Saturday, March 30, 2013

Winners!

Gorgeous, gorgeous spring day today, and my wife and I are still a bit wince-y.  But we're both feeling considerably better, which is nice.

Two giveaway winners today -- one from last week and one for this week!

The winner of The Orchardist is ... Jenn of The Picky Girl!

The winner of The Dark Heroine is ... Jaime H.!

Congrats to the winners!  Folks have until end of day Tuesday to get back to me.  If you didn't win, check out my open giveaways -- as always, more coming! 

Friday, March 29, 2013

Weekend reads and not feeling great...

Even though it's gorgeously mild outside, I've been stuck inside most of this week -- and sadly, not reading!

My wife has been home all week with pneumonia and I've been wracked with a migraine, so needless to say, there's been very little reading going on.  I'm wicked behind on that and reviews, and I'm a tiny bit stressed!

I'm starting to feel a smidgen better, and my weekend reads will be The Tale of Raw Head and Bloody Bones by Jack Wolf and The Bequest of Big Daddy by Jo-Ann Costa. (That's a make-me-feel-better mango lassi next to the book.)

What are you reading this weekend?

(Also, I'm at a loss about linking this week -- I personally am disappointed in GoodReads being bought by Amazon.  Now they've got Shelfari, LibraryThing, and GoodReads -- is there another social reading network I should use?)

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Prisoner of Heaven by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Title: The Prisoner of Heaven
Author: Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Genre: Fiction (Historical / 1950s / 1930s / Spain / Prisons / Bookstores / Books on Books / Secret Identities / Dumas /
Publisher/Publication Date: Harper Perennial (3/12/2013)
Source: TLC Book Tours

Rating: Liked a good deal.
Did I finish?: I did!
One-sentence summary: The story of a prisoner, a bookstore, and a mysterious stranger.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction,

Do I like the cover?: Yes and no. Yes, it is super pretty and atmospheric. No, it doesn't capture the feel of the book.

I'm reminded of...: Gabriel Garcí­a Márquez, José Saramago

First line: That year at Christmas time, every morning dawned laced with frost under leaden skies.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy if you're a Zafón fan or like books about books.

Why did I get this book?: Everyone I know raves about Zafón's The Shadow of the Wind.

Review: I have long wanted to read Zafón's novels; everyone I know raves about The Shadow of the Wind. This is the third book in Zafón's quartet, and the book opens with a promise that each book can be read as a standalone, and in any order. I hear that about almost all books in a series, so I was dubious, but I inhaled this book without any confusion.

This is a book lover's book, a novel with a story-in-a-story motif, vibrant characters -- including villainous villains -- and evocative locales. Opening Christmas 1957 in Barcelona, Spain, we follow Daniel Sempere, who runs a family bookstore with his father. Amid anxieties about a letter to his wife from her ex-fiancee, Daniel is chilled by the arrival of a creepy man who purchases one of the most expensive books in his store, a gorgeous vintage copy of The Count of Monte Cristo. More disturbingly, the stranger dedicates it to Daniel's friend Fermín Romero de Torres, who in turn shares the story of his violent imprisonment during Franco's regime in 1930 -- a story that echoes Dumas' classic tale.

I raced through this book -- it's about 300 pages in paperback, but reads like 150! -- and found myself captivated. Zafón mixes clever black humor -- usually snappy comebacks by the moody Fermín -- with lurid descriptions of prison life. There's almost a magical quality to the story without it going straight to magical realism; a fantasy element without fantasy. Perhaps it's the mood that harkens to Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo -- grandiose adventure, seemingly impossible scenarios, bigger-than-life personalities. I didn't know where this story intersected with the previous two novels but didn't feel like I was missing anything; now I'm eager to read both before the fourth and final book comes out.

Sadly, there's no biography for the translator, Lucia Graves, in my edition. (I'm intensely curious about translators -- they shape a story, intentionally or not!) Graves is the daughter of Robert Graves, and was nominated for an award for her translation of another Zafón book. Particularly intriguing for me is Graves' connection to the setting and era of this book: Graves lived in Majorca during Franco's dictatorship and later, as an adult when first married.

For those new to Zafón, consider this -- fans might not think this is the best one to start with, but as someone who plunged in and came out happy, I think it works! Those who like historical fiction that is a bitterly fun and a little dark will like this -- while it's not The Orphan Master's Son-level of black comedy, it's up there, so if you enjoyed that one, you'll like this too!

*** *** ***

GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to offer a copy of The Prisoner of Heaven to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US/Canadian readers, ends 4/12.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Paradise Guest House by Ellen Sussman

Title: The Paradise Guest House
Author: Ellen Sussman

Genre: Fiction (2000s / Bali / 2002 Bali Bombing / Terrorism / American Ex-Pat / PTSD / Romance)
Publisher/Publication Date: Ballantine Books (3/26/2013)
Source: TLC Book Tours

Rating: Liked!
Did I finish?: I did.
One-sentence summary: Two Americans who survived the 2002 Bali terrorist bombings struggle to move on after the terrifying event.

Do I like the cover?: Eh -- it's pretty enough, but doesn't capture the story, I think.

First line: "And you?" the man says.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow if you like chick lit that pays attention to current events or if you like movies in the vein of Beyond Rangoon and The Impossible.

Why did I get this book?: I liked Sussman's French Lessons when I read a few years ago; was curious to see how she handled a terrorist attack!

