Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Secrets of Mary Bowser by Lois Leveen

Title: The Secrets of Mary Bowser
Author: Lois Leveen

Genre: Fiction (Historical / 1860s / Virginia / Slavery / Civil War / Spying / Underground Railroad / Quakers / Jefferson Davis)
Publisher/Publication Date: William Morrow Paperbacks (5/15/2012)
Source: TLC Book Tours

Rating: Liked a great deal.
Did I finish?: Oh yes -- couldn't stop!
One-sentence summary: The story of a Richmond woman, who goes from slave to free woman to spy, in this real life tale of Civil War espionage.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction

Do I like the cover?: I do -- again, I love a hist fic that doesn't feature the beheaded costumed woman, although I do sort of hate the giant quote on the right side.

I'm reminded of...: Margaret George

First line: Mama was always so busy.

Did... I become a walking 1860s-ish trivia machine?: YES. Honestly, anyone who made eye contact with me got a buttload of awesomeness gleaned from this novel -- so much fascinating stuff in this book!

Did... I love the 22 pages of extras in this edition?: YES. Annotated historical notes, a brief discussion guide with questions, a Q&A with the author that has photos of the people and places mentioned (pure gold!), as well as sample recipes from an 1830s cookbook. Awesome stuff.

Have... I been captivated by Leveen's contributions to The New York Times' series on the Civil War?: YES. The whole series, called 'Disunion', is amazing.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy, especially if you like great historical fiction -- this is up there with the best!

Why did I get this book?: The usual: the cover, the premise, that it was hist fic...what can I say, I'm easy?

Review: At 450 pages, this is a satisfying brick of a novel. Rich with ambiance, filled with artfully articulated characters, and centered squarely in an era and locale that is vibrant, shocking, captivating, and real, The Secrets of Mary Bowser represents what I love about a good historical novel.

Based in fact, this is the story of a woman's transition from slave to free woman, an already momentous experience that would fill a book alone; Mary Bowser, however, answers a calling greater than herself and works with the Underground Railroad before returning to the south as a slave to spy for the Union.  Placed in Jefferson Davis' household, Mary uses her intelligence and courage to send information to the Unionists, and she's a witness to some of the most traumatic events in U.S. history.

Leveen hits all the elements right in this one: she doesn't stint on details when it comes to people, places, food, and clothing, but the text doesn't read like an academic tome. Very little is known about Mary and her life, so Leveen has creative license to imagine how a freed slave ended up spying for the Union. What she presents felt authentic to me, exciting without being over-the-top, and very satisfying -- the kind of fiction that had my jaw on the floor (did that really happen?) and me gulping down pages eagerly. I particularly loved the end of this book; it has a neat, happy conclusion that fits the story, and is a sort of sly wink to the fact that Mary Bowser's story is so little known.

There are 22 pages of extras as well: annotated historical notes, a brief discussion guide with questions, a Q&A with the author that has photos of the people and places mentioned (perhaps my favorite part), as well as sample recipes from an 1830s cookbook. Definitely a great book club pick, this is also a lovely summertime chunkster.

*** *** ***


I'm thrilled to offer a copy of The Secrets of Mary Bowser to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US/CA readers, ends 6/15.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Dead Beautiful by Melanie Dugan

Title: Dead Beautiful
Author: Melanie Dugan

Genre: (Fiction / Greek Mythology / Persephone / Hades / Mother-Daughter Relationships / Romantic Relationships)
Publisher/Publication Date: Upstart Press (2012)
Source: TLC Book Tours

Rating: Okay to liked.
Did I finish?: I did, in about two hours!
One-sentence summary: A multi-voiced look at the relationship between Hades and Persephone.

Do I like the cover?: I don't mind it although given all the emphasis on flowers as the way Hades and Persephone communicate, I'm surprised there isn't a floral element to the cover.

First line: I knew he'd be the death of me.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: I'm not sure -- borrow, I think, if you enjoy mythological-inspired fiction.

Why did I get this book?: I love mythology and retellings inspired by mythology.

Review: This book elicited some pretty strong feelings in me (I can't help it; I'm an all or nothing girl.) At moments, I really enjoyed this book; at moments, I kind of wanted to lob it against the wall. I think my biggest challenge with this book is that I just couldn't tell what it was: a YA novel? A YA spoof? A feminist retelling of a Greek myth? A contemporary re-envisioning of a Greek myth? Not being sure of what the novel was aiming for made it tough for me to evaluate how well Dugan achieved her goal.

