Saturday, June 30, 2012

Winners!

Best way to come back from work: sharing a bunch of giveaway winners! So, without further ado, here are the winners from the last three weeks!



The winner of Equal of the Sun is ... Katherine of Historical Fiction Notebook!

The winner of The Secrets of Mary Bowser is ... Alena W.!

The winner of The Unseen is ... Na!

The winner of The Receptionist is ... Rachel W.!

The winner of Love, Fiercely is ...Irene Y.!

Congrats to the winners! (Winners have been emailed and have 48-hours to respond.) If you didn't win, be sure to check out my current giveaways -- it might look thin now, but I've got a metric ton of giveaways coming up this week!

Friday, June 29, 2012

A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar by Suzanne Joinson

Title: A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar
Author: Suzanne Joinson

Genre: Fiction (Historical / 1920s / China / Missionaries / Cultural Differences / London / Parallel Plot Lines)
Publisher/Publication Date: Bloomsbury USA (6/4/2012)
Source: NetGalley

Rating: Okay.
Did I finish?: Sort of -- I started skipping sections to do so!
One-sentence summary: A British missionary in 1920s China and a modern Londoner have a common thread in this dual narrative novel.
Reading Challenges: E-books, Historical Fiction, NetGalley

Do I like the cover?: I adore the cover -- it so captures the bucolic ambiance of the the bicycling guide that the missionaries use, all polite and refined. It's delusional in the best way.

I'm reminded of...: Melissa Bank

First line: I unhappily report that even Bicycling for Ladies with hints as to the art of wheeling - advice to beginners - dress - care of the bicycle - mechanics - training - exercizes, etc. etc. cannot assist me in this current predicament: we find ourselves in a situation.

Does... this book win for best title of 2012?: YES. If not THE best, at least in the top ten.

Did... I contemplate taking up biking after this?: YES. Lackadaisical biking, of course, no mountains for me! I could kind of see myself on one of those old-fashioned bikes, pedaling slowly...and then my imagination runs out of energy.

Am... I desperately keen to read Joinson's next novel?: YES. Joinson's writing was lovely and I can't wait to see how she handles female pilots and inter-war London.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy -- the historical portion of this story is marvelous and must be read!

Why did I get this book?: The title and the cover -- I know, never judge blah blah -- but it's so pretty!

Review: I started this book on my evening commute home, more out of curiosity than any desire to dig in; when I lifted my head, I was at the end of my line, and nearly one hundred pages in. I was hooked -- sort of. In my flash judge-y way, I hadn't realized this was a dual narrative; I thought it was entirely a historical novel.

The story is split between two characters: Eva, a 1920s English missionary in Kashgar, China, and Frieda, a contemporary Londoner at the end of an affair. Eva and her sister Lizzie, freshly minted missionaries following the charismatic and commanding Millicent, end up in Kashgar, China, detained after Millicent assists in a birth that results in the mother's death. Millicent is enthralled with their circumstances and Lizzie keeps up with her photography, but Eva finds herself unlikely nursemaid to the orphaned infant, scared, worried, and overwhelmed. Her own project, writing a lady cyclist's guide to the East, doesn't seem to be going anywhere.

In contemporary London, freelance journalist Frieda meets Tayeb, a Yemeni man on the run from authorities. One night he sleeps in the hall of her building, leaving a beautiful drawing in his wake. When Frieda discovers she's inherited something, her pursuit of who -- and who her benefactress is -- connects her with Tayeb and her family's past.

In my opinion, Eva's story was marvelous. I loved her voice and her arc in the book: her doubts about Millicent, her doubts about her faith and missionary work, her concern for her increasingly dreamy-eyed sister, and her anxiety about the alarmingly foreign world she's in. I love 19th century travelogues and while this is 20th century, there's that wonderful (English) fish-out-of-water feel that I ate up. Frieda's story, however, was yawn-worthy and really should have been left out of the book -- or at least, plunked into another novel. She was having an affair with a married man, who was a total bore, and vaguely ignoring her free love parents. Her journalism work trotted her around the globe but she felt wildly pedestrian compared to Eva and her coterie. Even Tayeb and the mystery of Frieda's inheritance couldn't save her side of the story.

While this book might take best title for 2012, sadly, it just didn't totally win for me. Ultimately, this became a DNF as I got so sick of Frieda that I just started skipping her sections to remain in the portions with Eva. Eventually, Frieda's story connects with the one involving Eva's, and I liked that enough -- but not enough to go back and read Frieda's bits again.

I'd describe this book as slightly more chick-lit-y than hist-fic-y, but maybe that's because Frieda's sections felt fluffier than Eva's. A fun enough summer read -- might be fun for book clubs due to the differing voices -- and certainly pretty enough to carry on the train or show off at the beach!

Friday Reads and I'm ba-a-ack!

Back from my work conference with the mother of all colds. Ugh! Too sick to even lay about and read -- ultimate sadness. I'm wicked behind on reviews and reading blogs, so apologies friends!

My weekend reads include Gilded Age: A Novel by Claire McMillan, a contemporary retelling of Edith Wharton's House of Mirth (set in Cleveland!) and D.B. Jackson's Thieftaker, which sounds like a Colonial American Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. (Should I want to mix things up, I've also got My Dear I Wanted to Tell You (WWII hist fic) and Brand New Human Being (contemporary) in the queue.)

What are you reading this weekend?


Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Virgin Cure by Ami McKay

Title: The Virgin Cure
Author: Ami McKay

Genre: Fiction (Historical / 19th Century / New York City / Prostitution / Poverty / Coming of Age)
Publisher/Publication Date: Harper (6/ 26/2012)
Source: TLC Book Tours

Rating: Liked a good deal!
Did I finish?: I couldn't stop.
One-sentence summary: The Dickensian life of Moth, a 12-year old girl who finds herself in a brothel that specializes in virgins.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction

Do I like the cover?: I do, as Peter Stuyvesant's pear tree features in the story on the fringe, and I like that it's restrained compared to the lurid promise of the plot.

