Wednesday, November 30, 2011

People Tell Me Things: Stories by David Finkle

Title: People Tell Me Things: Stories
Author: David Finkle

Genre: Fiction (Short Stories / New York City / Contemporary / Manhattan / Writers on Writing / Upper Class / Satire)
Publisher/Publication Date: Nthposition Press (10/4/2011)
Source: TLC Book Tours

Rating: Okay.
Did I finish?: I did.
One-sentence summary: Ten stories involving Manhattan artists, elite, and intellectuals.

Do I like the cover?: Eh -- it's a bit comic book-y which doesn't exactly fit the feel of the stories. I imagine something more like the New Yorker would be more appropriate.

I'm reminded of...: Jennifer Belle

First line: "What I'm about to tell you is strictly confidential," my old friend Stanley Konig was saying at the first of two recent lunches we had. From 'Stanley Konig writing as Conrad Stamp'

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow for a fluffy escape to Manhattan.

Why did I get this book?: Armchair travel to NYC, and I do love some snotty insider-ness about the art world.

Review: This collection isn't bad; it just isn't great. I described this to a friend as a Sex and the City, featuring a gay man and the arts scene rather than fashion. I suppose that's not a wholly apt comparison, as there's no sex or dating shenanigans; mostly, it's artsy name dropping and the silliness of pretentious Manhattanites. The opening story, 'Hey, that's me up there on the printed page!' is about a man desperate to be memorialized in fiction, poetry, or theater, and he's disappointed at how his opportunity eventually comes. It's an amusing story as I was hot to be a muse while in college and swooning over all the lit majors and their works-in-progress, but the joke gets tiring since we all can see a mile away what's going to happen. (For a fascinating look at a writer who mined her real life and acquaintances for her work, I recommend Wendy and the Lost Boys by Julie Salamon.)

Finkle's stories depend on the reader's knowledge of artists and the art world, and as a result, I think the stories might not resonate if one is unfamiliar with the artist in question (and it's hard to tell when he's name dropping someone real or someone invented). 'Rembrandt paints again' was amusing and funny and probably would work for most readers, while 'Duck! Here comes Diane Arbus!' depends on the reader being familiar with Arbus' work. If not, it just reads a bit oddly.

For a slice of a particular kind of life in New York City, this collection will sate. They're fast, amusing reads, good for commutes or waiting in line when you want something that doesn't require a lot of mental exercise. Certainly, if you want an armchair escape to artsy Manhattan, this is your ticket!

*** *** ***

GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to offer a copy of People Tell Me Things to one lucky reader. To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US/CA readers, ends 12/16.

Monday, November 28, 2011

A Different Sky by Meira Chand

Title: A Different Sky
Author: Meira Chand

Genre: Fiction (Historical / WWII / 1930s / Singapore / Cross-Cultural Romance / Racism / Colonialism / Post-Colonial Fiction / War)
Publisher/Publication Date: Random House UK (7/4/2011)
Source: The publisher.

Rating: Liked.
Did I finish?: I did -- took some time, but it was worth it!
One-sentence summary: A detailed look at life in Singapore, from the late 1920s through the 1940s, through the viewpoints of three very different Singaporeans.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction, South Asian

Do I like the cover?: Eh -- it's okay. I would have preferred a black and white photo of Singapore, perhaps, something that better represented the place of the story rather than one of the characters.

I'm reminded of...: Nevil Shute

First line: On the journey they spoke about the island, a pinprick on the great body of Asia.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow -- but immediately start reading because you'll need some time to dig in!

Why did I get this book?: I never say no to historical fiction and I was intrigued by the WWII setting.

Review: This is the kind of historical fiction that educates, effortlessly. Set in Singapore, spanning 1927 through 1946, this novel was a unique read for me in that it covered an era I love in a setting wholly unfamiliar to me. Chand's characters aren't royalty or society elite but every day people caught up in a changing landscape; real historical moments meet the every day.

Chand's focus in this novel is on three primary groups in Singapore: the Eurasians -- Howard Burns, his mother, and his sister, local citizens of indigenous and European descent, viewed by the white Europeans as only a step above 'natives'; the transplanted Indians -- Raj Sherma, who migrated to Singapore for economic independence and ends up embroiled with the Japanese by a twist of fate; and the Chinese -- Mei Lan, a smart young woman whose family straddles modern European ideas and traditional Chinese culture and is caught, herself, between accepting her family's wishes and starting off on her own.

In almost any novel, the lives of women interest me most, so I was unsurprised to find that Mei Lan's story grabbed me immediately. However, Chand's detailed plotting, character development, and nuanced study of race, class, and education sucked me and I ended up caring deeply for both Raj and Howard as well. Even though I think the jacket blurb tries to imply a love triangle, this isn't just a historical romance set up in an exotic locale. This is really a novel about Singapore and the occupation of the land, first by the British and then by the Japanese. Identity and alliance is intrinsic to the story. Howard's mother, Rose, perceives the European disdain for Eurasions to be right and appropriate while Howard chafes at the implication. Raj struggles to rectify his experiences with the Japanese -- every one he's met has mentored and educated him -- with the virulent anti-Japanese sentiment in Singapore. Both Howard and Raj are captivated by Gandhi's anti-colonial revolutionary actions in India, but are split as to whether Singapore should take up the movement. Mei Lan is desirous of the university education her brother is given, but feels committed to her Chinese identity especially when news of Japanese brutalities in China reach Singapore.

Like Nevil Shute's A Town Like Alice, this book covers the before, during, and after of occupation, and I appreciated Chand's ability to offer the spectrum of emotional responses. My only complaint is that despite the novel's length (483 pages), some moments felt thin and underdeveloped. Enormous events are skipped over, casually alluded to, and years pass with only a vague comment. The dips in and out of the lives of the secondary characters was both enjoyable and maddening: I loved the additional facets through which the story was told but I was frustrated by the lack of development and resolution with them, as they were as compelling as the leads.

This was my first Meira Chand novel but I'm absolutely going to look for the rest of her books: this was a meaty, engrossing, sink-your-teeth-into historical novel that will stay with me. I'm haunted by the characters and I wish I could follow them another twenty years.

*** *** ***

GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to offer my gently used copy of A Different Sky to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US/CA readers (international readers, if you're willing to split the shipping, I'd be happy to send to you if you win!) Ends 12/16.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Mailbox Monday, November 28

Seen both at Mailbox Monday -- hosted in December at Let Them Read Books -- and The Story Siren, my Mailbox Monday/In My Mailbox on a Sunday, as usual. Shaking off my post-holiday binge (and no, it wasn't the turkey that did me in!), I'm pretty delighted by my most recent arrivals. Have you read any of these?  What did you get?


