Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twang Eng

Title: The Garden of Evening Mists
Author: Tan Twang Eng

Genre: Fiction (Historical / WWII / Post-WWII / Malaysia / War Crimes / Gardening / PTSD)
Publisher/Publication Date: Myrmidon (2012)
Source: The publisher

Rating: Loved!
Did I finish?: I did -- another one I inhaled.
One-sentence summary: A WWII prison camp survivor comes to terms with her experiences as she reflects on the twenty years following her release, and the unusual journey she took thanks to a Japanese gardener and her South African friends.
Reading Challenges: A-to-Z Reading Challenge, E-books, Historical Fiction,

Do I like the cover?: I do -- it's pretty and simple although it does remind me of an academic volume.

I'm reminded of...: Michael Ondaatje

First line: On a mountain above the clouds once lived a man who had been the gardener of the Emperor of Japan.

Did... I tear up at the end?: YES. In such a good way -- I never wanted this book to end!

Did... I wish there was a glossary?: YES. Eng peppers the story with phrases totally foreign to me, and I guessed or googled the ones I could. Not understanding didn't take away from the story, but I would have loved a glossary to explain or context the words.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Buy, buy, buy -- beautifully written, engrossing -- hist fic that spans lit fic.

Why did I get this book?: Having so enjoyed Meira Chand's novel set in post-WWII Malaysia, I was eager for this one.

Review: This is an atmospheric novel with what might be one of my favorite heroines ever, a complicated, articulated, damaged-yet-hopeful woman who captivated me from the first page. Beginning in the 1960s or '70s (I'm not entirely sure, the novel is told by Judge Teoh Yun Ling, one of Malaysia's first female Supreme Court Justices. She has retired from the bench, a bit suddenly, and returns to the tea plantation owned by family friends. From then, in a desperate attempt to remember before she forgets, Yun Ling recounts her life after her release from a Japanese internment camp. The sole survivor, with a mangled hand and deep emotional scars, Yun Ling she throws herself into War Crimes work and eventually attends Cambridge University before returning to Malaysia to work. When she finds herself unable to cope with the government's decision to release Japan from financial restitution to victims, Yun Ling escapes to the country in hopes of establishing a memorial garden for her sister.

Obviously, this is a novel about war, but the conflict is beyond just World War II: following Japan's surrender, Malaysia was immediately gripped by a guerrilla war with the Communists, and Yun Ling's close friends are an Afrikaner family from South Africa, survivors of the Boer War. The themes of armed, violent conflict are reflected in every interaction and experience Yun Ling has, for there's no one in her life untouched by war. In an era well before the acknowledgement of PTSD, she -- like everyone else in Malaysia -- shoulders on, trying to find peace in whatever way possible.

Like Meira Chand's novel, A Different Sky, this novel acknowledges the reality of colonialism, xenophobia, and racism that shaped Malaysia's history. Yun Ling has deep seated hatred for the Japanese, yet she has to come to terms with her feelings when she commissions a gifted Japanese gardener to create the memorial garden for her sister.

While Yun Ling was the hook for me, the writing, oh, the writing swept me away. Yun Ling is known for her well written judgements, and her story is told in a clear but pretty way. Such evocative, poetic sentences: "These aged Englishmen had the forlorn air of pages torn from an old and forgotten book." (p13); "...too many incontinent lorries leaking gravel and cement as they made their way to another construction site in the highlands." (p17); "I do not bother to sieve the disdain from my voice." (p22). Despite the prettiness of the writing, the novel still feels restrained in a way, like Yun Ling, and the wealth of plot and angst don't overwhelm the story.

While I'm sure I'm conveying my enthusiasm for this book, I'm hope I'm also conveying the wonderful experience of this layered novel. More than just a historical novel, this is a fantastic character study and examination of a part of the world very unfamiliar to me. I often found myself chewing over this book as I listened to the news about the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan, thinking of those survivors, and I'm even more appreciative of this novel. A quiet, lovely book with punch.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

A Hole in the Ground Owned by a Liar by Daniel Pyne

Title: A Hole in the Ground Owned by a Liar
Author: Daniel Pyne

Genre: Fiction (Contemporary / Colorado / Mining / Sibling Relationships / Black Comedy / Small Town Politics)
Publisher/Publication Date: Counterpoint (1/17/2012)
Source: The publisher.

Rating: Loved.
Did I finish?: I did -- I inhaled it.
One-sentence summary: A gold mine in Colorado, purchased off eBay, provides drama, excitement, intrigue, danger, and a ton of muck to a motley group of

Do I like the cover?: I do -- the mine looks as I expect a mine too; I like the marker-y font; and the dirty smear/splash in the upper right hand corner is repeated on all the chapter starts.

I'm reminded of...: Carl Hiaasen, Elmore Leonard

First line: A small mountain airport, shrouded in fog, dusted with summer snow.

Do... I adore the title?: YES. Pyne explains the possible source of the title -- maybe Twain, maybe a contemporary of his -- and regardless of the source, I heart it so.

Did... I find all the mining stuff rather easy to follow, given that I'm not a miner (or geologist)?: YES. Pyne explains what needs to be explained without overwhelming the reader.

Did... I horrify my wife by not knowing who one of the book's blurb-ers was?: YES. Eric Idle offers a hilarious blurb, and I chuckled, and when I passed this book to my wife, she cracked up and 'oohed'. When I failed to respond, she was really disappointed in me, and I got a lot of hectoring and a long lecture. So, FYI, Eric Idle is part of Monty Python. In my defense, I totally recognized him when she showed me his picture.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy -- this is kind of a Western, only not really, with anti-heroes who aren't really anti- or heroic, a romance that isn't romantic, and a look at family that's touching and twisted.

