Monday, October 31, 2011

Song of the Nile by Stephanie Dray

Title: Song of the Nile
Author: Stephanie Dray

Genre: Fiction (Historical / Ancient Rome / Ancient North Africa / Magic / Royalty)
Publisher/Publication Date: Berkley Trade (10/4/2011)
Source: The author.

Rating: Liked a great deal.
Did I finish?: Yes, although I drew it out because I was reluctant to leave Selene!
One-sentence summary: Cleopatra's daughter has become Queen of Mauritania faces tension in her marriage, her new home, and her family as she struggles to embrace her power and destiny.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction

Do I like the cover?: I do -- it's super striking and captures the feel of the novel. My only quibble is that I wish the woman was a little younger -- Selene is 14-20ish in this novel and the woman on the cover clearly isn't.  (I suppose she's on the 20ish spectrum.)

I'm reminded of...: Marion Zimmer Bradley, Clysta Kinstler, Libba Bray, Phillipa Gregory

First line: I am nature.

Do... I love Dray's mix of historical fiction and magical fantasy?: YES. I'm shocked some readers have reacted so negatively as I think the mix of genres is a fantastic fit, and Dray handles it in a way that feels authentic and natural to the story and characters.

Do... I love Dray's blog? :YES. If you're interested in the writing process, start reading now, because Dray is open and honest about her experiences in researching her novels, writing them, and adventures in authordom.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Buy or borrow after you read the first book!

Why did I get this book?: I read the first book and loved it.

Review: Earlier this year I read and thoroughly enjoyed the first book in this series, Lily of the Nile and I've been wiggling with anticipation for this book. I'm thrilled to say that everything I loved in the first book -- Selene, the historical setting, the magical elements, the compelling detail -- is in this one as well, only amped up more.

This is a darker novel that doesn't shy away from the grim reality of ancient Roman life (around 25BC-ish or so). Selene, Cleopatra's daughter, has been married and sent to Mauritania, but from the start of this book, our heroine isn't a passive pawn. As with the first novel, Dray mixes history with magic, but the fantastical elements don't dampen or soften the historical aspects, which I so appreciate. Dray doesn't age up Selene, for example, who is 14 at the start of this novel, nor does she whitewash what imperial life was like.

As with the first novel, this book features a teenaged heroine but isn't a YA story; it is decidedly mature and probably not something all readers will like. I hesitate to say I enjoyed it, because some of what transpired made me feel ill, but Dray makes all the characters quite human and quite real, to the point that I loved, hated, empathized with and dismissed everyone at some point, even Selene. It's a maddening, wonderful feeling, and for me, it felt like an accurate representation of what life would have been like for Cleopatra's daughter. You want royal intrigue, this is your book!

I was sad when the book ended -- I could have used another 300 pages -- and I'm not sure if there's another book coming or not, but I'm desperate for more of Selene and her world. I loved Mists of Avalon but found rest of Bradley's series to be very thin. In this case, Dray's books get better and better; her world-building and character-development is nuanced and compelling. This is tawdry hist fic with a little more steel in the spine, and I mean that in the best way. Get Lily of the Nile first then grab this one!

Friday, October 28, 2011

Friday Reads, and I'm dragging my feet...

Honestly, this has felt like the world's longest week. Work has been exhausting, and I've been staying up all night reading which is fun at the time but makes me a sad beast in the morning. You'd think I'd learn, but alas, I do it again each night.

FridayReads: I'm still reading Lisey's Story (dragging it out because I'm so reluctant to finish it!), but I started Stephanie Dray's Roman/Egyptian historical novel Song of the Nile, which is the sequel to Lily of the Nile (which I loved).  I've been racing through but totally reluctant to finish it, too -- I don't want to leave Selene! (And, of course, wait for the next book!)

Ever have this problem?  You're loving a book so much you don't want to finish it?  What are you reading today (and this weekend)?

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Irrepressible by Leslie Brody

Title: Irrepressible: The Life and Times of Jessica Mitford
Author: Leslie Brody

Genre: Non-Fiction (Biography / 1930s / 1950s / 1960s / American History / Civil Rights Movement / Journalism / British Ex-Pat / Literary Family)
Publisher/Publication Date: Counterpoint (10/2011)
Source: The publisher

Rating: Loved!
Did I finish?: I tore through this book.
One-sentence summary: Well-written biography of muckraker Jessica Mitford.

Do I like the cover?: I adore the cover -- the font, the image, the layout -- it's perfect.

I'm reminded of...: Nancy Milford, Barry Werth

First line: Soon after Jessica Mitford moved with her family to Swinbrook House in Oxfordshire, she began to plot her escape from it.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Buy -- I'm telling you, you want to know about the fabulous Decca Mitford!

Why did I get this book?: I love the Mitfords, and I love muckrakers, and I love female journalists. I couldn't resist.

Review: In a high school journalism class, I read some excerpts from Jessica Mitford's amazing book The American Way of Death, an expose and exploration of the American funeral business (her book was said to have influenced Robert F. Kennedy's coffin choice for his brother). It was much later that I learned this Mitford was related to that other Mitford I knew, Nancy.

Born in 1917, Jessica was the sixth of seven children born to an English baron and his wife. Jessica's childhood was influenced by the privilege of her family's wealth, status, and name as well as the wildly diverging personalities of her sisters. All were passionate and brilliant, determined to mark their place in society; Jessica's early liberal political leanings were in stark contrast to her sisters Unity and Diana, who were dedicated Fascists and supporters of Hitler. An impetuous elopement with her second cousin lead to Jessica being cut out of the family. After her first marriage ended, she married an American and became a Communist. She actively worked in the Civil Rights movement and wrote sharp, invective examinations of American society.