Review: I'm not sure how to describe this book exactly: it's a beach-y romance at heart (literally featuring Bali's gorgeous beaches) featuring a hero and heroine damaged by loss and pain, set during and immediately after the October 12, 2002 terrorist bombings in Bali. I described this to a friend like chick lit for those who know a little about current events; it's emotional and weighty, but not crushingly so, punctuated with some sweet levity.

The novel opens a year after the bombings, but flashes back to those days in 2002 just before and after the bombing. Hero and heroine are thrown together under the gruesomest of circumstances, two people injured long before getting wounded in Bali.

Our heroine, Jamie, a 30ish American, is an adventure guide for a Berkeley company, and she pursues her highs -- sex, adrenalin, fun -- relentlessly. Three days into her trip in Bali, she walks into a club just moments before the first bomb goes off and is seriously injured. Our hero, Gabe, is a 40ish American, an ex-pat teaching at a Balinese school who fled the US after a personal tragedy. Gabe is having dinner with a friend when the bombs go off; he stumbles over Jamie and pulls her to safety.  In the resulting tumult, Gabe cares for Jamie until her emergency flight to the U.S. and out of that develops something sweet, sad, and confusing.

Although this is a story of ex-pats, Sussman doesn't ignore the Balinese victims and survivors, and in fact, articulates some of the anger and rage felt by Balinese when the (white) foreign tourists received priority medical treatment over native Balinese.  I was grateful for that awareness and balance.

I confess I teared up constantly while reading this book. It's not cloyingly sad or agonizingly miserable; Sussman conveys huge emotions neatly and carefully, respectfully.  As with Sussman's other book, French Lessons, I wasn't sure how she would tie things up in the end, but what results is refreshingly real.

The jacket blurb says this is for readers who liked Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love and Alex Garland’s The Beach.  I suppose it has the redemption and love found in Eat, Pray, Love but other than ex-pats and ocean, I don't see the comparison to The Beach.  If you like movies in the vein of Beyond Rangoon and The Impossible, you'll like this book, I think.

*** *** ***

GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to offer a copy of The Paradise Guest House to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US/Canadian readers, ends 4/12.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Interview with Liesel Schwarz

Earlier this month I read Liesel Schwarz's A Conspiracy of Alchemists, an imaginative steampunk romantic adventure. I'm thrilled to share my interview with Liesel, so read on to learn more about her and her writing. Be sure to enter the giveaway at the end!

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

My very first attempts at writing fiction involved the intrepid adventures of a magical pony who could fly. I was about six years old at the time. Not much has changed in respect of my plotting it seems as I still write about magical characters who fly off on adventures...

Do you have any writing rituals or routines?

I am very fortunate in that I can write anywhere, any place and any time. Sadly, I have developed this skill because life is so hectic and there is so little time to write. I do have a special mug though and no one is allowed to drink from it, because it's my writing mug.

Was A Conspiracy of Alchemists the original title of your book?

The book was initially titled 'The Oracle Conspiracy' but this is a bit of a mouthfull, so I changed it.

As you were writing A Conspiracy of Alchemists, was there a particular scene or character that surprised you?

The absinthe fairy was a bit of a surprise. I never thought she would grow to be such a big character. She is one of my favourites though.

According to your bio, you're working on your doctorate. How was/is juggling creative writing and academic writing?

I am a lawyer by trade, so switching between writing styles isn't really that much of a problem. I think academic writing is sometimes easier, because you are allowed to be dull. The footnotes and references are a pain though and I do prefer writing fiction above all else.

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

I have many interests, but I love animals and I like to be outdoors, so I try to get out camping or hiking whenever I can. I am definitely a cat person.

Read any good books recently?

Ooh, a few. I recently received an advance copy of The Shining Girl by Lauren Beukes which was brilliant. E.J. Swift's Osiris is an excellent read too.

Thank you for inviting me onto your blog xx

*** *** ***

Learn more about Liesel Schwarz at her website. She's also on Facebook and Twitter.


GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to offer a copy of A Conspiracy of Alchemists to one lucky reader!  To enter, fill out this brief form!  Open to US/Canadian readers, ends 4/5.


Sunday, March 24, 2013

Mailbox Monday, March 25

This week's Mailbox Monday (hosted in March by Caitlin @ chaotic compendiums) is very light one -- just a handful of books! Still, some exciting arrivals!  To learn more about any of these books, click the picture -- link will open in a new link/window.

What did you get this week?

For Review







Gifted/Swapped/Purchased

Friday, March 22, 2013

Interview with Kate Forsyth

Earlier this week I read the divine Bitter Greens, a beautiful historical novel/fairy tale retelling that captivated and seduced me. I'm thrilled to share my interview with Kate Forsyth; read on to learn more about her, her book, and what she does when she's not writing!

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


When I was about five I wrote a story about a brother & sister who fell down a hole into fairyland. Then, when I was seven, I wrote my first novel. It was called 'Runaway' and told the story of a brother & sister who ran away from their mean aunt & uncle & had all sorts do adventures on their way to find their nice aunts. It was very reminiscent of Enid Blyton.

Do you have any writing rituals or routines?

I walk for an hour, then have a cup of tea, and read over what I wrote the day before. That's it.

Was Bitter Greens the original title of your book?

Yes, Bitter Greens was always my title. I can't write a book till I have its title.