I'm reminded of...: Geraldine Brooks, Talia Carner, Sadie Jones, Lois Leveen

First line: To the Reader: In 1871, I was serving as a visiting physician for the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy -- this is a fantastical novel.

Why did I get this book?: The title!

Review: Despite the title and the premise, this isn't a 'sexy' book, and it's not a historical romance. It's a delightfully real, horrifyingly evocative look at 19th century New York City of the poor -- and one girl's experience with a brothel that specializes in virgins.

(I snarfed this book down during a work conference, and struggled with this review during my post-conference cold, so I apologize now for not properly conveying the delightful awesomeness of McKay's novel.)

The story is told by Moth, in her voice, annotated by Dr. Sadie, a physician of means inspired by the work Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, who offers care to prostitutes in the Bowery. Moth, a twelve-year old girl, is sold by her mother as a servant to a cruel, rich Manhattanite -- and when she can't stand that life another moment, she flees, deciding life as cared-for prostitute might be better. It is there, at the 'Infant School', where she meets Dr. Sadie, and she learns what power and fortune she can claim for herself.

Often a hard-to-stomach story, McKay's writing kept me coming back -- I'd put the book down for work, or sleep, or something else, and literally vibrate with eagerness until I could pick it back up again. Moth felt real -- which made reading her story so discomforting! But I trusted McKay and the arc of the book and in the end, I was deeply satisfied. The conclusion -- hopeful but realistic -- left me able to close the book without feeling too devastated and I'm already missing Moth and Dr. Sadie. (I'd love a novel about Dr. Sadie, who was inspired by McKay's ancestor!)

Even those allergic to historical fiction might enjoy this novel as I found the heart of the story to be Moth's coming unto her own. New York City of the 1870s -- especially Manhattan and the Bowery -- came alive but didn't overshadow Moth or her story. I can't rave enough about the way McKay articulated what could have been a credulity-straining plot and I so enjoyed the unique way she told Moth's story. Titillating enough in premise for summer but with enough heft to keep one engaged, this is one that's going to make my must read for 2012.

*** *** ***

GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to offer a copy of The Virgin Cure to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US/Canadian readers, ends 7/13.


Friday, June 15, 2012

Friday Reads and leaving town...

Sadly, I won't be reading much this weekend -- or the next nine days or so -- as I'm off to a major work conference. It's in (very) sunny Phoenix, AZ which will be a welcome change from wet, gray, rainy, dreary Boston!

I'm very excited, even though I will be so insanely busy I won't do much other than run around with a fringe of sleeping. Of course, even if I think I can't read, I'm still bringing books! (Because if there's a free moment, I'm diving in!) Among the many, many books on my e-reader are these, which I plan on reviewing upon my return: D.B. Jackson's Thieftaker (Colonial American hist fic meets wizards), Susan Fales-Hill's Imperfect Bliss (Jane Austen meets The Bachelorette, according to the book blurb), and Emily Jeanne Miller's Brand New Human Being (contemp novel, man walks in on wife w/another man, takes their kid, leaves, finds self, etc.).

Sadly, I will be very absent here -- I have some reviews scheduled but won't be online to visit and comment -- my apologies! I'll make up for it when I'm back in town. I hope everyone has a lovely reading time -- tell me what you're going to be reading so I can be very envious!

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Love, Fiercely by Jean Zimmerman

Title: Love, Fiercely: A Gilded Age Romance
Author: Jean Zimmerman

Genre: Non-Fiction (Biography / 1890s / Belle Epoque / New York City / New York High Society / John Singer Sargent / Art Critique / Chicago World's Fair)
Publisher/Publication Date: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (3/13/2012)
Source: The publisher.

Rating: Liked.
Did I finish?: I did -- I read this one like I do novels, gulping huge chunks at a time.
One-sentence summary: A biography of a marriage between two passionate, learned, and philanthropic members of New York City's glittering society.
Reading Challenges: Dewey Decimal

Do I like the cover?: I adore it -- I'm a huge Sargent fan, so it was guaranteed I'd love it for that alone; but I also enjoy the off-center layout and gold trim along the edges.

I'm reminded of...: Philip Herring, Molly Peacock

First line: I saw her for the first time in a work of art.

Is... this the kind of book my wife and I treasure because it makes for great vacation planning?: YES. Zimmerman references many specific addresses and locales, which means the next time my wife and I go to NYC, we're hitting up these places.

Did... I genuinely like Newton and Edith?: YES. Zimmerman has the novelist's skill in making human this rather distant, slightly unclear figures, and I really wanted Newton and Edith as my besties.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy -- this is a wonderfully readable biography about a fascinating couple from Wharton's glittering New York City.

Why did I get this book?: I saw 'Gilded Age' and couldn't resist.

Review: Shamefully, I grabbed this book on the title and cover alone, and I really had no idea what I was getting into. Happily, this turned out to be a stellar read, engrossing as a novel and just as moving.

Jean Zimmerman, while researching iconography and maps of Manhattan, came across Isaac Newton Phelps Stokes, a passionate collector, reformer, and scion of Gilded Age New York City. Initially interested in him, she became fascinated by his wife, Edith Minturn, upon seeing their massive portrait by John Singer Sargent. This book came out of her curiosity about the couple.

Both Newton and Edith came from monied New York families; both were committed to social reform. Edith came from a family of beauties and was renown for her evocative expressions and stature. She was the model for Big Mary, the colossus created for the Chicago World's Fair. Newton was a brilliant architect consumed with desire to provide healthy, habitable house for the poor. Their odd courtship and devoted marriage had the elements of fiction -- such happiness and such sadness -- and I immediately fell for both of them.