At less than 350 pages, this biography reads quickly albeit a tad dry. I tend to favor more 'relational' biographies, the ones where the biographer openly acknowledges her place in the story, but this is one of those more formal types where the biographer is invisible. As a result, the writing style is very precise, very sharp, almost journalistic in style. Many sentences are shaped by a direct quote of some sort (i.e., Decca reveled in being "busy, busy, busy.", page 135) but that isn't to say that Brody doesn't write well or without passion (Suddenly, they were in a psychosexual crucible, with all the vino and cheap gin they could drink. He had a bitter edge. She had a wicked mouth. Finally, they were just kids., page 19). Mitford's life -- already fascinating -- snaps along in Brody's hands, one fascinating episode after another, and so this felt like a considerably shorter book.

Even if you're unfamiliar with Jessica Mitford, give this book a try: she's a fascinating women whose life reads like an over-the-top historical novel. I think anyone interested in post-WWII Britain and America will enjoy following this radical and brilliant writer through some of the most influential events in 20th century history.

*** *** ***


I'm thrilled to offer a copy of Irrepressible to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this short form. Open to US/CA readers, closes 11/11.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

You Are Not So Smart by David McRaney

Title: You Are Not So Smart: Why You Have Too Many Friends on Facebook, Why Your Memory is Mostly Fiction, and 46 Other Ways You’re Deluding Yourself
Author: David McRaney

Genre: Non-Fiction (Psychology / Pop Culture / Americana / Personality / Popular Science)
Publisher/Publication Date: Gotham (10/27/2011)
Source: TLC Book Tours

Rating: Loved.
Did I finish?: Yes.
One-sentence summary: Forty-eight essays on human behavior and the fascinating, necessary, and amazing way we really don't understand how our brains work.

Do I like the cover?: Yes -- it's quirky and punchy, like the book.

First line: You hold in your hands a compendium of information about self-delusion and the wonderful ways we all succumb to it.

Did... I torture everyone around me with non-stop trivia gleaned from this book?: YES. Sorry co-workers and friends! I couldn't help myself -- this stuff is fascinating!

Did... I start reading McRaney's blog upon finishing this book?: YES. It's horrifying/awesome what I've learned, and this post on The Sunk Cost Fallacy -- and Farmville -- is a fabu example of how his posts hit close to home!

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow for sure -- you'll never know you knew so little about yourself! -- or buy for the budding psychologist or behaviorist in your life.

Why did I get this book?: I'm a trivia geek plus, as an anthropology student, I'm fascinated by human behavior.

Review: The basis of this immensely entertaining book is McRaney's blog (which is, unsurprisingly, immensely entertaining).  A journalist who was inspired by an intro to psychology course, McRaney cogently explains the various ways we delude ourselves and act irrationally.  Each essay opens with a 'Misconception' followed by 'The Truth', and then a thorough explanation. As a result, each chapter is a self-contained gem packed with nerdy trivia and fascinating science. They don't necessarily build off each other, so you can browse the essays at your leisure, picking what grabs you the most.  Topics range from procrastination, brand loyalty, cult indoctrination, to the illusion of control, the bystander effect, and the straw man fallacy. 

McRaney's writing is smart but funny, loaded with tons of fascinating psychological studies and pop culture references.  I found myself missing the illustrations that can be found on McRaney's blog posts but otherwise, I can't complain about this collection.  I'm running out of adjectives to express the joy I felt with each revelation (not to mention the horror, bafflement, and shock).  This is a wildly fun book that promises to surprise, amaze, and educate you!

*** *** ***


I'm thrilled to offer a copy of You Are Not So Smart to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this short form. Open to US/CA readers, closes 11/11.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Wings by Karl Friedrich

Title: Wings: A Novel of WWII Flygirls
Author: Karl Friedrich

Genre: Fiction (WWII / Airplanes / WASPs)
Publisher/Publication Date: McBooks Press (4/1/2011)
Source: TLC Book Tours

Rating: Okay.
Did I finish?: I did, rather quickly.
One-sentence summary: Country girl becomes pilot during WWII, faces romance, prejudice, and bad weather.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction

Do I like the cover?: I do -- it's kind of adorable, but I mean that in a good way. It certainly captures the homey roots of the heroine's background

First line: Sally Ketchum peered over the edge of the cockpit.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow -- this has a sort of beach read feel for a WWII historical.

Why did I get this book?: I'm always interested in how women fare during wartime and have been curious about the WASPs.

Review: In the 1940s, the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) program was started to free up male pilots so they could fly in combat, and women pilots were given Army flight training to do routine, non-combat flying jobs, like hauling cargo, towing targets for live artillery training, and transporting planes. I jumped at this novel because I love, love learning about how women fare during wartime and I have so admired the WASPs (who shamefully were only recognized in 2009 for their war efforts).

It's clear Friedrich did his research: there are details that crop up that I presume are from first-hand accounts. Women applying for the WASP program had to pay to get to the school, they pay their own room and board, pay for their own uniforms, and work outrageous hours, flying in planes that were sabotaged by those who thought women shouldn't be in the cockpit, and in conditions comparable to combat. But they were seen as civilians, treated as unwanted jokes by many, and they worked thankless hours and shifts in situations that male pilots wouldn't and as expected, they had to maintain their femininity and remember their place.  It's a heartbreaking setup that promises disappointment, and I admire any woman who put herself in that situation -- they're stronger than me.