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

My main character, Charlotte-Rose de la Force, was never meant to be the main character! She insisted on being so. Once I began to write in her voice, she simply ran away with the story and all I could do is run with her.

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

I love to read, and to watch films, and cook, and garden, and spend time with my family & friends. Oh, and travel! I love to go to faraway places where stories might lurk.

Read any good books recently?

I read a lot, and I write reviews of everything I've loved on my blog & post them on to Goodreads, so feel free to follow me & see what I'm enjoying. A few recent loves: The Venetian Contract by Marina Fiorata; The Girl You Left Behind by Jojo Moyes; The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton.

*** *** ***

My thanks to Ms. Forsyth for her time. You can learn more about her at her website. She can also be found online at her blog, and on Twitter and Facebook.

Weekend reads and greeting spring...

It snowed pretty heavily on the first day of Spring -- no surprise for Boston -- but my wife treated me to three gorgeous bouquets of flowers nonetheless.  Every morning they cheer me up -- although it's been nice and sunny in Boston, the melting gray slush depresses me!

Today I plan on finishing up The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards by Kristopher Jansma and this weekend I'll be starting Ellen Sussman's The Paradise Guest House.

What are you reading this weekend?

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Swoon by Betsy Prioleau

Title: Swoon: Great Seducers and Why Women Love Them
Author: Betsy Prioleau

Genre: Non-Fiction (Sex / Love / Romance / Seduction / Historical Figures / Celebrities)
Publisher/Publication Date: W. W. Norton & Company (2/4/2013)
Source: TLC Book Tours

Rating: Liked.
Did I finish?: I did!
One-sentence summary: A non-fiction survey into the world of the seducer -- historical ladies men and why they're so appealing!

Do I like the cover?: I do --with that swoon-y image and fat, silly font, I'm completely seduced. (Ha, play with words!)

I'm reminded of...: Michael Farquhar

First line: Pembroke, a hamlet once known as Scuffletown (population 2,800), sits in the southeastern flatlands of North Carolina on Highway 711 -- home to the University of Nor Carolina Braves, the Lumbee Indians, the Berea Baptist Church, Dollar Tree, Papa Bill's Ribs, a nearby drag strip with wheelstanding contests, and one of today's hottest ladies' men.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow if you like popular non-fiction on sex, psychology, and human behavior.

Why did I get this book?: I love me a good lover!

Review: I will admit, as a lesbian, I am probably not the best person to appreciate the sexual allure of men. (I did go through a phase in college in which I experimented with men, but it only lasted about two semesters and was done, in part, so I could claim that oh-so-important-when-in-college 'bi' label.) Still, as one who nurtures many a literary crush, male and female, I was drawn to this non-fiction survey of historical seducers and contemporary ladies men.

Prioleau opens the book by articulating who a seducer -- a ladies man -- is and isn't. He isn't, thankfully, the professional Pick Up Artist (PUA), trained via offensive online courses on how put down a woman in such a way she'll consent to sex. The true ladies man, Prioleau argues, loves women, admires women, respects women. (I might also venture, based on her examples, the true ladies man is also not wired for monogamy, although some recent books on sex and evolution suggest we all aren't.)

The basis of her argument comes from historical lovers of fame and good repute, supplemented by interviews with everyday ladies men (more on that bit later). From that, she builds an inventory of qualities a successful seducer possesses. By no means is this a scientific study but I found it thought-provoking and amusing. Prioleau begins many a section with 'According to studies, women prefer...' and rattles off THE attribute science says women say they want in a man: creativity, intellect, a physical or emotional impediment like a scar or crippling depression, courage, virtue, élan, etc. (All I took from these chapters is that what strikes a woman as seductive varies by the woman!)

Prioleau punctuated her argument with tidbits about historical figures or quotes from romance novels. She focused on a set of historical and/or celebrity ladies men to illustrate her points -- Casanova, Byron, Liszt, Gabriele D'Annunzio, Porfirio Rubirosa, and Warren Beatty are a few -- as well as various deities and myths from around the world. She also uses real-life examples in her narrative, non-celebrity men she's somehow identified as being contemporary seducers and ladies men. I'll admit, I found all those sections super odd: she interviews some guy about why he's great with women (the reply is usually 'I don't know, I just am') and a few of his lovers (anonymously).

There are sixteen pages of black and white photos of many of the seducers Prioleau mentions, which confirmed her assertion that a successful seducer need not be all that stereotypically handsome.

Ultimately, what behavior one finds sexy rather than creepy is a matter of personal taste, the situation/setting, that kind of thing, so I often found some of Prioleau's examples the opposite of appealing, but just as often, she articulated why I find a historical figure just so damned dashing.

This is an unabashed heterosexual survey with Western heteronormative assumptions about sex and relationships so those of you looking for a nuanced study won't find that here. But as a springboard and conversation starter -- might be a good companion book for a book club or reading group -- this one hits the mark -- I've been shoving it at people all around me and yammering about Prioleau's assertions and ideas.  Those who enjoy popular non-fiction on sex, society, and human behavior will likely dig this one!

*** *** ***

GIVEAWAY!

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

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth

Title: Bitter Greens
Author: Kate Forsyth

Genre: Fiction (Historical / 17th century / 16th century / France / Italy / Royal Court / Convent / Fairy Tale / Venice / Witchcraft)
Publisher/Publication Date: Allison & Busby (2/25/2013)
Source: Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tour

Rating: Loooooooooooooooooooooved.
Did I finish?: Yes, yes I did.
One-sentence summary: Renaissance Venice and 17th century France are connected by three women and one magical fairy tale.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction

Do I like the cover?: I do -- simple but striking.