Told in various voices, the story articulates the relationship between Hades and Persephone. Everyone has a chance to share their side of the story, and Dugan's angle is to embrace the modern era. Zeus is obsessed with market shares; Hades is balancing his budget so he can improve the underworld. Persephone is a smothered teenager with an overprotective mother who does her best to shield Persephone from Hera's attentions (lest Zeus' wife get into a jealous rage or something like that.).

The novel has a bit of a spoof feel to it, someone exaggerating what teenagers in YA novels sound like. At times, it's a bit funny; at times, a little tiresome. As with so much about this book, I couldn't tell if Dugan was being wryly ironic or just didn't notice what she was doing. More than halfway through the book, Persephone gripes about how all her friends talk about just boys, and clothes and music, and yet, all Persephone has groused about was Hades, other boys, the rest of the Gods, her mother. She was hardly the nuanced conversationalist but she judged her friends for being like her. I couldn't tell if Dugan was being sly here, making a nudge about someone who can't see past her own wangst, or was Dugan so enamored of her character that she didn't notice her creation's flaws?

I'm not a mythologist or ethnographer, so I haven't spent huge amounts of time pondering the philosophical, social, and emotional implications of myths like the Persephone, but I do know there's a great deal of debate about the rape/kidnapping of Persephone. Some feminists have tried to reclaim the tale as one of deliberate choice on the part of Persephone, and I don't mind that. However, Dugan's Persephone was emphatically teenaged and I really just couldn't shake the squick of this teenager (however millenia she's lived, her behavior has made it clear she's not making choices like an adult) with the ambigu-adult Hades. (Who was rather a dreamboat, and he needed an adult woman, not a teen, no matter what Dugan tried to say.)

Reclaiming the Greek pantheon for romantic purposes is hardly new, but Dugan's unique spin was the delightfully meta feel to her story: characters responded to each other in their respective chapters -- when Hades observes something about Zeus, Zeus snaps a comeback -- and popular culture icons like David Beckham as well as other religious icons, like Jesus, are glibly mentioned. Like this riff between Hera and Zeus:
"That's sweet," says Hera in a voice that indicates it's not sweet. "What he's really advocating is the overthrow of the status quo: the first shall be the last and the last shall be the first, or some such, and he's not talking about standing in line for Aristophanes' latest."

"Yeah, well, the system isn't perfect. It needs some adjusting."

"We are the system, you big dolt."
So, I'm torn: what worked really worked for me, and what didn't work, really didn't work for me. To each their own; there are tons of positive reviews about this one so don't take just my word for it!

Monday, May 28, 2012

Lonesome Animals by Bruce Holbert

Title: Lonesome Animals
Author: Bruce Holbert

Genre: Fiction (Historical / 1930s / Pacific Northwest / Rural West / Americana / Crime / Murder Mystery)
Publisher/Publication Date: Counterpoint (4/17/2012)
Source: Author's publicist.

Rating: Liked a great deal.
Did I finish?: I did!
One-sentence summary: A retired lawman with a violent past faces a gruesome crime in 1930s Washington.
Reading Challenges: A-to-Z, Historical Fiction

Do I like the cover?: I love the cover: it's gauzy, dusty, cloaked with mystery, evocative and yet, silent.

I'm reminded of...: Keith Donohue

First line: There was, even in Russell Strawl's time, the myth of the strong silent man of the West.

Did... my wife take this book from me while I was reading it because she was so intrigued?: YES. We split reading it -- her during the day, me in the evening -- because we were both so eager!

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

Why did I get this book?: I'm kind of hot for westerns right now!

Review: This is a book that I accepted for review without fully understanding what it was about, and I'm glad I did; I think if I had read the blurb I might have passed. Set in Washington in the 1930s, the story follows Russell Strawl, a frontier lawman with a violent past, who is called out of retirement to investigate the savage murders of Native Americans in the area.

In the vein of No Country for Old Men, True Grit, and The Sisters Brothers, this is a violent, gritty, unapologetic and unromantic look at life in the American west, straddling legal and criminal, violence and peace, romance and lust. There's a heavily noir element in the feel to the characters -- no one is good, and everyone is bad -- and even our hero is a questionable figure. This is a book that made me deeply uncomfortable in the best ways. The story is a bit of a straight up serial killer murder mystery combined with a literary painting of the west coast of the US in the 1930s. As with Ann Weisgarber's The Personal History of Rachel DuPree, I was surprised to see how rural life was for folks out west -- and that juxtaposition of 'modern' and 'historic' provided wonderful flavor.