Sadly, this novel didn't meet my expectation and hope.  The writing is straight-forward and simple and the plot predictable -- but I found myself still wishing for the best (that the WASPs would be recognized for their skill and hard work).  The characters were a little flat -- predictable stereotypes (bitchy rich girl, gallant flight instructor, tough tomboy, etc.) -- which took away my ability to wholly care about what was happening.  You could see a mile away the coming 'romance' and the villainous conflict. 

I sometimes find that contemporary novels set during WWII are a little too intent on lionizing and commemorating the 'greatest generation' and as a result, the stories lack nuance or sophistication. I think this is the case with Wings: it's a really great premise, but I can't help but feel like the author is trying too hard to keep things noble, clean, and above board. Which works for some people, but is just too white-washed for me. (I found myself describing this as a family friendly, lady-fronted version of Memphis Belle.) 

This was a fast read, and again, clearly well-researched which is what kept my interest.  In the end, I found myself yearning for a novel about Sally after this one finished, a story about how she lived her life after having this freedom, adventure, danger, and romance.  Friedrich is right -- these women were amazing -- and his book has me desperate to learn more about the real life WASPs.

*** *** ***


I'm thrilled to offer a copy of Wings to one reader. To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US/CA readers, closes 11/11.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Interview with Donia Bijan

Last week I read and was charmed by Donia Bijan's memoir of food and family, Maman's Homesick Pie.  I'm excited to share my interview with Ms. Bijan.  Read on to learn more about her, her writing, and what she does when she's not writing.  There's another opportunity to enter to win a copy of her book, too!

Was this book your first foray into writing (either seriously or for fun)?

No, as a chef, I was writing every day. It was important for me to write menus that didn't just list ingredients, but were evocative and even poetic. The dishes had to be well thought out just like a good sentence.

Do you have any writing rituals or routines?

After I take my son to school, I wash the breakfast dishes, think about what I'll make for dinner, and then sit down to write until it's time for him to come home. By then, I find myself missing him and looking forward to an afternoon snack together.

Was Maman’s Homesick Pie the original title of your book?

The original title was Homesick Pie and I added "Maman" later because it implied family and the important role my mother played in my life.

As you were writing Maman’s Homesick Pie, was there a particular moment, person, or recipe that you were surprised to find you included?

Yes. When I wrote chapter 13, it was breaking my heart and it was the only time I can remember that I wasn't hungry (I was always hungry as I was working on my book), and the only thing I could imagine swallowing was rice pudding. I wasn't expecting my own words to shut down my appetite, but they had, and the result was the recipe for rice pudding!

Is there a particular food or meal that you associate with your writing of this memoir? (Or this time in your life?)

I found that in writing these stories I was never alone and I imagined there was always someone sitting with me at the table (I write on our dining room table, not a desk), and that there was always a pot of tea and a dish of sweets between us.

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

Not surprisingly, I gravitate to the market and head straight to the kitchen. Cooking is the only way I know to quiet the constant longing and incurable nostalgia. I also love to swim to quiet the restlessness, and read to find comfort in words.

Read any good books recently?

I read The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer and it was so beautiful and rich, I never wanted it to end even though it was breaking my heart. And because I can't get enough heartbreak, I loved Chang-Rae Lee's The Surrendered. No one writes more eloquently about alienation.

*** *** ***


I'm thrilled to offer a copy of Maman’s Homesick Pie to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US/CA readers, closes 11/4.  For another entry, be sure to check out my review of Maman's Homesick Pie.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

In My Mailbox Monday, Oct 24

Seen both at Mailbox Monday (hosted in October at the fabulous Savvy Verse & Wit) and The Story Siren, my Mailbox Monday/In My Mailbox on a chilly, very autumnal Sunday. I had been sighing and whining to my wife that I hadn't gotten anything new in a while, but doesn't this just prove me wrong?! I'm slightly ashamed of myself! Have you read any of these?  What did you get?

For Review

Song of the Nile by Stephanie Dray
People Tell Me Things by David Finkle
You Are Not So Smart: Why You Have Too Many Friends on Facebook, Why Your Memory Is Mostly Fiction, and 65 Other Ways You're Deluding Yourself by David McRaney
A Train in Winter: An Extraordinary Story of Women, Friendship, and Resistance in Occupied France by Caroline Moorehead
James Joyce: A Life by Edna O'Brien
The Conference of the Birds by Peter Sis
Charles Dickens: A Life by Jane Smiley


The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
The Foreign Correspondent by Alan Furst
Good Behavior by Molly Keane
The Most Beautiful Book in the World: Eight Novellas by Éric-Emmanuel Schmitt

Saturday, October 22, 2011


Only one giveaway this week, so only one winner!

The winner of India Black and the Widow of Windsor is ... Maria D.!

Congrats! Check out my current giveaways -- more coming this week!

Friday, October 21, 2011

Friday Reads, and I'm a bit scared...

I went through this phase in high school where I read a metric ton of Stephen King novels -- crappy ones -- like Carrie, and Cujo, and Needful Things -- and I hated them all. I decided then, at 17, never to give him another minute of my time since there were a billion other books I wanted to read, and up until yesterday, I kept that vow.

My wife, unlike me, is a slavish King fan. She's got every book of his (and Bachman's) in hardcover, paperback, and audio, and King is the only author to claim that honor in our house (sadly). She keeps casually trying to get me to read him now and then but I remain pretty stubbornly determined to ignore him -- until now. In light of the R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril (RIP) VI reading challenge and the little things that make my wife happy, I relented and agreed to read a Stephen King she picked for me.  She chose Lisey's Story.

This is a long way of introducing my FridayReads for this week.  Rather resentfully, I have to admit I'm really, really, really enjoying Lisey's Story!  It's creepy but I'm really digging the exploration of marriage and companionship, plus novels about writers always get me.

