Sunday, April 29, 2012

Mailbox Monday, April 30

Seen both at Mailbox Monday -- hosted in April at Cindy's Love of Books -- my Mailbox Monday. What did you get? Read any of these? (To learn more about any of these titles, just click on the cover; it'll open in a new window/tab.)



For Review







Purchased/Swapped/Gifted




Saturday, April 28, 2012

Interview with Angela Davis-Gardner

Earlier in the month I read the dark, sorrowful, but delightful Butterfly's Child by Angela Davis-Gardner. I'm thrilled to share my interview with Ms. Davis-Gardner; read on to learn more about her book, her writing, and what she does when she's not writing. Plus -- another chance to win a copy of this book!

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

The first fiction I composed was for my brother when I was nine and he was five. We lived in a big apartment complex in Baltimore, and I made up some tales in which a boy and girl found a subterranean world beneath the buildings and secret doors into each apartment. In the stories, the kids would sneak into the apartments and do verboten things like watch t.v. and steal cookies right from the oven. I don’t remember other details, but my brother did; he retold these stories to his kids, decades later. My primary drives as a fiction writer haven’t changed much: to create an imaginary world and to try to keep the reader in suspense. I just love to make things up.

Do you have any writing rituals or routines?

I used to have rituals that I followed carefully, and was superstitious about. I felt that unless I wrote in the morning and at my desk, with fountain pen and legal pad, that I couldn’t eke out any words. But I learned the hard way – because I had no choice – that I could write anytime day or night, maybe scribbling on the margins of a grade book or a checkbook ledger. I still prefer to write in the morning, though, after a walk, sitting on my screened porch with pen and paper.


Was Butterfly’s Child the original title of your book?

Yes, this book was unusual in that the title came to me right away. I decided to write about what happened to Butterfly’s child, so that seemed the natural title. Every other book title, though, I’ve sweated for.

As you were writing Butterfly’s Child, was there a particular scene or character that surprised you?

The character Horatio Keast showed up unexpectedly, and boy, was I relieved. He lent a calm, objective perspective, a steadying presence, and had compassion for all the other characters, each of whom is in some degree of torment. A lot of the plot surprised me too, especially all the parts about the opera.

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

I like to dance (clogging), go to concerts and movies, and work in the garden. I also like to draw, and – of course – read!

Read any good books recently?

Some of the best books I’ve read lately are Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son (set in North Korea), Margot Livesay’s The Flight of Gemma Hardy (inspired by Jane Eyre), and Jennifer Egan’s dazzling collection of stories, The Emerald City.

Thank you for your great questions! I really appreciate your interest in my writing.

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GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to offer a copy of Butterfly's Child to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US/CA readers, ends 5/4.

Friday, April 27, 2012

The Queen’s Lover by Francine du Plessix Gray

Title: The Queen’s Lover
Author: Francine du Plessix Gray

Genre: Fiction (Historical / 18th Century / French Court / Marie-Antoinette / Romance / Epistolary)
Publisher/Publication Date: The Penguin Press (6/14/2012)
Source: TLC Book Tours

Rating: Luuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuurved it!
Did I finish?: I did!
One-sentence summary: The adult life of Marie Antoinette's lover, Swedish courtier Axel von Fersen.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction

Do I like the cover?: I adore it. Maybe my favorite cover of 2012 so far. It's so unusual and unique for a historical novel to feature something other than a headless woman in costume! The layout, the colors, the passionate emptiness...so good!

I'm reminded of...: David Lodge

First line: My late brother, Count Axel von Fersen, was a notorious seducer, known through Europe as 'le beau Fersen' and in our Swedish homeland as "Lange Fersen", "tall Fersen".

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy -- this is a great, unique novel!

Why did I get this book?: I'm a Marie Antoinette fangirl!