Why did I get this book?: The title. How can anyone say no?

Review: Look, I'll admit it: rather cattily, I was dubious that a screenwriter -- however successful -- could put out a compelling novel. But the premise -- and fantabulous title -- of this book was too intriguing to resist, so I agreed to take this on to review.

To my (chagrined!) surprise, I loved this book. It's darkly funny, with all these weirdly unlikable-yet-totally-lovable characters, and this almost-too-ludicrous-to-be-believed plot that comes right out of a 19th century mining yarn.

Post-divorce, motivated by a midlife crisis, Lee Garrison, a high school teacher, buys a mine off eBay near his hometown in Colorado. Locating the mine is something of an endeavor: mine claims were obfuscated and hidden to keep thieves away, and within days of his purchase, he's gathered an unwelcome cadre of 'partners', eager to make it rich. Complicating matters is his brother Grant, newly released from prison, and his ex-wife's new husband, a slimy lawyer, and the pretty Rayna, a woman he's uncomfortably interested in.

Unsurprisingly, the dialogue is stellar in this book, laugh-out-loud funny, dark and sharp and sarcastic. There's a scene early on between Grant and his parole officer, dialogue only, that was so delightful I wanted to make out with it. The novel's start was a bit slow for me -- the narrative was a bit long-winded at times -- but as the story went on, I was hooked, and I couldn't stop reading. I didn't want the book to end, either, although I found it immensely satisfying, just what I didn't know I wanted.

I'm not sure how or who to recommend this novel to: it's not a Western, but is strongly influenced by the world of 19th century mining, the lore and backstabbing and intrigue; it's not a romance, but romantic relationships -- new, old, and in-between -- feature in the story as do sibling relationships; it's not a business thriller, but there's drama and greed and plenty of action. This is an amusing and rather moving novel that surprised and delighted me.

*** *** ***

GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to be able to offer two! readers a copy of A Hole in the Ground Owned by a Liar. To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US/CA readers, ends 4/20.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Thirteen by Susie Moloney

Title: The Thirteen
Author: Susie Moloney

Genre: Fiction (Contemporary / Suburban Horror / Witchcraft / Human Sacrifice / Mother-Daughter Relationships / Motherhood)
Publisher/Publication Date: William Morrow Paperbacks (3/27/2012)
Source: TLC Book Tours

Rating: Liked.
Did I finish?: I did -- drawing it out because it was such fun.
One-sentence summary: Twenty-something Paula returns to her childhood town with her daughter in tow after her mother is hospitalized and discovers that the town's elite harbor some seriously twisted secrets.
Reading Challenges: Witches & Witchcraft

Do I like the cover?: I actually kind of like it -- even though it has the potential to look YA-ish, the woman is clearly older, not a teen, which I love -- fits the ages of many of the 'witches' -- and it's creepy and snaky looking.

I'm reminded of...: Alma Katsu, Ira Levin, Stephen King

First line: Chick was an old-fashioned woman.

Was... it super disconcerting to read a character named Audra?: YES. I've only run in to another Audra in my whole life, and I kind of felt like someone was trying to impersonate me. This wasn't as traumatically weird, but it was very odd seeing my name!

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy this summer or in anticipation of Halloween -- a macabre but gleefully wicked look at suburban 'witches'.

Why did I get this book?: I'm a sucker for black magic witches and suburban horror!

Review: This is the pour-and-bake brownie of books: easy, junky, tasty, fast, and fun. And like those insta-brownies, this book was kind of a weekend lifesaver for me.

My mother went to the hospital on Thursday and this book spent the weekend with me, alleviating two long nights sleeping in a hospital chair and two chaotic and stressful days. It was the diverting, engrossing, easy to dip in and out of distraction I needed. (This review might not convey my grateful relief as I'm still a bit sleep-deprived.)

Set in pretty, bucolic, suburban Haven Woods (in my head I made it a town in Connecticut, but I think it's sort of ambigu-East Coast), the story follows, loosely, two families: Audra, Paula, and Rowan Wittmore and Izzy and Marla Riley. Pretty quickly, we learn something is seriously wrong with the suburban royalty, the matrons and their families, but it's not until we're about 100 pages in does the action really pick up. (Perhaps my only complaint.) Paula's mother, Audra, is hospitalized with a vague, unspecified illness that makes Paula very suspicious; her daughter Rowan is even more put off by the odd way her grandmother's friends pry in to her life. The town's history is littered with horrible tragedies -- grotesque murders and shocking accidents -- that no one seems to find shocking until Paula and Rowan find themselves the focus of the women's murderous interest.

The writing style reminded me a bit of Stephen King -- parenthetical asides and vaguely stream-of-consciousness-y threads interspersing the narrative -- as well as the themes of the story -- the things we're willing to trade for our heart's desires, the secrets a town will keep even to its detriment, and I really enjoyed Moloney's exploration of mother-daughter relationships and parental sacrifices (in some cases, literally).

A perfect summer beach read, this is also a fun book to consider for October: creepy, over-the-top, a little bit gross (but not over-the-top), with a tiny bit of romance to add sweetness to the story.

*** *** ***

Learn more about Susie Moloney at her website. You can follow her on Twitter.

GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to offer a copy of The Thirteen to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US/CA readers, ends 4/6.


Sunday, March 25, 2012

Mailbox Monday, March 26

Seen both at Mailbox Monday -- hosted in March at Diary of an Eccentric -- and The Story Siren, my Mailbox Monday/In My Mailbox.  Forgive me for the thin post -- I'm trying to do this from memory, as I'm still parked at the hospital.  Still, it's a diverting activity and I'm appreciative of that.  To learn more about a book, click on the image (which should open in a new tab/window!).  What did you get this week? Read any of these?