So, what are you reading this Friday? Is there an author you've sworn off?

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Maman’s Homesick Pie by Donia Bijan

Title: Maman’s Homesick Pie: A Persian Heart in an American Kitchen
Author: Donia Bijan

Genre: Non-Fiction (Memoir / Iran / Immigrant Experience / Cooking / Food / Mother-Daughter Relationships)
Publisher/Publication Date: Algonquin Books (10/11/2011)
Source: TLC Book Tours

Rating: Liked.
Did I finish?: I did, super quick.
One-sentence summary: A warm, inviting memoir about an Iranian-American chef's childhood, her Iranian parents, her Parisian culinary training, and her search for her own happiness.

Do I like the cover?: I can't decide: I hate the font but I do rather like the sort of precious, cutesy images.

I'm reminded of...: Diana Abu-Jaber, Firoozeh Dumas

First line: My mother had been dead eight days when I showed up in her kitchen.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow, and gift to the foodie or memoir addict in your life!

Why did I get this book?: I love stories of the immigrant experience, and being a foodie, I can't resist the mix of narrative and recipe!

Review: Although I'm not always a memoir person, I'm a sucker for stories involving food. Bijan's memoir about her mother, her own culinary memories, growing up Iranian, and setting out to be a chef against her father's wishes charmed me from the first page. When she closed the prologue with recipes for cardamom tea and orange cardamom cookies, I knew I was in love.

Bijan's book is a memoir and homage to her family; as she writes in her Author's Note, it is "an attempt to find answers to the questions I never asked my parents, such as How did it feel to start your life from nothing?". Working from her mother's untimely death, she moves mostly chronologically from her childhood in idyllic, pre-Islamic Revolution Iran through her family's forced migration to California where she and her family struggled to find their place in the U.S. (Anyone who's read Persepolis will appreciate the situation the Bijans faced if they returned to Iran, but even those unfamiliar with Iranian history won't be confused as Bijan writes briefly but clearly about it.)

Bijan's writing is straight-forward but possesses lovely sensory details that I so enjoy, especially when reading about food.  Anyone who's read about Julia Child will enjoy the cameo by Madame Brassart at Le Cordon Bleu as well as the other tidbits about the famed institution.

And even though I'm not captivated by the culinary world, I found Bijan's sections about her education at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris to be fascinating, and I found myself hoping she'd write a more detailed memoir about that. Bijan writes passionately and honestly about becoming a chef in the '80s, both in Paris and in the US, and the trials and joys she faced as often the only female chef in a kitchen. (There's a shocking story about a broken hollandaise sauce and her chef instructor's response that left my jaw on the ground; I would not have had Bijan's fortitude and it was one of many stories that made me admire her!)

I closed the book feeling like I knew Bijan's family and I miss spending time with her (and her food!).  This is a fast, sweet, enjoyable read that will make your mouth water.  (My wife and I plan to make her Saffron Yogurt Rice with Chicken and Eggplant this weekend and one of the sumptuous desserts -- if we can pick one!).

*** *** ***


I'm thrilled to offer a copy of Maman’s Homesick Pie to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US/CA readers, closes 11/4.  For another entry, be sure to check out my interview with Donia Bijan on October 24!

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Motor City Shakedown by D.E. Johnson

Title: Motor City Shakedown
Author: D.E. Johnson

Genre: Fiction (Mystery / Murder / 1910s / Mafia / Detroit / Automobile Manufacturing)
Publisher/Publication Date: Minotaur Books; First Edition edition (9/13/2011)
Source: TLC Book Tours

Rating: Liked.
Did I finish?: Yes, very easily.
One-sentence summary: Seven months after Will Anderson was framed for murder, he's struggling with a crippling injury, an addiction, and an all-consuming desire for revenge.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction

Do I like the cover?: I love it -- paperboys feature in this novel, and I think the layout and design is super catchy.

I'm reminded of...: M.L. Malcolm

First line: My left index finger traced the shape of the little morphine bottle through the outside of my trouser pocket.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow -- after you read the first book!

Why did I get this book?: It has all the elements I like in fiction: great historical setting, unique location, crime.

Review: First things first: don't read the blurb for this book if you at all think you're going to read the first book, Detroit Electric Scheme, as the description totally spoils book one. (And I think you'll want to read the first book first.) I enjoyed Detroit Electric Scheme and so was eager to read this book.

Set in 1911, Detroit, the novel continues to follow Will Anderson, a young man devastated by the last three years. Will finds himself framed for murder in Detroit Electric Scheme, and this book starts about seven months later. Sustaining a crippling injury from the first book, Will now struggles with a morphine addiction and an all-consuming desire for revenge. In trying to get back at the men who hurt him and those he cared about, Will becomes embroiled in a turf war between two Sicilian families.

I wasn't wild about the plot of this book as much as the first one, but I'm not a Mafia fangirl myself. However, knowing that the turf war depicted in this story was historically accurate made it more interesting to me, and it's apparent Johnson loves Detroit and Detroit history. As a result, I cared, too.

I noticed a change in Johnson's writing in this novel: there was less peppering of historical trivia in the narrative than in the first book, and I found the story read a little more effortlessly. Even though I loved the tidbits I learned in Detroit Electric Scheme, I was aware I was reading; now, I found myself sinking into the story and emerging only when nudged by my wife to eat dinner or go to bed.

Fans of historical crime fiction will enjoy this series -- I love the unique setting and the real place-as-character feel.  Plus, I think Johnson is working on a third book, which makes me very excited -- Detroit has been added to my list of places to visit someday thanks to his very obvious love for the city -- and I'm looking forward to Will's further adventures.