In many ways, this is a discussion of an era as much as a biography of two personalities. Zimmerman's sections on art -- and the wealthy's relationship with the funding, creation, participation, and enjoyment of art -- was so eye-opening and relevatory. For example, I didn't realize it was common in the 1890s for art that was commissioned -- like portraits -- to spend a year being displayed in traveling galleries before going to live with the respective owners. Sargent's portrait of Edith and Newton was shocking -- they wore their own street clothes rather than one of his costumes, and Edith's pose is aggressive rather than demure -- and Zimmerman provides wonderful context so we understand just how daring Newton and Edith were.

This couple didn't stop at art when it came to shaking things up, but I'm rather hesitant to list details because it feels a bit spoiler-ish!

My only complaint, and this is me being wicked nit-picky, is that Edith's side of the marriage felt a bit thin to me. It's clear Newton has more ephemera preserved than his wife and as a result, Zimmerman was able to draw on his feelings and thoughts more than Edith. There were moments when Zimmerman made a pronouncement about Edith that left me wondering, 'Is that really what she felt?' and yet, I appreciated her humanizing of these two. It resonated for me and made me go from 'like' to 'love' with this biography. (You can read an excerpt via my Teaser Tuesday to get a sense of the writing style.)

I finished this book with the moody satisfaction I get from a good novel; I missed Newton and Edith, and I wanted more time with them.

*** *** ***

GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to offer a copy of Love, Fiercely to TWO lucky readers, thanks to the publisher! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US/Canadian readers, ends 6/29.


Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Interview with Katherine Webb

Katherine Webb's The Unseen was a delicious start to my summer, an exciting, dramatic thriller with contemporary and historical elements, and she's become one of my favorite authors for escapist summertime reads. I'm super psyched to share my Q&A with her, especially since Ms. Webb has the honor of being the first author to do a repeat interview with me! (Her first took place last summer following the publication of The Legacy.) I tried to shake things up with a few fresh questions for her, so read on to learn about The Unseen, her writing process, and what she does when she's not reading. Be sure to enter my giveaway for The Unseen, too!

Was The Unseen the original title of your book?

No, actually this one went through several incarnations before we found something all were happy with. It started out as ‘The Dryad’, then became ‘The Elemental’, then at the last minute changed again to ‘The Unseen’.

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

I had a fairly good idea of who all my characters were before I started the book, but as I wrote I was pleased and surprised to find that some key characters, who I’d never thought would get along, in fact started to sympathise with one another, and understand each other better. Hester and Cat, in particular – I’d never imagined that they would reach the level of rapport that they do!

If you had to pick something that expressed The Unseen -- a song, a food, a painting, for example -- what would it be?

That’s a tough question! Perhaps the Kennet and Avon canal, which runs through the story, and through the county of Berkshire. That the canal was falling out of use in 1911, overtaken by road and rail, reflects how quickly the world was changing. But a slow-moving canal, with pretty reflections of light playing on its surface, is a good analogy for English society at the time – canal water is murky, and all sorts of unpleasant things can be happening out of sight beneath the surface … The canal was left to become completely derelict and impassable, and was almost forgotten about until it was fully restored late in the last century, as people came to appreciate the value of these historical things – another nice parallel with Cat’s story, and Leah’s later uncovering of it.

What do you do when you finish a book -- celebrate? Start another one?

Yes! I celebrate, in some low-key way. Usually by having a long breakfast the next morning – I’m talking about a breakfast that lasts for hours, with newspapers and at least three cups of tea – revelling in the feeling that I don’t have to rush to my desk and start work. I usually have a few weeks of just pottering around and catching up with people I haven’t seen in a while, but it’s never more than a couple of months before I start thinking about and researching the next book – I get into an irritable, impatient mood that can only be soothed by writing!

According to your bio, you've worked as a "waitress, au pair, personal assistant, potter, bookbinder, library assistant, and formal housekeeper at a manor house". Do you miss anything about those previous jobs or do you see anything in your life as a writer that mirrors your past work?

None of my past jobs mirror the joy and privilege of being able to write for a living – it’s my dream job, and what I always wanted to do. The jobs were a means to an end – a way to pay the bills while I wrote in the evenings. The only – and I mean only – thing I miss about going out to work is that extra bit of human contact and company. I generally love being by myself, and certainly love working by myself, but there comes a point when you need human interaction too, or you risk going a bit peculiar! My last cottage was so remote that I started trying to keep the postman on the step in the morning, just for the conversation… I moved last year to a busier village, and now have neighbours I can drop in on for tea, or go up to the pub with in the evening. I’ve started doing a few hours volunteer work in the week, and I help out at a stable yard – so I think I’m hitting the right balance now!

Read any good books recently?

I’m currently reading The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey, and am really enjoying it – it’s so beautifully written. My sister has got me hooked on the A Game of Thrones series, so before The Snow Child I was immersed in the second book of that – so addictive! It’ll be Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader next – this month’s choice of our village book club; and I also recently finished The Wilding by Maria McCann – a gripping story set in seventeenth century England, which manages to completely immerse you in the era whilst wearing its research very lightly, in a way I shall be striving to emulate! I highly recommend the book.

*** *** ***

GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to offer a copy of The Unseen to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US/Canadian readers, ends 6/22.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Teaser Tuesday, June 12

Teaser Tuesday is actually one of my favorite memes because I love sharing tidbits of what I'm reading and indulging in snippets from others. So I'm thrilled that this week I can actually share some teasers!

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along! Just do the following:

- Grab your current read & open to a random page
- Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page (be careful not to include spoilers!)
- Share the title and author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers

As always, I'm breaking the rules: I'm sharing more than two teaser sentences and I'm sharing from two different, not-even-connected-by-historical-era books! (Look at me, I'm a rebel!)