I'm reminded of...: Emma Donoghue, Edith Pattou

First line: I had always been a great talker and teller of tales.

Did... I love reading about what inspired this novel? YES. Forsyth shares a lovely piece about how the myth and one of this book's heroines, Charlotte Rose de la Force, came to be.

Did... I enjoy the author's list of favorite academic studies of fairy tales?: YES. Her whole blog is a treat -- she's recently interviewed a slew of authors, some familiar, some new, and my TBR has grown as a result!

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Buy -- if you can find it!

Why did I get this book?: Fairy tales retold -- who can say 'no'?!

Review: I feel kind of terrible writing this review because this book is awesome ... and not available in the U.S. (It is available in the UK.) As usual, with a book I love this much, I'm having a hard time writing a coherent review. I really ought to just do a video review so I can wave my hands and make excited noises -- that'd probably convey more.

I'm a sucker for a fairy tale retold, especially when they're placed in a historical era, marrying 'real' with 'fantasy'. In this case, the fairy tale is Rapunzel, and the historical eras are 17th century France and 16th century Venice. Told in a story-within-a-story style, Forsyth manages to write a wonderfully solid historical novel with all the details I like -- customs, costumes, and characters -- as well as a fairy tale fantasy that resonates and delights. Shifting between three perspectives, this brick of a novel (about 500 pages) had me hanging on every word, literally, and I was lugging this thing with me everywhere and reading it with every free second.

Opening in late 17th century France, the novel focuses first on Charlotte-Rose de la Force, a witty noblewoman banished to a convent by the Sun King, Louis XIV. There, the woman once bedecked in jewels and luxurious fabrics finds herself stripped of her belongings (including her writing implements), head shorn, condemned to lowly tasks. When a nun takes Charlotte-Rose under her wing, she enchants the Frenchwoman with a tale from her own life, and the story shifts to Renaissance Venice. One of Titian's muses, Selena Leonelli, has taken to witchcraft to preserve her youth, and when a neighbor steals greens from her yard, the witch takes their Margherita for use in her own dark magic.

De La Force is the real life author of a Rapunzel variation, and Forsyth's novel guesses at how this Frenchwoman might have heard of the Venetian original. Using the Venetian motifs in her own version, Forsyth mixes magic and history, and comes up with a delicious and heartbreaking treat.

Forsyth's writing is evocative and pretty without feeling heavy or ornate; she conveys a sense of time and place without the dreaded infodump. What I appreciated, as well was that she doesn't mince words about the way women were treated in these eras -- she creates strong heroines who are quite real but don't reek of anachronism.

Like others on this tour, I'm totally unwilling to part with my copy of this book. I had hoped to offer a giveaway but Book Depository doesn't have this one available yet. Keep your eye out -- if you like fairy tales, French history, and escapist historical fiction, you'll want this novel.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Bruges Tapestry by P.A. Staes

Title: The Bruges Tapestry
Author: P.A. Staes

Genre: Fiction (Historical / 16th Century / Belgium / Tapestry Making / Vatican / Contemporary / Dual Narrative / Mystery)
Publisher/Publication Date: CreateSpace (8/29/2012)
Source: Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tour

Rating: Okay.
Did I finish?: I did.
One-sentence summary: The story of a Belgian tapestry is told through the family who made it and the individuals who found it, separated by five hundred years.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction

Do I like the cover?: I do -- it's reminiscent of other crime novels (like Cara Black's) which matches the feel of the story.

First line: I was sixteen years old when Marie died giving birth to Father Bernardo's child.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy if you like women's contemporary fiction with historical twists, like Sarah Jio's books.

Why did I get this book?: I love art mysteries!

Review: Alternating between the past and the present, this novel tells the story of a tapestry, and the individuals affected by it. In 1520, Belgian Beatrice tells the story of the making of the tapestry in her father's shop. She and her sister Marie care for her father after their mother's unexpected death, and the arrival of the slimy Father Bernardo from the Vatican changes everything.

In contemporary Newport Beach, California, Detective Claire DeMaer investigates art theft. When her flashy interior decorate friend Nora begs her to attend a party of Nora's newest client, and lover, Claire agrees -- and to her surprise, spots a tapestry identified by Interpol as stolen from the Vatican. She confronts the owner, who confesses to stealing it, but alleges the Vatican stole it from his family first. That claim sends Claire chasing the truth.

This is the first in a series following Claire and it's a good start. I enjoyed the historical sections of the story, reminiscent of Tracy Chevalier's The Lady and the Unicorn, and young Beatrice's search for justice and vengeance in a time when priests were untouchable, their crimes accepted. In revenge, she decides to alter the cartoons -- or patterns -- to the tapestry to include, via symbols, the story of her sister's tragedy.

The contemporary sections felt a little uneven to me, and I didn't quite enjoy Claire's story as much as Beatrice's. A good deal of Claire's story -- her motivation as well as her back story -- is tied up with her best friend Nora, who frankly seemed awful. Claire's investigation of the tapestry's provenance is dependent on at least two professionals bending the rules or turning a blind eye to her technically illegal behavior, which might be true in these circles, but also felt a little coincidental.