For Review



Island of Wings by Karin Altenberg
The King's Agent by Donna Russo Morin
The Western Lit Survival Kit: An Irreverent Guide to the Classics, from Homer to Faulkner by Sandra Newman

Won



Arcadia by Lauren Groff, thanks to the publisher

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Winners!

Apologies for missing last week's winner -- real life (especially Thanksgiving prep) slowed me down but happily, it resulted in a good week. Work was fun, the celebrating was fun, and the food was fabu! I'm happy to announce giveaway winners, for last week and this week.




The winner of Jane Austen Made Me Do It is ... Jenna of Literature & a Lens!

The winner of A Train in Winter is ... Amy of HerStory!

The winner of The Personal History of Rachel DuPree ... Jill of Rhapsody in Books!

Congrats to the winners! I've got three open giveaways and more coming, so check out my giveaway page for details!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Doll by Daphne du Maurier

Title: The Doll: The Lost Short Stories
Author: Daphne du Maurier

Genre: Fiction (Short Stories / British / 1930s / 1940s / Relationships)
Publisher/Publication Date: Harper Paperbacks (11/22/2011)
Source: TLC Book Tours

Rating: Liked.
Did I finish?: Yes!
One-sentence summary: Thirteen quirky, creepy, humorous, and atmospheric short stories by the author of Rebecca.
Reading Challenges: British Books

Do I like the cover?: I think so -- it sort of creepies me out, which is good, but this book is more dark humor than dark horror, so I don't know if it fits entirely...

I'm reminded of...: Anaïs Nin, Dorothy Parker

First line: No one can call me an insensitive woman. From 'The Limpet'

Did... I cackle with delight more than once?: YES. Du Maurier's sharp look at clergy and couples was hilarious and right on target, and I snickered like a weirdo on the train because it was that good.

Did... I make my wife read this immediately after I finished?: YES. I had to share my delight, and these breezy stories can be read very quickly. They're like bonbons!

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Buy or borrow -- this is a marvelously diverting collection!

Why did I get this book?: I love du Maurier with an unholy passion.

Review: Daphne du Maurier is one of my patron saints, one of the handful of writers who indelibly shaped me and my tastes in literature, so I expected I'd love this collection of 'lost' short stories. I wasn't disappointed: the pieces here are wry and a little dark and deliciously British. These stories span her career, from her start to her post-Rebecca and post-The Birds days, and it's really exciting to see her entire career captured here.

While du Maurier is known for her deliciously Gothic novels, these short stories show her skill at seeing the darker side of romance. Her snappy portraits of marriages, affairs, and couples in love were delightful -- spot on, familiar, droll, and pointed. One of the earliest stories, 'And Now to God the Father' was written when she was 22, and it is a wicked portrayal of an Anglican priest who cares more for society than souls. I howled. A few of the stories were duds for me, including the opening piece, 'East Wind', which is sort of 'eh' (so if you're cold on it too, just keep going, I promise it gets better!).

If you haven't read Rebecca yet (and that's okay, I still love you, but please for the love of everything that's good, read it immediately!), I wouldn't say this is exactly an intro to du Maurier, as these stories are, in the majority, more flip than her Gothic novels. But as an example of scathing British humor, this is a delight.

Grab this when you're with your loved ones over the holidays, and you need something to make you laugh and confirm that it isn't just you who finds being married/in love/dating exasperating at times. Halloween shouldn't be the only time for indulging in darker themes, and these stories are twisted without being scary. Trust me: when it's all happy holiday time, you'll love having this collection to escape in to!

*** *** ***

I'm thrilled to offer a copy of The Doll: The Lost Short Stories to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US/CA readers, ends 12/9.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Conference of the Birds by Peter Sis

Title: The Conference of the Birds
Author: Peter Sís

Genre: Fiction (Poetry / Illustrated / Sufi / Meditation /
Publisher/Publication Date: The Penguin Press (10/27/2011)
Source: TLC Book Tours

Rating: Liked.
Did I finish?: Yes, very quickly.
One-sentence summary: A gorgeously illustrated meditation on self, spirituality, and knowledge.

Do I like the cover?: I do, although it is very restrained compared to the gorgeous art inside.

I'm reminded of...: Thich Nhat Hanh,

First line: When the poet Attar woke up one morning after an uneasy dream, he realized that he was a hoopoe bird...

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Buy because you're not going to want to give this one back!

Why did I get this book?: Luscious illustrations, poetry, and ruminations on spirituality -- sign me up!

Review: Like everyone else who has touched this book, the first thing I'm going to gush about is just how ridiculously gorgeous it is. It's a treat to hold, a very visceral reminder to any reader of the magic contained in books. Sís' first book for adults brought out in me that feel of anticipation upon opening a book, breathless at the wonders contained, hopeful and excited. I was acutely aware of reading a book because I literally stroked the pages (the paper is textured); I poured over every image, captivated by Sís' art. (In fact, I read this in bed with my wife, and we both oooh-ed and aahhh-ed until breathless.)

When I recovered from the pretty, I went back to reread, which was hardly a difficulty since the book is so flippin' attractive. The poem itself is lovely, a clean and modern rendition of a Persian poem by the same name. The original was written by Sufi poet and mystic Farīd al-Dīn ʻAṭṭār, meant to convey the tenets of Sufism (as he saw them). Reading Sís' version -- clearly not meant to be overtly religious, even if it is meditative -- is a little emotionless, as I found myself not entirely connecting with the purpose of the birds' journey. The bird-king Simorgh is a figure that would be familiar to Persian readers, a mythical creature that resembles a gryphon; in the Sufi tradition, Simorgh is used as a metaphor for God. In searching for Simorgh, the birds are searching for God. Through trials and tribulations, they learn what-who-where God is (or in this case, who the king is.) This is a very non-denominational book that would be good for children and adults of any spiritual stripe, and I think the book provides a unique opportunity to meditate on one's personal relationship with a higher power or greater being. The story is less about the birds and more about the journey.

And what a beautiful journey. Splurge on yourself or someone you know, if only to glance your fingers over the paper and grow excited with each turn of the page. Delight in a book, really wallow in it -- this is worth diving in to!

Friday, November 18, 2011

Friday Reads, and it's chilly out...

After starting the week at nearly 70, this week ends with the promise of snow. Oh, New England, don't ever change.

My FridayReads for this confused, cold, possibly snowy, likely rainy weekend-before-a-holiday is The Doll: The Lost Short Stories by Daphne du Maurier. So far, it is so good, and I'm in love. Du Maurier's Rebecca is one of my top ten desert island I-will-love-this-book-for-forever books so I'm unsurprised to find I'm enjoying these short stories (trivia: Du Maurier wrote 'The Birds' which was turned in to the Hitchcock film, although the two have little in common with each other other than the title).