The first book is Love, Fiercely: A Gilded Age Romance by Jean Zimmerman. (Zimmerman also has The Orphanmaster out now, too -- she's one prolific author!)  While the title and cover might suggest a historical romance, this is actually a biography of a Gilded Age power couple, Edith Minturn and Newton Phelps Stokes. Brilliant, rich, attractive, passionate, and progressive, Minturn and Stokes had an inspired marriage that really reads like fiction. Zimmerman's writing style is easy, precise, and clear, and I'm racing through this one. The cover image is of Minturn and Stokes, a portrait by Sargent, and was rather shocking at the time, and Zimmerman spends time talking about how Sargent painted them, why the image was so controversial, and the implications of the portrait to Minturn and Stokes.
Newton did his best to remain unobtrusive. He brought a book. He didn't really need to be there. But because they were newly married, he wanted to be everywhere she was. Now and again he glanced up from his reading to admire the pearly vision of his wife, elevated on the posing platform as on a stage, her swan's throat, her red, set mouth, the brunette wings of her hair that swept back from the straight white part. Looking up at his wife on Sargent's stage, even as she arrayed herself in a décolleté and demurely tapped her fan, the husband could see the steel that lay just under the surface. Edith even posed fiercely. (p127)

The other book is Abdication: A Novel by Juliet Nicolson. While the title and premise hints that the focus will be on the abdication of the throne by King Edward (thanks to his love affair with Mrs. Wallis Simpson), the story really follows fictional figures in the King's and Mrs. Simpson's circle: Evangeline Nettlefold, childhood friend of Mrs. Simpson and her chauffeur, May Thomas (among others). Class, the coming of World War II, the intersection of love and politics are all touched upon and I'm just racing through this one.
"I do declare you are a girl!" Miss Nettlefold had finally concluded aloud, in a rich and lilting accent that was unequivocally American. "Tell me I'm right," she said, already chuckling deeply at the accuracy of her deduction. "My, oh my, you certainly have some pluck in choosing this profession at such a young age! And what with you being so pretty in such a male line of work!" she continued. "Tell me, how did this all come about?" (p16)

Monday, June 11, 2012

Mailbox Monday, June 11

The house is in shambles at the moment as my wife and I engage in a rather ill-timed but much anticipated interior redesign of our dining room, living room, and bedroom. An early birthday present for me, we've hired a designer to help us with color palettes and layout, and in the meantime, we're painting like mad fiends. All this, and I'm prepping for a major work conference that will take me out of town next week through the rest of June. I'll share pictures when we're finished -- frankly, I'll be gloating and crowing, this has been such an effort -- but in the meantime, my house is a disaster area and I've very little energy. Still, I'm thrilled about the changes and I just can't wait until we're done.

And now, my Mailbox Monday -- on an actual Monday for once! -- hosted by one of my all-time favorite bloggers, Burton Book Review.  As usual, click on a cover to learn more about the book (link will automatically open in a new tab/window).  What did you get?  Have any of these?


For Review







Sunday, June 10, 2012

Winners!


My weekend has been super hectic as my wife and I are doing some major home improvements. I've begged off painting for a break, citing the crucial need to share giveaway winners, so thanks to all of you for giving me an excuse to sit down! ;) So I'm not lying to my wife, I'm going to share giveaway winners for this week.

The winner of Perla is ... Laura Kay!

The winner of Lonesome Animals is ... Megan!

The winners have been emailed. If you didn't win, check out my open giveaways. More are coming!

Friday, June 8, 2012

The Receptionist by Janet Groth

Title: The Receptionist: An Education at The New Yorker
Author: Janet Groth

Genre: Non-Fiction (Memoir / 1950s / 1960s / 1970s / New York City / New Yorker Magazine / Writing)
Publisher/Publication Date: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill (6/6/2012)
Source: The publisher.

Rating: Loved!
Did I finish?: I inhaled this book in one night.
One-sentence summary:
Reading Challenges: Dewey Decimal

Do I like the cover?: I adore the cover -- it captures the feel of retro New York City and I love the woman with the pencil in her hair -- so cute!

First line: It all happened by the merest chance.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy, especially if you're a Mad Men fiend or like writers on writing, or enjoy coming-of-age stories in complicated, vigorous times.

Why did I get this book?: I love books on books, and memoirs of writers on other writers.

Review: Although I don't read The New Yorker, I'm aware of its reputation, the careers launched, the personalities housed there, (and I've certainly read pieces that debuted there, anthologized later); so when offered a review copy of Groth's memoir, I pounced.

This was a book so good I've lost the ability to arrange letters into words. So I apologize now for the jumpy, incoherent gush of a review that follows.

From the first pages, I was sold on Groth.

Mr. [E.B.] White took a moment to absorb this information. When he could bring himself to speak again, he asked, "Can you type?"

"Not at a professional level," I said.

He coughed and looked at the resume that Arthur Zegart had given him and that had led to my being there in his office. "What about this short story prize you won?...Was that story typed?"

I told him that yes, of course it had been, but that I deliberately maintained a slow, self-devised system that involved looking at the keyboard.

"I was afraid, you see, that if I became a skilled typist, I would wind up in an office typing pool."
(p2)

I want Groth to be my bestie -- who wouldn't?! Candidly she shares how she got her job, the professors who inspired her to take up writing, the writers she worked with, the love affairs, her aspirations as a writer and a scholar, and the way The New Yorker changed throughout her time there. This memoir is a series of vignettes from 1957 to 1978. Technically there as just a receptionist, Groth's life was shaped and impacted by the personalities she assisted, supported, befriended, romanced, entertained, liked, disliked, loved, and lost: Muriel Spark, John Berryman, Joseph Mitchell, Renata Adler, and hosts of others.