The novel moves pretty briskly, which is good given that it's 237 pages. Staes conveys the background need to understand the story -- the making of tapestries, how an art theft investigation unfolds -- without any awkward infodumps, and there were two twists to the story I hadn't anticipated but enjoyed greatly. With a throwaway shout out to one of my favorite musical groups -- The Mediæval Bæbes -- and the inclusion of a new-to-me medieval poet, Vittoria Colonna, I ended the book satisfied. Staes includes a cast of characters, terminology guide, and resources at the end of the book.

I'm looking forward to Staes' future novels and following Claire. For those curious, the Kindle e-book is $2.99 at the moment!

*** *** ***

GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to offer a copy of The Bruges Tapestry to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US/international readers, ends 4/5.


Monday, March 18, 2013

A Conspiracy of Alchemists by Liesel Schwarz

Title: A Conspiracy of Alchemists
Author: Liesel Schwarz

Genre: Fiction (Historical / Victoriana / Steampunk / early 20th Century / British / Supernatural)
Publisher/Publication Date: Del Rey (3/5/2013)
Source: TLC Book Tours

Rating: Liked.
Did I finish?: I did, fairly quickly!
One-sentence summary: A warlock, an absinthe fairy, and a lady dirigible pilot become embroiled in a dangerous war between dark magic circles and the mundane world.

Do I like the cover?: I do, mostly -- I hate that '80s-esque neon pink graffiti scribble at the bottom -- otherwise, it doesn't offend.

I'm reminded of...: Elizabeth Bear, Gail Carriger

First line: This was the place where people came to give their souls to fairies.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow if you like the ambiance of steampunk, alterna-historical settings, and corsets.

Why did I get this book?: I'm totally a sucker for steampunk.

Review: Set in 1903, this steampunk-flavored historical fantasy follows Miss Eleanor "Elle" Chance, a woman of good breeding and some social standing, who became a dirigible pilot against her father's wishes. Elle has her own dirigible and some sketchy clients, and at the novel's open, she's in Paris to make a very shady delivery: human cargo. Uneasy, Elle's apprehension only worsens when an absinthe fairy hides in her diamond bracelet (Elle's preferred form of payment), and as she leaves for the airfield, she's jumped by thugs.

Things get very hairy after this. Her father is kidnapped, she sets off on a gyrocopter trip across the Continent, develops a crush on her human cargo (it doesn't help he's a hundred year old heartthrob of a Warlock, and Lord to boot!), learns a shocker of a secret about herself and her family history, and has further adventures on the Orient Express.

There's a supernatural element that goes hand-in-hand with the novel's alterna-history setting: the non-magic 'Light' world lives in tense balance with the paranormal 'Shadow' world .  In the course of the novel, Elle discovers she -- and her family -- are rather at the center of that struggle, forcing her to reconsider everything she's taken as fact.

This was a wonderfully fluffy read with a strong romance novel arc for Elle and our agéd Warlock (which I really liked).  The steampunk flavor and paranormal world-building was enough to give me a sense of the world without making me feel mired, but detail geeks might feel things are thin.  For the most part, I enjoyed the characters, but I will say I found the secondary characters a little more robust than Elle. There was even a vampire character I liked! (I wouldn't mind a novel about her.)  A tertiary character, this vampire was a train companion who makes a throwaway comment about her uncle's unseemly infatuation with a barrister's wife in Whitby, followed by an eye roll and "Men," which had me rolling out my bed with laughter.

I had a great time with this book although I will admit it's a bit uneven in places. I liked Elle for the most part, but as with so many novels dependent on a truly charismatic heroine, Elle felt a bit flat. And to be fair, creating a Victorian heroine of breeding who is both reasonably independent and not a caricatured comic book super heroine is tough -- there needs to be a balance of vulnerable and bold, a nod to social mores and values, and a believable sense of what said heroine can withstand. Additionally, Elle is saddled with the burden of being one of those gamechanging VIPs, and unfortunately, her personality was just a tad too flat for me to totally buy her as the epic heroine but I'm hopeful Schwarz can flesh her out more in future books.

I was strongly reminded of Gail Carriger's Parasol Protectorate books with this one; while Carriger's novels lean more toward comedic, both have similar elements -- conspiracy, secret cabals, Italy, supernatural romance -- but this one leans more toward adventure rather than comedy of manners.

I understand this is the first in a series; the novel ends satisfactorily for those who don't want to add a new series to their queue, and I'm looking forward to seeing how Schwarz unfolds Elle's story.

*** *** ***

GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to offer a copy of A Conspiracy of Alchemists to one lucky reader!  To enter, fill out this brief form!  Open to US/Canadian readers, ends 4/5.  For another entry, check out my interview with Liesel Schwarz.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Mailbox Monday, March 18

Here's this week's Mailbox Monday (hosted in March by Caitlin @ chaotic compendiums).  A light week for arrivals, although oddly, a lot of duplicates, including three copies of Bee Ridgway's The River of No Return!

To learn more about a title, click the image -- it will open in a new tab/window.  What did you get this week?

For Review











Won



Via GoodReads Giveaways

Gifted/Swapped/Purchased



Gifted from Raging Bibliomania -- thank you!

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Interview with Amanda Coplin

Earlier this month I reviewed Amanda Coplin's The Orchardist, a lovely, atmospheric, quiet novel set in early 20th century Oregon.  Love, family, the rural West -- this book is a favorite of 2013 so far.  I'm thrilled to share my interview with the author, so read on to learn more about her, her novel, and what she's reading right now. 

author Amanda CoplinWhat was the plot of your very first piece of fiction?

