thought- and conversation-provoking. Perfect for a book club.

Why did I get this book?: Grim or awful as this may sound, I've been interested in reading narratives about Hurricane Katrina.

Review: This is a book I didn't want to read, but I couldn't stop reading it. The story is gutting -- literally, pulling-out-my-innards painful -- and yet, I couldn't stop thinking about the characters and their story. It hurt to read; it hurt to not read.

This is the first novel I've read that features Hurricane Katrina specifically and the horrific aftermath, and there's a lot in this book that is stomach-turning. Violence, neglect, and sex are depicted with unromantic and blunt honesty, the story of a fractured family struggling to survive in their own way. Fourteen year-old Esch is pregnant and hiding it from her brothers and alcoholic father. Her brother Skeetah is raising China, a pit bull for dog fighting, who has had her first litter. Her youngest brother skates by, desperate for attention, while her other brother Randall is convinced basketball will be the key to escaping this poverty.

Although the narrator is fourteen, this isn't a YA novel; the voice is both young but knowing, a child who has had to grow up too fast. Esch's burgeoning pregnancy and China's whelping are meant to bounce off each other: giving birth, nurturing life, but this is not a book where the girl and dog find safety and hope in each other. Instead, China's litter, her response to her pups, her owner's response, reminds Esch of the love she doesn't have, the lack of mothering in her own life, and very real unknown facing her. What was so good about this book was that Esch was a real, complicated character. She's well read and can't stop thinking in terms of mythology (when China eats one of her puppies, Esch thinks immediately of Medea), a trait I found achingly familiar from my own teenaged years, and it was painful to see how different her life was from mine. Were the novel simply about her life, that would be a moving enough story but the additional impact of Hurricane Katrina provides this low-grade tension since we know what's coming.  Honestly, I nearly ground my teeth to nubs in my anxiety to finish.

I don't like doing hard things for the sake of building character, but I do believe in reading tough books now and then because of the enormous impact it has on my perception of the world. This book challenged me -- frankly, at times, it scared me -- but it was so moving, so well-written, that the odd twist of hope and melancholy at the end of the story left a knot in my chest. I can't swallow it away.

*** *** ***

GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to be able to offer a copy of Salvage the Bones to one lucky reader. To enter, fill out this simple form. Open to US/CA readers, closes 10/14.

Monday, September 26, 2011

A Man of Parts by David Lodge

Title: A Man of Parts: A Novel of H. G. Wells
Author: David Lodge

Genre: Fiction (Historical / WWII / London / Historical Figure Fictionalized / early 20th century /
Publisher/Publication Date: Viking Adult (9/15/2011)
Source: The publisher

Rating: Liked to love -- I bet my estimation will grow as time goes on.
Did I finish?: Totally -- couldn't put it down.
One-sentence summary: At the end of his life, author and lover-of-many H.G. Wells reflects on his life.
Reading Challenges: British Books, Historical Fiction

Do I like the cover?: I love it -- the vintage illustrations of women suggest Wells' lovers, or at least, his interest in women and there's something about the font that is ugly and yet, so appealing.

I'm reminded of...: A.S. Byatt

First line: In the spring of 1944 Hanover Terrace, a handsome row of Nash town houses on the western perimeter of Regent's Park, is looking distinctly war-worn.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Buy or borrow if you like literary historical fiction.

Why did I get this book?: Writers on writers -- I can't resist!

Review: What I love about historical fiction is that the past is given color and brought to life in a way that feels real, that invites me to see myself and my own life in the actions and events of the characters -- or, forces me to examine my own assumptions and biases (more on that later).

This was my first David Lodge novel so I didn't know what to expect; I've long wanted to read his take on Henry James but haven't gotten to it (someday, someday). This novel, centered on H.G. Wells, covers my favorite historical eras and features many historical figures I like. The novel opens in 1944 with Wells' close acquaintances talking about his diagnoses of liver cancer. I wasn't immediately sucked in as I found Lodge's narrative style a bit awkward and I wasn't sure I was going to like any of the characters. On page 12, the story turns into an interview, essentially, as Wells imagines someone grilling him about this life. I originally resented this technique: it felt too clever, too meta, too 'on last week's episode'... but as the novel progressed and the interviewer started asking pointed, hard questions (the kind I wanted asked), I had this grateful a-ha! The interviewer injected some accountability and culpability I needed in order to respect the problematic character of H.G. Suddenly, I found him less unappealing; I found some places to understand him.

Still, I wasn't wild about Lodge's writing style. There were long chunks in which I forgot I was reading a novel; this could have been a biography lacking footnotes. Which isn't to say the book was bad, but rather, there was a lack of drama. It was at these times I missed our interrogator: I wanted a foil, or a mirror, something to slice beneath the well researched biography to expose the nerves. There's quite a lot of quoted correspondence and excerpts of reviews, which again gave the impression of nonfiction. Where the book worked for me was when Lodge focused on Wells' romantic and sexual relationships; much of the last portion of the novel focused on Wells writing and as I haven't read much of him nor enjoyed what I have read, I found the section dry and a bit boring.

Now: about my assumptions and biases and those romantic and sexual relationships. Reading this book was an experience in self-reflection, as my puritanical self went nuts hating on Wells for his sexual relationships. Lodge's H.G. saw his relationships and passades (Wells' term for his flings) as something necessary, sustaining, and inspiring; he perceived his wife and numerous lovers as being (essentially) comfortable with his attitudes about Free Love. I couldn't help but see the inequality in both his philosophy and practice of Free Love and I'd get all huffy every handful of pages or so, irritated on behalf of the numerous women he ran through. Still, every time I thought I'd quit reading, the interviewer would emerge and ask some scathing question that echoed what I was thinking, and it gave me a place to be vindicated and see Wells' angle.

At the end of this book, I found myself feeling very conflicted. As in my favorite historical novels, I found myself caught up in the life of the main character, and in this case, I didn't (couldn't, didn't want to) hate H.G. I still felt strongly for his lovers, quite protective of them, and yet, a bit sad as the story wound down and I was faced with H.G.'s death. I was made uncomfortable, provoked, soothed, entertained, and educated by this meaty novel (nearly 500 pages) and I heartily recommend it to anyone who likes literary hist fic.

*** *** ***

GIVEAWAY!