For Review

Cover image: Butterfly's Child: A Novel by Angela Davis-Gardner Cover image for Witness the Night: A Novel by Kishwar Desai Cover image for Coming Out Can Be Murder by Renee James
Cover image for The Understory by Elizabeth Leiknes Cover of The Dragon's Harp by Rachael Pruitt Cover image of The Orphanmaster by Jean Zimmerman

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Winners!

I'm sorry I've been MIA the last few days -- I'm out of town tending to my mother, who was hospitalized last week. She's improving, but it was quite stressful for a while. Thankfully, I've had some great books to help me escape!

Even more fun -- a metric ton of winners!

The winner of The Turning of Anne Merrick is ... Kathleen B.!

The winner of 18th century-inspired stationary is ... Marie of Burton Book Review!

The winner of Bridge of Scarlet Leaves is ...Svetlana!

The winner of Enchantments is ...Farin!

The winner of The Sister Queens is ... Tara!

The winner of The Flight of Gemma Hardy is ... JoAnn of Lakeside Musing!

Congrats to all the winners (who have been emailed). If you didn't win, be sure to check out my open giveaway -- with more to come!

Friday, March 23, 2012

Interview with M.J. Rose

Earlier this week I reviewed the fun reincarnation thriller The Book of Lost Fragrances by M.J. Rose. I'm thrilled to share my interview with Ms. Rose, so read on to learn more about her, her writing, and what she does when she's not writing.

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

It was a story about a woman who sued several movie companies for perpetrating a myth that romance, as portrayed in film, is damaging to our emotional health.

Do you have any writing rituals or routines?

Yes I do. I immerse myself in books relating to the time period of my book and I make a journal for the main character filling it with things that matter to him or her and ideas . And then I buy something important that belongs to my main character. I spend at least 3 months on the journal before I start to write. I think of it as procrastinating my way into writing the novel.

Was The Book of Lost Fragrances the original title of your book?

No. I had a really boring title! Then one day I was having lunch with my agent and talking about the book. I described the part where one of the characters goes looking for a book of lost fragrances and he stopped me dead sentence and told me that I’d just said the title.

As you were writing The Book of Lost Fragrances, was there a particular scene or character that surprised you?

Yes, actually quite a few, but most of all Marie Genevieve who lived in France at the time of the French Revolution. She kept doing things I didn’t expect her to do. Especially at the end.

Is there a particular scent or fragrance that you associate with your time writing this novel?

BLUE LOTUS & WILD GRASS candles by Joya. And BOIS DE ROSE & CEDAR LEAF candles also by Joya. I burned these constantly while writing and their scents infuse the pages of the novel. Also Mitsouko vintage perfume by Guerlain, Vol de Nuit vintage perfume by Guerlain, and Turquoise perfume by Olivier Durbano.

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

Visit museums, go to movies, read, travel, take walks, be by the water, shop (of course), talk on the phone (too much) see friends, go out to dinner.

Read any good books recently?

Always. The Murder’s Daughters by Randy Susan Meyers. The Lost Wife by Alyson Richman. The Jefferson Key by Steve Berry. Cheri by Colette. The Affair by Lee Child. The Witching Hour by Anne Rice. The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters.

*** *** ***

My thanks to Ms. Rose for her time and answers. Check out the other blogs on the tour for reviews and guest posts!

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Molly Make-Believe by Eleanor Hallowell Abbott

Title: Molly Make-Believe
Author: Eleanor Hallowell Abbott

Genre: Fiction (Vintage / Correspondence / Invalid / Boston / Secret Identities / Comedic Romance)
Publisher/Publication Date: Legacy Romance (2/14/2012)
Source: The publisher

Rating: Loved.
Did I finish?: I did, in one evening! (It's about 80ish pages.)
One-sentence summary: A housebound Boston businessman takes his cold fiancée's suggestion and purchases a mail order friend, and finds himself falling in love with the mysterious Molly Make-Believe.
Reading Challenges: E-books

Do I like the cover?: I just love it -- I'm a sucker for these kind of dramatic costume-y shots, and it fits the feel of Molly Make-Believe, who has a dramatic entrance in a veiled hat.

I'm reminded of...: rather than authors, I'm reminded of cute classic films like The Shop Around the Corner and Christmas in Connecticut

First line: The morning was as dark and cold as city snow could make it -- a dingy whirl at the window; a smoky gust through the fireplace; a shadow black as a bear's cave under the table.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy it -- it's $0.99 at Legacy Romance, and likely available as a public domain offering.

Why did I get this book?: The cover -- it's so striking!

Review: This was a cute book. Absolutely cute. I was a reminded a bit of cute classic films like The Shop Around the Corner and Christmas in Connecticut -- a little screwball, very improbable, and ultimately adorable.

The premise is very simple: Carl Stanton, a Boston businessman, is housebound with rheumatism (in this case, terrible pain and malingering cold of some kind) while his cool and gorgeous fiancée Cornelia winters in Jacksonville with her mother. In her goodbye letter, Cornelia tells him she will "honestly try to write every Sunday" but that she's unwilling to literally promise that -- never mind sending him daily missives filled with sentimentality. As a dig, or a joke, she includes an advertisement for the Serial-Letter Company and suggests he look in to it. For a fee, he can choose the correspondent of his choice -- a Banda Sea Pirate, murderous and blood-curdling; a Gray Plush Squirrel, prowly, scampery, deliciously wild; a favorite historical character, historically reasonable and vivaciously human; or love letters in shy, medium, or very intense.