What are you reading this weekend?

Thursday, November 17, 2011

In the Forests of the Night by Kersten Hamilton

Title: In the Forests of the Night (Goblin Wars #2)
Author: Kersten Hamilton

Genre: Fiction (Young Adult / Celtic Mythology / Supernatural-Paranormal / Chicago / High School)
Publisher/Publication Date: Clarion (10/22/2011)
Source: NetGalley

Rating: Liked!
Did I finish?: Oh yes -- you couldn't stop me!
One-sentence summary: Teenaged Teagan battles the goblin world as it encroaches on her world while juggling high school, a job, college applications, and one very mean social worker.
Reading Challenges: E-Books

Do I like the cover?: Eh, I'm not wild about it, but like the first book's cover, it suggests the art that Teagan's mother might have created, so it fits in that regard.

First line: Tears were spilling down Teagan Wylltson's cheeks as she went up the stairs.

Did... I often have snicker fits on the subway while reading?: YES. As with the first book, Hamilton peppers the story with fabulous sarcasm and snark, and I love it. The Wylltsons and friends are my kind of people.

Am... I going to die waiting for the next book?: YES. Dying. This book ended with a bang!

Do... I love literally every single character in this book?: YES. The bestie's thuggish cousins, the preternaturally wise younger brother, the slightly damaged father, the cranky grandmother, the creepy weird goblin-y creatures that live with them ... all are fascinating and fun and hilarious and fabulous.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Buy or borrow: get this book and the first one if you like supernatural YA with a twist and a seriously great heroine!

Why did I get this book?: I adored the first book, Tyger Tyger, and I had to know what happened next!

Review: Last year, Hamilton's first novel in the Goblin Wars series, Tyger Tyger, made my top ten of 2010. It was that good. Needless to say, I've been pretty excited for this book, which begins literally minutes after the first book ends.

One of the things I loved about the first book was that heroine Teagan remained consistent throughout the story, especially in regards to her behavior and attitude. She was tough, vulnerable, scared, brave, smart, and oblivious in appropriate and realistic ways -- and most of all, she didn't change her personality when she started getting hot for a dreamy boy. So I was very eager to see how Teagan developed in this book and if she would remain true to herself. Happily, I wasn't disappointed: not only did Teagan continue to be her level-headed self (still planning to go to college despite her boyfriend talking marriage, which the other characters all felt was ludicrous, too!), she also continued to be a proactive agent in her own life, rather than a passive witness.

Delightfully -- and stay with me on this -- a good chunk of this novel felt like Irish Catholic fiction, since Hamilton blends Celtic myth with Catholic tradition. I often forgot that I was reading a YA novel; this felt a bit like a more dramatic Rumer Godden or supernatural Maeve Binchy (in a good way!). It's a religious-ish story without being spiritual (also in a good way), blending my favorite parts of Catholic lore (saints and angels and Legion) with literature and mythology. Hamilton's world-building is unique and fun, and it's refreshing to have supernatural fic that doesn't involve vampires or werewolves. (Seriously, if you're 'eh' on goblins, give this a try. I promise you won't regret it!)

Sadly, Finn -- romantic lead and demigod -- was still my least favorite character. He grew on me a bit but I actually don't think he's a match for Tea nor is he as interesting as the other characters -- and as in the first book, In the Forests of the Night is loaded with great secondary and tertiary characters. As a result, I'm not so keen on the romance but that didn't affect my enjoyment of the story as the romance isn't a major part of the action.

I can't rave enough about this series and or squee about how delighted I am with the characters and the unique supernatural setting. This is the YA heroine I've always wanted, one I can relate to and would have identified with in high school. This is good reading -- get started with Tyger Tyger and then grab this one (because you'll want to read the next book, I promise!).

*** *** ***

GIVEAWAY!

Kersten Hamilton has generously offered a copy of In the Forests of the Night to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US/CA readers, ends 12/9. Be sure to come back for my interview with Kersten and enter again to win!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Interview with Caroline Moorehead

Last week I reviewed the powerful, fascinating and moving A Train in Winter: An Extraordinary Story of Women, Friendship, and Resistance in Occupied France.  Caroline Moorehead has long been a favorite author of mine -- her biography on Martha Gellhorn is brilliant! -- and so I'm delighted to share my interview with her.  Read on to learn more about her writing, A Train in Winter, and what she does when she's not writing.  There's also another chance to win a copy of A Train in Winter.

You've written a number of biographies as well as non-fiction books about international human rights and justice. What makes a person or topic a juicy enough subject for a book?

My best subjects combine social history, archives that have not been much used, and interviews with people who remember the events - but only just. I like writing about people who have not been too much written about (Martha Gellhorn, Lucy de la Tour du Pin), or doing historical subjects which lie just at the edge of what can be remembered by individuals (The Train). The one reporting book I wrote, Human Cargo, was about totally unknown individual refugees, in different parts of the world, each one or group involved with some aspect of the asylum/refugee story: camps, prisons, journeys, exile and so on.

Do you have any writing rituals or routines?

Yes! Black felt tip pen, lined paper, write by hand in the morning, type on to a computer and print out in the afternoons

Was A Train in Winter the original title of your book?

Yes, I am not very good at titles; a friend came up with this one. I wanted it to be slightly mysterious.

As you were writing A Train in Winter, was there a particular event, person, or anecdote that surprised you?

Many. I think that's what I love about interviews: the infinite variety of stories, of permutations in people's lives. I loved Cecile saying, when asked by her mother why she was working for the resistance when she had a child, that she was doing it precisely because she had a child; because she didn't want her to grow up in a world governed by Nazis and the Vichy government.

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

Go to art exhibitions and concerts and opera; be with my children and friends.

Read any good books recently?

Just reread War and Peace; had forgotten how extraordinary and wonderful it is.

*** *** ***

My thanks to Ms. Moorehead for her time. For more reviews, check out the other blogs on tour.

GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to offer a copy of A Train in Winter: An Extraordinary Story of Women, Friendship, and Resistance in Occupied France to one lucky reader. To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US/CA readers, ends 11/26.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Mozart's Last Aria by Matt Rees

Title: Mozart's Last Aria: A Novel
Author: Matt Rees

Genre: Fiction (Historical / Murder Mystery / 18th Century / Vienna / Historical Figure Fictionalized / Conspiracy)
Publisher/Publication Date: Harper Perennial (11/1/2011)
Source: TLC Book Tours

Rating: Okay.
Did I finish?: I did.
One-sentence summary: Mozart's sister travels to Vienna after her brother's unexpected death to discover his final work might have stirred up danger and caused his demise.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction

Do I like the cover?: I do -- it's super pretty but is completely not relevant to the book!