The publisher has offered an amazing giveaway: a copy of A Man of Parts and a copy of H.G. Wells' classic War of the Worlds! To enter, fill out this simple form. Open to US/CA readers, closes 10/14.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Winners!

Three giveaways closed for this week. Here are the winners!



The winner of Ashes of the Earth is ... Nancye D!

The winner of Road From the West is ... Elysium!

The winner of Ivan and Misha is ... Serena of Savvy Verse & Wit!

Winners have been emailed -- congrats!  For those who didn't win, I have two open giveaways still and more coming this week!

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Me Again by Keith Cronin

Title: Me Again
Author: Keith Cronin

Genre: Fiction (Contemporary / Stroke / Family Secrets)
Publisher/Publication Date: Five Star (9/7/2011)
Source: TLC Book Tours

Rating: Okay.
Did I finish?: I did, very quickly.
One-sentence summary: A thirty-four year old man wakes up from a six-year coma to discover his life, literally, will never be the same.

Do I like the cover?: I do -- I'm not wild about the design (the gigantic Gruen quote draws my eye more than the title and image, perhaps intentionally) but the image is directly related to the story.

I'm reminded of...: Alice Sebold, Elizabeth Berg

First line: I was born on a Tuesday morning.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Buy, if you do, as 25% of the book earnings are being donated to the American Stroke Association -- perhaps gift this to someone if you or someone in your family has been affected by stroke.

Why did I get this book?: The setup -- humorous, a little bittersweet, a bit sad -- intrigued me.

Review: This is the second novel I've read this year featuring someone in their late 20s/early 30s having a traumatic brain injury that changes their personality. It wasn't my intention to double up since it's not a plot device I'm particularly drawn to, but it was interesting for me to do a compare-and-contrast with the other novel (The Art of Forgetting). I preferred this novel over The Art of Forgetting as I found the characters a bit more likable, appealing, and relatable.

I had described The Art of Forgetting as a Hallmark movie; I think this book might be more ABC Family Night. There's a bit of mystery as Jonathan, the hero, learns that he was a very different man before his stroke, and he has to balance healing himself and making peace with his past. I found his family to be a bit aggravatingly tight-lipped and emotionally damaged in a way that made me want to put them all in to family therapy.  There's a cute romantic entanglement and some quirky wrangling-a-mistake-into-a-victory twist that was a bit too neat and kind of fun all at once.

The novel has a bit of on an inspirational feel but isn't a 'clean' novel; it's a bit predictable but there's some satisfaction in the story unfolding in a way you can anticipate. I rather liked Jonathan -- he was funny and genuine -- and I liked Rebecca, the romantic interest.

I wasn't minding the vibe or narrative style until the author whipped out 'fag' as an insult to the straight male lead. The character that uttered it is supposed to be an earthy sort of man (he leers at all the women), but good (he clues the hero in to when the love interest needs some help) so it's not as if the author inserted this in as quickie shorthand to make the character unlikable. It felt unnecessary and affected my ability to really get in to the rest of the book. This sounds like a little thing, I suppose, but it was so unnecessary and so callous, it was like having someone slap me in the middle of a conversation for no reason; I spent the rest of the time skimming the book, waiting for the next slap to come.  (There wasn't one, so the single instance of 'fag' felt all the more outrageous.)

In the end, the novel concluded the way I wanted it to, with the right mix of resolution and what's next? to satisfy.

*** *** ***

GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to offer a copy of Me Again to one lucky reader. To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US/CA readers, closes 10/7.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Interview with Katherine Webb

Earlier this month I read and enjoyed Katherine Webb's novel The Legacy, a historical novel-contemporary mystery melange set in Oklahoma and the UK. It's a perfect beach-y read for the last days of summer.  I'm excited to share my interview with Ms. Webb, so read on to learn about her writing, her novel, and what she's been reading!

Photo of Katherine Webb
What was the plot of your very first piece of fiction?

The very first I have no idea - my mother tells me I started writing stories when I was six or seven years old, often featuring a character called Crow, apparently; but I have no memory of them. I did start to write a novel in my teens - it was a fantasy story, deeply unoriginal, in which two characters falling in love brought warring races together. Thankfully, it's not saved anywhere!

Do you have any writing rituals or routines?

No real rituals, but I have to have everything tidy and organised. I'm a real neat freak, so if the house is a mess or there's a pile of unanswered letters and bills on my desk, I can't settle down to work. I try to write at least 2000 words every time I sit down to it - sometimes that takes all day, sometimes it takes two hours and I carry on going... I also have to have my workbook full of notes and scribbles open next to me - even if I don't glance at it once or haven't written any notes for the part of the story I'm tackling. Without it, I feel rudderless!

Cover of The Legacy
Was The Legacy the original title of your book?

No, the original title was 'Quietly Shining', which was taken from the Coleridge poem I used extracts of throughout the book. I thought it sounded mysterious, but the folk at Orion (my UK publishers) weren't so keen!

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

I think Caroline probably surprised me the most. It's the terrible thing she does that poisons the lives of her whole family, after all, so I had originally intended her to be almost the villain of the piece; but when it came to writing her, she turned out to be far more complex than that. I started to feel sorry for her, for how unhappy she was and how she struggled with her new life and with her loss. In the end she only behaves as terribly as she does because she has been driven to the very edge of reason. I hope that readers will empathise with her, and see why she ends up the way she does, even if they can't forgive her!

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

I am always reading - I'm never 'between books' for more than a few hours when it comes to reading them! I love the countryside, so I go horse riding, walking and jogging (occasionally!). I love cooking, fixing up the house and generally nesting - especially now the weather's getting colder!

Read any good books recently?

I've just started The Long Song by Andrea Levy and am loving it so far. I think it might be even better than her previous novel, Small Island. I also recently read The Book Thief by Marcus Zuzak - such a sad story, and told so originally. Speaking of sad - I also just finished The River by Tricia Wastvedt. It is beautifully written but tells such a tragic story that I had to bake a cake afterwards to cheer myself up!

*** *** ***

My thanks to Ms. Webb for her time and thoughtful answers. You can find her on  Facebook. To see more reviews, check out the other blogs on the tour.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Interview with Michael Alenyikov

I was completely taken by Ivan and Misha when I read it earlier this month; the interconnected short stories were moving, emotional, and intense without being overwrought. It's a collection that will stick with me, and so I was delighted when Michael Alenyikov agreed to answer my usual questions. Please read on to learn more about him, his writing, and his book.