Unable to resist -- who could? -- Carl provides his brief biography, writes a check for an extravagant amount, and thinks smugly that he'll save the letters to show Cornelia, in hopes of teaching her how to be passionate. A day later, a messenger shows up with a cheery, sweet, loving letter and a woolen blanket and that's when Stanton's world gets a bit messy. His correspondent is charming and chirpy and adorable, and Stanton is consumed with wanting to know The Truth: who is his Molly Make-Believe? Like any reasonable person, he assumes the worst, and wants the best, and in general tortures everyone about this.

Abbbott's writing is a bit florid, but I really enjoyed it: it made me laugh, it was so evocative, and it has the feel of a vintage advertisement or postcard, all curlicues and extravagant promises. This section is from early on, one of his first, brief letters from fiancée Cornelia:

Not till the fifth day did a brief little southern note arrive informing him of the ordinary vital truths concerning a comfortable journey, and expressing a chaste hope that he would not forget her. Not even surprise, not even curiosity, tempted Stanton to wade twice through the fashionable, angular handwriting. Dully impersonal, bleak as the shadow of a brown leaf across a block of gray granite, plainly -- unforgivably -- written with ink and ink only, the stupid, loveless page slipped through his fingers to the floor. (p12)

Even though this book is set during Boston's miserably wet winters, it was a perfect read for these unseasonably delicious warm days. I spent one night on my porch reading this -- it's about 80 pages -- and it was a great diversion from the heavier reading I've been doing.

*** *** ***

GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to offer an e-book copy of Molly Make-Believe to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US/international readers, ends 4/13.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Book of Lost Fragrances by M.J. Rose

Title: The Book of Lost Fragrances
Author: M.J. Rose

Genre: Fiction (Historical / Perfumers / Archaeological Excavation / Reincarnation / France / New York City / Secret Societies)
Publisher/Publication Date: Atria (3/13/2012)
Source: Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tour / NetGalley

Rating: Liked.
Did I finish?: I did.
One-sentence summary: A family of perfumers, torn by debt and disparate beliefs, gamble on whether a mystical fragrance can bring back past life memories while bad guys and secret societies try to steal their discoveries.
Reading Challenges: E-books, Historical Fiction, NetGalley

Do I like the cover?: I do -- it captures the feel of the novel very well.

I'm reminded of...: Dan Brown, Kate Mosse, Danielle Trussoni

First line: Giles L'Etoile was a master of scent, not a thief.

Am... I coveting the real-life fragrance inspired by the book's mystical scent?: YES. I am a fragrance and perfume addict, and stuff like this just makes me giddy with delight.

Do... I love that M.J. Rose posted her book's soundtrack online?: YES. I'm a geek; these things make me happy. Also, I think it's so adorable her husband composed a theme for the book.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow - start with this book or any in the series for fluffy, vaguely paranormal-y fun.

Why did I get this book?: I had read her previous novel and liked the premise.

Review: Last summer I read M.J. Rose's The Hypnotist, which was a perfect summer thriller, and so I was excited about her next book in her reincarnation series. I wasn't disappointed; in fact, I enjoyed this one more than The Hypnotist, perhaps because I liked the main characters and I enjoyed the intrigue.

It's been shockingly summer-y in Boston this spring, and I spent a few happy nights with this book, wine (although tea was tempting, given all the descriptions of fabulously unique blended teas the characters drank), and my sunny porch.  While this is the fourth in a series, I've found each book works very well as stand alone novels. Only one character really spans the four books (I believe), and his role is explained clearly. References are made to his connection with the previous novel's, and I had enough info to enjoy this one.

The plot is fun enough: a French-American family of perfumers stumble upon what might be the recipe for a fragrance that will allow people to recall their previous lives.  Robbie, a Buddhist, is convinced this perfume exists and would assist the Tibetans and the Dalai Lama in achieving independence from China; Jac, his sister, is a pragmatic myth buster, of sorts, afflicted with horrible visions and a broken heart.  At odds about their family's failing perfume atelier, they become the focus of nefarious groups wanting the possibly magical perfume.  There's some romantic drama, reincarnation-y flashbacks, international intrigue, and lots of tantalizing descriptions of scent and fragrances.

For those who like French historicals or novels set in Paris, this is for you.  If you're not a paranormal fan, I'm not sure if this novel will appeal.  Reincarnation is treated as a thing, a life event like any other, so the supernatural-y-ness is pretty low, but if reincarnation seems fantastical to you, then this will read as a bit of a fantasy.  This felt more like a religious thriller -- minus the Catholic church -- than an urban fantasy or supernatural fic.

*** *** ***

Learn more about M.J. Rose and her writing by checking out my interview with her!

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Interview with Kathryn Harrison

Earlier in the month, I tore through Kathryn Harrison's gorgeous, emotional, and captivating historical novel Enchantments. It had so many winning elements for me and it's a story I haven't shaken (and likely won't). I am delighted to be able to share my interview with the author, Kathryn Harrison. Read on to learn more about her, her writing, Enchantments, and what she does when she's not writing. There's also another chance to win a copy of her newest book.

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

I can't remember more than a few images from the short stories I wrote in college, but I do recall the one I included as my writing sample when I applied to the Iowa Writers Workshop. It's never been published, but it got me into the Workshop. I was 23 or 24 and more than a little overawed by Flannery O'Connor when I wrote it. The story was was titled "The White Bus" and it had a sinister, "Twilight Zone" quality. A man sets off on a highway, walking by himself, carrying no suitcase. He's followed by a white bus filled with what appear to be evangelical Christians en route to a tent revival. The bus keeps stopping, and the driver tries to get the man to board, which he refuses to do.