Review: Okay, so, I admit it, when I saw the hero of this novel was Axel von Fersen, I immediately thought of so-dreamy-makes-lesbians-faint Jamie Dornan, who portrayed von Fersen in the 2006 Marie Antoinette. Nummy. Needless to say, that mental image helped make this novel especially awesome. But even if your mental image of Swedish courtiers isn't shaped around twenty-something Irish actors, I still think you're really going to dig this book.

Told in parts by von Fersen himself -- by way of his memoir, discovered by his beloved sister Sophie -- and Sophie, filling in the blanks, the story starts with von Fersen's introduction to Marie Antoinette. Despite the title, however, this novel isn't the story of a love affair, but rather, a kind of fictional autobiography by a man whose most notable distinction is that he was, once, Marie Antoinette's lover.

The end of the 18th century was a tumultuous time, and von Fersen participated in some of the most momentous events. Fighting in the American Revolution with French troops, witnessing the French Revolution firsthand, and later, the sweeping political change in Sweden, I was captivated by his life. (I had no idea that pretty face had such an interesting back story!)

I'm struggle with how to describe the writing style, the feel of the narrative; this is a very biographical novel that reads, almost, like a piece of non-fiction. However, that worked for me: it was easy to imagine this is how von Fersen would compose his autobiography -- very precise, attempting some distance and not always succeeding. The chapters are titled with the 'author' -- either von Fersen or Sophie -- and Sophie's tone is admiring and warm. If this sounds like a disjointed way to tell a story, I promise it fits together better than I'm articulating.

Like any good historical, I was sad -- heartbroken -- to finish this book, as the novel ends with von Fersen's death. While the jacket blurb describes this novel as a 'fresh vision of the French Revolution and the French royal family', I would actually argue that this is a fictional biography about an eyewitness to 18th century revolution. The French Revolution is a major part of the story -- and certainly shapes von Fersen -- but this book is far more about loss, love, and the reality of lofty philosophical ideals.

I can't rave about this book enough; I was taken by surprise with how much I enjoyed it and von Fersen.

(Also, if you, like me, are unfamiliar with Francine du Plessix Gray, this Paris Review article and interview provides a great introduction to a fascinating woman!)

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GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to offer a copy of The Queen's Lover to one lucky winner! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US/CA readers, ends 5/18.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

In My Father’s Country by Saima Wahab

Title: In My Father’s Country: An Afghan Woman Defies Her Fate
Author: Saima Wahab

Genre: Non-Fiction (Memoir / Afghanistan / War / Immigration / 1970s / 1980s / War in Afghanistan / U.S. Military)
Publisher/Publication Date: Crown (4/24/2012)
Source: TLC Book Tours

Rating: Liked to love.
Did I finish?: I did -- I couldn't put it down!
One-sentence summary: Memoir of an Afghani-American translator who returns to Afghanistan to work with US forces fighting terrorism there.
Reading Challenges: Dewey Decimal, Immigrant Stories

Do I like the cover?: I do -- it's very striking!

I'm reminded of...: Diana Abu-Jaber

First line: I should have died when I was five.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Buy or borrow, even if you're not a memoir fan - this is an intro to the conflict in Afghanistan over the last decade and the story of a fascinating woman living through intense times.

Why did I get this book?: I'm fascinated by women in wartime and this memoir was too intriguing to resist!

Review: From the first sentence -- I should have died when I was five. -- Wahab's memoir embodies the subtitle: An Afghan Woman Defies Her Fate. This was an exceptionally readable narrative, featuring various -- intense -- themes and threads: escaping violence in Afghanistan as a child, growing up in a conservative Pashtun family in the U.S., working as a contractor in Afghanistan, nurturing romantic relationships with non-Muslim American men, and a passionate desire to honor her Afghani roots and her American home.

This is an immigrant story, a war memoir, a narrative of a bi-national woman educated in the US and devoted to the war-torn country of her birth. Despite the various themes in this book, the story was never muddled or confusing, and I was immediately taken with Wahab and her story. I liked her, which is huge for me when it comes to memoirs; that's what makes it or breaks it. Wahab's writing style is clear and straight-forward, and I raced through this 340-page memoir without effort.