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

When I think of my "first story" there are really two that were written concurrently. One is a short piece about two boyfriends in NYC who argue about what to do on a day off, a late fall day that's unusually warm. One is an outdoor, sportsy kind of guy, the other is a stay at home and watch a foreign movie on TV. It's also their first anniversary as a couple. They compromise on going to Fire Island to fly a kite. There are several elements that in retrospect were examples of what I try for in my fiction: one was using a rather cliched setting -- gay guys on Fire Island -- but sending these two who'd never usually go there; and who go their to fly a kite of all things; also, it was my first stab at writing a sex scene. I wanted to see if I could write on where every aspect of it furthered the story and came from the characters' nature, not to just throw sex into it. The kite flying, which triggers a fight and then the sex, was a working out of their issues as a couple. The other element, which has been the one "agenda" I've had as a writer in all my work was to feature gay men without any self consciousness, i.e., to write with the same freedom as a straight writers. So my stories are rarely if ever "about being gay", per se, the stories are about stuff in their lives, but it includes their emotional and sexual lives as any other writer would, e.g, Phillip Roth doesn't sit down at his desk and think of himself as a hetero sexual writer.

Long answer. The other story, which is in the book -- "Who Did What To Whom" (it was written before I ever thought of Ivan and Misha -- so I wouldn't want to give away too much. But the character of Vinnie was based on a roommate of mine back in 1983-84. All I wanted to do when I started it was capture this very unique guy on paper. It's my only story where a character is based on someone I know or knew. What I learned writing that story was that just capturing someone on paper isn't enough; I still had to come up with a story! The other aspect of what that story was about -- and I didn't realize this until I was well into writing it -- was that I was trying to capture that two year period when no one knew what transmitted AIDS, only that it was vaguely to do with sex. I remember that period all too well.

Do you have any writing rituals or routines?

Writing routines: Not really. I've been in a long running free write group and much of my material started as first draft free writes of 800 words at a time. I've been dealing with a serious chronic illness so writing regularly -- in my dreams -- is impossible. Typically, when I've generated enough material, I'll force myself to binge for a week or two to shape and revise the story into shape. Before my free write group was created ten years ago, I'd take writing classes with local writers and force myself to come up with stuff, revise to make the money I'd paid worth it. I also went to a summer writing conference nearby for several years, again it was a way to force myself to finish stories I'd begun.

Was Ivan and Misha the original title of your book?

"Ivan and Misha" started as a stand alone story (the book's prologue was part of it). An editor in NYC who'd read the half dozen stories I'd written up to then and was very taken with it. He suggested I write spin-off stories. I felt very bruised by the rejections to that first collection -- and the near misses, which hurt even more -- so I was angry and wouldn't do it. I spent two years writing a novella and another long short story. My agent stayed in touch with me and would gently remind me of how much he liked "Ivan and Misha" and two years later, I decided to give it a shot. I began with Louie's story, "Barrel of Laughs" and it went so well that I committed to the project. The book was always going to be titled Ivan and Misha from that point on. There was some suggestion of changing it from my publisher but I said absolutely no.

As you were writing Ivan and Misha, was there a particular scene or character that surprised you?

Surprises? I'm an intuitive writer, which is another way of saying I never have a plot in mind, not ever. I begin with an opening line, an image, a character and as I write the story emerges, either as I write, or in between writing -- once I'm working on a story, ideas will come to me in the shower, just as I'm falling asleep, etc. So quite truthfully every thing in every story was a surprise to me as I wrote it. For example, initially I thought that I was writing an amusing story about two brothers from Russia and a harebrained scheme about telephone booths. But after a half dozen pages I had no idea who to do with those damn telephone booths, so I started delving deeper into each of my characters. The surprises are part of what makes me love writing: even now I'll re-read something I've written and genuinely wonder where the heck did that come from; I certainly had never sat down to write that scene, that line, etc. And, often, unplanned characters come out of nowhere. In the story from Smith's point of view, my intention was to write about his relationship with his sister, Joanne. But as I wrote, it became, for a while, more about his relationship with Misha and when I did finally bring in his sister, his mother came long from Ann Arbor and almost took over the story. So, the character of his mother was a huge surprise to me.

Also, the character of Taz in "Whirling Dervish". I hadn't even planned to write from Ivan's point of view but came up with an interesting way to open the story (it's no longer the opening) . . . and then Taz materialized and the story became about Ivan and Taz. And then as it evolved who and what Taz was -- to Ivan, and to himself -- kept changing and evolving into one surprise after another.

Read any good books recently?

I like to read. I have to admit that I'm envious of you book bloggers who can read so fast yet read intelligently. I was never that fast a reader and other than police procedurals (I've spent a lot of good hours with Henning Mankell's Swedish novels; and lately Phillip Kerr's Berlin detective, circa the 1930s). I'm currently reading David Grossman's To the End of the Land and just finished David Mitchell's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet. While writing Ivan and Misha -- and really early on when I started writing long short stories, I devoured both William Trevor and Alice Munro's work. I think I may be reading longer novels again because I have 150 pages written toward something, and even though I've been reading novels since I was very young, I'm feeling the need to figure out how they are written, structured, etc.

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

What do I like to do? Well, I read a lot. I'm a movie buff and actually studied filmmaking at a an NYU summer intensive program a ways back. I'm a news junkie. I most like hanging out with friends, traveling when I can. I'm limited in major ways by my chronic illness, which is an enormous frustration as it sets non negotiable limits on what I can do.

*** *** ***

My thanks to Mr. Alenyikov for his time and thoughtful responses. You can learn more about him on his website. Check out my review for a giveaway of Ivan and Misha and to see other reviews, visit the other blogs on tour.

Monday, September 19, 2011

L.A. Noire edited by Jonathan Santlofer

Title: L.A. Noire
Author: Jonathan Santlofer, editor

Genre: Fiction (Short Stories / Noir /
Publisher/Publication Date: Mulholland Books (6/2011)
Source: Purchased

Rating: Liked a great deal.
Did I finish?: Yes.
One-sentence summary: Eight short stories set in or around 1940s Los Angeles, inspired by the video game L.A. Noire.
Reading Challenges: Criminal Plots, E-books, Femme Fatale, Historical Fiction

Do I like the cover?: Oh, I love it -- it has the glossy feel of the video game and the pulp-y sensibility of other novels from the era. Each story has it's own title art, as well, which was striking.