In the end the driver of the bus runs the man over and carries his corpse onto the vehicle. The story has a more allegorical quality than anything I've written since, along with a resolution inspired by O'Connor -- the violent arrival of the Holy Spirit, which claims the man at the moment of death, the bus revealed as a supernatural conveyance, and the way to heaven a bloody road. The dark side of predestination.

Do you have any writing rituals or routines?

I work at a desk, on the largest mac available -- the 27" desktop. I'm nearly always at my desk at least an hour, and as many as three, before the rest of my family wakes up. I write nearly every day, and for as long as I can each day, unless circumstances prevent me. My children describe me as a workaholic, and I suppose they are right.

Was Enchantments the original title of your book?

Oh no, it probably had at least 10 working titles. A few -- "Handsome Alyosha" "Tickets to an Execution" and "The Window in the Egg" -- became chapter titles. The rest are scrawled on index cards, probably filed away with all the drafts of the novel.

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

Yes: the turning point in writing this novel came after I had a complete first draft that I found disappointing. I'd written a fully realistic treatment of the period and felt flat to me: nothing transfigured or revealed in a new way. Straight realism was too small a container -- both for Rasputin and for the end of the Romanovs.

While fretting over this I was paging through a book of photographs of the Romanovs, a "coffee table book" but it included text from various sources -- excerpts from letters and contemporary accounts of the royal family. One of these explained that Alexandra had been a happy, sunny-dispositioned child until her mother died, when Alexandra was 6, and from that time forward, the writer (I can't remember who) characterized the girl as being held captive under a dark cloud.

I returned to my desk and wrote the scene that makes the metaphor literal. In the novel, Alexandra's cloud is visible, its size and color and tendency to rain all governed by her mood, which is mostly . . . rainy. The revised novel is filled with similar instances of something similar to "magical realism" -- an effort to infuse the narrative with the magic of folk and fairy tales. So there is the arrival of the devil and his entourage, the coronation scene with all the religious icons come to life, the magic motor car Rasputin"drives" to the Holy Land, and all the other instances of magic. I leavened a sad history and revealed it in a new light.

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

I teach as well as write, and I have three children, so there isn't a lot of time left over. I love beach combing. Yoga. Spending time with friends. Going to the theater. Movies, too.

Read any good books recently?


I'm working on a biography of Joan of Arc, and for the past year almost all of my reading has been in service to that project. I've just finished The Waning of the Middle Ages by J. Huizinga, which was great, and very useful, and am now in the middle of William James' The Varieties of Religious Experience.  It's the kind of reading I might do even if it were not research - up my alley so to speak.

*** *** ***

My thanks to Ms. Harrison for her time. Check out other blogs on the tour.

GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to offer a copy of Enchantments to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US/CA readers, ends 3/23.

Monday, March 19, 2012

A Partial History of Lost Causes by Jennifer duBois

Title: A Partial History of Lost Causes
Author: Jennifer duBois

Genre: Fiction (Russia / 1980s / 2000s / Cambridge, MA / Chess / Politics / Incurable Diseases)
Publisher/Publication Date: The Dial Press (3/20/2012)
Source: TLC Book Tours

Rating: Loooooooooooooooooooooved!
Did I finish?: I did.
One-sentence summary: Spanning the 1980s through 2008, the novel tells the dual stories of a Russian chess champion turned politician and American academic who assists him.
Reading Challenges: A-to-Z

Do I like the cover?: I do -- I believe it's the view of St. Petersburg, Russia from the Neva River, which is where much of the story is set. (Plus, part of it takes place in Cambridge at Harvard, so there's the Charles River, too, and I like the river-y image.)

I'm reminded of...: Valerie Laken, Scarlett Thomas

First line: When Aleksandr finally arrived in Leningrad, he was stunned by the great span of the Neva.

Did... I sort of get a bit glazed-eye-y at the chess talk?: YES. I don't play chess even though I wish I could, so all the rook to A5 or whatever made me a bit bored but the story was SO fabulous I didn't mind.

Am... I contemplating whether I can leave work early enough to make one of her readings?: YES. Sadly she's not hitting Boston!

Do... I love that the author will join book club discussions?: YES. I think it is so cool that authors do that, and yet again, it makes me yearn for a book club of my own!

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Buy, buy, and linger and cry and be moved and sigh.

Why did I get this book?: The cover, and the chess reference, and the Russian-y connection. I don't really recall but zomg am I grateful I did!

Review: Please forgive me while I have a brief spaz out.

THIS BOOK WAS SO GOOD WHY DID IT HAVE TO END?!

Ahem.

I'm going to be struggling a bit to provide a useful review (sorry), partially because this plot is so layered and interesting, and partially because it was so great I'm really just shaking the book emphatically at the screen as if that would convey its awesomeness.

Gary Shteyngart blurbs the book on the cover, saying among other things: "I wish I were her." To that I say: true story. I envy duBois' ability to take these seemingly different plot elements and themes -- chess, Russian politics, Huntington's Disease, terrorism, documentary film making, unrequited love -- and make them into one cohesive and coherent and captivating story.

First, I can't even summarize the plot well, so forgive me for doing it badly. Beginning in 1979, we follow Aleksandr Bezetov, a Russian chess champion, as he navigates the world of Communist and post-Communist Russia, and his eventual decision to embark on a seemingly doomed presidential campaign against Vladimir Putin. Having watched friends and enemies die and disappear, he's filled with a kind of pragmatic fatalism -- the same kind that fills American Irina Ellison. Thirty-ish, Irina has Huntington's, an incurable and debilitating disease that threatens to fully emerge any year, and on a whim, she decides to chase down the Russian chess champion that her father tried to correspond with decades ago. Once she finds Aleksandr, she becomes his copy editor, and joins his campaign, one that could be considered a lost cause.

