Friday, November 30, 2012

Friday Reads and counting down...

My week has been one of squee-rific jubilation. I've been asked to be a panelist for a workshop at the Historical Novel Society's 2013 Conference in St. Petersburg, FL! After checking with my wife and my bosses, we've decided and I can swing it and attend! I'll be participating in a discussion of outside-the-mainstream historical fiction with Julie K. Rose, Heather Domin, and Andrea Connell. I'm dying of joy.

My weekend reads are a bit of a jumble -- I'm all over the place due to being behind on some reviews, so I'm actually not sure what I'll be reading.  Which is a bit distressing.  What are you reading this weekend?

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Voodoo in My Blood by Carolle Jean-Murat

Title: Voodoo in My Blood: A Healer's Journey From Surgeon to Shaman
Author: Carolle Jean-Murat, MD

Genre: Non-Fiction (Memoir / Haiti / 1950s / 1960s / 1970s / 1980s / Sexual Assault / PTSD / Medicine / Healing / Voodoo / Spiritual Beliefs / Coming-of-Age / Cultural Clash)
Publisher/Publication Date: Bettie Youngs Books (2012)
Source: Pump Up Your Book Virtual Book Tours

Rating: Liked a great deal.
Did I finish?: I did!
One-sentence summary: The memoir of a Haitian woman who grows up during Haiti's repressive Duvalier regime, becomes a successful gynecological surgeon, and finds her vocation as a healer by embracing her family's Voodoo heritage and her contemporary medical training.
Reading Challenges: Dewey Decimal, Immigrant Stories

Do I like the cover?: It's fine -- very reminiscent of self-help-y style books.

I'm reminded of...: Saima Wahab

First line: To most people, the word "Voodoo" conjures up images of black magic rituals, dolls bristling with pins, sacrificed chickens (or people), and zombies rising from the grave.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy for those who love memoirs, spiritual discussions, cultural studies, and armchair escape.

Why did I get this book?: The title is delightfully provocative. I'm interested in non-Western medical practices and alternative healing methods and was immediately drawn to this book.

Review: This was a fascinating, unexpected memoir. From the subtitle -- A Healer's Journey From Surgeon to Shaman -- I anticipated a kind of anthropological study of Haitian spirituality including Voodoo, and Dr. Jean-Murat's decision to embrace her family's faith practices. This memoir has all that, and more: it is a look at a woman and a country in turmoil and transition.

Born in Haiti in the 1950s, Jean-Murat lived through some of her country's most violent times: the dictator "Papa Doc" Duvalier, followed by his son "Baby Doc". Jean-Murat's family was divided between the educated elite of Haiti -- her father's side of the family -- and the practitioners of the then-illegal Voodoo tradition -- her mother's side of the family. Growing up, Jean-Murat was embarrassed by her maternal relatives, as much as she loved them, and she gave up numerous opportunities out of fear of having to reveal her Voodoo connections. However, repeated experiences with Voodoo ceremonies resonated with her and always called to her, and as she trained to be a doctor, she found herself turning more and more to her family's faith to help her in her work and personal life.

In her Foreword, Jena-Murat makes it clear that Voodoo is not some kind of black magic, and her book explains the rituals, beliefs, and spiritual grounding of the Voodoo tradition in Haiti. (In 2003, Voodoo was recognized as an official religion in Haiti, and her family's Voodoo temple became a national heritage site.) I so enjoyed this glimpse into a faith tradition that I know little about, and I loved reading Jean-Murat's journey to incorporate her faith into her medical practice (especially as her spiritual beliefs don't limit a woman's reproductive choices!).

At about 345ish pages, Jean-Murat covers a great deal skillfully, and while at times I thought the narrative could have used a leeeetle tightening, I was always engrossed and interested in what she had to say. Her writing is straight-forward and clear, a mix of her own emotional introspection and constructed dialogue that made the book read quickly. It's obvious Jean-Murat loves Haiti and her family, and she invites the reader to find love in this place and her people as well -- as maddening as her family may be at times! -- and I enjoyed this look at a world unfamiliar to me.

Jean-Murat's medical focus -- and vocation -- is healing those who've experienced sexual assault, and a great deal of this book discusses openly that trauma. Those who are easily triggered should be warned, but as with everything in her story, Jean-Murat handles those moments carefully and honestly. It was painful to read, but I appreciated their inclusion, and her honest discussion of this epidemic.