I'm reminded of...: Kate Mosse, Sena Jeter Naslund, M.J. Rose

First line: When she sang, it was hard to imagine death was so near.

Did... I immediately zip to YouTube to find all the music referenced in this novel?: YES. Especially since Rees makes it clear the story arc was influenced by a specific piano sonata, I had to listen to see if it echoed the novel's feel.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow if you like Dan Brown-ish thrillers.

Why did I get this book?: Historical novels always intrigue me but I was especially taken with the setting and premise of this one.

Review: Even though this book has elements that I just eat up -- a take-charge heroine, unique foreign setting, weird conspiracy involving a secret society, dramatic artists, and lots of intrigue -- I actually found this to be an unremarkable novel. The book isn't bad -- it's just rather pedestrian. At 295 pages, it ought to be a fast read but weirdly, the story drags despite the non-stop action.

The novel is written in the first person which is normally a voice I rather like -- I enjoy 'being' the heroine -- but in this case, I felt as if it were the 'easy' choice. Lots of telling the reader how the heroine felt rather than demonstrating, and that always bores me. (For example, there are two pages of the heroine looking at herself in the mirror near the start of the novel so we would learn of her appearance -- which is a tried and true trick of first person narrators in YA novels. I don't care how my heroine looks; I care about how she acts.)

It's obvious when reading the Author's Note and the mini-essay about the novel that Rees admires Mozart immensely and was greatly inspired by Vienna. That comes across in this novel but not much else. For a heroine who should be so interesting -- a child prodigy with great musical talents herself, married to a provincial widower and estranged from her brother in his last years -- Nannerl was remarkably flat.

The setting of the novel is a conspiracy around Mozart's sudden death, which is a historical event I've been fascinated with since I was a kid. As such, Mozart's music is a huge part of the novel, and in particular his opera Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute).

It's tricky when a novel features an artistic medium that readers might not be familiar with -- ballet or modern art or classical music -- and it takes real skill to make the experience of that medium, however foreign, something that readers can relate with and appreciate (Evan Fallenberg's When We Danced on Water made the passion of ballet very real for me, for example). Unfortunately, I don't think Rees quite conveyed why Mozart was such a genius or why his music was so moving (other than extolling us to find his music and listen along). I've had the good fortune of seeing Die Zauberflöte twice in the last handful of years with opera nuts who pointed out much of the Masonic influence that Rees mentions in this novel, and as a result, I felt comfortable with that aspect of the story: the characters, the visual clues, the possible political references. But I think those who aren't as familiar with the opera might be lost, especially since Rees continually tells us how greatly Mozart's music impacts everyone but doesn't translate that into an experience the reader can enjoy, too.

The book is loaded with extras: a map of Vienna, cast of characters, a list of music referenced in each chapter, an essay from the author on the inspiration for the story (and the hint that he wrote the novel emulating the form and feel of one of Mozart's darker piano sonatas), and suggested additional reading. Certainly, this novel inspired in me an interest to learn more about Mozart's sister but I can't say I understand more about Mozart or even 18th century Vienna. I think if you go into this with YouTube queued up and the expectation that you're getting a fast historical thriller, the experience will be diverting, a splashy read for the holidays.

*** *** ***

GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to offer a copy of Mozart's Last Aria to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out the brief form. Open to US/CA readers, ends 12/2.


Saturday, November 12, 2011

Winners!

Finally: a sunny day after cold and rain!  Already the weekend is looking up!  Today I've got a metric ton of giveaway winners, too, so...



The winner of Wings was ... Margaret!

The winner of You Are Not So Smart is ... Steph of Bella's Book Shelf!

The winner of Irrepressible is ... Serena of Savvy Verse & Wit!

Congrats to the winners! As always, check out my current giveaways and keep an eye out for the ones coming this week!

Friday, November 11, 2011

Friday Reads and I'm all over the place...

I'm juggling two wildly different books for FridayReads and the weekend: A Different Sky by Meira Chand (historical set in 1920s-1950s Singapore) and In the Forests of the Night by Kersten Hamilton (contemporary YA featuring a sturdy heroine with goblin blood). The differing reads suit my differing moods. It's been a rough week and sadly, my weekend doesn't promise to be very quiet, so I'm just hoping I can get through next week and survive until the Thanksgiving holiday (when I'll have four days off!).  Needless to say, I'm counting down the days!

What are you reading this weekend?

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Personal History of Rachel DuPree by Ann Weisgarber

Title: The Personal History of Rachel DuPree
Author: Ann Weisgarber

Genre: Fiction (Historical / South Dakota / African Americans / Pioneer Homesteaders / 1910s / early 20th century)
Publisher/Publication Date: Penguin (7/ 26/2011)
Source: TLC Book Tours

Rating: Liked to love -- wonderful book!
Did I finish?: I did!
One-sentence summary: The struggles of an African-American family in 1917 on their drought-dried ranch in South Dakota.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction

Do I like the cover?: I do -- it very beautifully captures the sense of the story (although it vaguely reminds me of a YA novel, which this isn't.)

I'm reminded of...: Sigrid Undset

First line: I still see her, our Liz, sitting on a plank, dangling over that well.

Did... I blow past my stop during my commute?: YES! Another book so engrossing I looked up only when the train stopped and I realized I'd gone to the end of the line! But I didn't mind -- circling back gave me more time to read!

Did... I do a double take when I got to a passage mentioning the war in Europe (WWI)?: YES! It was a shock to realize this was 1917 and not 18whenever -- that the Western US was still made up of sod house homesteads and that the families working the land had family members who served in the Army and fought against the 'Indians' (the massacre at Wounded Knee Creek happened in 1890, for example). It was shocking to see how little I know of early 20th century American history and the difference between 1917 on the East Coast and 1917 in the rural American west.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy -- this is a fascinating, moving novel!

Why did I get this book?: I lived in South Dakota for about four years and it was an intense experience. I knew that I had to read this book since it was set there!

Review: This is the kind of book that makes me joyful as a reader. It's immediately engrossing, it illuminates a life that is otherwise foreign to me, and paints real landscapes and situations I've never experienced. Set in 1917 at a ranch in South Dakota by the Badlands, the story is told by Rachel DuPree, an African-American woman who married an ambitious man, whose entire identity and self-value is tied up in the land he owns. The book opens with a punch: a longstanding drought requires the extreme measure of lowering the smallest child into the ranch's well in order to scoop up what water may be had. From the beginning, Rachel is torn between desperately wanting the water to keep her children and livestock alive yet wracked with horror at her acquiescence of this act.