A teddy bear named Cuddles, reviled by her sisters, runs away from home and travels to outer space.

Do you have any writing rituals or routines?

I like to write in the morning after breakfast, coffee in hand.

Was The Orchardist the original title of your book?

No. The original title was The Wrested Earth.

book cover: The OrchardistAs you were writing The Orchardist, was there a particular scene or character that surprised you?

The character of Jane surprised me the most, probably. The decision she made when faced with the possibility of facing Michaelson again.

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

Read, watch movies, walk around Portland, meet with my friends, play Scrabble, play with dogs.

Read any good books recently?

Yes; always! A recent favorite is Colette's novel The Vagabond. It's about a female mime and dancer making a living for herself in France in the early 1900s, and what she does when she falls in love with a man who wants to marry her. Does she marry him and sacrifice the freedom she has worked so hard to cultivate, or does she sacrifice her own love of solitude for the intimate company of this other person? The character's decision, and Colette's decision to end the book the way she did, shocked me. I can't believe this novel was written in 1910, it feels completely contemporary.

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GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to offer a copy of The Orchardist to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US/Canadian readers, ends 3/22.

Winners!

So, I was crunched for time last week and didn't get to last week's winners, so this post has ALL the winners!



The winner of Children of Liberty is ... Meg @ A Bookish Affair!

The winners of Equal of the Sun are ... Natalie and Christina!

The winner of The House Girl is ... Amy S.!

The winner of The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow is ... Mariya!

Congrats to the winners!  Folks have until Wednesday to reply; I'll redraw winners after that.  Be sure to check out my open giveaways -- more coming next week!

Friday, March 15, 2013

The Dark Heroine by Abigail Gibbs

Title: The Dark Heroine
Author: Abigail Gibbs

Genre: Fiction (Contemporary / London / UK / Vampires / Paranormal/Supernatural / Romance / Teenaged Heroine)
Publisher/Publication Date: William Morrow Paperbacks (3/5/2013)
Source: TLC Book Tours

Rating: Meh.
Did I finish?: I did not.
One-sentence summary: A teenaged human learns that vampires live and rule in Britain.

Do I like the cover?: Not particularly.

First line: Trafalgar Square is probably not the best place to stand at one o'clock in the morning.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Avoid unless you're a huge vampire fan or familiar with/fond of Gibbs' online work.

Why did I get this book?: The title, probably -- I've forgotten now!

Review: This book was inspired by the Twilight series and originally penned as a sprawling online story by a 14-year old girl. Said story eventually garnered 17 million views...and with the runaway success of Fifty Shades of Grey, no one should be surprised that Gibbs' novel was given the same online-to-offline treatment. This is the end result.

First, I have to give mad props to Gibbs, now 18 and off to Oxford, who made a chunk of change from what was a late night hobby. In this article (and in the book's Acknowledgements), she gloats a little about how her parents hated that she stayed up all night to write, but who cares now? Oxford and publishing deal!

Now that the congrats are out of the way, on to the critiques. Honestly, my biggest critique is that this feels like a world articulated by a teenager, which isn't surprising since that's who the author is.  My second critique is that I think this book needed a lot more editing, but I suspect there was a rush to publish it before her online fans moved on to something else.

This was another DNF for me -- I think I only made it to 90 pages -- as the writing style and characterizations just didn't work and this beast clocks in at 550+ pages.  

Essentially, this is an ordinary-girl-meets-an-extraordinary-boy romance, but our extraordinary boy is a vampire prince.  Violet -- named for her purple eyes! -- witnesses Kaspar leading an attack that kills 30 men.  She thinks to herself that Kaspar is a jerk (really?  That's your response?  I guess I'll chalk that up to shock...), he hears her thoughts, kidnaps her to his vampire estate where she can choose to live there until she dies or get changed into a vampire.

Although the jacket tells me this is the 'sexiest romance' I'll read all year, I call shenanigans. While I don't think authors need to write from personal experience to create evocative, resonant fiction, I do think it takes a skilled youngster to articulate well grand themes like immortality as well as convincingly convey the frisson of sexual interest.

Gibbs is fond of the quippy heroine -- her vampire men repeatedly call her 'feisty' with a mix of irritation and admiration -- so she inserts the glib aside at the randomest of moments, which detract from the tension she's trying to build and frankly, made it impossible for me to really suspend disbelief.

In this scene early on, Violet has fled her captors and trips into a deep lake.  Kaspar has menaced her, bitten her neck to make her bleed, and she's just witnessed a bloody massacre 12 hours earlier.  We'll learn in a throwaway sentence after this bit that she's petrified of drowning.
As the water erupted around me, it poured into my still shrieking mouth. ... My legs flailed and I searched for the bottom, more resembling an octopus than a human being.  Nevertheless, I broke the surface long enough to snatch a breath.  But it wasn't long enough to scream as something that felt like seaweed wrapped around my ankle.  With one yank, it pulled me back below the surface.  Looking down, I realized it was a tentacle wrapped around my leg, and I was face-to-face with what looked like a giant squid.

I groaned in my mind.  Why can't my life be normal? (p29)

Again I say: really?  Really? Gibbs has the nicer vampire carry her back to the mansion where he answers her questions about the source of the giant squid -- a query Violet manages while wobbling, half fainting, and looking fetching in her wet clothes (Gibbs alternates Violet's POV with Kaspar's now and then so we can have someone admire Violet).