The writing is great -- smart but readable, pretty but not overly descriptive -- and I just clicked with duBois' characters. The two leads aren't exactly heroes, nor are they anti-heroes; they're complicated and maddening people, compelling -- I followed them for 370ish pages without complaint and wanted, desperately, more. (It ended exactly where it needed to, though.) The last chapter killed me -- I'm kind of getting teary remembering! -- as it was so deliciously sad and bitter and sweet and pragmatic and hopeful. I reread it this morning on the train to linger with the feeling. Honestly, the whole book was like this -- moving without feeling trite, and coolly pessimistic without feeling unemotional -- and I clearly can't rave enough about it.

In the end, Jennifer duBois needs to be writing more novels, please. Immediately. And you need to read this one, stat.

*** *** ***

GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to offer a copy of A Partial History of Lost Causes to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US/CA readers, ends 4/6.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

In My Mailbox, March 19

Seen both at Mailbox Monday -- hosted in March at Diary of an Eccentric -- and The Story Siren, my Mailbox Monday/In My Mailbox.  What did you get this week? Read any of these? I'm mixing up the format a little this week -- click the cover to learn more about the book. Do you like this format, or my previous format?


For Review



Won


Saturday, March 17, 2012

Winners!


Happy St. Patrick's Day! Apropos of nothing, here are some giveaway winners!

The winner of The Technologists is ... Lauren M.!

The winner of The King's Agent is ... Angela!

Congrats to the winners! If you didn't win, check out my open giveaways -- currently 10 open and more coming this week!

Friday, March 16, 2012

The Mapping of Love and Death by Jacqueline Winspear

Title: The Mapping of Love and Death
Author: Jacqueline Winspear

Genre: Fiction (Historical / 1930s / Mystery / London / Private Investigator / Murder / post-WWI)
Publisher/Publication Date: Harper Perennial (4/22/2011)
Source: TLC Book Tours

Rating: Liked.
Did I finish?: Yes -- and immediately wanted more!
One-sentence summary: In 1932, a former WWI nurse-turned-PI investigates the mysterious death of a WWI soldier.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction

Do I like the cover?: I adore it -- I believe Andrew Davidson is the illustrator for the whole series and I adore the vintage-y feel of the art as well as the imagery here. The focus of Maisie's investigation is a cartographer, and the two locales on the cover feature in the novel. Very nice details reflected here.

I'm reminded of...: Nicola Upson

First line: Michael Clifton stood on a hill burnished gold in the summer sun and, hands on his hips, closed his eyes.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Start reading this series, stat.

Why did I get this book?: I've long been curious about the Maisie Dobbs series, and last year, nomadreader called it her favorite Maisie Dobbs book to date.

Review: I hate coming in to a series midway, but after hearing nothing but raves for the Maisie Dobbs book, and this one in particular, I decided to plunge in and see what happened. I'm both sad and pleased I did so, because I had such a great time with this book, and I am desperate to start the series and get more Maisie.

When describing this to my wife, Masterpiece Theater/BBC-ish-ness is what I latched on to: Maisie is restrained, scarred by her experiences in World War I, in an era in which class and gender structures are being rigidly maintained and shaken up. (I kept recasting her in my mental film, since the only thing I'm fuzzy on is her age.) She's from of a working class family but had a unique opportunity to gain education, and as a result, she's aware of her place both 'upstairs' and 'downstairs'. I'm sure the theme of class straddling isn't new to the Maisie books, but I really liked that Winspear doesn't dismiss this after the first few books as I'm sure it colored and affected every aspect of Maisie's interactions.

The feel of the mystery runs more like Agatha Christie -- we're told about the crime, but we don't witness any gruesomeness, which I appreciate! -- but unlike Christie, this isn't a cagey whodunnit. I'm lazy with my mysteries -- I don't like to solve the crime -- so I appreciated that Maisie did the heavy lifting for me.

There's a romantic element to the story that I understand is a bit new and unusual for the series, which again I have mixed feelings about: on one hand, I love savoring it here, and I'm a bit sad I'll have to wait six books for it!; and on the other hand, I really appreciate that Winspear doesn't keep her 'formula' for these novels the same and force Maisie to remain without affection.

I'm being pretty vague on the plot because ultimately that wasn't what hooked me to the story. Like everyone has said, Maisie really is reason for reading, and I found her to be fascinating, intimidating, and appealing. I think one could read this story with no knowledge of the Maisie universe and be fine: Winspear offers tidbits that reference the previous books, and I never felt baffled or confused by a relationship she had.

Now I just have to decide: start with book one, or grab book 8 (A Lesson in Secrets)?

*** *** ***

GIVEAWAY!

As part of the March is Maisie Month Blog Tour, I have two giveaways! Both are for US/CA readers and close 3/30.

Enter to win a copy of The Mapping of Love and Death!

Enter to win a copy of the newest Maisie Dobbs novel, Elegy for Eddie!

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Sonoma Rose by Jennifer Chiaverini

Title: Sonoma Rose
Author: Jennifer Chiaverini

Genre: Fiction (Historical / 1920s / California / Abusive Marriage / Prohibition / Farming / Childhood Loves / Mysterious Illnesses)
Publisher/Publication Date: Dutton Adult (2/21/2012)
Source: TLC Book Tours

Rating: Unfinished.
Did I finish?: Alas, I didn't!
One-sentence summary: During the Prohibition, the wife of a California rye farmer-turned-bootlegger escapes her abusive marriage with her four surviving children in hopes of finding a new life for all of them.

Do I like the cover?: Eh, I'm not wild about it. The painting is very pretty, but I don't think it reflects either lead character. Still, it has a soft, vintage-y feel that's appealing.