First line: Deep in the alley, lit by the beam of the patrolman's flashlight, she looked like a naked angel in midflight, sky-swimming toward a dark heaven. From "Naked Angel" by Joe R. Lansdale

Did... I actually read this on my phone?: YES. I'm not sure how it happened, but the three or four days I read this I left my reader at home, but had my Sony Reader app on my phone. Thankfully these was effortless to read on my phone -- the formatting was great so no weird characters or odd spacing.

Am... I tempted to find someone who has a game system and cajole them into borrowing the game so I can give it a try?: YES. If only for the pretty graphics.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Buy -- it's a cheap $0.99 or so, e-book only, but a breeze to read (and wicked fun!).

Why did I get this book?: It's Noir -- plus the cover, and the authors.

Review: I was very dubious about this collection, which was released as part of a tie-in to a video game. I'm not a gamer but I do love noir, so I sprung for the e-book when I saw the authors featured (Megan Abbott, Lawrence Block, Joe R. Lansdale, Joyce Carol Oates, Francine Prose, Jonathan Santlofer, Duane Swierczynski and Andrew Vachss). At worst, I figured it would be a gathering of previous published work, some of which might be new to me. Thankfully, happily, entertained-for-three-nights-ly, I was wrong!

The stories are originals, contributed specifically to this collection, which is exciting. Two or three feature characters from the video game, but I didn't find that a hindrance in the slightest (in fact, I didn't notice save for the Introduction telling me which had 'em). I enjoyed most of the stories, but the standout winners for me were Lawrence Block's "See the Woman" and Duane Swierczynski's "Hell of an Affair". "Black Dahlia & White Rose" by Joyce Carol Oates felt done as did Francine Prose's "School for Murder", but I'm also not a huge fan of either writer, so that could be why I wasn't impressed. The rest of the stories were good -- high on ambiance, a hint of violence and sex, enough punch to stick with you for the day.

I don't think hardcore noir fans will love this collection, but there are one or two stories that I think stand out. Certainly, as an introduction to many of today's top crime and mystery writers, this is a good start. From what I understand, playing the video game doesn't spoil any of these stories (nor do they spoil the game's storyline) but it might enhance the gameplay for those who really enjoy the feel of the setting. For everyone else, if you want a little gritty 1940s L.A. in your day (and who doesn't?!), consider this as a quick pick-me-up on a grey evening or smoky morning.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Mailbox Monday, Sept 19

Seen both at Mailbox Monday (hosted in September at Amused By Books) and The Story Siren, my Mailbox Monday/In My Mailbox on a stuck-in-bed-with-a-cold Sunday.   Read any of these?  What did you get?


For Review




The Imaginary Emperor: A Tale of Old San Francisco by Steve Bartholomew
Maman's Homesick Pie by Donia Bijan
Irrepressible: The Life and Times of Jessica Mitford by Leslie Brody
India Black and the Widow of Windsor (Madam of Espionage Mysteries #2) by Carol K. Carr
English Lessons by Jack Ewing
Dakota, Or What's a Heaven For by Brenda K. Marshall
Jane Austen Made Me Do It: Original Stories Inspired by Literature's Most Astute Observer of the Human Heart edited by Laurel Ann Nattress
The Luminist: A Novel by David Rocklin

Won



Revival: A Folk Music Novel by Scott Alarik, thanks to The Bowed Bookshelf
Russian Roulette by Mike Faricy, thanks to vvb32 reads
Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff, thanks to Little, Brown and Co Twitter giveaway


Purchased/Swap



Breakfast at Tiffany's by Truman Capote

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Winners!

Apologies for the lateness -- am wilting in bed with a horrible head cold!  No fun -- I'm too headache-y to read, even.  Now that's sad!

This week's giveaway winners are...

The winner of Just My Type is ... Rachel D.!

The winner of The Legacy is ... Marie B.!

Both winners have been notified by email.  If you didn't win, I've got more open giveaways, so check them out! 

Friday, September 16, 2011

Friday Reads and other requests

Today ends a rather hectic week, which followed another hectic week, so I have to apologize to everyone for being behind on commenting. I also owe Ari of Reading in Color a huge double apology for completely flaking on my interview with her. She sent amazing questions which are half answered in my draft email folder and the fault lies totally with me.  Ari, I'm sorry!

I'm sort of between books and swimming in a few current reads, all interesting enough but not keep-me-up-all-night compelling. So, my FridayReads for this week are: Call Me Princess by Sara Blaedel (Scandinavian crime novel), A Man of Parts: A Novel of H. G. Wells by David Lodge (historical novel about, surprise!, H.G. Wells), and Poison Penmanship: The Gentle Art of Muckraking by Jessica Mitford (non-fiction essays on 1950s America).  What are you reading this weekend?

And finally, a request. I have a custom URL for this blog! Hooray! Only I don't know how to get it to direct to here. I'd be willing to pay in online bookstore credit if someone would walk me through how to do so (I'm fairly tech savvy but am completely stymied so far). Just drop me an email (unabridgedchick at gmail.com) if you feel up to the task this weekend!

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Interview with Lynn Cullen

Earlier this summer and I read and adored Lynn Cullen's historical novel Reign of Madness. Please read on to learn more about Ms. Cullen's writing process, Reign of Madness, and her next project. (I'm already dying to read it!).

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

The first story that I remember writing was about a bear that ate so much honey that he had to roll home in a barrel. I was around six and hadn’t heard of Winnie the Pooh. I thought I was very clever and original, and didn’t worry too much about explaining how this barrel conveniently happened to be on top of the hill where the honey was.

Do you have any writing rituals or routines?