I think I hit Chapter Two when I started gushing about this book to my wife, who really loves dark stuff; she was so intrigued she took the book from me to read, and we ended up having to split it, neither of us wanting to wait to read more. She took it during the day and I read at night, and it was a great experience because we chatted about this book nonstop. I loved Holbert's writing style; the text was literally a character, rich with allusions to Shakespeare and the Bible as Strawl meditated on his life, the romance of the west, the violence he's witnessed. My wife preferred Holbert's dialogue -- it raced, it conveyed character and story, and it had the pragmatic, solid heft one expects from these hard characters. The balance of literary-ness and grounded grimness was really well done -- it satisfied both myself and my wife (even if, at times, the violence was a bit much for me.)

Trying to label this read is challenging: it's literary, and noir, and a Western; it's pretty and gross at the same time. The characters are so unlikable and yet, absolutely compelling, and despite myself, I cared. Oh, I didn't want to -- I wanted to keep everyone at an arm's length -- but they got under my skin. If you're iffy on violence, you might be inclined to skip this one but if you'd ever consider giving a gruesome book a try, let it be Lonesome Animals. You will be grossed out but the tale spun is mesmerising. And finally, if you're on the West Coast (especially Washington), pick this up: the locale is so unlike what I envision the Pacific Northwest so I loved seeing Washington in this light. The landscape as offered by Holbert is captivating, and I confess, I'd love this to be a film because I can only imagine how staggering the cinematography would be.

*** *** ***


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

Saturday, May 26, 2012


I was at the beach for the holiday weekend -- without internet for the most part -- so I apologize for the delay in announcing the winners of this most recent round of giveaways!

The winner of I Am Forbidden is ... Jennifer of Lit Endeavors!

The winner of State of Wonder is ... Carolina!

The winner of The Year of the Gadfly is ... Andi!

The winner of An Uncommon Education is ... Jared Q.!

Congrats to the winners! If you didn't win, be sure to check out my open giveaways!

Friday, May 25, 2012

Perla by Carolina De Robertis

Title: Perla
Author: Carolina De Robertis

Genre: Fiction (South America / Argentina / University Student / Family Secrets / Dictatorship / Victims of Violence)
Publisher/Publication Date: Knopf (3/27/2012)
Source: TLC Book Tours

Rating: Liked a great deal.
Did I finish?: I did!
One-sentence summary: An Argentinian college student comes to terms with her military father's involvement in their country's violent past when the specter of one of the victims lives with her.

Do I like the cover?: I adore the cover. Isn't it stunning? One of my favs of 2012 -- so striking. Geraniums feature prominently in this story so their inclusion is fabu, and the half disguised face says everything about our eponymous heroine.

I'm reminded of...: Isabel Allende, Penelope Lively, Fay Weldon

First line: Some things are impossible for the mind to hold alone.

Did... I follow the story easily despite having next to no knowledge of 20th century Argentinian history?: YES. De Robertis provides enough context for the reader to understand what has and is happening and whether you're intimate or unfamiliar with Argentina's 'Dirty War'.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy, stat!

Why did I get this book?: I love Latin American fiction and I'm a sucker for coming-of-age stories.

Review: I wrote in one GoodReads status update that this book "has everything I love in it -- politics, dreamy narrative, violence wrought more prettily than love, complicated characters, deceptive simplicity..."

Set in 2001 in Buenos Aires, Argentina, the story follows Perla, a college student who discovers a water-logged specter in her living room. The man is one of the victims of Argentina's war against dissidents and critics, cruelly tortured before his horrible murder.

Perla, now in her early 20s, is coming to grips with the fact that her beloved father, a Naval officer, was likely involved with the dictatorship's decision to torture and kill thousands of people in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The heavy weight of this knowledge, the conflicting feelings she has for her father -- love, shame, adoration, horror -- and her desire to be loved fully for who she is shapes the arc of this story as Perla struggles to embrace fully the truth of who she is.

De Robertis' writing style is fantastic: not only is her narrative very poetic, a little dreamy, and a joy to read, she tells the story in a very give-and-take fashion. The discomfort, horror, and sadness would build until I'd think I couldn't read another page, then De Robertis would back off a little, shift the focus, change the narrative path just a hint, and I'd have some relief. She didn't soften or back pedal, she just gave me some time to be tense and some time to absorb, and that made me race through this book rather than take it slow and cautious. I was particularly taken with De Robertis' articulation of Perla's parents -- they were both familiar and distant, the way a child would view them as she grows into adulthood -- and I found Perla's response to them to be realistic and authentic.