This book is emotional but not out of any lurid or melodramatic scenes -- instead, the oomph comes from the hard reality of life for Rachel and her children. Alternating between Rachel's present and flashing back to how she ended up in South Dakota in 1917, we learn about two hard, determined people -- Rachel and her husband Isaac -- and the results of a gamble and a hope. The grim basis of Rachel and Isaac's marriage was what grabbed at my heart the most -- it was at times beautiful and at times horrifically cruel. But I could completely appreciate Rachel's loyalty and the choices she made because she was such a real character.

Race, understandably, features in this novel: the discussion of skin color shade among the society African-Americans in Chicago, the perception of Booker T. Washington and Ida B. Wells in the African-American community, and the 'us-vs-them' story created by the homesteaders and settlers to differentiate themselves from the Native Americans on the reservations in South Dakota. Class and education also affect the story and characters, as both Rachel and Isaac want something more for themselves and their children -- but have wildly differing ideas as to what that means. Again, what was so compelling for me as I read was this marriage and Rachel's challenge to balance her happiness, her children's well-being, and her husband's wishes with what she thinks is right.

Upon finishing, I immediately thought two things: one, that one should vacation to the Badlands because they are staggeringly gorgeous but OMG, I never want to live there again; and two, that I wanted there to be another book. Although the ending of this one was perfect, I could have used another 300 pages or a second volume to follow Rachel and her family some more. I was reminded a bit of Sigrid Undset's Kristin Lavransdatter (a favorite of mine that I never wanted to end!). This would make an excellent book club selection since the themes of family, obligation, compromise in marriage, and prejudice are common ones. Apparently this book has been optioned for a film, so read it now before the movie is released!

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GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to offer a copy of The Personal History of Rachel DuPree to one lucky reader! To enter, simply fill out this brief form. Open to US/CA readers, ends 11/26.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Interview with Laurel Ann Nattress

Over the last few weeks I've been ending my day with a story or two from the Austen-inspired collection Jane Austen Made Me Do It.  I enjoyed the escape and found the stories amusing, charming, diverting, and fun.  I was delighted when Laurel Ann Nattress, editor of the book and Austenprose.com blogger, agreed to be interviewed.  Please read on to learn more about her, her blog and this anthology, and what she does when she's not blogging.  There's also an opportunity to win a copy of Jane Austen Made Me Do It.

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Hi Audra, it is such a pleasure to be here at one of my favorite blogs, Unabridged Chick during my Grand Tour of the blogosphere in celebration of the release of my new Austen-inspired anthology, Jane Austen Made Me Do It.

What was the first Jane Austen novel you read? How about the first Austen-inspired novel?

Pride and Prejudice of course! It was 1980 and I had just seen the new BBC/PBS adaptation of P&P by Fay Weldon on Masterpiece Theatre. I has so entranced by the story that I read the novel immediately and have continued to read it every year since. I remember struggling with the language the first time, but soon got the hang of it and was totally hooked. As a young woman I was of course primarily interested in the romance. As I have matured, I appreciate Austen for her reproving humor, amazing characterizations – and the romance!

The first Austen-inspired novel that I read was The Diary of Henry Fitzwilliam Darcy, by Marjorie Fasman in 1999. It was my introduction to the genre and I was again entranced. Since then, I have tried to read almost every Austenesque book in print, though now that there are so many published every month, I am way behind.

Austenprose started in 2007. (Congrats on four years of blogging!) Do you have any writing rituals or routines when you blog?

Thanks! Blogging has been an incredible journey for me. You could say that I am the poster girl for following your bliss. I never dreamed that when I started my blog on a whim in 2007 that it would culminate into a book deal, but it did. The power of the Internet is quite amazing. You just never really know who is reading your work and what will happen.

Hmm? As far as writing rituals, I have this beautiful Regency-style walnut serpentine desk that would honor any writer as their creative hub. Interestingly, it only seems to collect papers, books, and my cat – and not my laptop computer, which is where I write everything for my blog and my books. I tend to gravitate to my bed with all of its big pillows and warm comforts when I am writing.

Lately, I have been doing a lot of editing of others work, but when I do write a blog that is not a book review, I usually do so because I am inspired by recent Austen news, have an insight to share about my own publication process, or something strikes me as quirky, funny or just amazing and I want to share it with Janeites. I troll the Internet and social media consistently to keep abreast and inspired. Reading and working as a bookseller also fuels my passion to write.

Was Jane Austen Made Me Do It the original title of this collection?

Yes. It was the only title ever considered. I give all the credit of it to my wonderful agent Mitchell Waters. It was his creation. He is a Janeite and a gentleman in the true Darcy spirit. He is the fairy godfather of the book so-to-speak. He saw the potential in an unpublished Austen blogger and gave me a chance and sold my anthology to Random House. It has been an amazing journey.

As you were editing Jane Austen Made Me Do It, was there a particular theme, story, or character that surprised you?

Yes, more than a few surprises. When I put together my dream team of writers, I pretty much gave them full reign on genre and topic. The stories just needed to be inspired by Jane Austen – her novels, her life, or her philosophies of life and love. That is a big playground to explore. We received a few traditional sequel type stories that continue one of her novels or explore a character or events more in depth. But the majority of stories are totally a surprise. From Jane Austen as a ghost, to the Thin Man mystery, to a young adult story, there is something here for every taste. I think the biggest surprise, however, was the Jane Austen Made Me Do It Short Story Contest winner. Eighty-eight previously unpublished writers submitted stories to the contest that was held online last January. The winning story “The Love Letter” by Brenna Aubrey just blew me away. It is quite remarkable and I am very honored that it has been included in the anthology.

When you’re not blogging and editing, what do you like to do?

Oh my. Lately not much of anything else because of my book promotion, but I do love to garden (need to plant my tulip and daffodils before it freezes), enjoy reading (never enough time in the day for that), movies (want to see the new The Three Musketeers with Mathew MacFayden and Anonymous staring Rafe Spall) and music. I love opera and musical theater, especially Gilbert and Sullivan operetta’s. Terribly out of vogue but I adore the satire, comedy and music. If Jane Austen had lived in the late nineteenth-century, I think she would have adored them too.

Read any good books recently?

YES! I just read and reviewed The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen, by Lindsay Ashford. Total shocker. Unlike any Austenesque novel I have ever read.