I like to get started after a “run” (if I can call my slogging along that) or walk by reading the work I’d done the previous day. I usually can’t resist rewriting that, and so an hour or two later, I begin on the new passage to be done. I write at the pace at which I “run”—slowly. I don’t work from an outline although I do jot down on a Post-it note or some other scrap of paper what I need to achieve in the chapter upon which I’m working. I also have a rough idea of how I’m going to end the book, so I carry that with me in my mind as I inch toward my goal. I’ve based many of the characters in my last few books on paintings and/or painters, so I keep the books with these paintings nearby for reference and inspiration. I work every day—I love writing!—unless I’m in Europe doing research or at my daughter’s, playing with my grandchildren.

Was Reign of Madness the original title of your book?

Yes! The book had no title for the first several months that I was working on it. During this time, my agent, my editor, and I would email each other with suggestions. I had floated out winners such as “Beauty and Madness,” “Age of Discovery” or “Madness of the Queen” until my editor said, “How about Reign of Madness?” All of us immediately loved it and that was that.

As you were writing Reign of Madness, was there a particular scene or character that surprised you?

As I mentioned, I don’t work from an outline so each new chapter comes as a bit of a surprise to me. I was particularly startled by Juana’s mother, Isabel, in the scenes where she tries to reach out to Juana. She wants so badly for Juana to see her not just as a mother, but as a woman, complete with flaws but with strengths, too. I was very interested to see how vehemently Isabel yearned to have her adult daughter understand her. This might be because I have three adult daughters….

Do you have another project in the works, and if so, can you tell us about it?

I’m working on a book about how Dutch Golden Age painter Judith Leyster, the first woman to ever have her own workshop, might have influenced Rembrandt. It has entailed many trips to Amsterdam and Haarlem—yes!

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

Play with my granddaughters! I also love going on research trips, where I haunt the palaces and towns where my characters lived. I’ve been to the location of every scene in Reign of Madness. Some people collect stamps; I collect scenes for my books.

Read any good books recently?

I’m just finishing The Paris Wife. I think Paula McLain did a masterful job of evoking Jazz-Age Paris and Europe. I bet she had a lot of fun doing her research.

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My thanks to Ms. Cullen for her time answering all my questions. Learn more about Lynn via her website and Facebook. You can find more reviews of her book by checking out the other blogs on the tour.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Does a Bear Sh*t in the Woods? by Caroline Taggart

Title: Does a Bear Sh*t in the Woods?: Answers to Rhetorical Questions
Author: Caroline Taggart

Genre: Non-Fiction (Humor / Pop Culture / Philosophy / Literature / General Trivia)
Publisher/Publication Date: Plume (7/26/2011)
Source: The publisher

Rating: Liked.
Did I finish?: Yes, in a breezy two hours.
One-sentence summary: Snappy and humorous responses to a variety of rhetorical questions.
Reading Challenges: British Books

Do I like the cover?: I do -- the lettering in particular, as it conveys the feel of the book.

I'm reminded of...: Ben Schott and other books that are good for leaving in a bathroom

First line: It depends on where you are: in the average supermarket, there is a clearly labeled "Meat" section offering beef of various cuts and kinds; in a vegetarian restaurant you may search in vain and have to settle for the spinach and ricotta quiche. -- from "Where's the beef?"

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow if you're the trivia type; gift if you need something silly and smart!

Why did I get this book?: I'm a know-it-all who likes to know more!

Review: The title of this book, with the mild, modified obscenity, pretty accurately conveys the tone and feel of this slender book. Taggart, author of I Used to Know That: Stuff You Forgot From School and The Classics: All You Need to Know, from Zeus's Throne to the Fall of Rome, specializes in zingy tidbits of trivia for people who want to feel smarter and/or have more ammunition for game night.

The collection of rhetorical questions is English-oriented, sourced from literature, film, and popular music.  While there are some Latin and French phrases, they're likely familiar to English speakers.  Non-native English speakers might have a hard time with some of the entries, as Taggart doesn't often explain the source of the rhetorical question (slogan, song lyric, movie quote, or a line of poetry, etc.) nor does she explain the implied meaning.  She alternates with flip answers (usually pat, tired stereotypes involving women and shoes) and serious, sometimes literal responses (see my example for 'Where's the beef?' above in the First Line section). Taggart has a bit of a green streak, as many of her answers refer to the ecological impact of things, but she also can be weirdly dated, with her non-stop references to women needing to buy shoes.

I found the book funny at times, but not snort-out-loud. If I was particularly amused by the rhetorical question ('How do you solve a problem like Maria?', 'How much is that doggie in the window?'), I usually found the answer funny and clever. If I didn't get the question ('Has your mother sold her mangle?', 'How many beans make five?)', usually the response went over my head, a bit like an inside joke no one explained to me.

Still, this glib book is perfect for the irreverent wise ass in your life. Either dole out the answers yourself, or gift them with this book and be aware you'll be peppered with trivia later.

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GIVEAWAY!

The publisher has generously offered a copy of Does a Bear Sh*t in the Woods? to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this short form. Open to US/CA readers, closes 9/30.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Interview with Rosanne E. Lortz

Last week I read Rosanne E. Lortz's hefty and promising Road from the West, the first in a trilogy set in the 11th century. I'm excited to share my interview with Ms. Lortz (she loves one of my all-time favorite historicals!) so read on to learn more about her, her writing, and what she's been reading.

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

I have to go way, way back for the first piece of fiction I remember writing. I think I was ten or eleven years old, and I took the fable of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” and changed the characters into insects. There was a young ant in charge of taking the aphids out to pasture every day, and to cause a little excitement, he kept pretending that he had sighted the horrible ladybird beetle coming to devour the flock. Just like in the original story, when the ladybird beetle finally did arrive, no one would believe him and the aphids met a rather tragic end.

Do you have any writing rituals or routines?

With ten-month-old twins keeping me busy, I have to seize the opportunity to write whenever it comes available. When the boys were first born, this sometimes meant writing at 3am in between feedings. Now that they’re a little older, it means writing during naptimes or when my husband is off of work and can help out with the kids. The one ritual I have--and it’s an essential one for me--is to set writing goals for myself and to log my progress. As unimaginative as it sounds, I’ve found that keeping a daily record of my word count motivates me more than anything else to make time for my writing.

Was Road from the West the original title of your book?

To give the short answer: no. Originally, I intended to tell the whole story of the First Crusade in one book. But as my writing progressed, I realized I had far too large of an adventure to fit between the covers of a single book. I split my story outline into three volumes and decided to call the whole trilogy The Chronicles of Tancred. The first book, which follows Tancred’s journey from Italy to Antioch, received the title Road from the West since the Crusaders’ travel to the Holy Land is such a big part of its story.