The Detroit Electric Scheme by D.E. Johnson

Title: The Detroit Electric Scheme: A Mystery
Author: D.E. Johnson

Genre: Fiction (Mystery / Murder / 1910s / Detroit / Automobile Manufacturing)
Publisher/Publication Date: Minotaur Books (9/14/2010)
Source: My public library

Rating: Liked.
Did I finish?: I did!
One-sentence summary: In early 20th century Detroit, automobile heir Will Anderson finds himself framed for the murder of his best friend -- who happens to be his ex-fiancée's new fiancé -- and he races to clear his name and solve the murder.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction

Do I like the cover?: Yes -- it's not a favorite but it's eye-catching and sort of matches the style of the second book (or, the second book sort of matches it.).

I'm reminded of...: M.L. Malcolm

First line: The first part of the body I saw was half of the left arm.

Did... I spend a ton of time researching the cars and fashions mentioned in this novel?: YES. Especially with the cars -- I know nothing about automobiles, especially early ones, so it was fascinating to see the models referenced. The author has a webpage with images that match scenes from the book, including pictures of the cars.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow -- although the murder is grisly, the novel isn't gross or unnecessarily gory, and I think historical fiction fans and mystery addicts will enjoy this story because of the unique setting.

Why did I get this book?: I'm part of the tour to review the sequel Motor City Shakedown (don't read the description, by the way, unless you're not going to read this first book as it spoils the whole end of book one!) and I can't resist anything gritty, murderous, or set in the early 1900s. Yum!

Review: Detroit's been floating around the back of mind recently thanks to the rather fabulous Chrysler ads that feature the gorgeous, gritty architecture and landscape of the city once called the Paris of the Midwest.  When a tour opened for a mystery novel set in 1911 in the Motor City (this book's sequel), I couldn't resist, and being a stickler about reading things in order, I grabbed this book first so I could be good and immersed.

Set November of 1910, the novel opens with a grisly murder.  Told by Will Anderson, son of a successful electric automobile manufacturer who has some demons and a drinking problem, we quickly learn the victim was John Cooper, a friend Will's from college who was engaged to the woman who, until recently, was engaged to Will. Understandably, everyone assumes the worst, and we follow Will as he tries to keep out of jail and solve the crime without more people losing their lives.

This book caused much contention in my house, as my wife and I both read it and had very different opinions upon finishing. (She disliked, I enjoyed.) I loved the setting and the ambiance of the story and Johnson throws in fabulous historical details that made the nerd in me die of glee. The mystery was straight-forward but engrossing, and I liked all the characters. My only complaint really is that I wish the book were longer: at times, the story felt rushed or the characters kind of thin. With a few more pages, things might have been fleshed out more satisfyingly.

A solid start to a great historical crime series that is perfect for those who like seasons to match their reading. The grim winter in this novel felt pretty real with the miserable rain we've had in Boston recently!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Practical Jean by Trevor Cole

Title: Practical Jean
Author: Trevor Cole

Genre: Fiction (Contemporary / Satire / Black Comedy / Friendship / Marriage)
Publisher/Publication Date: Harper Perennial (10/18/2011)
Source: TLC Book Tours

Rating: Liked.
Did I finish?: I did, another book inhaled in a matter of hours!
One-sentence summary: After watching her mother's slow death, Jean Vale Horemarsh decides the best way to express her love for her good friends is to ensure they die quick and happy.
Reading Challenges: RIP VI

Do I like the cover?: I do -- it's delightfully retro!

I'm reminded of...: James K. Morrow

First line: You might think this a rather horrible and depraved sort of story.

Was... I kicked out of bed for snickering while reading?: YES. This was another delightful book that had me giggling the whole way!

Am... I getting this book for my besties for the winter holiday?: YES. This group of friends all agreed to eat each other come an Alpine plane crash, so I think they're going to dig this book.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy -- hilarious and twisted!

Why did I get this book?: I love satire and black comedy. (Does that say something about me??)

Review: This book is twisted, hilarious, sad, horrifying, bittersweet, shocking, and wildly fun. The story follows Jean Vale Horemarsh, a ceramicist who, after watching her mother's slow death from cancer, decides the truest way to show her dear friends how much she loves them is to ensure they die quick deaths while happy. So she makes her list, and her fuzzy plan (she likes to go by feel, the same way she creates her art), and goes to work.

The result is awesome. Cole's writing is wonderful -- effortless and playful -- and I tore through this book in a matter of hours on a Saturday night. I like black comedy and satire and I loved the absurdity of Jean and her grand plan. Twisted and wrong, Jean was motivated by friendship, a desire to ensure those she cared about were happy, and I found myself really enjoying the ruminations on friendship. Jean's friendships spanned decades, went through various rough patches and estrangements, but in the end, she tried to maintain and remain connected with those who had a shared emotional history with her. It was moving, in a way, and obviously twisted, and I really delighted in that mix of tender and effed up! (Dear besties reading this review, I swear I'm not going to murderate you out of love!)

This book isn't gross or violent, however, despite the premise, and I think those who don't like gore but enjoy some macabre will get a kick out of this story. Certainly, I found it a perfect read for my October, and it has provoked some conversation among my friends about loyalty, love, and friendship. I don't know if it would exactly be a good group read -- those who don't dig black comedy will probably hate Jean -- but I found her to be a fascinating character. She might be my favorite anti-heroine of the year!