I do try to read outside my specialized obsession (Jane Austen) and am always working on a mystery. I am about half way through The Sweetness at the Bottom on the Pie, by Alan Bradley and loving it. It is the first novel in the Flavia de Luce series. She is a twelve year chemistry geek in 1950’s England living in a crumbling Georgian country manor house. You gotta love a heroine who puts arsenic in her bratty older sister’s lipstick! I am also currently reading A Study in Sherlock: Stories inspired by the Holmes canon, edited by Laurie R. King and Leslie S. Klinger. It is similar to Jane Austen Made Me Do It in that the stories are inspired by another author’s works. It contains stories by Lee Child, Neil Gaiman and Alan Bradley. Now wouldn’t a literary throwdown of Jane Austen vs. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle be interesting?

Thanks Audra for the great questions. I hope that readers will enjoy Jane Austen Made Me Do It as much as I did editing it. It was truly a dream project for me.

Cheers, Laurel Ann

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My thanks to Laurel Ann for her time! 

About Laurel Ann Nattress:  A life-long acolyte of Jane Austen, Laurel Ann Nattress is the author/editor of Austenprose.com a blog devoted to the oeuvre of her favorite author and the many books and movies that she has inspired. She is a life member of the Jane Austen Society of North America, a regular contributor to the PBS blog Remotely Connected and the Jane Austen Centre online magazine. An expatriate of southern California, Laurel Ann lives in a country cottage near Snohomish, Washington. Visit Laurel Ann at her blogs Austenprose.com and JaneAustenMadeMeDoIt.com, on Twitter as @Austenprose, and on Facebook as Laurel Ann Nattress.

Giveaway of Jane Austen Made Me Do It

Enter a chance to win one copy of Jane Austen Made Me Do It by leaving a comment by 11/18, stating what intrigues you about reading an Austen-inspired short story anthology. For another entry, fill out the form at the end of the review.  Winners to be drawn at random and announced on 11/19. Shipment to US and Canadian addresses only. Good luck to all!

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

A Train in Winter by Caroline Moorehead

Title: A Train in Winter: An Extraordinary Story of Women, Friendship, and Resistance in Occupied France
Author: Caroline Moorehead

Genre: Non-Fiction (WWII / Vichy France / Nazis / Biography / French Resistance / Women Revolutionaries)
Publisher/Publication Date: Harper (11/8/2011)
Source: TLC Book Tours

Rating: Liked.
Did I finish?: I did!
One-sentence summary: The story of 230 women who, during WWII, were rounded up for participating in the French Resistance and imprisoned before being shipped in a cattle train to Auschwitz in 1943.
Reading Challenges: British Books

Do I like the cover?: I do -- I always love these kind of dramatic black-and-white photographs -- but I don't know if it fits the book exactly. The British/Canadian cover comes closer to conveying the friendship aspect of this book, although I think it's too cheery.

First line: On 5 January 1942, a French police inspector named Rondeaux, stationed in the 10th arrondissement of Paris, caught sight of a man he believed to be a wanted member of the French Resistance.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Buy for the WWII scholar in your life -- it's good!

Why did I get this book?: The lives of women during wartime is an interest of mine, and I'm especially fascinated by those involved with the Resistance during WWII. The book's emphasis on the friendships of these woman was an additional draw.

Review: I don't read a ton of nonfiction related to WWII because I'm a softie and a wimp. (And mildly obsessive when it comes to traumatic events; I'm a chronic 24/7 CNN-er during disasters.) All this is to say it has to be a certain kind of nonfiction to lure me from my slightly safer world of fiction.

Moorehead's book intrigued me from the first for two reasons: one, I loved her bio of the marvelous Martha Gellhorn; and two, I love books that emphasize female friendships. That this book was set among WWII French resistors just sealed the deal (one of my favorite films is based on Sebastian Faulks' Charlotte Grey).

This isn't an easy book to get into: Moorehead has a brisk, dry style and the first three or four chapters are a barrage of people, places, dates, and events. It is easy to feel overwhelmed but these chapters rather quickly sketch out the feel of France under German occupation, the changes the Germans wrought, and context-ing the roots of the various Resistance movements. (For example, there are numerous Parisian neighborhoods with communist families; Moorehead later argues that the women who were active in the Communist Party fared better than some of the non-political prisoners due to the training and upbringing.)

The book went from merely interesting to gripping when the narrative moved from establishing context and setting to recounting the torturous way these resistors were treated upon being captured. Moorehead interviewed a few of the survivors still living, as well as their families, and used a wealth of other materials to make those years of imprisonment real. As the subtitle suggests, she does focus on the friendships between these women, who all agree it was part of the reason they survived as long as they did.

There are a ton of photographs included in the book which is marvelous (and disturbing and heartbreaking) and makes the stories of these women all the more real. Upon finishing, I teared up: Moorehead made these women real for me and I felt real sorrow for them. Even those who survived faced ongoing pain and heartache. Despite that, I don't regret reading this, and I highly recommend it for anyone interested in women's lives during wartime. This is a slender book -- about 300 pages -- and it's gripping. I know I just got done emphasizing how sad it is but because of that, it's a compelling read.

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GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to offer a copy of A Train in Winter: An Extraordinary Story of Women, Friendship, and Resistance in Occupied France to one lucky reader. To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US/CA readers, ends 11/26. For another entry, check out my interview with Ms. Moorehead.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Jane Austen Made Me Do It edited by Laurel Ann Nattress

Title: Jane Austen Made Me Do It: Original Stories Inspired by Literature's Most Astute Observer of the Human Heart
Author: Laurel Ann Nattress, editor

Genre: Fiction (Short Stories / Jane Austen / Austen-Inspired / Historical Figure Fictionalized / Regency / Contemporary)
Publisher/Publication Date: Ballantine Books (10/11/2011)
Source: The editor.

Rating: Liked.
Did I finish?: Yes - a few stories a night before bed, with cocoa -- perfection!
One-sentence summary: Twenty-two short stories inspired by Jane Austen's novels and life.
Reading Challenges: British Books, Historical Fiction

Do I like the cover?: I do -- it's bold albeit a bit pink (but since I like pink that works for me) -- I appreciate the lack of curlique-ish font.

First line: A wedding must always be an occasion for joy, except when the husband is unwise enough to come under his wife's influence. from “Nothing Less Than Fairy-land,” by Monica Fairview

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy, depending on your passion for Austen-inspired fiction. The big names in this volume make it a keeper!

Why did I get this book?: I love Austen sequels.

Review: I hate to admit this, but Pride and Prejudice is possibly my least favorite Austen novel. Terrible but true. (I'm a Persuasion and Sense and Sensibility fangirl all the way.) I say this to explain that I don't have any deep emotional attachment to Elizabeth and Darcy, which is why I love P&P inspired sequels and re-imaginings.