My only wish was for a glossary, as Jean-Murat peppers her narrative with Haitian KreyĆ²l phrases; while she defined them at the time, I often forgot later what they meant and had to guess from context. Otherwise, I have no gripes: this was an engrossing and fascinating read, an armchair escape and a spiritual education.

Monday, November 26, 2012

The Prescribed Burn by Laryssa Wirstiuk

Title: The Prescribed Burn
Author: Laryssa Wirstiuk

Genre: Fiction (Contemporary / Vignettes / Coming-of-Age / New Jersey / Ukrainian Heritage / Art / Young Woman / Romantic Relationships)
Publisher/Publication Date: Painted Egg Press (9/15/2012)
Source: The author

Rating: Liked to love!
Did I finish?: I did, I savored this book!
One-sentence summary: Fifteen stories about a young woman, an aspiring artist, who struggles to find her place in the world.

Do I like the cover?: I do, it is reminiscent of a line from midway in the book, an inside joke between characters that we readers are a part of.

I'm reminded of...: Michael Alenyikov, Valerie Laken, Lorrie Moore

First line: I was worried my heart would crack and reveal me, the way Baba's treasured pysanka had done., from 'Smuggling a Boy into Baba's'.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy if you like coming-of-age-ish fiction, smart stories about young women finding their footing, and place as character.

Why did I get this book?: When I read in the marketing material that this collection was "Stories for Anyone Who Couldn’t Relate to Holden Caulfield" -- that's me to a 'T'!

Review: As soon as I saw this promoted as 'stories for anyone who couldn't relate to Holden Caulfield', I was sold -- The Catcher in the Rye is a very strong least favorite of mine. I love coming-of-age stories and Wirstiuk's collection of vignettes immediately grabbed me as I just was smitten with our unlikely heroine.

Veda, from a Ukrainian family in New Jersey, is an aspiring artist. She's self-absorbed, sad, moody, friendly, uneasy, lovely. Veda is the kind of friend I would have liked to have in college, as new to sophisticated life as I was, plunging headlong into what we perceived, for good and for bad, as proper grown up life. She fumbles through relationships with men -- 'Not Homecoming', the story on her attempt to lose her virginity, was hilarious and heartbreaking, and all too awkwardly familiar -- and works to be satisfied with her looks while being deeply insecure about them. 

Wirstiuk tells the story through Veda's eyes, and the narrative is a mix of selfish ruminations and poetic moments (like ...the skyline showed some of itself between buildings like a woman performing a striptease (p76)); I laughed and cringed in equal part.  You can download a sample story for Wirstiuk's website to get a taste of her writing style.  She -- and her Veda -- were the anchor to this collection and the reason for reading, and I loved how flawed and real Veda was. 

The book itself is as much a treat as the stories; the collection opens with a series of captioned photographs, one for each short story, as if Veda were presenting this as an art project of her own.  There are discussion questions, creative writing exercises, and Veda's Guide to a Creative Life, treats that extended my time with this book and Veda. Wirstiuk ran a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to print this volume, and donors were able to fund a final short story by providing a word or phrase.  I was dubious, but Wirstiuk made it work.

A fabulously engrossing debut, and worth splurging on -- e-book or otherwise -- as Veda stuck with me, and I'm missing her like I do a far-away friend.

*** *** ***


I'm thrilled to offer a copy of The Prescribed Burn to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this form. Open to US/Canadian readers, ends 12/14.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Mailbox Monday, Nov 26

Happy Mailbox Monday!  After last week's insane haul, this week's arrivals were far more moderate -- but equally awesome! What did you get this week? 

For Review

Book title: The Wanderers by Edward Belfar

Book cover: The Real Jane Austen by Paula Byrne Book cover: The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards by Kristopher Jansma

Book cover: The Boy in the Snow by M.j. McGrath Book cover: Little Women in India by Jane Nardin

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Historical Holiday Blog Hop

One of my all-time favorite bloggers, Amy of Passages to the Past, is having a Historical Holiday Blog Hop! Running from December 10 through 17, it will feature giveaways by bloggers and authors. I'm signing up -- I'll be offering at least one US and international giveaway -- and I've heard rumors of other awesome bloggers and authors. Interested? Sign up here!


This week's giveaway winners!

The winner of Princess Elizabeth's Spy is ... Jessica D.!

The winner of Because You Have To is ... Baxter!

The winner of Judith is ... Krystyn!

Congrats to the winners! I've emailed folks who have about three days to respond; if I don't hear from people, I'll redraw names. Be sure to check out my open giveaways if you didn't win -- I've got plenty more coming!