Monday, October 17, 2011

Lionheart by Sharon Kay Penman

Title: Lionheart
Author: Sharon Kay Penman

Genre: Fiction (Historical / Richard / Crusades / Medieval / Military)
Publisher/Publication Date: Putnam/Marian Wood (10/4/2011)
Source: The publisher

Rating: Liked
Did I finish?: I did!
One-sentence summary: Detailed, deft novel following Richard the Lionheart and his contemporaries
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction

Do I like the cover?: I don't hate it, although I find it a bit boring. It sort of reminds me of a movie poster (I keep looking for an actor's face behind the sword and shield) but it conveys the militaristic bent to the novel.

First line: Theirs was a story that would rival the legend of King Arthur and Guinevere, his faithless queen.

Do... I love the way Penman writes about her subjects?: YES. Actually, I love the way Penman writes as an author -- she's responsive to her readers and quite devoted to keeping them happy -- and her 'Message from the Author' on Lionheart references Johnny Cash (yay!). She's someone who clearly sees and feels her historical characters as vibrant, real people, and I appreciate that.

Did... I get a hot little crush on Joanna, Richard's fascinating sister?: YES. I want a whole about about her, please!

Do... I strongly recommend Penman's blog?: YES. This might be one of my favorite author blogs -- as I keep saying, I'm wild about Penman's passion for her subjects and her craft, and I so enjoy reading her thoughts about her research and subjects.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Buy, especially if you're a historical fiction fan. You won't want to return this book to the library unfinished, and the size might make it hard to some to finish before the book is due back. Still, it's worth having -- I bet a reread would warrant more enjoyment!

Why did I get this book?: I love historical fiction, and I've always rather liked Richard from his role in some of the Robin Hood myths. I've always meant to read Penman's novels, so this seemed a perfect start!

Review: Sharon Kay Penman is a giant of historical fiction, recognized for her historical detail and vibrant characters. Shamefully, despite being a hist fic addict, I've never read her, so I jumped at the chance to review this book.

The novel opens with full-on drama, featuring Richard's sister Joanna and a young girl who will become her serving woman. This opening, with a lovely mix of rich historical detail and drama, immediately drew me in and I was excited to see where this 600 page novel would take me. Following Richard the Lionheart's crusade to Jerusalem, the novel covers 1189-1192, an era which, I'll be honest, is a bit fuzzy for me in terms of costuming and manners and real life, so I was relieved to find Penman's story didn't feel excessively teach-y.

According to Penman's website, Lionheart is part of her Henry II trilogy (despite being the fourth book). I haven't read the previous three books and I don't think one needs to have read them to enjoy this one. She provides enough back story to set up this novel and characters so that I never felt confused by what had happened before; whatever confusion I had was simply an unfamiliarity with the historical figures (and ohemgee, there are a million). I suppose that would be my only complaint about this novel: the enormous cast. Although three pages of characters are provided at the beginning of the book, I had to take my own notes to keep everyone straight and I didn't feel like I really got to know anyone well. I wanted especially more about the women in Richard's life -- they were fascinating people -- but to be honest, I can't say I really got to know Richard. I followed him, but I didn't know him.

Still, this is a staggering novel that covers a fascinating era. Readers who like their hist fic to focus on the history (and not, say, the sex) will love this one as it's low on salacious detail without minimizing the relationships -- romantic or otherwise. Settle in, though, if you pick this up: it's not a fast read but it is engrossing!

Saturday, October 15, 2011


This week's winners!  (Forgive my lack of chattiness -- am a bit wiped from the day and sadly, not from anything fun! :/)

The winner of my giveaway for A Man of Parts and War of the Worlds is ... Carrie of Nomadreader!

The winner of my giveaway for Salvage the Bones is ... Cassie!

Congrats to the winners! If you haven't won, be sure to check out my open giveaways and look out for the ones coming this week!

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy

Title: Far From the Madding Crowd
Author: Thomas Hardy

Genre: Fiction (English / Victorian / Rural / Marriage / Relationships)
Publisher/Publication Date: Project Gutenberg (2/1/1994)
Source: Project Gutenberg

Rating: Looooooved!
Did I finish?: Yes -- it took me a while only because my review schedule got a big hectic.
One-sentence summary: Bathsheba Everdene, a young woman who inherits a farm, struggles to make herself happy, successful, and loved in a rural county in England.
Reading Challenges: British BooksE-books, Victorian Literature

Do I like the cover?: N/A -- sadly, unlike many e-book packagers, Project Gutenberg doesn't do covers for their e-books.

First line: When Farmer Oak smiled, the corners of his mouth spread till they were within an unimportant distance of his ears, his eyes were reduced to chinks, and diverging wrinkles appeared round them, extending upon his countenance like the rays in a rudimentary sketch of the rising sun.

Did... I spend about two months confusing 'madding' with 'maddening'?: YES. Embarrassing but true. (If you care, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, madding means "acting in a frenzied manner —usually used in the phrase madding crowd to denote especially the crowded world of human activity and strife".)

Did... I develop a hot little crush on Farmer Gabriel Oak?: YES. Double yes, really. He was sort Clive Owen-lite in my mind's eye.

Do... I someday want to visit all the locations in the book?: YES. This great map highlights the locations from the book.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Buy or borrow -- read this for sure. It's marvelous!

Why did I get this book?: I picked it on a whim for my Victorian Lit challenge -- talk about a happy accident!

Review: I was pretty head-over-heels for this book after the first page but by the time our heroine Bathsheba Everdene appeared, my love was sealed. (How fabulous is that name?!)