I could feel the pressure for me to say "I love you, too," something that Pashtuns don't do. Soldiers always ask me, "How do I say 'I love you' in Pashtu?" and I have to explain that in a culture where parents don't even develop bonds with their kids until they are much older and there is no danger of losing them to the many illnesses that claim thousands of infants' lives, we don't have any three Pashtu words to express that sentiment. There are ways you show it, and that is how we like to express our love. We are loyal, and through taking care of our loved ones, we tell them how much we love them.(p162)

Wahab's immigrant story is complicated: she's a Muslim, a Pashtun, and an Afghani; she's from a family with complicated beliefs that differ from hers. That alone would have made this a memorable book, but Wahab's decision to become a translator for US forces in Afghanistan added an additional dimension that was fascinating. I've got very complicated feelings about the American presence in Afghanistan, but I was captivated by Wahab's account of her time there. Regardless of my political leanings, I appreciated and enjoyed the respect and love she has for Afghanistan and the US troops stationed there. Wahab talks openly about her PTSD and her struggle to acknowledge and live with it; she shares her romantic relationships as well, and the challenges faced when trying to honor her own desires with that of her family's.

I could go on and on -- I really didn't expect this memoir to be so rich and so readable. Memoir fans will absolutely want to get this one; anyone interested in learning more about the current conflict in Afghanistan will find this a great introduction from someone who loves the country. Cross-cultural romance, armchair travel, and crazy family reminiscence: if you like it, you'll find it here. (I would even venture this might be a good gift to bridge-the-blue-red-divide, as Wahab is pro-America and Muslim!)

*** *** ***

GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to offer a copy of In My Father’s Country to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US/CA readers, ends 5/11.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Miss Fuller by April Bernard

Title: Miss Fuller
Author: April Bernard

Genre: Fiction (Historical / 1850 / New England / Transcendentalists / Marriage / Friendship)
Publisher/Publication Date: Steerforth Press (4/3/2012)
Source: The publisher.

Rating: Loved.
Did I finish?: I did -- I even reread it to savor the language!
One-sentence summary: The life of 19th-century American feminist, Margaret Fuller, as seen through an unsent letter after her tragic death.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction

Do I like the cover?: I do -- it captures two elements of the novel rather uniquely!

I'm reminded of...: A.S. Byatt, Anne Carson, Ellen Feldman, Jeanette Winterson

First line: News of the wreck made everyone want to be up and going, doing something, talking, moving, to keep the knowledge from puddling and festering.

Am... I super excited to see the author at her reading this week?: YES. Expect another fangirl photo with me grinning like an idiot!

Did... I kind of hate those crotchety Transcendentalists for being jerks?: YES. I'm not an Emerson or Hawthorne fan anyway, but this book confirmed my irrational dislike for them!

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy -- this is a lovely, moving, wonderful historical novel about a forgotten American figure.

Why did I get this book?: I'm a Margaret Fuller fangirl.

Review: Margaret Fuller might be one of the most famous American women you've never heard of; I really learned of her when I read The Margaret-Ghost by Barbara Novak. Since then, I've been pretty hot for her, and so I was over-the-moon to learn about a new novel about her and her life.

April Bernard's novel didn't disappoint, and I don't think one needs to be familiar with Fuller to appreciate and enjoy this story. Set in 1850, the novel opens with Fuller's tragic death -- a shipwreck that claimed her as well as her husband and son -- and Henry David Thoreau combing the beach for their bodies and their effects. His younger sister, Anne, muses on Miss Fuller and her legacy, her thinking, her life. But a good portion of the novel is an unsent letter from Margaret Fuller to Sophia Hawthorne, Nathaniel Hawthorne's wife, and it shows us Fuller's real fears, passion, and blind admiration for those in her life.