Friday, November 23, 2012

Interview with Timothy O'Brien

Just before Thanksgiving, I reviewed Timothy O'Brien's historical thriller, The Lincoln Conspiracy, a novel which satisfies mood, ambiance, and plot junkies. I'm thrilled to share my interview with the author; read on to learn more about him and his writing, and be sure to enter the giveaway!

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

The Lincoln Conspiracy is about a detective and his wife who inadvertently stumble upon a pair of diaries (at a murder scene in the old B&O Railroad Station in Washington, D.C.) that offer a set of clues about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. When they set out to unravel those clues, they become of the targets of a handful of powerful and ruthless players who want the diaries for themselves. The novel is set in post-Civil War Washington and it offers a rich, embroidered sense of the city at the time and of the various schemers and survivors who made Washington a real cauldron of change and of danger.

Do you have any writing rituals or routines?

I usually work late at night, between 11 p.m. and 2 or 3 a.m., because that’s the most private time I can find in my workday. I sometimes also like to work early in the morning on weekends. By and large, I try to get somewhere quiet where I can detach from other things and immerse my imagination in the work.

Was The Lincoln Conspiracy the original title of your book?

The original title was The Lincoln Diaries but my co-conspirators at Random House were concerned that that title was too generic and didn’t convey enough of the mystery and menace that’s woven throughout the story. So we changed the title.

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

I feel very close to a number of the characters in the book. Temple McFadden, obviously, who is the main character and the detective who sets much of the action in motion. He’s a troubled, wildly capable man and I spent a lot of time with him. His wife, Fiona, is a trained doctor (and women were trained as doctors in the 1860’s!) but, because of the norms of the time, she can only work as a nurse. She is a crucial anchor for Temple and also brings her own smarts and insights to bear on the truth behind the Lincoln assassination.

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

I like to transport my mind and my imagination to a different place. I really like to envision being there. My imagination is like my own, personalized time machine and I enjoy being transported. Ultimately, if I can’t take the reader along on the same journey, then I’ve failed as a writer. I also like to have some fruit around to nibble on when I’m writing. And chocolate. How could anything get done without chocolate?

Read any good books recently?

There are so many great books out there! I enjoyed Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, and I’m currently reading Live by Night by Dennis Lehane. Dennis is a huge talent. I loved Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel and Mission to Paris by Alan Furst.

*** *** ***


I'm thrilled to offer one copy of The Lincoln Conspiracy to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US readers only, ends 12/7.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Lincoln Conspiracy by Timothy O'Brien

Title: The Lincoln Conspiracy
Author: Timothy O'Brien

Genre: Fiction (Historical / 1860s / Antebellum US / Washington D.C. / Abraham Lincoln / Assassination / Political Conspiracy / Historical Figures Fictionalized)
Publisher/Publication Date: Ballantine Books (9/18/2012)
Source: Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

Rating: Liked.
Did I finish?: I did.
One-sentence summary: Following the assassination of President Lincoln, two diaries reveal clues to the extent of the conspiracy, and DC Detective Temple McFadden accidentally stumbles into the middle of it.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction, Immigrant Stories

Do I like the cover?: Eh, I'm not wild about it, but I presume it hits the right notes for the reader they're after -- guys and people who are into Lincoln.

I'm reminded of...: Matthew Pearl

First line: Rain kept the dust down.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow if you're a fan of conspiracy stories.

Why did I get this book?: Lincoln seems to be hot these days!

Review: Between Lincoln the movie and last year's (or was it 2010's?) Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, and my complete lack of professional know-how on publishing and media trends, I'm predicting Lincoln-mania for the next year.

Set in 1865, the novel opens quite dramatically: DC police detective Temple McFadden witnesses a murder at the B&O railroad station and rescues two diaries. Before he has a chance to investigate what the materials contain, he's shot at and pursued and finds himself wanted by numerous groups. Quickly he and his merry band -- his doctor wife Fiona and his bestie, freed slave Augustus -- have to dodge Pinkertons (the agents and Mr Pinkerton himself) as well as conspirators and cover-up-ers as they untangle the dramatic conspiracy they've landed in. At the center of the mystery is Lincoln's assassination and the far-reaching implications of it.

From the start, I was immediately taken with Temple McFadden and his wife Fiona -- although more with his wife -- as I found them vibrant and real. Temple is an Irish immigrant, an orphan adopted as a child and brought to the US, who has his own demons, scars, and strengths, and while he comes off at times as a bit of a uber-hero, he also felt wonderfully human in his foibles. Fiona, with her medical training, should be a doctor on her own but is treated instead as simply a nurse and assistant -- which she bristles at. I feared she'd turn into an anachronistically feminist heroine but she remained anchored in late 19th century reform and post-war societal shifts. I liked her and her marriage to Temple; they held the story together for me and made me care.