I don't think one needs to be familiar with Argentinian history to appreciate this story; De Robertis offers enough context to understand Perla's turmoil. This is a story about having an adult relationship with one's parents; about acknowledging the secrets in a family that are both accepted and hidden; about restitution and revenge; and ultimately, forgiveness.

*** *** ***


I'm thrilled to offer a copy of Perla to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US/CA readers, ends 6/8. Be sure to check out my interview with Carolina De Robertis for another chance to enter!

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Interview with K. Hollan Van Zandt

Last week I read the so-epic-you-could-chew-it historical drama Written in the Ashes by K. Hollan Van Zandt. That meaty novel was a wonderful armchair escape to a very vivid Alexandria, and I'm thrilled to share my interview with the author. Read on to learn more about Van Zandt, her writing, and what she does when she's not working. There's also a chance to win her book!

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

Well, I wrote my first novel in the second grade; it was all of six pages and three chapters, but I recall it took me a week of work. It was a mystery wherein the main character, a young girl, went missing in the forest when she was chased by a witch. She turned up at the last page to discover the witch she had encountered was really her school teacher and that her class had thrown her a surprise birthday party. I watched a lot of the cartoon “Scooby Doo” in those days- I think this was some inspiration. Heck, I was only six.

Do you have any writing rituals or routines?

As far as I can tell, extensive writing rituals and routines – like writing at a certain time every day- are for the very lucky few novelists (stats show 1%) who do it for a living. The rest of us work any time and any where we can. I would prefer the dishes in my sink be clean, but I have discovered I can work with them piled up when necessary if I have an hour to write. But listen, rituals and routines help a lot to get over the intimidation of creativity. Any creative act is like leaping into a freezing cold lake. There is exhilaration and there is terror. The ego knows it will be annihilated in service of the muse. The best way to get around your procrastination is to stare the fear in the face and make a habit of writing- much in the way you brush your teeth every morning. When I was working on Written in the Ashes I wrote three hours every day. I loved those to be consecutive hours, but they usually weren’t due to my work schedule. So you learn to grab the time and use it whenever you can. There is never a moment that diving into that freezing cold lake is easy. The routines can pad it a bit- a muffin, a cup of coffee, a cigarette for some, but for me, a single mom working full time, it was five breaths in downward dog on my yoga mat behind my desk and then I was off and writing whether I felt inspired or exhausted.

Was Written In the Ashes the original title of your book?

No, it was called The Tides of Alexandria, but I never really felt that title to be original enough to suite the work. When I thought of titles, I wanted a title to last the ages -something that could compete with Gone with the Wind- which I consider to be the best title of all time. The inspiration came from a poem called “The Journey” by Irish poet David Whyte. In short, it is a poem about enduring great loss. He writes at the end of the poem, “Someone will write something new in the ashes of your life./You are not leaving./You are arriving.”

As you were writing Written in the Ashes, was there a particular scene or character that surprised you?

Absolutely. Gideon, one of Hannah’s love interests, was in the original draft of the novel when I wrote it longhand in pen twelve years ago, but only as a visitor at a party. I had to write him out because his appearance, as much as I liked him, was really a distraction to the plot. Thirty something drafts later, I wrote out a character named Balthazar, whom I loved, realizing I needed to reserve him for the next novel in the series. Gideon returned with great aplomb and snaked all of Balthazar’s scenes and proceeded to woo my heroine. I have never had so much fun writing before. I missed him intensely once the novel was completed.

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

I run. I practice yoga. I spend time playing with my infant son. I take walks in nature. Mostly, I just hang out and do nothing, which is completely underrated in our culture, and absolutely necessary if you plan to be a writer.

Read any good books recently?

Before my son was born I read Graham Greene’s The Power and Glory (President Obama’s favorite novel, also). I read Kate Chopin’s The Awakening. And I read a book called Waiting for the Barbarians by Cooetze that gave me a deep understanding of the shadow side of any empire. Each of these important novels made an impact on my thinking. Novels have the ability to change you. These are books that really make you think differently. But the book I couldn’t put down was Rain of Gold by Villasenor. I recommend them all whole-heartedly.

*** *** ***

My thanks to Ms. Van Zandt for her time and answers.