Groth came-of-age at an era that, frankly, frightens me -- the late '50s and '60s -- in big, bad New York City, working for a literary magazine that was renown then for the personalities and expense lines. When women were having to find, invent, reinvent, discover, and hide themselves, Groth navigated that time with not unsurprising bumps and fits, and she shares her experiences without shame. (Happily!) I found her to be breathtakingly honest in her account of her time at The New Yorker. Her tone sounds a little bemused, a little pained, a little wry -- not aloof, but aware -- and I was often holding my breath in amazement. Her writing is so honest and unapologetic, and yet, she shares enough warmth and vulnerability that I felt deeply sympathetic toward her.

Even if you're not familiar with the writers from The New Yorker, if you enjoy memoirs and coming-of-age stories, get this one. Like a surprisingly dangerous aunt, Groth's stories are titillating, gasp-inducing, fascinating, depressing, and inspiring.

*** *** ***

GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to offer a copy of The Receptionist to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US/Canadian readers, ends 6/22.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Beneath the Shadows by Sara Foster

Title: Beneath the Shadows
Author: Sara Foster

Genre: Fiction (Contemporary / Yorkshire / Missing Person / New Mother / Isolation / Gothic )
Publisher/Publication Date: Minotaur Books
Source: NetGalley

Rating: Okay.
Did I finish?: I did.
One-sentence summary: Grace returns to Yorkshire a year after her husband's disappearance in hopes of finding answers.
Reading Challenges: A-to-Z, E-book, NetGalley

Do I like the cover?: Oh, I do, I do -- how creepy is it? Pretty much that's the opening scene, too!

I'm reminded of...: Rosamund Lupton, Jennifer McMahon

First line: They should be home.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow for a wintry thriller!

Why did I get this book?: I love gothic-y novels set in Yorkshire!

Review: For an innocuous thriller, this book provoked a lot of emotion in me, and gave me much to chew over in terms of my expectations of a book, a heroine, and a story. The premise of this book is simple: Grace, new mom, has moved to rural Yorkshire with her husband and their three-month old daughter. One wintry evening, she comes home to a note from her husband, saying he has something to tell her. She waits, and waits, and later finds her daughter in the pram outside of their cottage, husband gone.

He never returns.

A year later, Grace returns to the cottage to try to put it in order and decide what to do. Husband still missing, she's unable to sell the cottage, and she's scared at the future she faces. Does she move on? Hold out hope? The police suggest her husband simply abandoned them but Grace is reluctant to accept that in light of what she feels is the evidence of his happiness with them. Complicating matters is the ghostly nature of the Yorkshire moors, her odd neighbors,

Sounds pretty fascinating, right? The thing with stories like this, however, is that the heroine really needs to be able to carry the weight of a story. When the entire focus is on her -- her thoughts, her fears, her apprehensions, her decisions -- she's got to be pretty compelling to keep the story interesting and for me, Grace was just okay. Foster's writing is lovely -- I certainly 'felt' the moors and the poky cottage and the weird neighbors -- but I found Grace a bit bland. We're told she's compelling and interesting -- she and her husband had a glittering life in London, her best mate has been in love with her, the new handyman clearly has the hots for her -- and yet, I didn't see much evidence of Grace's magnetism. Foster certainly showed me a woman wracked with insecurity, frozen with fear, made passive by the looming unknown of her future, and all that resonated.

The pacing of this book is slow, which was maddening at times but also delightfully stressful (in a good way). Foster hints at other gothic-y dramas in this story -- Grace reads Rebecca and thinks of the handyman as a kind of Heathcliff -- and the mood and ambiance is one of waiting, agonized waiting. At one point, I was surprised to discover I was halfway through the book because it still all felt like build up to the real story, the point where Grace would start investigating her husband's disappearance, and instead, all we got was her unpacking boxes, dealing with her flashy sister, and running into the handsome handyman. By the time we got to the ah-ha! reveal, I was relieved to know, but it came a little to late in the story for my tastes.

Still, this was a promising novel that had ambiance in spades and I'll be keeping an eye out for Foster's other novels -- this was a creepy armchair escape.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Interview with Carolina De Robertis

I was absolutely taken with Carolina De Robertis' novel Perla, about a young woman's battle with the ghosts of her family's past, and I'm thrilled to share this interview with her.  Read on to learn more about her writing, her book, and what she does when she's not writing.  Be sure to enter the giveaway at the end!

Carolina De Robertis
What was the plot of your very first piece of fiction?

I’ve never actually told this in public, you’re the first to get it out of me! The first story I ever wrote was called “Spimp, the little Kirmie.” It was about, well, a Kirmie—an extraterrestrial creature that looks something like a bunny, a bear, and a racoon rolled into one—who is sent to earth to study the way humans live, and discovers that we are in fact stranger than previously imagined. It comes complete with illustrations, and is twelve pages long. I was seven years old. I didn’t write it for school but for the sheer adventure of it. It has never been published.

Do you have any writing rituals or routines?

I don’t adhere too strictly to any particular routines, as it’s important for me to remember that writing can happen anytime, anywhere, and that the gates are always open. I don’t want to become too dependent on anything, because, in a life full of noise and responsibilities, it’s important to stay limber and flexible. That said, I know that I write best when I have long swaths of time in which to sink into the work, rather than many smaller nuggets of interrupted time. I strive to write first, leaving the seductive (and powerful) chatter of the internet for later in the day. I do not answer the phone. I take walks to mull particular questions, to get unstuck, or to “feed the well” by tuning into what the light is doing, how it lands on leaves and sparks in gutters. And I dip back into books that have blown my mind in the past, with the hopes that they might jostle open ideas or push my own prose to a higher level.

Was Perla the original title of your book?