Purists looking for another Austen won't find that in this collection of twenty-two short stories, but for those who want to revisit Austen's literary worlds with others who are as giddy, swoony, and charmed by Austen will find this nearly 450-page book satisfying. The stories range from sequels of Austen's novels and parallel retellings (P&P from Lydia Bennett's viewpoint, for example) to contemporary retellings emulating Austen's plots, as well as original works that involve, usually, a devoted Austen fan learning an important lesson on love. Only seven of the stories were oriented around P&P; nearly all of Austen's novels are featured. I was surprised to find so many stories inspired by Austen's relatives in this collection: her brother, Francis Austen and two featuring her nieces. One of the stories included has a real life happily-ever-after: Brenna Aubrey's "The Love Letter" was selected from eighty-eight submissions to be included in this volume in an open short story contest. To be published alongside Lauren Willig, Syrie James, Adriana Trigiani, and Stephanie Barron (among others), is a huge treat for a first-time author, and the added sweetness of the story's birth made me enjoy it all the more!

My own tastes tend toward Austen sequels rather than tales of modern day Janeites, so I was surprised to find that my two favorite stories in this collection were contemporary ones. “Faux Jane,” by F. J. Meier (Frank Delaney & Diane Meier) features Nicola and Charles Scott (who reminded me a bit of Hammett's Nick and Nora, actually), two frenetic, pretentious, educated, ludicrous and hilarious New Yorkers who decide to step in when Nicola's friend purchases a signed first edition of P&P. “What Would Austen Do?,” by Jane Rubino and Caitlen Rubino-Bradway, features teenaged James Austen (whose mother may or may not have married his father solely for his surname) who signs up for a country dance class and discovers what's likeable about Austen's novels. Having enjoyed one of Janet Mullany's (non-Austen) novels earlier this year, I was unsurprised to discover I got a kick out of her story, “Jane Austen, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah!". Set in 1964 at a girl's school in England, Mullany's story mixes Beatles-mania and Austen with charming results.

Whether you're new to Austen sequels, spin-offs, and other Austenesque reveries or already a fan, give this volume a try: there's a wide range of styles and stories featured, and the authors in this volume are the best out there. Wildly diverting, a little irreverent, but wholly devoted to Austen, this collection was a wonderful treat when my days were aggravating, unromantic, and I was in need of a escape that was new and familiar.

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GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to offer a copy of Jane Austen Made Me Do It to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US/CA readers, closes 11/18. Be sure to return on Wednesday for my interview with Laurel Ann Nattress.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Mailbox Monday, Nov 7

Seen both at Mailbox Monday and The Story Siren, my Mailbox Monday/In My Mailbox on a Sunday, as usual. I whined about my tiresome week on Friday but I'm happy to say things have gotten better, hooray! All the fabulous books I got helped. Super excited about these new arrivals. Have you read any of these?  What did you get?

For Review




The Doll: The Lost Short Stories by Daphne du Maurier
The Printmaker's Daughter: A Novel by Katherine Govier
Bridge of Scarlet Leaves by Kristina McMorris
Mozart's Last Aria: A Novel by Matt Rees
The Personal History of Rachel DuPree by Ann Weisgarber

Won



Wildflower Hill by Kimberley Freeman, thanks to Raging Bibliomania!

Purchased/Swapped/Gifted



Tarot for Writers by Corrine Kenner
The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt (thanks Books, Personally!)

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Winners!

Two giveaway winners this weekend -- one from last week and one from this week!

The winner of Waiting for Robert Capa is ... Laura H.!

The winner of Maman's Homesick Pie is ... Kirsten!

Congrats to the winners! If you didn't win, check out my open giveaways!

Friday, November 4, 2011

Friday Reads and sunnier days

Last weekend we were hit with an unexpected nor'easter and the heavy snow broke a tree branch onto our car! We didn't lose power (even though the branch pulled down wires) but our car is totaled. So I've been dealing with insurance stuff all week and escaping into reading when I can (the fluffy and fun Jane Austen Made Me Do It: Original Stories Inspired by Literature's Most Astute Observer of the Human Heart helped a lot!). I'm looking forward to a milder weekend with lots more reading!

My FridayReads for this week is A Train in Winter: An Extraordinary Story of Women, Friendship, and Resistance in Occupied France by Caroline Moorehead, which is just marvelous and moving. (I teared up on the train when I started it!) Although intense, it reads quickly, and I'm captivated. Can't wait to share my review next week.

What are you reading this weekend? And are you facing good or ugly weather?

ETA: I like the Book Beginnings meme, so here's the beginning of A Train in Winter:

On 5 January 1942, a French police inspector named Rondeaux, stationed in the 10th arrondissement of Paris, caught sight of a man he believed to be a wanted member of the French Resistance.


Thursday, November 3, 2011

To Join the Lost by Seth Steinzor

Title: To Join the Lost
Author: Seth Steinzor

Genre: Poetry (Contemporary / Hell / Current Events / Politics / Social Commentary / Satire)
Publisher/Publication Date: Antrim House (5/1/2010)
Source: TLC Book Tours

Rating: Okay, to liked (at moments) and eh (at other moments)
Did I finish?: I did, in about three days!
One-sentence summary: A middle-aged agnostic-Jewish-Buddist American travels to Hell with Dante.
Reading Challenges: Fearless Poetry

Do I like the cover?: Actually, I rather do -- it kind of fits the feel of Steinzor's writing style!

First line: Midway through my life's journey, I found myself/lost in a dark place, a tangle of hanging/vines or cables or branches -- so dark! -- festooning/larger solid looming walls or/trucks or rocks or rubble, and strange stapes/moving through the mist, silent or/howling, scuffling through the uneven dirt or/dropping from the blotchy sky like/thicker clouds, so close sometimes I ducked in/fright so that they never quite touched me.

Did... I veritably decorate my book with a metric ton of stickies, marking lines I liked, disliked, wanted to research, savor, or repeat?: YES. (Photographic proof.) I'm sure I looked like a crazy person on the subway, with my tabs stuck on my hand while I pretty much marked at least one thing on every page.

Did... I understand many of the political and literary references in this book?: YES. Now, I'm a bit a current events nut, so that helps, but Steinzor writes in his Afterward about trying to minimize the amount of allusions to keep from confusing readers, and I think in that regard he is successful. Still, now and then I googled something I was fuzzy on, which helped me 'get' a little more of what I think Steinzor was after.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow if you like poetry, or current events, or if you muddled through a high school class on The Inferno and you're curious about how it might be relevant now.

Why did I get this book?: I haven't touched Dante since high school but being a recovering Catholic, I spent much of my childhood imagining Hell. Visiting Steinzor's Hell was a trip I couldn't resist!