I'm thrilled to offer a copy of Written in the Ashes. To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US and international readers. US readers can pick a paperback or e-book; international readers receive an e-book. Ends 6/1.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Interview with Steve Wiegenstein

Last week I reviewed Steve Wiegenstein's Slant of Light, his marvelous pre-Cvil War novel about a commune in Missouri. It was a fascinating book with great characters and writing. I'm thrilled to share my interview with the author; read on to learn more about Wiegenstein's writing, his book, and what he does when he's not writing!

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

It was an oh-so-ironic, Jack London-esque story about a man who goes out to the woods during the Depression to shoot some game for his starving family. They are so poor that he only has one bullet for his gun, so naturally he trips over a root and shoots himself in the chest just as a big deer enters the clearing where's he's been waiting. Yes, I'm still cringing.

Do you have any writing rituals or routines?

I seem to do my best writing in the early morning hours, so I try to get up early and work in the dark before anyone else is awake. Not to sound too nocturnal about it, but the darkness seems to help me focus and to get into that "other space" where imagination happens.

Was Slant of Light the original title of your book?

No, my working title was "Daybreak," after the fictional community where the action is set. I thought it was nice and gently symbolic--rising sun, hope, but still with some uncertainty. But then when we did a title search, there turned out to be a bunch of other Daybreaks, so the publishers at Blank Slate Press and I started brainstorming. We worked for weeks on the title! For at least two months I couldn't get title ideas out of my head. But when "Slant of Light" hit the radar, I knew immediately that we had a keeper. I've always loved the Emily Dickinson poem that it's drawn from--it's one of her most mysterious and evocative poems, and it conveys such a sense of something that is both inscrutable and certain at the same time. I think we all know what that certain slant of light feels like, but it's almost impossible to articulate.

As you were writing Slant of Light, was there a particular scene or character that surprised you?

Charlotte! She just kept getting more interesting and more interesting as the book went on. At first I envisioned Turner as the fulcrum of the novel, but Charlotte grew in importance with each scene. The more I wrote about her, the more I wanted to write about her. That was such a delight.

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

I love to travel--my favorite form of travel is to fly somewhere, rent a car, and then just go. I am also an avid canoer on Missouri's Ozark streams. There is no place I would rather be than floating down the Black River on a summer's day.

Read any good books recently?

Oh my! A bunch of the new releases from Unbridled Books are just fabulous. I would highlight You Believers by Jane Bradley, The Coffins of Little Hope by Timothy Schaffert, and The Lola Quartet by Emily St. John Mandel. I also just finished Morkan's Quarry by Steve Yates, which takes place in roughly the same era as my novel. It's terrific! I highly recommend it for historical fiction fans.

*** *** ***


I'm thrilled to offer a copy of Slant of Light to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US/CA readers, ends 6/1.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Mailbox Monday, May 21

May's Mailbox Monday is hosted at Martha’s Bookshelf. I think this week I got the most books ever in a week and I'm flabbergasted. My picture of the stack doesn't even include all the e-ARCs, obviously -- what a week! I feel like a kid at Christmas -- just giddy with delight. I don't even know where to start! What did you get this week? Read any of these? As usual, click a cover to learn more about the book (link will open in a new tab/window). Do you still like this format or is it getting too image heavy? Should I switch back to the list?

For Review

Saturday, May 19, 2012


This week's giveaway winners!

The winner of The Queen's Lover is ... Colleen!

The winner of I, Iago is ... Margaret!

The winners have been emailed. If you didn't win something, be sure to check out my open giveaways.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Written In the Ashes by K. Hollan Van Zandt

Title: Written In the Ashes
Author: K. Hollan Van Zandt

Genre: Fiction (Historical / Ancient Egypt / 4th Century / Religious Conflict / Library of Alexandria)
Publisher/Publication Date: Balboa Press (7/2011)
Source: Premier Virtual Author Book Tours

Rating: Liked.
Did I finish?: I did -- for a chunkster, this book reads fast!
One-sentence summary: The story of a slave girl who finds fame, fortune, danger, love, and loss in ancient Egypt.
Reading Challenges: E-book, Historical Fiction

Do I like the cover?: I do -- although I'm reminded a tiny bit of the decor from Cheesecake Factory. (Which leads me to a total unrelated rant: why is the decorative theme of Cheesecake Factory Egyptian-y?!)

I'm reminded of...: Marion Zimmer Bradley,

First line: All trees hold secrets.

Did... I do a double take when I saw the author thanked Johnny Depp in her acknowledgements?: YES. I don't know if she means that Johnny Depp but wow!