This book evoked a wonderful sense of place -- I felt like I saw mid-19th century D.C. vibrantly, and that might be my favorite aspect of the novel. Antebellum DC is not a place/era I'm familiar with, and I really loved the dirty, grimy, rural and urban center O'Brien evoked. It's obvious O'Brien has done an immense amount of research into the time, which can be felt in the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink narrative that was, now and then, a little too detailed.

I'm not super familiar with this era, so I can't say how accurate O'Brien's history or conclusions are, but one blogger felt this was a bit revisionist/alterna-historical at times, so sticklers might not be so wild about this.

If I'm right about a new era of Lincoln-themed fiction, this novel is a good start to the trend: meaty, imaginative, loaded with detail and ambiance.

*** *** ***


I'm thrilled to offer one copy of The Lincoln Conspiracy to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US readers only, ends 12/7.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Married Love by Tessa Hadley

Title: Married Love: And Other Stories
Author: Tessa Hadley

Genre: Fiction (Short Stories / British / Contemporary / 1970s / 1920s / Relationships / Family / Marriage / Romantic Love / Class Differences)
Publisher/Publication Date: Harper Perennial (11/20/2012)
Source: TLC Book Tours

Rating: Liked to love.
Did I finish?: I inhaled them.
One-sentence summary: Twelve sharp, sad, moody stories of relationships -- good ones, bad ones, broken ones, successful ones -- set between the now and the early 1900s.

Do I like the cover?: I'm on the fence about it -- it's pretty, but I don't know if it captures the mood of the stories, which are sadder. Rainier.

I'm reminded of...: Jane Bowles, Daphne Du Maurier, Valerie Laken

First line: 'The winter after her brother killed himself, Ally got a job at a writers' centre near her parents' house, helping out with the admin in the office.', from 'She's the One'.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy, especially if you like short stories, very British-y fiction, moody gems that can be inhaled in a half hour.

Why did I get this book?: I'd heard a lot of buzz about Hadley's previous novel, The London Train, and was curious!

Review: I have to confess, when I saw the blurb from the San Francisco Chronicle on the cover -- "An acknowledged master of limning the Chekhovian mysteries of experience." -- I kind of panicked. I know Chekhov is great, but isn't The Seagull super obscure and boring? I'm pretty sure I know what 'limning' might mean, but needless to say, I was a bit daunted to start.

I needn't have worried! While these stories are quiet in a way, they aren't boring or obscure. They're moody and sad, poignant and romantic, bittersweet and heartbreaking, frustrating and expansive. Hadley's writing is pretty at times -- ("The wind is tearing scraps of cloud in a fitfully gleaming sky, and combing through the twigs of the hornbeam trees (the trees are another difference between this street and his), setting them springing and dancing like whips.", from 'The Trojan Prince') -- and sharp at other times, like 'In the Cave', six pages that articulated perfectly the disappointment of not being in love.

Some of the stories are historical -- set in the '20s or the '70s -- while others are ambigu-contemporary.  All are about relationships in some way, and usually about the way those relationships fail one or both people. The New Yorker has the entirety of 'Married Love', the titular first story of this volume, online; you can get a sense of Hadley's writing style and subject through this story, which I found captivating and maddening. My favorite story might have been 'The Trojan Prince', about a young man in 1920 who decides to befriend his wealthier second cousin for a nebulous, un-articulated reason and instead finds he's less enamored of her than he expected.

I inhaled this volume over the past weekend -- there are twelve gems in this book -- and it was perfect for kicking me out of my reading funk.  These sad snapshots of love and life were a kind of escape -- I was grateful for my own happier relationships and caught up in the whirlwind of the ones contained in the book -- and I'm still thinking about these stories with a mix of sadness and longing.

*** *** ***


I'm thrilled to offer a copy of Married Love to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US/Canadian readers, ends 12/7.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Mailbox Monday, Nov 19

How is it almost Thanksgiving?  I swear, just yesterday it was the middle of August.  This year is going by too fast!  The agony of time passing was lessened, however, by the insanely wonderful glut of arrivals -- many I'm going to try to squeeze into 2012, which means it'll be weeks before I can come up with my top ten.  Eeek!  This week's Mailbox Monday is being hosted at Bermudaonion -- what did you get this week?