I'm reminded of...: Camille Noe Pagán

First line: Clad in the faded apron she had sewn from a cotton feed sack, Rosa sat at the foot of the kitchen table sipping a cup of coffee and planning her day while her husband bolted down his bacon and eggs.

Why did I get this book?: I love books set during the Prohibition and was excited about the West Coast focus.

Review: Sadly, this was a DNF for me. I tried about three times to get in to the story, employing my usual tactic of reading 100 pages in before giving up. In this case, I just didn't resonate with the characters or writing style, despite the book's interesting setting and potentially fun premise.

The book doesn't open with a date, so I had to guess when this is set -- through Rosa's discovery of a tommy gun and liquor casks it's clear the setting is sometime during the Prohibition -- but whether that's 1919 or 1930, I don't know. The heroine, Rosa, has had eight children, four of whom have died of a mysterious illness. Of her four remaining children, two are stricken with the same illness, while two -- born of another father -- are healthy and fine. (I learned this tidbit about the different fathers from the book blurb; it wasn't made very clear to me in the 100 pages I did read.) Rosa is in an abusive marriage to a man who, from what I read, picked on her since she was a child. Despite being in love with another much kinder man, Rosa marries this jerk, and the book opens with him slapping her around.

I don't want to victim blame as the cycle of domestic violence is complex, complicated, and difficult to break out of, but from the first page, I just couldn't stand Rosa. I'm not sure if she was featured in previous Elm Creek Quilts novels and thus the reader already cared for her, but when the story opens with her four dead children, two more dying, and a guy who beats her, I just wanted to toss the book to the wall. What motivates her to leave this time seems flimsy -- certainly no more shocking than the previous times her husband has attacked her -- and so I couldn't become invested in her flight or her fear.

The writing is fine and the setting very unique. From other reviews I've seen, I understand the book goes a bit in to the plight of the California wineries during Prohibition, and explores the way the Catholic Church perpetuated and excused domestic violence. The feel of this novel is cozy drama, if such a thing is possible.

Other reviewers on the tour enjoyed this book, so do check out other opinions to see if this is a book for you.

*** *** ***

GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to offer a copy of Sonoma Rose to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US/CA readers, ends 3/30.


Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Dispatcher by Ryan David Jahn


Title: The Dispatcher
Author: Ryan David Jahn

Genre: Fiction (Contemporary / Texas / Kidnapping / Multiple POVs / Police Procedural / Crime Thriller)
Publisher/Publication Date: Penguin (12/27/2011)
Source: TLC Book Tours

Rating: Liked a great deal.
Did I finish?: Yes -- I couldn't stop thinking about this one!
One-sentence summary: Police dispatcher gets a call from his teenaged daughter, who was kidnapped seven years ago and presumed dead.
Reading Challenges: E-books, NetGalley

Do I like the cover?: I do -- it captures the gritty, dirty feel of the town of Bulls Mouth.  I kind of hate the whole 'The phone rings...' thing, though.  It's a bit distracting.

I'm reminded of...: Sarah Dunant, Jennifer McMahon

First line: Ian Hunt is less than an hour from the end of his shift when he gets the call from his dead daughter.

Did... I kind of have a crush on Ian?: YES. I'm a sucker for (anti/non)heroes with baggage, angst, stubble, and a drinking problem. Thankfully, my wife finds his hilarious and not, like, worrisome.

Did... I actually take this book to the bathroom with me during the day?: YES. Honestly, every free second I had, I cracked open this book to read. Potato chip addictive!

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow if you like taut thrillers that work better than caffeine at getting your heart pounding!

Why did I get this book?: I loved the gritty ambiance of the setting.

Review: In the first few pages of this novel, we meet Ian Hunt, a police dispatcher who gets a 911 call from his daughter, who has been missing for seven years. Four months ago, at his ex-wife's request, they had a funeral for Maggie, but Ian hasn't been able to let go of the hope that Maggie was alive.

This book had me on the edge of my seat every time I picked it up; if I had coffee while reading it, I honestly thought I'd expire from an anxiety attack. Jahn's present tense narrative has the effect of making everything immediate, and so I just chased line after line, desperate to get to the resolution.

The novel alternates mostly between Ian, Maggie, and her kidnapper, and the additional viewpoints are both delightful and maddening. I wanted to get to The End, of course, but Maggie's interludes ratcheted up the tension while the kidnapper's POV just made everything creepier and creepier. Other characters got their own chapter now and then, which slightly affected the mood for me, but otherwise, I can't complain about the pacing or the vibe of the story. If thriller you want, thriller you get.

Beyond the thrilling plot line -- will Ian be able to rescue his daughter? -- this novel also lifts up the damaging effects losing a child has on a person and a marriage. Ian is estranged from his son who was babysitting his daughter the night she was kidnapped; his tragedy is one in this town full of heartache and loss, one that marks him and yet makes him just another of the damaged.

Contemporary thrillers aren't always my thing because I'm a wimp, and I get freaked out easily, and this book has tension and creepiness in spades.  The story isn't gory, not exactly, but has some explosive violence that fits with the feel of the story and matches the plot -- but still squicked me out.

In the end, this was a very fun way to spend a few days -- well, maybe not fun, but certainly engrossed -- and anyone who enjoys cinematic, tension-filled thrillers will dig this one.

*** *** ***

GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to offer a copy of The Dispatcher to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US/CA readers, ends 3/30.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Interview with Margot Livesey

From the first line, I was seduced by The Flight of Gemma Hardy by Margot Livesey. It was an enormous treat to be able to interview Ms. Livesey about her work, so read on to learn more about her, her new novel, and what she does when she's not writing.