As you were writing Road from the West, was there a particular scene or character that surprised you?

Yes, there definitely was. I didn’t set out to include Alexandra, the Greek girl from Bari who has a vendetta against Tancred, but once she forced her way into the story, she kept assuming more and more of a role. She ended up being one of the favorite characters of most of my beta readers and I have big plans for her in the next two books of the trilogy.

Have you had an opportunity to travel to any of the locations featured in this novel?

So far, the only place in the book I’ve been able to visit is Rome. I would love to be able to go to all the places in the book, especially the cities in the old Byzantine Empire. I think it can be helpful to do research on location, although with a story nearly a thousand years old, it’s good to keep in mind that the cities have changed significantly in the interim. A couple of my favorite primary sources have been travel journals by travelers from the twelfth century, and I’ve greatly benefited from their contemporary descriptions of cities like Constantinople, Antioch, and Jerusalem.

According to your website, you like classic historical fiction and some fabulous historical fantasy. If you could put one historical in everyone's hands, which would it be?

These kind of questions are so hard because they make you choose one favorite to the exclusion of all others.... One of the most amazing historical novels I’ve ever read is Katherine, by Anya Seton, and I would say it’s quintessential reading for all lovers of the historical fiction genre. The amount of historical detail, the depth of characterization, and the pacing of the plot are all beautifully done.

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

When I’m not writing, I love to play the piano, bake bread, waste time on Facebook, help out at a local school, and--of course--read, read, read.

Read any good books recently?

My last three reads have all been excellent. Nemesis, by Lindsey Davis, is the last of twenty books in the Marcus Didius Falco series. Falco is a Roman “informer” (detective) with a flair for cheeky narrative and solving murder mysteries. Georgette Heyer’s Regency World, by Jennifer Kloester, is a nonfiction read, but still completely engrossing and so informative about the time period of Georgette Heyer’s and Jane Austen’s books. And last, but not least, I am just finishing up The Scarlet Lion, by Elizabeth Chadwick. It’s the second book in her William Marshal series and is turning out to be even better than the first one.

*** *** ***

My thanks to Ms. Lortz for her time. Learn more about her and her books at her website. You can see more reviews by checking out the other blogs on the tour.

GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to offer a copy of Road from the West to one lucky reader!

To enter, fill out this short form.
Open to US/international readers, closes 9/23!

Monday, September 12, 2011

BBAW Interview: Ari from Reading In Color

I'm very excited to be a part of Book Blogger Appreciation Week's blogger interview exchange. Please read on for my interview Ari of Reading in Color. Ari's blog focuses primarily on YA fiction about people of color (POC).

Ari's blog is new-to-me but I was immediately taken with her smart reviews and wide range of tastes in fiction.  One of the issues Ari blogs about is the 'whitewashing' of books by the publishing industry (using white models on book covers that feature characters of color, for example), an issue I first learned about when Justine Larbalestier's novel Liar was released in the U.S. (Justine has a great post on why this is so problematic.).  Ari's mix of commentary on publishing and reviews makes her blog fascinating and enjoyable and I hope you stop by to check it out.  

If you could put a book in everyone's hand, what book would it be?

Oooo tough question! I mostly review Young Adult so I'm going to say Whale Talk by Chris Crutcher. I LOVE LOVE LOVE that book. It's hysterical both in terms of humor and in terms of sadness. Racism in the 21st century combined with a main character whose a stellar athlete and has a huge heart.

What's your earliest reading memory?

My father reading me bedtime stories ranging from Dr. Seuss to Spanish versions of fairytales and classic children's stories. My favorite was Los Tres Cochinitos which I can still basically recite from memory. Definitely one of my fondest memories and probably sealed my place as a daddy's girl :)

What was the oddest/weirdest/most fabulous thing you wanted to do 'when you grew up'?

Probably what I want to do right now. My dream job would be to somehow combine my love of traveling, books, volunteering and politics into a career. I'm fairly certain that career doesn't exist but I'll find a way to put my passions to work.....

When you aren't reading and blogging, what do you like to do?

I love hanging out my friends. During the school year I spend Friday nights watching catching up on a few favorite TV shows and on Saturdays I hang out with my friends, Sundays I do homework. Not very exciting. But I did a lot of traveling this summer which made me very very happy. I went to Guatemala on a service trip and it's one of the highlights of my life. If I could have a job "when I grow up" that consists of traveling the world, I would be content.

One of your most popular posts is about the 'whitewashing' of book covers, which you wrote in January 2010. Have you seen much improvement in the year in a half since you wrote that post?

We're making progress. I've seen more reviews of books that feature people of color whether or not it's because the publishing companies are taking more time to promote those books or book bloggers are making a conscious effort to review them I don't know but I'm happy either way. I think it's a bit of both. A POC Reading Challenge was started by the fabulous Pam (Bookalicio.us) and Katy (A Few More Pages) that encourages people to read books by/about people of color. I've noticed some past incidents of whitewashing as well as a recent one that I just haven't had the time to blog about yet (college apps will nearly kill me) but I do hope that this issue becomes moot in a few years. I also want there to more emphasis placed on encouraging youth of color to consider jobs in the publishing industry. That's a big way to increase our representation in books.

[Comment from Audra: I strongly recommend checking out Ari's series of posts on Diversity in Publishing.]

What's been a favorite read of 2011 so far? (Or reads, if, like me, you're bad at limiting yourself to one! ;))

Like all bookworms I do have trouble at limiting myself when it comes to books! Jazz in Love by Neesha Meminger, The Indigo Notebook by Laura Resau, Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper (TEARJERKER), Fury of the Phoenix by Cindy Pon, Huntress by Malinda Lo, Operation Redwood by S. Terrell French, The World in Half by Cristina Henriquez.

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My thanks to Ari for taking the time to do this interview. Please check out her blog to learn more about her and the books she enjoys. You'll also find my interview with her there on 9/13. See the BBAW website for other blogger interviews.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Winners!

Three giveaways ended this week, so here are the winners!




The winner of Becoming Marie Antoinette is ... Kathleen.B!

The winner of Q is ... Meg of Write Meg!