In some ways, the novel is less about Fuller than about the people around her, the men and women she called friends and loved like family, and the uncomfortably cold way (to me) they dissected Fuller and her life. This is a novel about reputation, too -- at least, that's something I took away. As Melanie Benjamin's Alice I Have Been made so clear for me, Fuller has to be accountable to the ludicrous judgments of the men around her. Her wisdom is tied in to her 'purity', and her normal, reasonable, understandable choices become the fodder with which the people she idolizes disparage her.

That the author is also a poet is no surprise, as there's a really lovely sense of language here, neither heavy nor ethereal. I'm reminded of other poetic novelists, like Anne Carson, and master wordsmiths like Ellen Feldmen and A.S. Byatt.

That was the clear end, the major crashing chord, of the essay. Although Miss Fuller threw in a bad poem treacled with high sentiments to close, Anne held the phrase a complete life of its kind and knew she would not forget it.

The awkward, herky-jerky force of the essay, rather like an electric eel, twisting, brilliant, sparkling -- that, and the heat-lightening flashing and filling the window-panes -- kept her awake until dawn. (p58)

This is a smart, quiet novel that provoked righteous indignation in me -- and inspired me to look up Bernard's other works. Language lovers, feminists, historical fiction fans, and anyone who enjoys learning about long forgotten historical figures will enjoy this slim novel. (I reread it about a week after finishing -- I couldn't help myself!)

Monday, April 23, 2012

Afterwards by Rosamund Lupton

Title: Afterwards
Author: Rosamund Lupton

Genre: Fiction (Contemporary / Supernatural / Out-of-Body Experience / School Fire / Arson / Mother-Daughter Relationships)
Publisher/Publication Date: Crown (4/24/2012)
Source: TLC Book Tours

Rating: Disliked / Unfinished
Did I finish?: I didn't!
One-sentence summary: A mother, fighting for her own life after racing into a burning school to save her daughter, attempts to solve the mystery and save her family.

Do I like the cover?: Yes, although I don't think it captures the story as the victims aren't elementary school kids.

First line: I couldn't move, not even my little finger or a flicker of an eye.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow if you like domestic thrillers and unusual narrative styles.

Why did I get this book?: I've heard nothing but good things about Lupton's previous novel Sisters.

Review: I think if you're a fan of Lovely Bones but want something less inspirational in tone, then this might be your book. Unfortunately, despite my love of the woo-woo and supernatural/paranormal/just-plain-odd, I really didn't click with this book's conceit or the narrator. I made it about one hundred pages and quit, daunted by the remaining 300.

There are a few reasons why this didn't work for me, starting with the heroine, Grace. Or maybe it was the writing style first, and then Grace. Told by Grace's disembodied soul while she's in a coma at the hospital following a fire at the school her children attend, she recounts to her husband everything that happened following the fire. As a result, the narrative takes this weird second person POV, 'you' this and 'you' that (which, to be honest, made me wonder if there would be a We Need To Talk About Kevin-esque twist at the end).

Despite being in an incorporeal state, Grace decides to solve the mystery of who or what caused the school fire, which involves eavesdropping, watching television, and thinking back on various events while floating around the hospital with her comatose, disembodied daughter. She admires her family (all pretty and smart and dreamy and sweet) and is pretty smug about her life. Maybe she does more but as I said, I didn't get far into the story.

Scanning GoodReads, it seems opinions are pretty mixed, with some folks who love this one and others who don't. I think it really is matter of whether the writing catches your fancy, so don't take my word necessarily -- you can read an extract at Lupton's website and see if it clicks.  Be sure to follow the blog tour for Afterwards for more opinions and reviews!

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GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to offer a copy of Afterwards to one lucky winner! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US/CA readers, ends 5/11.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Mailbox Monday, April 23

Seen both at Mailbox Monday -- hosted in April at Cindy's Love of Books -- and The Story Siren, my Mailbox Monday/In My Mailbox. What did you get? Read any of these?


For Review







Won



Purchased/Swapped




Interview with Michel Stone

Earlier this month I read Michel Stone's novel of immigration and belonging, The Iguana Tree, and I'm excited to share my interview with her. Read on to learn more about Ms. Stone's writing, her book, and what she does when she's not writing. Be sure to check out the giveaway as well!