Do... I love the secret freebies for those who've got the book?: YES. The author has a web section of freebies relating to the novel for those who have an ISBN and want more. Fun!

Did... I love the extras in the book: YES. From the map, glossary, and epilogue, this book is fully loaded.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy -- this is an epic historical that reads quickly.

Why did I get this book?: Ancient Egypt!

Review: A dramatic, plot-filled historical set in Alexandria Egypt in the 4th century, this novel follows Hannah, a Jewish goat herder who is kidnapped and sold as a slave in Alexandria. She's purchased on a whim but finds herself in the home of a vintner and alchemist who is friends with the infamous Hypatia, celebrated thinker and scholar. In this household, she's educated and encouraged to use her magnificent singing voice to become a bard of sorts, and it is her connection with Hypatia and the Library of Alexandria that leads her into further drama, adventure, and torment.

I'm not sure that summary even does this book justice, but I tried! At times, there might have been just a little too much plot for my tastes -- this had the feel of a Victorian potboiler in some ways, with one over-the-top turn after another -- and yet, the story didn't strain credulity. This is the tale of a woman growing up; the story of a slave who becomes greater than her bond; a woman at the crossroads of history, in a place where religion and science, history and politics all collided.

The cast is rather big for my tastes, but I found everyone pretty easy to know -- again, Van Zandt doesn't stint on details and everyone felt bigger than life. While I found our heroine Hannah a bit too perfect at the start of the novel -- she's exceptionally beautiful, regal in stature despite being a slave, gifted with a gorgeous voice, blue-eyed and fair skinned -- she grew on me as a character, and I found her reputation was warranted. She was smart, clever, a bit impetuous, and talented, and she behaved with courage and wisdom as the novel progressed. In the end, I wanted her as my friend.

Van Zandt's writing style reads easily; she describes everything, from food to clothes to scenery, and it's impossible not to feel immersed in ancient Alexandria. She doesn't shy away, either, from the grim reality of being a female slave, so FYI for those of you who don't like sexual violence. I was uncomfortable, but unsurprised. In the Epilogue, Van Zandt explains her rationale for the anachronistic decisions she made with the story and I appreciated that -- she aged Hannah to twenty rather than the more likely thirteen at the start of the novel -- and she played fast and loose a bit with history and myth. Since I'm not a well-versed in Egyptian history, this didn't bother me, but I don't know how someone who is wedded to the era will feel. For me, Van Zandt's choices worked with the story as she told it.

At 400+ pages this is an epic adventure, and Van Zandt has said she's planning two more books. However, this book ends very neatly, no cliff hanger to make you gnash your teeth, and I think it stands alone marvelously. Still, I'm looking forward to Van Zandt's next venture.

*** *** ***


I'm thrilled to offer a copy of Written in the Ashes. To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US and international readers. US readers can pick a paperback or e-book; international readers receive an e-book. Ends 6/1.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Storytelling Animal by Jonathan Gottschall

Title: The Storytelling Animal
Author: Jonathan Gottschall

Genre: Non-Fiction (Literary Analysis / Evolutionary Psychology / Human Development / Cognitive Science / Myths / Folk Lore / Popular Culture)
Publisher/Publication Date: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (4/10/2012)
Source: TLC Book Tours

Rating: LOVE!
Did I finish?: Yes -- I raced through this one.
One-sentence summary: A readable and amusing look at how humans need stories in their lives and why.
Reading Challenges: Dewey Decimal

Do I like the cover?: I adore it -- it's playful, evocative, pretty, and spot on.

I'm reminded of...: Diane Ackerman

First line: Statisticians agree that if they could only catch some immortal monkeys, lock them up in a room with a typewriter, and get them to furiously thwack keys for a long, long time, the monkey's would eventually flail out a perfect reproduction of Hamlet -- with every period and comma and "'sblood" in its proper place.

Do... I think the book trailer is dead adorable/funny?: YES. I'm on the fence about whether I like or dislike book trailers, but in this case, the animation is adorable and you get the gist of this very funny and enlightening book immediately!

Do... I think it's dead adorable that Gottschall includes his daughters in the book's index?: YES. He shares many stories about his young daughters' imaginative play, and I love that he includes their stories in the index. I bet they'll die of joy/mortification when they're older!

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy -- if you like fiction, you'll want to learn why, and this would make a smashing gift for the lit geek in your life.

Why did I get this book?: Reading nerd waxing about how awesome reading is = win.