The winner of What Language Is is ... Jill of Rhapsody in Books!

I have five open giveaways including a last minute addition: after posting my review of Ashes of the Earth, I learned I could give away a copy of it! So if you read the review and was intrigued, check out the giveaway form at the end.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Ashes of the Earth by Eliot Pattison

Title: Ashes of the Earth: A Mystery of Post-Apocalyptic America
Author: Eliot Pattison

Genre: Fiction (Mystery / Post-Apocalypse / Dystopia / Future)
Publisher/Publication Date: Counterpoint (4/1/2011)
Source: The publisher.

Rating: Liked.
Did I finish?: I did, pretty quickly.
One-sentence summary: Twenty-five years after an apocalypse wiped out most of the Earth, a series of murders threatens the stability of a community of survivors.

Do I like the cover?: I'm not wild about it, but it features key elements from the book so that makes me happy!

I'm reminded of...: Octavia Butler, Robert Heinlein

First line: The faces of the many child suicides Hadrian Boone had cut from nooses or retrieved below cliffs never left him, filled his restless sleep, and encroached in so many waking nightmares that now, as the blond girl with the hanging rope skipped along the ridge above, he hesitated, uncertain whether she was another of the phantoms that haunted him.

Did... I love the first line?: YES -- I mean, how can you not flinch and sit up at that?

Why did I get this book?: I'm a sucker for a dystopia!

Review: About twenty-five years have passed since a nuclear apocalypse nearly obliterated life on Earth. Hadrian Boone was a survivor, one of the founders of the Carthage, but after being a community leader early on, he's now a disgraced criminal. What was an agrarian attempt at rebuilding has turned into a repressive totalitarian stronghold with a leader who exiles anyone he dislikes or fears. Children kill themselves in hopes of crossing to a world like the one they've seen in contraband magazines and books.

This is the bleak, grim setting for a conspiracy-laden murder mystery, as Boone tries to untangle the connection between the secret murders happening in the community. The world-building was interesting and vivid without being overwhelming (I get glazed-eyed at too much technical explanation) and we're fed details about the apocalypse and the community's history as the story goes on (usually when Boone is meditating on something). The events that led to this dystopic world are still remembered by the survivors, and the first children born after the apocalypse are now in their early twenties. I was particular intrigued by this setting because there's the mix of those who remember, who want to forget, the tension of commemorating versus moving on, and the myth-making that inevitably happens.

I especially think fans of YA dystopias will enjoy this -- the middle-aged protagonist certainly doesn't get into the kind of drama that YA hero/ines do, but the ambiance and repressive feel is articulated with fascinating world building and a tangled conspiracy. I even think those who like political thrillers might dig this -- secrets and cover-ups from a different kind of government!

*** *** ***

GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to offer a copy of Ashes of the Earth to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this short form. Open to US/CA readers, closes 9/23.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Road from the West by Rosanne E. Lortz

Title: Road from the West
Author: Rosanne E. Lortz

Genre: Fiction (Historical / Crusades )
Publisher/Publication Date: Madison Street Publishing (9/2/2011)
Source: Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

Rating: Okay.
Did I finish?: I did.
One-sentence summary: The early months of the First Crusade (1096) are seen through the eyes of Tancred, a young nobleman eager to save his soul by 'freeing' Jerusalem.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction

Do I like the cover?: I do -- the image certainly evokes the Crusades in my mind.

First line: The stars changed their courses the day that Tancred the marquis tossed aside his sword and strode off the field of battle.

Did... I love the map and four-page list of characters?: YES. It made things much easier!

Did... I find myself wiki-ing things non-stop, because I learned so many interesting bits of Crusade-y trivia?: YES. Books like this are wonderful because they make real historical eras that were far-off and fuzzy to me.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow if you like a meaty historical and don't mind beginning a new trilogy.

Why did I get this book?: I love fiction set in the Middle East and I'm interested in the Crusades.

Review: Beginning in 1096, this novel covers the very start of the Pope Urban's First Crusade (the subsequent two novels will play out the rest of it, presumably). Written in a straight-forward manner, Lortz follows the exploits of the young nobleman Tancred, nephew of Bohemond of Taranto.

The characters, sadly, were flat, and I felt very little connection with any of them, including our hero Tancred. Despite having a lightning bolt revelation about his role as a Christian soldier at the beginning of the novel, his development seemed to halt after the first thirty pages. His zest for fighting is clear and we get plenty of that, but his mental state, his feelings about himself or the Crusades, his faith, his friendships, none are considered or explored in anyway that compelled me to care about him or the Crusades. Lortz created two female characters but both felt a bit throwaway and underdeveloped as well.

This book suffers from being too accurate. (I can't believe I'm saying that!) Lortz literally recounts (it felt) every skirmish that occurred historically, but the scenes lacked a frisson of tension and the thrill of daring strategy. To be honest, I started to dread each new city the crusaders arrived at for there would be another siege. While each episode might be differentiated by a quirky historical detail - a betrayal here, a hilarious interlude there - this novel felt interminably long in that sense and the usual payoff, an arc of change in a character, didn't materialize.

One thing that jolted me out of the story was Lortz's use of very specific idioms and phrases that seemed inaccurate or out-of-place in the story. For example, a character says someone 'doesn't give a fig' about something while another utters 'by my troth'; a quick search indicates these phrases both came about in the 1500s. Later, we get 'there's the rub' (16th century) and 'gist' (17th century). Granted, the entire novel is written in Modern English but something about these well-known words and phrases struck me as anachronistic.

Otherwise, I found Lortz's writing quite readable and she doesn't bog the narrative down in lots of explication (no long descriptions of war machines or how to saddle a horse, etc.). There's promise of a great historical novel here and I'm interested in seeing how Tancred's story unfolds. The Author's Note promises that one of the female characters gets more coverage in the second book, which makes me happy. If you're in the market for a new historical trilogy that is detailed without being overwhelming, give this book a try.

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For other reviews and guest posts from the author, check out the blog tour.

GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to offer a copy of Road from the West to one lucky reader!

To enter, fill out this short form.
Open to US/international readers, closes 9/23! For another entry, be sure to come back on 9/16 for my interview with the author!