No! The book went through many, many titles in the course of writing it, and Perla didn’t stick until the very end, when all the rest of the writing and revision was done. My editor and I went through a long process of pitching titles to each other and exploring a myriad possibilities. And then we came together around a simple, direct title: Perla. And it is right. Because this young woman’s name—where it came from, what it means for her to carry it—holds so many secret keys to this book.

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

I knew some things about where the narrative was headed, but there were aspects of the ending that remained nebulous to me until I was finally ready to write it. The details of what happens on a certain final night (I’m being vague to avoid spoilers, but hopefully those who’ve read the book will know what I mean), actions that Perla takes—those were unexpected, and they startled me and even moved me with the meaning they carried under the surface. In the process of writing that scene, I came to see understand Perla in a new way, her strength and pain and immutable inner wildness.

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

I love reading (big surprise!), going for walks, cooking meals together with my wife, and playing with my infinitely exuberant three-year-old son—from kicking a ball around to pretending to be sharks or reading ¿Cómo van a la escuela los dinosaurios? for the hundredth time and still laughing at the jokes. At the moment, I’m also eight months pregnant, so I have to say, I’m really enjoying rare precious moments with my feet up, staring at the wall.

Read any good books recently?

No doubt! I just read, and absolutely loved, The Lady Matador’s Hotel, by Cristina García. It’s beautifully written, and such a delicate and engrossing example of polyphonic writing—a story woven from many points of view, in this case exploring the intrigues of a luxury hotel in war-torn Central America.

On my nightstand right now: Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and, as part of research for my third novel, the 500-page memoirs of Francisco Canaro. He was an Old Guard tango musician who lived the history of tango music from its earliest, grittiest days to the golden era. Not only has this book never been translated into English, but it’s out of print even in Argentina. It took me almost a year to get my hands on a copy. It was worth all the effort. To my surprise, it’s a riveting read, and filling me with images and ideas for my next book.

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My thanks to Ms. De Robertis for her time and answers! Learn more about her and her writing at her website, Facebook, and Twitter.

GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to offer a copy of Perla to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US/Canadian readers, ends 6/8.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The Unseen by Katherine Webb

Title: The Unseen
Author: Katherine Webb

Genre: Fiction (Historical / 1911 / Spiritualism / Suffragettes / Country Life / Dual Story Lines / Journalist / Contemporary / Mystery)
Publisher/Publication Date: William Morrow Paperbacks (5/22/2012)
Source: TLC Book Tours

Rating: Liked.
Did I finish?: Oh yes!
One-sentence summary: One summer in 1911 undoes four people in a sleepy English village when politics, God, and the occult collide.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction

Do I like the cover?: Eh -- it's pretty, but like the cover for The Legacy, I feel like it doesn't quite match the story. This cover makes me thing coming-of-age in the US, not backstabbing and murder in "sleepy Berkshire".

I'm reminded of...: Jennifer McMahon

First line: It's the most glorious spring morning here, on a day of some excitement.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy -- this is great, dramatic fun.

Why did I get this book?: I loved Webb's previous novel.

Review: Last year Webb's The Legacy was one of my favorite summer reads -- I inhaled it overnight, caught up in the drama and the skin-crawling life choices the characters made. It was delightful. So needless to say, I was eager for Webb's next offering and this one doesn't disappoint.

As with The Legacy, The Unseen features two story lines -- one in the past, one in the present, that eventually connect -- but unlike Webb's previous novel, I was less wild about this technique. The modern story line was interesting enough, but didn't quite feel right with the story, given how detailed and compelling the historical story was.

Beginning in 1911, we meet Hester and Albert Canning, who have a sexless marriage that confuses naive Hester. Their new maid, Cat, has a notorious past -- she was arrested for her involvement with the suffragettes -- and Hester's husband takes up theosophy when he believes he sees fairies nearby. An expert in the occult, Robin, comes to investigate, and his presence discomforts Hester to say the least. Over the summer, unsurprisingly, thing seen and unseen welter, fester, boil, and rise to the surface with dramatic results. Interspersed with this story the contemporary one. Leah, a journalist, is contacted by her ex-boyfriend who works for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. An unknown soldier is discovered in Belgium with letters from an H. Canning. Her investigations lead her to meet the Canning's descendants, where, eventually, the story comes together.

I loved Cat -- I want a whole novel about her, frankly -- but I enjoyed Hester, too. For me, Webb's women -- no matter how amoral, or misguided, or pig-headed they might be -- are the hook of the story. I feel like I know them, I empathize with them, and even when I want to shake them, I want to hug them. As a historical novel, you feel immersed in the era without being loaded down with tons of detail or narrative, so those who aren't wild about historicals might enjoy this one. The feel of this for me is really thriller rather than straight up historical.

As with The Legacy, I couldn't put this book down -- there's a ton of tension in the story and I needed to get to the end. This is a perfect summer beach read -- you'll want a cocktail to mellow you out as you race along -- as it has enough meat to keep you focused but enough heart-racing moments that you'll be transported for a bit.

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GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to offer a copy of The Unseen to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US/Canadian readers, ends 6/22. Check out my interview with Katherine Webb for another chance to enter!

Monday, June 4, 2012

Equal of the Sun by Anita Amirrezvani

Title: Equal of the Sun
Author: Anita Amirrezvani

Genre: Fiction (Historical / Iran / 16th Century / Court Intrigue / Royalty / Eunuchs / Rebellion)
Publisher/Publication Date: Scribner (6/5/2012)
Source: TLC Book Tours

Rating: Liked a great deal.
Did I finish?: Yes -- in a few days.
One-sentence summary: In 16th century Iran, a brilliant princess and her loyal eunuch struggle to survive court intrigue, betrayal, and the possible fall of the empire.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction

Do I like the cover?: I do, very much: the embroidery and patterns of the character's clothing is often described and I love that the book cover resembles one of the royal robes.

I'm reminded of...: Jeanne Kalogridis, Matt Rees, Sandra Worth

First line: I swear to you on the holy Qur'an there has never been another woman like Pari Khan Khanoom.