Review: I loved Gottschall from the first line of this book; I quickly saw he was a book fan geeking out about how awesome fiction is and I cheerfully followed along.

I'm always going to fangirl over books on books -- I can't help it. I love readers and I love reading about reading. Gottschall takes joy in not just reading, but all forms of storytelling, from country music songs to commercials and films. He examines how fiction -- storytelling -- helps us individually and globally.

Trivia fans will love this book because it is chock full of tidbits to toss out at your next party or family gathering (for example, a 2009 study showed more people were scarred by scary films than real world horrors like 9/11 or the Rwandan genocide.) Gottschall's writing style is casual, funny, friendly, and approachable and he references contemporary and classic fictions. He breaks down scientific studies on neurons, behavior, emotions and offers a trenchant and funny argument in support of fiction in all its forms.

In addition to being a great read for anyone who likes fiction and doesn't mind a dip into popular non-fiction, I think this would make a unique book club pick. Breezy readable, this book celebrates what we all love about storytelling, and provides great themes and ideas to chew and discuss. Gift this book for the bookish college grad in your life or the light reader who needs a nudge to pick up a novel because page 66 offers a very good reason why: "In one study, they [researchers] found that heavy fiction readers had better social skills -- as measured by tests of social and empathetic ability -- than those who mainly read nonfiction." Novel readers rejoice: we're awesome.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Uninvited Guests by Sadie Jones

Title: The Uninvited Guests
Author: Sadie Jones

Genre: Fiction (Historical / Edwardian / English Estate / Upstairs - Downstairs / Disaster / Domestic Horror)
Publisher/Publication Date: Harper (5/1/2012)
Source: TLC Book Tours

Rating: Looooooooooooooooooved like a loving thing.
Did I finish?: I inhaled this in one day!
One-sentence summary: One country estate, one prickly family, one birthday party, and one train disaster equals a night of revelation, drama, desire, heartache, ugliness and unexpected joy.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction

Do I like the cover?: I adore it -- it references a scene in the novel and captures the Edwardian feel just perfectly. (Also, the end papers are too cute for words, referencing a particular character -- perfect!)

I'm reminded of...: Djuna Barnes, E.M. Delafield, Stella Gibbons, Molly Keane, Ada Leverson

First line: Since her marriage to Edward Swift, three years after the sudden death of her first husband Horace Torrington, Charlotte had changed her position at the breakfast table in order to accommodate her new husband's needs: specifically, aiding him in the spreading of toast and cutting of meat, owing to his having suffered the loss of his left arm at the age of twenty-three in an unfortunate encounter with the narrow wheels of a speeding gig, out of which he had fallen on the driveway of his then home in County Wicklow.

Did... this book remind me of a variety of early 20th century authors I love?: YES. From the droll hilarity of E.M. Delafield and Stella Gibbons to the weirder and creepier edginess of Djuna Barnes, this seemingly simple story of one family was layered and rich and twisted.

Did... I literally gorge myself on this book?: YES. I couldn't stop quoting lines on Goodreads; the turn-of-phrase and language was just divine.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Buy or borrow -- this book is a delight!

Why did I get this book?: I loved Jones' previous novel, Small Wars, and I'm a sucker for this genre and style of fiction.

Review: I loved this book. I loved Jones' writing style, her language, her use of words -- I literally was jubilant while reading, delighted by the multifaceted bounce of her narrative and dialogue. The text of this novel had personality, was a character in this story, and the tale it offered captured me from the first line.

Set in 1912 at Sterne, an isolated English country estate, the story focuses on one night with the Torrington family: Charlotte, a 50-ish beauty with a cold demeanor and a loving second marriage; her three children -- Clovis, dark and bitter, Emerald, sweet and loyal, and Smudge, young, imaginative, and often forgotten; her second husband, the one-armed Edward Swift; Florence Trieves, a housekeeping in mourning; and Emerald's birthday party guests. On the eve of her party, the Torrington's learn of a terrible train accident that requires them to house the Third Class passengers until the railway company can send them on their way, and that is when things really begin to unravel. These uninvited guests provoke the Torringtons and their invited guests in ways none anticipated, and an eventful night transforms into something horrific, frightening, and illuminating for all.