I'm still in search of the vampire novel that'll make me like vampires. For me, Gibbs didn't manage to hit all the notes, but millions of others disagree, so you can start reading online to see how it strikes your fancy. If you like this one, you'll be happy to know there's a sequel coming!

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GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to offer a copy of The Dark Heroine to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US/Canadian readers, ends 3/29.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Forlorn Hope by James Mace

Title: Forlorn Hope: The Storming of Badajoz
Author: James Mace

Genre: Fiction (Historical / Early 19th Century / Wellington / War / Spain / European History / British Army / French Army)
Publisher/Publication Date: Legionary Books (2012)
Source: Pump Up Your Book!

Rating: Liked.
Did I finish?: I did!
One-sentence summary: The days surrounding the 1812 assault on Badajoz, Spain.
Reading Challenges: E-book, Historical Fiction

Do I like the cover?: I do -- it's an original painting by a contemporary artist of the Badajoz invasion.

First line: It was a hateful task for a British infantryman.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy, especially those who enjoy military fiction.

Why did I get this book?: I was intrigued by the premise and its connection with I Stood With Wellington.

Review:This 100 page novella is a horrifying snapshot of a suicidal mission. Technically a prequel to I Stood With Wellington (which I loved), this and the full-length novel can be read alone. (As can I Stood With Wellington.)

Set in 1812, Mace takes the reader into the siege of a Spanish fortress, focusing on the group of soldiers known as the 'Forlorn Hope' -- the first wave of attackers expected to die, meant only to pave the way for further assault. Mixing gritty details and cinematic elements in his combat scenes with a focus on a few individuals -- both French and British -- Mace hooked me on this story.

I'm not typically a reader of combat/military fiction, but this is a story of soldiers -- good, bad and everything in between -- and the military culture of 19th century armies. From the 'ranks' to the officers, we're given glimpses of the snobbery, prejudices, and camaraderie common in the time.

Mace builds tension methodically, ticking away the hours to the siege, introducing us to some of the men participating. A young officer volunteers impetuously, aching at the sudden death of his wife. When the breach is delayed, he finds himself less certain about his decision but is committed nonetheless.  A young raconteur fears he'll die without knowing love; a terminally ill man chooses this death over a more protracted one. 

Even though I technically 'knew' what happened at Badajoz from characters referencing it in I Stood With Wellington, I was still glued to this book. It was quite a nail-biter, shockingly gory at moments (but not gratuitously), and thankfully ended beyond the last moments of Badajoz.

As with I Stood With Wellington, Mace's Notes are fascinating to read. Again sharing his goals and desires in writing this novella, he also reflects on his sources and the historical and fictional characters featured.

At about 100 pages, this was a zippy read, a wonderful introduction to Mace's writing style and a good dip into a historical novel that mixes well military and combat narrative with character-driven plot.

I Stood With Wellington by James Mace

Title: I Stood With Wellington
Author: James Mace

Genre: Fiction (Historical / Early 19th Century / Napoleon / Wellington / War / Waterloo / European History / British Army / French Army)
Publisher/Publication Date: Legionary Books (2012)
Source: Pump Up Your Books

Rating: Liked a good deal.
Did I finish?: I did!
One-sentence summary: An account of two military geniuses -- Wellington and Napoleon -- and the soldiers who fought with them in the skirmishes leading up to Waterloo.
Reading Challenges: E-book, Historical Fiction

Do I like the cover?: It's fine -- nothing fancy.

First line: France is falling.

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

Why did I get this book?: I enjoy novels featuring Napoleon -- Georgette Heyer, Sandra Gulland -- but haven't read any that deal strictly with the battles he led, and was curious.

Review: I'm not a Napoleon fangirl but I love novels set during his time. I cut my teeth on Georgette Heyer and the Georgian-era is still a favorite. And while I like books set during wartime, I'm not really drawn to the combat narrative -- I like stories about those at home -- but recently, I've found that novels set squarely in the battlefield have been engaging and this book is no exception.

Opening in 1814, Mace drops us in the middle of a violent skirmish in Toulouse, France, in which famed British military hero, the Duke of Wellington, is driving back Napoleon's armies. Alternating between French and British viewpoints, Mace sets up a rather complicated back story fairly easily, contexting the conflict that just happened and establishing what's to come. It took me about two chapters to get totally up to speed, I admit, but by the third chapter, I was hooked. As the European powers wage peace, Napoleon frets in exile, and it is only a matter of time before he returns to Europe to take back France, an invasion that culminates in the Battle of Waterloo.

Mace weaves these bursts of conflict in with a few character-driven threads (or perhaps the other way around) and as a result, I was caught up in the drama of both 'what will Napoleon do next??' and 'I hope that sweet British widower will remarry that nice Englishwoman!'. Reminiscent of Heyer, Mace's novel touches upon the rigid class stratification in the British Army, the societal changes happening in the world around them, and the shocking reality of life for a 19th century soldier. Being the opposite of a war buff, I wouldn't know my bayonet from my ... some other 'b' term, but Mace peppers the narrative with tidbits and hints to help the reader envision the scene and understand what is going on.