Did... I want this book to be never-ending?: YES. Pari was a fascinating woman and I wished her story never had to end!

Did... I wish there was a glossary?: YES. Amirrezvani uses what I presume are Farsi terms peppered through the story; it definitely adds flavor and I think I understood the gist of many of the phrases, but I would have loved a glossary.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy, especially if you love tangled court intrigue!

Why did I get this book?: I love fiction set in the Middle East.

Review: Set in 16th century Iran, this rich and detailed historical novel follows Javaher, a eunuch who becomes confidante, spy, and vizier for the Shah's brilliant, passionate, and greatly underutilized daughter, Princess Pari Khan Khanoom. As the novel opens, Javaher has just joined Pari's household, and as the Shah's favorite daughter, both Pari and Javaher have enormous access to the Shah's household staff, the courtiers, and the other nobles. For Pari, this allows her to better understand the factions worming for power; for Javaher, it is an opportunity to research the man who caused his father to be branded a traitor, leading to his execution. Everything changes, however, when the Shah dies unexpectedly without naming an heir, and Javaher and Pari are no longer in power, but find themselves in a precarious place at the edge of court.

There's a bit a culture shock at the start of the novel -- names, places, dynasties, factions all thrown at the reader with a minimum of context -- but by the third chapter, I understood the general gist of who to like and who to dislike, and I raced through this book. Amirrezvani's strength lies in her dialogue, her ability to convey character and morals in someone's appearance, behavior, or manner. Longer descriptive scenes, like battle or sex, felt a bit obfuscated and muddled. Court intrigue is here in spades, enough to rival the most sordid Tudor historical novel, and I think fans of Tudor fic will actually really enjoy this one (Elizabeth, reigning monarch of England at this time, is mentioned!). Javaher's life as a eunuch (and his life before becoming one) is explored as well, and it is horrifying and fascinating.

Despite the heftiness of this book (340ish pages), I really did race through it in about two days -- I loved Pari and I wanted to remain with her for a long time. As with the best historical novels, I teared up at the end and I closed the book feeling as if I had to leave a friend. Best feeling ever.

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GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to offer one reader a copy of Equal of the Sun! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US/Canadian readers, ends 6/22.


Sunday, June 3, 2012

Armchair BEA, 2012: Intro!

Last year was my first year experiencing Armchair BEA and it was a hoot. One of the best perks of book blogging is the wonderful community I've met and Armchair BEA has allowed me to get to know other bloggers better -- so I'm thrilled to participate again this year! Last year, I used my review format as my introduction but this year, Armchair BEA has a prepared intro interview for folks.  Without further ado...

Please tell us a little bit about yourself: Who are you? How long have you been blogging? Why did you get into blogging?

I'm Audra, a 30ish married lesbian living in Boston.  I work full-time doing non-book related work, and blog around the edges.  My first review was posted in January of 2010, a review of a Fay Weldon novel about a nanny that messed me up so much I still have PTSD from it! I started blogging because I wanted to share my thoughts on the books I was reading, to geek out with other book lovers. Before 2010, I had kept a Livejournal with book reviews but wanted to move off that platform to something more blog-y.

What is your favorite book you have read so far in 2012?

HA! I can't ever pick one favorite. So far, in 2012, reads I've been totally enamored of include Rashad Harrison's Our Man in the Dark, Jane Harris' Gillespie and I, and Mary Roberts Rinehart's When a Man Marries.

Tell us one non-book-related thing that everyone reading your blog may not know about you.

Me!
I am a tarot addict. I've been reading tarot for nearly 15 years and I've got about 300 decks. I adore collecting them. For a while, I read as a way to get extra cash while in college but these days, I mostly read for friends or as a meditative exercise.

What is your favorite feature on your blog (i.e. author interviews, memes, something specific to your blog)?

I love doing author interviews -- it's an unexpected perk of book blogging, getting to pick the brains of these folks. Such a treat!

If you could eat dinner with any author or character, who would it be and why?

Questions like this are the worst! I have so many qualifiers. Living author: Penelope Lively, I think. Deceased author: H.D. I can't even begin to think of which character I'd like to have for dinner -- I'd need a cafeteria or dining hall to fit them all!

What is your favorite part about the book blogging community? Is there anything that you would like to see change in the coming years?

The other book bloggers. I have met so many friendly, smart, classy, interesting, and warm people through book blogging, folks I'd be honored to call friends, and it has been a delight to get to gush about books and publishing with other book bloggers. If I were to change anything, it would be with my own blogging, in that I'd like to bridge the gap from reviews-with-a-fringe-of-personal-stuff to sharing more personal things. I'm always surprised that my throwaway personal blog posts garner more comments than my reviews!

Have your reading tastes changed since you started blogging? How?

I'm reading so much more popular and commercial fiction since I started book blogging, mostly due to the fact I review for a number of blog tour companies. It's been very exciting to walk into a bookstore and know that I've read most of the books on their new releases table. I've also found I'm reading more award-nominated fiction, but that hasn't been intentional, just a result of being on tours with really fantastic books. I also read more because of my review schedule -- and that has made me find more time to read in my life. It's pretty marvelous -- I feel like an 8 year old again, staying up all hours of the night because I just can't put a book down.

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Share your introductions if you've done them, and feel free to answer any of these questions in the comments so I can learn about you!

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Book Brunch: The Language of Flowers

This post is nearly four weeks late due to life being crazy and whatnot, but I finally have time to share the awesomeness of my The Language of Flowers-inspired book brunch!

Motivated by a) my love of brunch, b) my friends who love brunch, c) Random House's Pinterest page, From the Page to the Plate: The Language of Flowers, and d) never turning down a good reason to have mimosas, I decided to have a The Language of Flowers-inspired brunch one weekend in May.