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Ivan and Misha by Michael Alenyikov

Title: Ivan and Misha
Author: Michael Alenyikov

Genre: Fiction (Contemporary / Fathers & Sons / New York City / Gay / Immigrants / Russian-American)
Publisher/Publication Date: Triquarterly/Northwestern University Press (10/30/2010)
Source: TLC Book Tours

Rating: Greatly liked to love!
Did I finish?: Yes, quite greedily!
One-sentence summary: Interconnected stories centering around a family of Ukrainian immigrants in New York City and their friends and lovers.

Do I like the cover?: I do -- New York City is ever present in the stories, and the punch cut vaguely looks like men staring at each other -- the twins, perhaps?

I'm reminded of...: Anne Carson, Jeanette Winterson

First line: Misha's papa had disappointed before.

Did... I read this in a day?: YES. About four hours, a little longer, another book I picked up to thumb through and found myself unable to put down.

Am... I half daydreaming of a sequel to see where the twins are now?: YES. The stories are set before 9/11 and the twins are 23. I'd love to know where they are now, how a decade has changed them.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy -- a beautiful collection that will steal you.

Why did I get this book?: I love fiction about immigrants.

Review: Another book I'm struggling to review because I enjoyed it so much (why is it so hard to review something really good?). This subtitle of this book is 'Stories' (as opposed to 'A Novel') but there's more cohesion in this than in some novels I've read. The stories center around fraternal twins Ivan and Misha, Ukrainian immigrants living in New York City, and their small sphere: their father Louie, Misha's boyfriend Smith, Ivan's lovers and confidantes. Each story begins almost in the middle -- it would take me a minute or two to figure out who the focus of the story was, when the story was set -- but despite my brief disorientation, I read on because the characters so intrigued me.

There's a bittersweet sadness to the stories that comes from the few secrets kept between the brothers, the tension of family and the other people who want them (or worse, don't). I don't read much fiction about fathers and sons, but certainly I could relate to the uncomfortable agony of a frustrating parent or sibling. The secondary characters aren't just foils for Ivan, Misha, and Louie -- they're vibrant and have their own complicated back stories, jostling for the reader's attention the way they jostled for Ivan and Misha's attention. This is a book that will stick: I'm wishing for a sequel, so to speak, so I can see where the twins are now, a decade later, and if they've found happiness and peace and love.

Alenyikov's writing style was the star for me: the narrative is nearly dreamy, a mix of dialogue and stream-of-consciousness, flashback and action. That makes it sound very convoluted, but it isn't; I was reminded of Jeanette Winterson and Anne Carson, maybe Michael Cunningham a little. Alenyikov created unease, quietude, or amped-up anxiousness with his writing style, depending on who the focus of each story was, and I loved that even the prose had personality.

New Yorkers will want to read this as Ivan is a cabbie and the city looms and supports, a constant backdrop to the stories. (There's a bit with a Mormon missionary looking at the nighttime skyline, and he says: "They say it's a godless place, but unless it's the devil's work, this is, well, you know, it looks like heaven." I figured New Yorkers would crow with delight.) Still, whether you're blessed to be from New York City or not, pick up this book: it's a slender read (less than 200 pages), but meaty, a wonderful and heartbreaking look at love, family, and belonging.

*** *** ****

GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to offer a signed copy of Ivan and Misha to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this simple form. Open to US/CA readers, closes 9/23.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Taker by Alma Katsu

Title: The Taker
Author: Alma Katsu

Genre: Fiction (Contemporary / Maine / Historical / 19th century / Paranormal)
Publisher/Publication Date: Gallery (9/2011)
Source: The publisher.

Rating: Okay.
Did I finish?: I did.
One-sentence summary: One woman, two hundred sordid years, and one unending love.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction, R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril

Do I like the cover?: Yes, although I vastly prefer the UK cover. While neither exactly capture the novel's feel (to me), the UK version is sort of reminiscent of the tattoos some of the 'chosen' have.

I'm reminded of...: Karen Essex, Anne Rice, Cate Tiernan

First line: Goddamned freezing cold.

Do... I love the freebies the author offers on her website?: YES. Signed bookplates and bookmarks, plus a chance to Skype with her if you read this for a book club.

Did... I love reading about historical Maine and Boston?: YES. I'm a sucker for New England historicals!

Am... I going to get the second book in this series?: YES, I think so. The book's ending is a bit unsatisfactory, and I'm curious to see what Katsu decides to do next.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow for post-summer fluff read relief.

Why did I get this book?: Supernatural + historical = win!

Review: This uneven first novel promises the start of an entertaining series for those who enjoy supernatural/paranormal historicals. Big, dramatic, and lurid, this novel tells the story of Lanny McIlvrae, a woman born in 19th century rural Maine, who still walks the Earth some two centuries later, tortured by her past. Alternating between now -- when she convinces the ER doctor to help her escape to Canada and then Paris -- and recounting her past -- how she ended up immortal -- the story features sex, violence, a hint of supernatural elements, and unrequited love.

This book felt very familiar to me in tone and plot (most notably Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles and Cate Tiernan's Balefire books), especially with the story-within-a-story style Katsu employs. According to her website, she was particularly inspired by the Pinnochio story which can be seen in Lanny's developmental arc; but unfortunately, to me, the story just seemed a bit tired and 'done': the excesses and immoral decadence of the immortals, the fascination with beautiful people being immortalized, the desire to atone for one's centuries-long sins. Which is a shame because Katsu's writing is good and her heroine Lanny had promise. I greatly enjoyed the historical sections, following Lanny's adolescence in her repressive, small village, where she nurtured a one-side love for the town's rich, beautiful playboy. Her devotion to him leads to her downfall, of course, the slow eroding of her soul as she does what she can to remain his, in whatever form.

The contemporary portions of the novel rang most awkward and unrealistic; in a novel this size, I would have liked more time developing why this small town doc would give up everything to help Lanny. He's a flimsy foil for Lanny to tell her story; I'd much rather this have been her diaries or a letter although I suppose the doctor will feature in the next book.

I've seen a lot of reviews that describe this book as 'sexy' which I find baffling: certainly, there's a ton of sex in it, but it's often violent and/or non-consensual, which isn't my idea of hot. It is, however, dramatic and titillating and grotesque and entertaining, over-the-top escapism for the autumn, a beach read when it's too chilly for the beach.