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

When I was in the fourth grade I wrote and illustrated a story called “Planet Boom-Boom” about an astronaut named Johnny who discovered a new planet. That story was my one and only jaunt into writing sci-fi. In hindsight, I suspect I was inspired by Larry Hagman’s character discovering a genie, Barbara Eden’s character, in the television program “I Dream of Jeanie.”

Do you have any writing rituals or routines?

My most successful writing days involve good coffee and several hours of uninterrupted solitude.


Was The Iguana Tree the original title of your book?

Great question, and no, The Iguana Tree was not the original title. For over a year the working title was The Crossing, but then I discovered one of my favorite writers, Cormac McCarthy, penned a novel by that name years ago. Maybe I could have kept that title, but doing so felt like bad juju.

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

As I wrote this novel I had vague ideas about the ending, but that ending wasn’t very good; it tied everything up too nicely. Real life has ragged edges. I rewrote the novel’s ending, and once I did so, it felt right.

You've won SC Magazine's Very Short Fiction Contest. Is there anything in writing short fiction that assisted or influenced your novel-length writing?

Short story writers must use an economy of words. In a short story every word bears weight. I suppose one could argue that the same is true in novels, but novelists have the luxury of meandering a bit. I think I’m a better novelist than short story writer, but I’m certain my years of writing short stories prior to attempting a novel helped sharpen my prose. The Iguana Tree actually began as a short story whose characters I couldn’t abandon. I needed to meander with them a bit!

According to your bio, you're a 10th generation South Carolina Lowcountry native. How has place influenced you and your writing?

I know the SC Lowcountry intimately. Somehow, because of that closeness, I’ve often struggled with writing about it. Emily Dickinson said, “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.” I’ve had trouble telling the Lowcountry slant because I’m too close to it. But with The Iguana Tree, I found my route to a Lowcountry setting. My characters in Iguana are Mexicans, and much about their new home in SC is unfamiliar to them. Describing my home through foreigners’ eyes helped me write about it in a way I’ve previously found difficult. I guess I told it slant.

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

I love being outdoors, and I love being with my family. Almost any activity that combines those two things is a pleasure for me. We enjoy hiking, gardening, playing basketball in the driveway, and boating. I also enjoy traveling, jogging, volunteering in my community, and, of course, reading.

Read any good books recently?

Yes! I recently read The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, which was published in 1998. It’s one of my favorite books, and I want to read more of Kingsolver’s work now. Other good books I’ve read lately include The Outlander by Gil Adamson and The Call by Yannick Murphy.

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GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to offer a copy of The Iguana Tree to one lucky reader. To enter, please fill out this brief form. Open to US/CA readers, ends 4/27.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Dancing at the Chance by DeAnna Cameron

Title: Dancing at the Chance
Author: DeAnna Cameron

Genre: Fiction (Historical / New York City / 1900s / Vaudeville / Romance)
Publisher/Publication Date: Berkley Trade (4/3/2012)
Source: The author

Rating: Okay to liked.
Did I finish?: I did, on one lazy Saturday.
One-sentence summary: An orphaned vaudeville dancer struggles to keep her love, career, and home in 1907 New York City.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction, Immigrant Stories

Do I like the cover?: I do -- it's pretty, and despite the eye-less model, an unusual layout for a historical novel cover.

First line: For a full half hour the stage manager sat on a stool near the footlights, his fingers curled on the hooked head of his cane, silently watching the vaudeville players at morning rehearsal.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow for a fun, easy, beach-y historical fiction read.

Why did I get this book?: I love vaudeville and that world and I couldn't resist a historical novel set there!

Review: This is an easy, predictable, and fun historical novel set in New York City in the early 1900s. The book follows Pepper MacClair, an orphan and dancer at a dying vaudeville theater, and her colleagues there: stagehands, retired acts, other dancers, and the theater owner's son. From the arrival of the theater owner's son, it's obvious what the triangle and drama is meant to be, but there's some satisfaction in the story unfolding as anticipated.