Brunch was tasty and albeit a bit slapdash, in that it was too early for me to cook and decorate and be clean, all at the same time. Still, I managed: there were mimosas and sangria, coffee (caffeine clearly needed!), Trader Joe's marvelous flatbread pizza, cheese and crackers, bagels and cream cheese, fresh fruit, and chocolate-covered figs.  No one leaves my house hungry!

Despite teasing me about my ambitious plans, my wife went nuts buying me flowers -- and she even scanned the flower dictionary ahead of time in hopes of being clever.  She selected, among other things, irises to indicate she had a message for me, tulips to declare her love, and white hyacinths for beauty. Well done, sweetheart! 

While most of the invitees hadn't read Diffenbaugh's novel, we still had plenty to talk about, especially the premise and the unique theme of flowers-as-messengers.  I tried to be clever and give everyone a little place card with a flower that represented a trait of theirs I liked, which provoked some conversation almost immediately. 

I'm very excited to do this again (reason ten thousand and eleven why I need to find a local book club!) and I think I'm going to try in July.  The only challenge: what book would make the most appealing brunch theme?  (Feel free to offer your ideas!)

Winners!

I think I've finished fooling around with my blog layout for a bit; I took a picture of my bookshelves and made it the background of this blog. Let me know if it's too busy. I'm also judging all the books on it, and I'm kind of tempted to stage my shelves now!

Winners! I've got some winners this week. A quick request: please be sure to check the email account you use for contest entries as I had to redraw for two winners last week! (Lucky for those folks; not lucky for others!)



The winner of Slant of Light is ... Kathleen B.!

The winner of The Uninvited Guests is ... Farin!

The winner of Written in the Ashes is ... Marie C.!

If you didn't win, I still have some open giveaways and more coming this week!

Layout Changes

Those of you reading my posts via a reader likely won't have noticed any changes, but if you wouldn't mind popping by my blog and giving me your thoughts on the layout change, I'd appreciate it. I'm now doing columns on each side of the entries and I'm kind of hating it. It feels so busy! I'm a bit attached to my widgets but perhaps they're too much -- what do you like/dislike? Thanks for any help or suggestions. I might attempt a custom background now -- we'll see if I can take a lovely picture!

Friday, June 1, 2012

Coming Out Can Be Murder by Renee James

Title: Coming Out Can Be Murder
Author: Renee James

Genre: Fiction (Contemporary / Chicago / Murder Mystery / Hate Crime / Transgender Women / Hair Dresser)
Publisher/Publication Date: Windy City Publishers (6/1/2012)
Source: The author.

Rating: Loved!
Did I finish?: Oh yes -- this was a must-get-to-the-end-before-I-go-to-sleep read!
One-sentence summary: A transgender woman finds herself seeking the killer of a friend in Chicago.

Do I like the cover?: I do -- it captures the thematic elements of the book and reminds me a bit of old school murder mystery covers.

I'm reminded of...: Achy Obejas

First line: She coos the words in his ear, her voice oddly androgynous, neither fully feminine, nor distinctly male.

Did... I rave about this book so much my wife took it out of my hands the moment I was done?: YES! At least she waited until I was finished this time!

Is... this is an exciting murder mystery for anyone, even though unfamiliar with the trans community?: YES! James uses Bobbi's transition to help the reader understand Bobbi's life and experiences as a transwoman, and I don't think readers will be intimidated by not 'knowing' about transgender folks.

Do... I want to go to Chicago after reading this book?: YES! I love Chicago and books like this make me super excited to visit it again and/or move there.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy, especially if you're a murder mystery fan:

Why did I get this book?: I love Chicago, I do like a good murder mystery now and then, and the unique premise of this book got me from the start.

Review: This is another book my wife tore out of my hands because I gushed too much, too soon. We both adored Achy Obejas' short story "Destiny Returns" from Chicago Noir and this book reminded me greatly of Obejas' story: the wonderful use of place and the bright light shone on the experience of those on the margins of society. James' novel is about a transgendered hairdresser, whose personal life is already emotionally tumultuous -- she's working on coming 'out' wholly as a woman without, hopefully, losing her job -- when she learns that a friend, another transgender woman, is brutally murdered.

Concerned that police aren't moving on solving the murder, Bobbi tracks the man believed to be the murdered, and unsurprisingly, this leads Bobbi into some serious danger. The story flips between Bobbi's first person account and the murderer's life, and it's chilling (delightfully, deliciously, angry-making-ly). This is a political thriller in some ways, unintentionally, but by virtue of the fact that the murder of a transgendered woman is often under-reported in media and poorly investigated. I loved that nuance to this story -- the violent death of anyone is horrible but James really lifts up the fears and anger from a community that often has to watch silently as society ignores the violence they face.

I loved the characters and James' writing, and Bobbi passed my I-want-her-to-be-my-bestie test. She's smart and funny, nervous and bold, scared and surprisingly strong, and very real. She's also a sexual person with desires and lusts, and James doesn't hide that. There's some sex (PG-13ish, I'd say), and some romance, and I loved it all -- and I was really delighted that James doesn't hide Bobbi in anyway. The secondary characters were just as appealing as the main characters, and again, I was so taken with the mix of crime and social/political commentary.

This is a fantastic murder mystery -- don't be scared off by the focus on the transgender community. Even if you're unfamiliar with what 'transgender' means isn't a problem as James provides context and explanation. As Bobbi goes through the process of coming out as a transwoman and what that means, James brings the reader along the whole time, and I dare anyone not to be moved.

I am so eager to see James' next endeavor, and I kind of hope Bobbi shows up again. She's a heroine I'm rooting for, and James' Chicago is a place I want to visit again. Give this book a try, especially this summer: this is a fun, quick-but-meaty murder mystery that is engrossing from the first page to the last.