I've read reviews that said this family was so unlikeable it was impossible to enjoy the story; to me, the characters were quite flawed but so human, I felt rather tenderly toward them, even Charlotte (who I think is the most despicable, mostly for her treatment of her children). This is a family raised in Victorian mores and ideals, living in an Edwardian society of flashy beauty and changing values, formerly affluent but now dependent on the possibility of a loan to keep them afloat. When I closed the book, I could say I loved every single character in this novel -- every one. They were real, anchored solidly by Jones' marvelous turn-of-phrase (the dialogue! the descriptive passages!) and given flight by the ludicrous and chilling plot. There's a madcap pace to the end of the novel that strained credulity (and shockingly, it wasn't the supernatural elements!) but I loved it for pushing me past my expectations.

Part domestic drama, part class exploration, part spoof on English country life, The Uninvited Guests is a fascinating, creepy, and moving look at obligation, motivation, and loyalty. Gushingly recommended.

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I'm thrilled to offer a copy of The Uninvited Guests to one lucky reader. To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US/CA readers, ends 6/1.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Interview with Elizabeth Percer

Last week I read Elizabeth Percer's lovely An Uncommon Education, about a girl's childhood and experiences at Wellesley college. I'm thrilled to share this interview with Ms. Percer on her writing, her book, and what she does when she's not writing. Read on to learn more and for another opportunity to enter a giveaway for her book!

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

My VERY first? The first piece of fiction I can remember writing was about a girl whose father drowned at sea and returns to her as a ghost who insists she must save the world from certain destruction with help from him and his ghostly, sea-wrecked friends. I think I was eight when I wrote it. Can you tell?

Do you have any writing rituals or routines?

Yes. Most of my rituals or routines are designed to reduce the anxiety that always arises over asking my inner self to come out and play, no matter what kind of state she may be in. I try to walk or drive or do some other kind of physical activity before or after I write, just to get my breathing and attention into a more elemental, less critical space. I also like to work on soft surfaces (no desks for me), and to read the work of authors I admire when I get stuck. I can't work after the sun goes down because I'll stay up all night, mind racing, so I try to work in the morning or afternoon. If I didn't have three children, I'd love to be able to just wake up and write before I have to talk to anyone, but they have other plans for me.

Was An Uncommon Education the original title of your book?

No! It's original title was The Shakespeare Society, followed for a while by An Educated Woman.

As you were writing An Uncommon Education, was there a particular scene or character that surprised you?

Yes, though if something I am working on doesn't surprise me, I usually set it aside. Surprise in writing is a little bit like a sign that your yeast is alive when baking (pardon my wacky metaphor): the writing has to bite back a bit, I think, in order to prove to me that it's got the crucial energy it needs to warrant the attention one must devote to a novel. AUE surprised me continually in this sense, but I think the first, most important surprise was Naomi herself. Originally, I thought the book would center around Jun's story, that Naomi would tell Jun's story a la the narrative structure of something like The Great Gatsby or Sherlock Holmes. Instead -- and this was the first, nerve-tingling/upsetting/thrilling sign that the book was coming to life -- Naomi's voice began to insist on more from me.

What was it like to revisit Wellesley through this novel? Have you been back to Wellesley since you graduated?

It was absolutely wonderful. I can't say that I loved every minute of my experience at Wellesley, but any education worth its salt should involve a healthy amount of growing pain. I grew tremendously there, and I wouldn't trade those years for anything. I was surprised that I remembered the layout of the campus as well as I did, and also surprised at some of the things I had forgotten. There was a room in the actual Shakespeare Society, for example -- off the first floor toward the south end of the house -- that had completely slipped my mind. I thought I knew every inch of that house like the back of my hand -- and should have, considering how much time I spent there!

I have been back to Wellesley a few times since I graduated, but only to walk through the campus. I think that if I still lived in Massachusetts (or somewhere in New England), I'd have visited much more frequently.

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

Read, run, and be present for my children. The latter involves making up a little parlor trick we like to do of making up songs on the spot on any subject suggested.

Read any good books recently?

How much time do you have? I'm a bit of a book slut, and read constantly. Right now I'm toggling between the Louise Penny series (I recently learned that my mother's family descended from the founders of French Quebec, where Penny sets her series), and A Fierce Radiance by Lauren Belfer. I would recommend both of these authors enthusiastically. I'm also chomping at the bit to start the autobiography of William Carlos Williams I picked up while on book tour. In addition to being one of my favorite poets, he was also a doctor, and I'm eager to read his reflections on the intersections between these two worlds. I'm convinced that great science and great art are hatched from very similar paths in human thinking, and read anything I can get my hands on that will enable me to explore this idea further.

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I'm thrilled to offer a copy of An Uncommon Education to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US/CA readers, ends 5/25.