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

I think my first piece of fiction probably involved a princess and a dragon and perhaps a few dwarfs. My first published piece of fiction was based on my hitchhiking home at night after finishing my waitressing shift in a Toronto restaurant.

Do you have any writing rituals or routines?

Drinking coffee and using the dictionary as a kind of i-ching.

Was The Flight of Gemma Hardy the original title of your book?

My working title was simply Gemma Hardy but that felt a bit stark and didn't quite capture my sense of the journey Gemma is on.

As you were writing The Flight of Gemma Hardy, was there a particular scene or character that surprised you?

I was surprised by the character of Mr. Donaldson, one of Gemma's primary school teachers. And I was surprised by some of the people who help her later in the novel.

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

Walk, cook, read, look at art, travel and see my friends in London and Scotland.

Read any good books recently?

I am currently reading Ten Thousand Saints by Eleanor Henderson and full of admiration. And my old friend Joe Schuster is publishing a wonderful novel in March called The Might Have Been. It's a wonderfully absorbing and intelligent novel.

*** *** ***

My thanks to Ms. Livesey for her time. Learn more about her and her book at her website and Facebook. See what others are saying about The Flight of Gemma Hardy by checking out the other blogs on the tour.

GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to offer a copy of The Flight of Gemma Hardy to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US/CA readers, ends 3/23.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Clair de Lune by Jetta Carleton

Title: Clair de Lune
Author: Jetta Carleton

Genre: Fiction (Southern US / 1940s / Male-Female Friendships / Ozarks / WWII / College Life)
Publisher/Publication Date: Harper Perennial (3/6/2012)
Source: TLC Book Tours

Rating: Looooooooooooooooooooooooved!
Did I finish?: In less than four hours
One-sentence summary: A young woman becomes a college teacher in 1940s Missouri where she befriends two of her students and learns some bitter lessons of her own.
Reading Challenges: A-to-Z Books

Do I like the cover?: I love it -- I think it's super pretty. I don't think it wholly fits the novel, though.

I'm reminded of...: Alan Bennett, Melanie Benjamin, Ellen Feldman

First line: Allen Liles is a fictional character.

Does... my copy have extensive tabbing and bookmarks of fantastic passages and quotes?: YES. The language is just so...it's pragmatic and pretty at the same time. Nothing fancy, but moving. Writing for language lovers!

Am... I kind of obsessed with Jetta Carelton now?: YES. I want to read The Moonflower Vine and learn more about her

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Buy or borrow -- a delightful, moving read!

Why did I get this book?: The cover and the 1904s setting.

Review: Bittersweet. That's the lingering taste of this book, rich and redolent, and when I finished, I kind of wanted to spend the rest of my Sunday in a Claire de Lune-stupor, rereading the lovely passages and wallowing in the satisfyingly sad/happy mood of the novel.

Hope, optimism, and innocence are themes of this book, along with passion, delight in literature, and the joy of finding kindred souls. Barbara Allen Liles -- called Allen -- becomes a teacher at a junior college in an unnamed town in southwestern Missouri. ("It is an orderly town, bred of the mines, nurtured by agriculture and some manufacture, a blend of Southern gentility and Western enterprise, firmly set in the conservatism of Middle America.", p3) A lonely young woman with aspirations of becoming a poet or novelist in Greenwich Village, Allen finds herself captivated, enamored of, and charmed by two of her students, George and Toby. Surrounded by the shadow of the war in Europe, Allen's constrained life as a teachers seems somewhat bearable with George and Toby in her life.

I really expected a basic love triangle with this story, but Carleton sets up something even more challenging to navigate through: male-female friendship and teacher-student relationships. In an era when women were held up to a different standard than men, Allen's actions are judged without interest or concern in her feelings or motivations. Her colleagues and acquaintances see and expect one thing from Allen, who has the mantle of 'teacher', and with that, some perception of power. It was fascinating, frustrating, and heartbreaking to read -- I so empathize and liked Allen -- and made even more nuanced by the fact that there isn't a clear and handy villain in all this.

I don't know if this is a historical novel; while set in 1941, I don't know when Carleton wrote this novel. It was recently discovered and published by Harper Perennial, and will include their P.S. section with interviews, 'insights', and more.

This is a skinny novel -- just about 300 pages -- and it can read fast or slow, depending on whether you have the patience to linger or (like me) rush through to the giddy, glorious, delicious end. I think fans of WWII novels will enjoy this not-quite-war novel, and anyone who enjoys a good heroine and ambiguous moral situations will find much to chew on in this book.

*** *** ***

GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to offer a copy of Clair de Lune to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US/CA readers, ends 3/30.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

In my Mailbox Monday, March 12

Seen both at Mailbox Monday -- hosted in March at Diary of an Eccentric -- and The Story Siren, my Mailbox Monday/In My Mailbox. Another marvelous collection of arrivals -- such gorgeous covers! -- and I'm wicked excited about all of them. What did you get this week? Read any of these?

For Review






Miss Fuller: A Novel by April Bernard
Dancing at the Chance by DeAnna Cameron
The Maid and the Queen: The Secret History of Joan of Arc by Nancy Goldstone
The Frozen Heart by Almudena Grandes
All He Saw Was The Girl by Peter Leonard
The Flower Reader by Elizabeth Loupas
Afterwards: A Novel by Rosamund Lupton
The Thirteen by Susie Moloney
The Orchid House by Lucinda Riley
Oleanna by Julie K. Rose
The Iguana Tree by Michel Stone
More Than You Know: A Novel by Penny Vincenzi

Won



The Four Seasons: A Novel of Vivaldi's Venice by Laurel Corona, thanks to dolce bellezza

Purchased



Apex Magazine Issue 34, March 2012