What really impressed me -- because I love it when done well -- is that Mace balances a light touch (hints of a courtship between two characters) with a darker one (the behavior of the 'good guys' during a particularly hellish combat moment). In his 'Final Thoughts' (more on that later), he reveals he strove to create some ambiguity about who were the 'good guys' and 'bad guys', and he nailed it: I was for the British and French constantly.

This particular edition was a treat to read, an enhanced e-book loaded with extras. The novel clocks in at about 480 pages with a rich collection of appendices to answer any armchair historian's questions, from a detailed list of military ranks with explanation, a historical afterward that shares the fate of the major historical players, and perhaps my favorite section, an annotated list of what historical regiments from this novel still exist and in what form. The book is peppered with illustrations -- either historical or contemporary renditions of the events at the time -- which I loved and appreciated.

Mace's 'Final Thoughts', in which he shares his thoughts on writing this novel, was a pleasure to read. I love reading about the craft of writing as much as the actual product and Mace echoes that refrain I've heard from other historical novelists, a desire to balance accuracy with entertainment.

You can read a preview chapter at the publisher website to get a sense of Mace's style but I will again mention it took me two chapters -- and was worth it. A wonderfully rich and detailed chunkster for those who like Georgian-era historical fiction, war stories, or the Franco/Anglo divide.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Children of Liberty by Paullina Simons

Title: Children of Liberty
Author: Paullina Simons

Genre: Fiction (Historical / early 20th century / Boston / Italian Immigrant / Boston Brahmin / Culture Clash / Prequel)
Publisher/Publication Date: William Morrow Paperbacks (2/26/2013)
Source: TLC Book Tours

Rating: Meh.
Did I finish?: I did not -- I stopped at 104 pages.
One-sentence summary: The story of a Sicilian immigrant, Gina, and a Boston brahmin, Harry, in 1899 Boston.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction, Immigrant Stories

Do I like the cover?: I do -- although it evokes Colonial fiction for me rather than turn-of-the-20th-century.

I'm reminded of...: Ann Chamberlin, Jennifer Chiaverini, David John

First line: There had been a fire at Ellis Island the year before Gina came to America with her mother and brother in 1899, and so instead of arriving at the Port of New York, they had set sail into the Port of Boston.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow? I can't objectively say.

Why did I get this book?: So many people raved about Simons' other books.

Review: From the first line, I knew this wasn't my book. Tell-not-show is my reader-ly pet peeve, especially in historical fiction, and the opening chapters felt heavy with telling. I ended up DNFing this book at 104 pages as I just couldn't stand Simons' writing style.

Set in 1899, Sicilian Gina -- on the cusp of turning 15 -- emigrates to the US with her mother and older brother. Upon landing in Boston, they meet Harry Barrington and Ben Shaw, Boston brahmins who manage apartments for newly arrived immigrants (they're the nicest slumlords in history). Ben is hot for Gina, but we the reader know Harry secretly wants her, five year age difference, economic status, and cultural backgrounds be damned. (Also, this is a prequel to Simons' wildly popular Tatiana and Alexander books, featuring Alexander's parents. Even without having read those three books, I had a hunch where this was going.)

Actually, I can't say for certain that's what happened, having stopped just one hundred pages in, but Simons isn't subtle with her set up nor the way she unfolds the story. Gina is childish but winsome, exaggeratedly naive and yet unconsciously sexual; she skips up church stairs but also rebelliously unpins her hair during a candlelit dinner with the two strange men she just met. She's a sweet, naive 14 year old who relishes rendering men speechless.

Ben Shaw is related to Robert Gould Shaw, and for any reader who doesn't know who he is, Simons stops just short of describing him as Matthew Broderick in Glory. Harry Barrington (who, I admit, I kept calling Harry Barry in my head) is cold and bemused and aloof, unimpressed with Ben's hot interest in Gina, telegraphing to all their eventual getting together-ness.

Simons infodumps by having Ben and Harry do this frenetic bantering thing -- which was exhausting -- but Gina finds it delightful, of course.  It gave great historical context to early 20th century Boston, but it felt so unnatural and forced, I couldn't shake the feeling of getting a lecture.

In addition to the characters, I found Simons' writing style to be off-putting: she has this weird joke-y commentary thing going on with Harry's scenes, while we're omniscient third person with Gina. From a dinner with Harry and company:
"...The bananas need to be collected, appraised, counted, packaged and crated. Someone has to do all this."

"And someone has to make the crates," Herman said, seeing the nails because all he carried was a hammer.

"First they have to procure the lumber to make the crates," Orville cut in, seeing the nails because all he carried was a hammer.

"Absolutely," Ben agreed, who carried a number of tools with him. (p71)
And from the aforementioned candlelit dinner with Gina, her brother, and Ben and Harry:
He kicked the chair again, harder. She looked over at him. What, she mouthed with irritation. He gestured to her hair with his eyes.

You want me to tie up my hair, she rhetorically mutely asked him. Fine, here you go. Raising her hands to her head, she pulled out all the pins and laid them on the table, in front of her plate. ... (p37)
I will say, she makes her characters big and bold and strong, and if you like those flavors in your fiction, you might enjoy this one.  For me, everyone grated, so much so, that by page 64 I was counting down those last forty as I worked my way to one hundred.

Be sure to check out the other blogs on the tour as folks loved this book way more than I, and Simons has a huge fanbase.  This one just didn't hit me the right way, but doesn't mean it won't strike you just fine!

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GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to offer a copy of Children of Liberty to one lucky reader; to enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US/Canadian readers, ends 3/15.