For Review

Book cover: The Raven's Heart by Jesse Blackadder Book cover: The Beggar's Opera by Peggy Blair

Book cover: Brain on Fire by Susannah Cahalan

Book cover: Flappers, Flasks, and Foul Play by Ellen Mansoor Collier Book cover: The Ruining by Anna Collomore

Book cover: Voodoo in my Blood by Carolle Jean Murat

Book cover: An Extraordinary Theory of Objects by Stephanie Lacava

Book cover: The Sign of the Weeping Virgin by Alana White


Book cover: Pemberley Ranch by Jack Caldwell Book cover: The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe

Book cover: The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa Book cover: Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie

Many, many thanks to Marie at Burton Book Review for kindly swapping the above books!

Book cover: The First Four Notes by Matthew Guerrieri

So excited my friend Matthew's book has been released! He kindly gifted my wife and I with a copy and included a playlist!

Saturday, November 17, 2012


Just one winner this week!

The winner of Lucky Bunny is ... Karen K.!

Congrats! If you didn't win, be sure to check out my open giveaways -- and as always, more are coming this week!

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver

Title: Flight Behavior
Author: Barbara Kingsolver

Genre: Fiction (Contemporary / Appalachia / Tennessee / 20something / Marriage / Natural Phenomena / Families / Lepidoptera)
Publisher/Publication Date: Harper (11/6/2012)
Source: TLC Book Tours

Rating: Liked.
Did I finish?: I did.
One-sentence summary: In rural Tennessee, a young mother finds herself at the center of a heartbreaking and miraculous migration of butterflies.

Do I like the cover?: It's grown on me -- I was sort of 'eh' about it before reading but now I rather like it. The leaf/feather/wing motif is echoed in the chapter headers as well.

I'm reminded of...: Sena Jeter Naslund, Ann Patchett

First line: A certain feeling comes from throwing your good life away, and it is one part rapture.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy.

Why did I get this book?: I cave to popular sentiment: I couldn't pass up a new Kingsolver.

Review: Like Stephen King, my experience with Kingsolver has been one hit with many DNF'd misses. This book might break that streak, however. It reminded me of what I so enjoyed in The Poisonwood Bible: a sharp look at family, loyalty and betrayal, a nebulous swirl of science and magic. The vibe of this felt like Ann Patchett's State of Wonder with Sena Jeter Naslund's Adam and Eve and a bit of Lauren Groffs The Monsters of Templeton -- all books with really lovely language, maddening and fascinating plots, heroines that kind of annoyed me, and realities that touched lightly on the fantastical.

Dellarobia Turnbow, redheaded, size zero (and dinky tiny as we're constantly told), is 27, the mother of two children, married to a cowed mama's boy nicknamed Cub, living in rural Tennessee. The novel opens with Dellarobia on her way to meet a much younger man for a fling at a small hunting shack out on her husband's family's property. Vain, she takes off without her glasses and stumbles upon a staggering sight: the entire mountaintop coated in what seems to be living fire. It turns out to be about 15 million monarch butterflies, driven out of their usual migratory pattern due to ecological changes.

Dellarobia's discovery of them is seen by her husband -- unaware of her earlier trek up the mountain-- as a kind of religious vision while her in-laws see it as a money making venture (or obstacle to their making money). For Dellarobia, it is a visceral sign of all that is wrong with her and her life.  She's confused, electrified, inspired, and devastated by the arrival of the butterflies, but what comes with them helps her eventually make sense of who she wants to be. 

This book preoccupied me: when not reading, I chewed over Dellarobia and her life, dying of curiosity, needing to know what happened next. When reading, I was mostly caught up in the story, although Dellarobia occasionally felt too self-conscious about her poverty and lack of education.  The themes of conservation, education, and religion also felt a bit heavy-handed at times but I appreciate Kingsolver's interest in taking them on in her fiction.

The writing, of course, was wonderful.  Kingsolver can turn a phrase like nobody's business, the kind of sentences that make me giddy at being able to read. Like, Dellarobia had managed to corral her fleecy hair into two wild blond poofs, with a center part so crooked it could get you a DUI... My copy is full of underlined sentences, like a textbook.

I think Kingsolver fans will like this (maybe even love it) and those new to her will get a treat -- although I'd still advise folks to start with The Poisonwood Bible, many other folks are saying this is her best.

*** *** ***


I'm thrilled to offer a copy of Flight Behavior to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US/Canadian readers, ends 11/30.