Review: I have pretty mixed feelings about this volume of poetry, which isn't a bad thing necessarily.  This narrative verse is a modern-day take on Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy - Inferno.  Steinzor, a self described "agnostic-Jewish-Buddist American", loves Dante's Divine Comedy, and his Afterword with a Note on Notes was a lovely mini-essay from someone who is deeply inspired, moved, and rejuvenated by Dante's work. (Maybe my favorite part; I love passionate pieces by readers on what they love to read!)

I'm not attached to classics remaining untouched (I enjoy the Austen-ish mutations so trendy these days), but I sadly found this book a little too literal to be a personal flight of fancy 'inspired by' Dante but not literal enough to be a contemporary re-imagining (Christopher Logue's War Music comes to mind as a successful example).

My biggest quibble is about Steinzor's use of (mostly) 19th and 20th century criminals to inhabit his circles of Hell. (Dante mixed historical and mythological figures in his version, although I presume he considered the mythological figures historical.) I think it's fairly universal that, for those who believe in a Hell, Hitler will be there. To see Hitler in Steinzor's piece didn't feel particularly nuanced or creative; neither were the references to the innumerable other criminals of our recent centuries. It feels too easy to say, 'Welcome to Hell, here's Hitler, Mussolini, Imelda Marcos, and McCarthy' and have the landscape littered with Dachau's notorious 'Arbeit Macht Frei' sign and the noxious detritus of an oil spill. The horrors Dante described were an articulation of an afterlife his readers believed to be real; it seems ludicrous to expect everyone who reads this to feel Steinzor's Hell is real and so I felt as if Steinzor name-dropped, so to speak, to force me to believe this Hell of his. The inclusion of the less-often damned, such as Robert F. Kennedy, also felt 'done' (perhaps because I've seen the December 1999 South Park episode "Mr. Hankey's Christmas Classics", featuring the song 'Christmas Time in Hell', it doesn't feel particularly clever or moving to run into a Kennedy in Hell.)

That Steinzor is a lawyer might explain his righteous indignation, but when he condemned living figures to Hell (Bernie Madoff and Ahmed Chalabi, for example), this touched a nerve for me. I'm wildly judgmental, don't get me wrong, but as a rule, I don't really like to let even theologians and philosophers decide who is in the right and who is going to suffer in the next life (should there be one). Literature has a place in imagining and envisioning where the sinners go, but I'm not super keen on that kind of work. Still, in a time when poetry is ignored by many readers and seen as perhaps irrelevant, difficult, or unnecessary, Steinzor's work is a timely articulation of one man's perception of what earns a person eternal judgement and punishment. For the philosophically-minded, this might be a discussion-inspiring read.

However, this wasn't all doom and been-there-done-that for me. When Steinzor grew personal and/or autobiographical, I found myself gripped, absolutely mesmserised by the intimate confrontation of punishment and eternal justice. An early scene where Seth-the-pilgrim runs in to the man who sexually abused him at 13 is moving, uncomfortable, and provocative; the exploration of sin, our expectation of punishment (divine or otherwise), and justice are wrought in Steinzor's brisk but moving lines. I found more impact in that brief passage than the numerous name-dropping.

Steinzor's writing style is easy, quick, and snappy; this doesn't require a lot of pondering or lingering to appreciate (although one could). For those intimidated by the idea of a poetic work, give this a try, as it reads fast and includes many allusions that are easy to appreciate. The subject manner certainly invites conversation and meditation, and I spent the last three days discussing it with folks because it prompted me to consider my own feelings about Hell.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Interview with Stephanie Dray

Stephanie Dray's series about Cleopatra's daughter Selene captivated me, first with Lily of the Nile, then with Song of the Nile.   I'm excited to say Ms Dray has confirmed there will be a third book in this series (happy news since I'm not ready to let Selene go!).  To my delight, Ms Dray agreed to be interviewed; read on to learn more about her writing practice, her newest book, and what she does when she's not writing.

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

Oh gosh, this is the most embarrassing question! I was probably a teenager when I started actually putting plots on paper. My first story was a romance about young angsty gymnasts who were either sleeping together or trying to kill one another with knives. I knew I had a future in writing, however, because my sister yelled at me, “You left Mitch bleeding on the porch and now I’ll never know what happened to him!”

Do you have any writing rituals or routines?

I usually make a soundtrack for whatever book I’m writing so that I can get into the mood. But I have to admit, beyond that, I’m not very regimented.

Was Song of the Nile the original title of your book?

It was not! The intended title for the sequel to Lily of the Nile was originally Sorceress of the Nile. However, my publisher felt that it was a little bit too much on the fantasy side and might alienate historical women’s fiction readers. They asked me to submit a list of alternatives, and I gave them so many, I didn’t even know what was on the list. Naturally, they picked the one title I hated most. Pearl of the Nile. Then I had to go back to them, on bended knee, and beg them to compromise on Song of the Nile, which they did. I can’t complain though, because it worked for me and the beautiful cover just screams sorceress.

As you were writing Song of the Nile, was there a particular scene or character that surprised you?

I like to think that I’m a very business-like writer and that nothing can surprise me. After all, I write out these very detailed outlines before I start writing. And I’m not generally the kind of writer whose characters act on their own. But inevitably, things do surprise me. For one thing, Selene often surprised me. She often lashed out when I thought she’d be more politic...or she’d show shrewdness in a situation that I thought might not call for it. Her ability to hold a grudge shouldn’t have shocked me, but when I was writing the manuscript, it was as if I couldn’t make her stop being angry at Euphronius no matter how hard I tried! Maybe I was channeling her a little bit.

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

I can’t remember. :P I say this only half in jest. I remember that I used to have hobbies and do things with my friends. I had a clean house. I wore fashionable shoes. Sometimes I was even witty. These days though, it’s all books all the time!

Read any good books recently?

I just finished Christy English’s book on Eleanor of Aquitaine and Alais of France. About the same time I read Steven Saylor’s Triumph of Caesar. I admit that when it comes to ancient Roman mysteries, I’m more of a fan of John Maddox Roberts, but I have to give props to Steven Saylor because I found myself quite moved by the end!

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My thanks to Ms Dray for her time and answers!

About the Author: Stephanie graduated with a degree in Government from Smith, a small women’s college in Massachusetts where–to the consternation of her devoted professors–she was unable to master Latin. However, her focus on Middle Eastern Studies gave her a deeper understanding of the consequences of Egypt’s ancient clash with Rome, both in terms of the still-extant tensions between East and West as well as the worldwide decline of female-oriented religion.

Before she wrote novels, Stephanie was a lawyer, a game designer, and a teacher. Now she uses the transformative power of magic realism to illuminate the stories of women in history and inspire the young women of today. She remains fascinated by all things Roman or Egyptian and has–to the consternation of her devoted husband–collected a house full of cats and ancient artifacts.

Learn more about her and her books at her website.