Of this book, Virginia Woolf said: "The subject was right; the method was right; the poet and the countryman, the sensual man, the somber reflective man, the man of learning, all enlisted to produce a book which, however fashions may chop and change, must hold its place among the great English novels." Amen, sister. There's a vaguely soap opera feel to the story, with the mix of rural drama (honestly, I had no idea there were so many ways sheep could die!) and a love pentagon (two women, three men) and yet, this isn't some fluffy pastoral farce.

The setting is described with poetic loveliness, but as we see with Farmer Oak's constantly imperiled sheep, rural life is hardly peaceful and bucolic. At times, it is nearly savage, and pretty, clever, fiery, passionate Bathsheba seems to be the personification of the lovely-yet-wild (and fickle!) landscape.  She captivates, frightens, and mystifies the men around her, and despite her sometimes over-the-top emotional fits, she manages her own farm and her own courtships with savvy determination.

Still, the romance in this book is hardly romantic: even the passionate points feel a bit grim, as we and the characters understand the implications of each overture and pass.  Someone will be hurt, someone else buoyed, and one night makes all the difference in a life.  (Same goes for sheep.  Go to sleep, sheep alive; wake up, sheep dead.  It's crazy.)

There's also some comedy in the rustic townfolk and farm hands, but honestly, I sort of tuned them out.  I was more keen on Bathsheba and her relationships with the men in her life.  At times, I felt like Hardy painted her a little garishly, as if to punish her for being so fabulous and feisty, but I also appreciated the cracks in her armor.  She was a woman I could relate to and if I had read her as a teen, I would have been all about channeling my inner Bathsheba Everdene.  As it is, I'm ready for a reread already, so I can sit back and savor Hardy's storytelling. 

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Interview with Carol K. Carr

The second India Black novel, India Black and the Widow of Windsor, was one of maybe three books I've been waiting for with desperate, unceasing eagerness. (The first book, India Black, made my top ten of 2010.) It was a pleasure to revisit India's world again (see my review of India Black and the Widow of Windsor for more gushing!) and I'm very excited to share my interview with the author, Carol K. Carr.  Read on to learn more about her, her writing, and what she does when she's not writing, plus enter to win a copy of India Black and the Widow of Windsor.

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

Yikes! I haven't dredged up that memory for quite a while, and with good reason. The novel was an historical police procedural set in Dallas during the Prohibition, and featured a wise Marine veteran turned cop named Pappy and his new partner Joe. Pappy? What was I thinking? I do recall that I was really enamored with that name for my character at the time. The plot was so memorable that I've nearly forgotten it, but I do remember that it involved a rum-runner, his cheating wife, and a wicked father-in-law who had sex with the maid. I've no idea how I got from Pappy to India.

Do you have any writing rituals or routines?

I try to do 2,000 words per day, and I usually write in the afternoon, from about 1:00 to 5:00. I'd prefer to write in the morning, but I start each day at the gym, and then 3 days out of the week I'm either busy running errands and having lunch with Mom or taking the dog for a run in the woods. I sit in a recliner I bought for my study and work on my laptop. I always have a bottle of water nearby, and at 3:30, without fail, I have a protein bar. Gosh, you're thinking. Could her life be any more exciting?

Was India Black and the Widow of Windsor the original title of your book?

Yes. When I started writing this series, I was very taken with the idea of naming each book "India Black and the _______." In retrospect, I should probably have just gone with shorter titles.

As you were writing India Black and the Widow of Windsor, was there a particular scene or character that surprised you?

I work from a detailed outline and so I have formed a mental image of each scene in the book before I start writing. There weren't any surprises in the "Widow of Windsor," but that's due in part to several of the characters (Queen Victoria, John Brown, Benjamin Disraeli) being historical figures with well-documented eccentricities that required very little creative input from me. I'm at work on the third India at the moment, however, and there's a character in this ms who just will not behave as I expect him to. I've finally capitulated and allowed him to be the character he wants to be, which required some changes elsewhere in the novel.

Is there anything that you do/read/listen to/etc. that particularly reminds you of India and puts you in her head?

I can conjure up India very easily. Her voice comes to me quite naturally. I actually have a harder time keeping a lid on her. I often find myself editing some of her remarks for fear they'd make her sound downright mean. A little snarkiness goes a long way, and I do want her to expose a vulnerability occasionally.

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

Read, read, and read some more. That's always first on the list. I'm working on my family history. I've become a dedicated gym rat in the last year. I like to golf. I watch a lot of sports. I love music (classical, and classic jazz from the 30's to the 60's). In fact, I have too many hobbies.

Read any good books recently?

I've discoverd Nicolas Kilmer's art mysteries. His protagonist, Fred Taylor, is terrific. I read a lot of vintage mysteries, and usually have one of those on the go. Right now it's The Plague Court Murders by John Dickson Carr, master of the locked room mystery.

Thanks for inviting me to your blog, Audra, and sharing something of India with your readers.

*** *** ***

My thanks to Carol for her time and thoughtful answers. To learn more about her and her books, check out her website and Facebook.

I'm thrilled to be able to offer a copy of India Black and the Widow of Windsor to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this simple form. Open to US/CA readers, closes 10/21.

Monday, October 10, 2011

In My Mailbox Monday, October 10

Seen both at Mailbox Monday (hosted in October at the fabulous Savvy Verse & Wit) and The Story Siren, my Mailbox Monday/In My Mailbox (on a Monday for once!). Read any of these?  What did you get?

For Review

To Join the Lost by Seth Steinzor


Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter by Seth Grahame-Smith, thanks to Lions and Men
Viscount Breckenridge to the Rescue by Stephanie Laurens, thanks to Klout


These all came from my trip out west (to western Massachusetts and Vermont, that is) from a funky roadside harvest festival tent sale thing. The old books are all very musty smelling and the newest is from 1947. The oldest is the Jane Eyre, from 1887!