The romance wasn't particularly sweeping but it was sweet. The secondary characters had darkly plotted backgrounds and were quite interesting, and I rather liked everyone. Fans of Moulin Rouge will like this, I think, even though it's a different place and era -- it has a similar feel.

Cameron's writing is easy and effortless, and I would have loved this novel to be double the length, if only for more of Cameron's fascinating world of vaudeville. Although my copy was more than 330 pages, the margins and font size felt rather huge, and I felt a little rushed through Pepper's life.  She's got a complicated back story, and her friends at the theater have their own fascinating secrets -- I wanted more! 

For those who prefer 'clean' reads, I think this might work -- I think some sex is implied in the past, but the romance that happens on the pages is limited to sweet kisses.  For a summer afternoon, this is a fun treat; easy to dip in and out of as your weekend demands, but engrossing enough to make you forget yourself for a few hours!

*** *** ***

Giveaway!

To celebrate the back-to-back releases of DANCING AT THE CHANCE and the reissue of THE BELLY DANCER, weekly prizes & a grand prize of a Kindle or Nook (winner's choice) are up for grabs on the author's website. Visit www.DeAnnaCameron.com and follow the contest link for details.

Friday, April 20, 2012

The Sumerton Women by D.L. Bogdan

Title: The Sumerton Women
Author: D.L. Bogdan

Genre: Fiction (Historical / Tudors / Reformation / Sibling Relationships / Marriage)
Publisher/Publication Date: Kensington Publishing (4/24/2012)
Source: Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

Rating: Okay to liked.
Did I finish?: I did, very quickly.
One-sentence summary: The rise and fall, loves and hates, of two strong-willed women during Henry VIII's reign.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction

Do I like the cover?: I do -- it captures exactly what the two main characters look like. Although they're both a bit scowl-y for me, I do love seeing their faces!

I'm reminded of...: Philippa Gregory

First line: She hid in her mother's wardrobe.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy, if you like fast-paced and easy-to-sink-into hist fic.

Why did I get this book?: I've heard nothing but praise for Bogdan's books.

Review: I'm a bit of a broken record, but I'm tired of the Tudors. However, this Tudor fic entertained me with its focus on one family's response to Henry VIII's break with Rome. The Sumerton clan, seemingly blessed with love, health, and wealth, is actually wracked with secrets and guilt and pain. Cecily Burkhart, orphaned at 8, moves in with the Sumertons and finds herself mostly happily with her new family. Quickly, however, she sees their sunny facades hide real tragedy, made worse when Henry VIII makes himself head of a new church in England.

I really loved this Tudor angle, and for a book that has a huge religious bent to it, the story is neither overly philosophical or cheese-ily inspirational. In fact, there's a crazy tawdriness to the plot twists, reminding me a bit of Phillipa Gregory, with [spoiler here so don't read on if you want to be surprised!!] the heroine marrying her foster father, a beloved priest marrying his student.

My only complaint, perhaps, is that our heroine, Cecily, was a bit much for me -- she was one of those preternaturally gorgeous heroines that everyone responds to, smart and sweet and gentle and talented -- so I found myself rolling my eyes every time she swept on stage. She was such a pill I actually found myself rooting for the arch-villainess, Mirabella, her foster sister.  The plot twists and dramatic developments were non-stop, and for me, a bit discomforting although potentially historically accurate.

As escapist historical fiction, this is a winner: the drama is non-stop.  I don't know if any of these characters are based on historical figures, or just inventions of Bogdan, but I really loved this angle of Tudor fic, even if the plot twists verged on Gothic. The writing style is great -- easy, breezy, fun -- and I was sucked in immediately.  I can't attest to the historical accuracy but for speed and escapism, this one doesn't fail.

*** *** ***

GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to offer a copy of The Sumerton Women to one lucky reader. To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US and international readers. Ends 5/11.