The Legacy by Nevil Shute
The Five Hundred Best English Letters by Birkenhead
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
Brideshead Revisisted by Evelyn Waugh
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Shirley Jackson Road Trip, the report

[March 2013: Please don't request directions or addresses for these locations -- the throwaway offer I made in the comments has lead to a barrage of requests.  The residences are actively occupied by families who may not realize the significance of where they live and we could have been wrong. Readers can puzzle together locations via the books we referenced, which is how we made our educated guesses. --Audra]

Last weekend, my wife surprised me with a mini-vacation to N. Bennington, VT, home of author/goddess Shirley Jackson. While I like Jackson's fiction, my wife loves her. Loves. So it was with much giddiness we made the trip, armed with a biography and Jackson's autobiographical works, hoping we might be able to glean something of where Jackson lived and worked.

The trip turned out even more amazing than we anticipated!  Despite the rain, we enjoyed the gorgeous three plus hour drive to Vermont: fog, mountains, trees turning to gold and red, lots of adorable, decaying New England towns.  The ambiance was perfect.

Grecian-pillared rental
North Bennington seems unchanged from the '50s when Shirley Jackson lived there: we were able to find both houses she wrote about as their facades were literally unchanged from sixty years ago.  (Which was good as North Bennington had zero signs indicating Jackson lived and worked there.  Perhaps they still hate how she saw them.)

The first house was the rental featured in Life Among the Savages, notorious for the over-the-top columns that literally towered over the rest of the neighborhood.

Photographic evidence
...and Doctor Ogilvie modeled his house after, presumably, a minor Greek temple; he set up the four massive white pillars across the front, threw wings out to both sides and then, with true New England economy, left the house only one room deep behind its impressive face. (p11, Life Among the Savages)

But this picture from Jackson biography, of Jackson's father-in-law with one of her sons, and a street name, confirmed it for us.

Lean-y gatepost house
We had lunch at Powers Market, where Jackson did all her shopping; the Bennington College students who now buy their sandwiches and microbrews there only stared a little bit as we took pictures.  After that, we went in search of Jackson's next house, a purchase documented in Raising Demons.  Armed this time only with a street name and some geographical references (near the bank and school), we drove around trying to look as unsuspicious as possible until we hit upon what we think is The House.

...I drove on up Main Street.  The house with the gateposts was unmistakeable, particularly since the left-hand gatepost leaned at a sharp angle inward toward the driveway.  I saw maple trees, and a wide lawn, and a barn almost as big as the house. (p10, Raising Demons)

Jennings Hall, Bennington College
After that, we headed for the Bennington College campus to find Jennings Hall, the building that was the inspiration for Hill House in her novella The Haunting of Hill House. The campus is stupidly gorgeous and deliciously foggy and we were enjoying the scenery when BAM!  We turned a corner and caught sight of a building so creepy and gorgeous, it had to be Jennings Hall.  And we were right.

Creepy drippy ceiling!
Like crazy people -- or diehard fans -- we circled the front and took a ton of pictures, then went inside.  We didn't have a copy of The Haunting of Hill House with us, sadly, so I can't offer any passages, but the decor of the inside felt right from the story: the lion motif, the dripping ceilings, the ornate woodwork.

Lion fireplace!
Outside, the building faced thick woods and weirdly, awesomely enough, a path that led to a forested, walled off alcove plunked randomly in the thick of trees.  There were stone pillars and random statuary scattered, and with the fog and the grey sky, I felt exactly like I was in one of Jackson's stories.  It was brilliant.  After taking nearly one hundred pictures, we finally collapsed back at the car, hyper as chipmunks, babbling about our discoveries. 

Wife racing down path to nowhere
We babbled all the way home and we're still babbling about to anyone who will listen (sorry friends!).  I can't exactly say that North Bennington is a worthwhile trip -- it's kind of a depressing little hamlet -- but as Shirley Jackson fans, this was a meaningful pilgrimage that brought her stories vibrantly to life all over again. 
Awesome but random wall in forest

Saturday, October 8, 2011


I missed posting last week's winner because I was too excited about that road trip so I wised up this time and got today's post ready well in advance!  So, winners all around!

The winner of Does a Bear Sh*t in the Woods? is ... Darlene!

The winner of Me Again is ... Margaret!

Congrats to the winners (who have been emailed).  Please check out my other giveaways if you didn't win. 

Also, I now have a giveaway for Waiting for Robert Capa! To enter, fill out the form -- and if you want to see what I thought of it, check out my review.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Friday Reads, and I'm in love...

I'm still working on my blog post about our Shirley Jackson pilgrimage (needless to say, I've got a metric ton of photos I'm matching up to passages from Jackson's writing, because I'm a nerd like that), and this morning my lovely wife sprang on me another road trip!!

Tuesday is our third wedding anniversary, and we always spend at least a day in Salem, which is what we did the day before our wedding. This time, however, my wife recalled my swooning over The American Heiress and so surprised me this morning by announcing we're starting our trip in Newport, RI with tours of the five mansions there! Then we're going to Providence for WaterFire, in which bonfires are lit on the rivers that wind through Providence. There's performance art, music, and other awesomeness. I can't wait! Then we're driving along to coast to Salem to visit our usual haunts, have lunch, and enjoy the ocean before heading home. Best anniversary road trip ever!  (Love you, sweetheart!)

My FridayReads (and weekend read) is Lionheart by Sharon Kay Penman (although I'm tempted to bring along The American Heiress for kicks!).  What are you reading this Friday, and for those of you in the States (with Monday off), any plans for the long weekend?