Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

Title: The Golem and the Jinni
Author: Helene Wecker

Genre: Fiction (Historical / Magical Realism / Historical Fantasy / 19th Century / New York City / Immigrants / Supernatural Creatures / Judaism /
Publisher/Publication Date: Harper (4/23/2013)
Source: TLC Book Tours

Rating: Liked to loved.
Did I finish?: I did!
One-sentence summary: Two mythological creatures arrive in New York City at the beginning of the 20th century, immigrants plunged into communities alien, and facing threats greater than they know.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction, Immigrant Stories

Do I like the cover?: I do -- I think it captures the flavor of the book and the characters in a deliciously moody (and pretty!) way.

I'm reminded of...: Stephanie Dray, Neil Gaiman

First line: The Golem's life began in the hold of a steamship.

Did... I love browsing the author's website?: YES. She has sections on New York in 1899, Little Syria, the Lower East Side, as well as a helpful character list.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy, especially if you like magical realism meets historical fiction, New York City in novels, or deeply engrossing chunksters.

Why did I get this book?: Historical fiction meets supernatural mythology? Y.U.M.

Review: I was captivated by this book from the first line and my time with this book was nearly obsessive. Every free second I needed to read; and now that I'm done, I'm pretty sure I won't be able to do this book justice. (The very short review: I loved this imaginative, thoughtful book.)

Set in New York City, 1899, the novel follows two very unusual immigrants: a female golem, created to be a bride/sex slave to a man who dies on their journey to the US and a jinni (genie), released from a flask accidentally by a timsmith.

The golem is found by a rabbi who guesses her true identity, and they live in uncomfortable closeness. The golem, built to serve but living without a master, finds herself tugged at by every wish, desire, and yearning around her. The rabbi, unable to bring himself to destroy her, instead tries to introduce her into the wider Jewish world in the Lower East Side. Unable to sleep and unable to rest, the golem finds employment in a bakery but still attracts attention, despite her best attempts to obey the rabbi's suggestions.

The jinni, on the other hand, a powerful creature chained into human form by iron, chafes and bucks at his mortal shell. Almost a thousand years have passed since he was last free, and while he has a myriad of memories, he has no memory of his entrapment and what might have happened while trapped. Hidden in 'Little Syria' -- a neighborhood of Christian and Muslim Syrians in lower Manhattan -- the jinni is styled as the tinsmith's new assistant and immediately attracts nosy interest from his neighbors. In an impetuous move, motivated by curiosity and a smidgen of lust, the jinni meets a society woman who immediately captures his interest and attention with tragic results.

All this happens in the first hundred pages, and the remaining three hundred plus pages unfolds these two threads.  But within these stories are a myriad other stories, like a fairy tale or Scheherazade's, overlapping and meeting, occasionally tangling: the hermit who made the golem, the wizard who entrapped the jinni, the society woman, an itinerant ice cream seller with a complicated and strange affliction.

The jacket blurb says this is in the vein of A Discovery of Witches, which originally put me off since I didn't like ADOW, but I found this a richer, more nuanced novel.

Depending on the kind of reader you are, this can be simply a fantastical mix of myth and history or a literary exploration of faith, self directed identity, free will, the stuff that makes us human. Through the golem and jinni, we see firsthand the tumultuous, explosive, earthy world of early 20th century New York City; as they struggle with the whys of their existence, we puzzle through the bigger philosophical questions about life and choice. But at no point is this book pedantic or political; Wecker's characters wrestle with the same issues so many of us do and have, in the end, to answer to themselves, those they love, and the values they chose to hold.

Those who liked Neil Gaiman's American Gods might enjoy this one; those who like unusual historical novels will certainly dig this book. While it is a supernatural story or a historical fantasy, the 'magic' is tempered and controlled, and I think anyone who allergic to paranormal stories should give this one a try. (You can read an excerpt here, if it that helps!) I will say this one will end up on my holiday gift list for many folks -- it's a book that made me feel joyous as a reader, relishing the pleasure of being lost in a story so real I had to remind myself where I was every time I lifted my nose from the page.

*** *** ***


I'm thrilled to offer a copy of The Golem and the Jinni to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US/Canadian readers, ends 5/17.

Saturday, April 27, 2013


Today just ran away from me! I meant to do this earlier, but got waylaid. It's a stunningly gorgeous day and I'm grateful for it!

The winner of Cascade is ... Amy F.!

The winner of Highlander Most Wanted is ... Melody May!

The winner of The Chalice is ... Katherine G.!

Congrats to the winners! I've emailed folks and everyone has until end of day Tuesday to get back to me. Be sure to check out my open giveaways. I hope everyone is having a lovely weekend so far!

Friday, April 26, 2013

The Bequest of Big Daddy by Jo-Ann Costa

Title: The Bequest of Big Daddy
Author: Jo-Ann Costa

Genre: Fiction (Southern / Gothic / Family Saga / 19th Century / 20th Century / Civil War / Post-Civil War / Alabama / Anti-Hero / Skeletons in the Closet)
Publisher/Publication Date: Koehler Books (4/1/2013)
Source: TLC Book Tours

Rating: Okay to liked. (Although, having finished my review, am nudging more closely to liked!)
Did I finish?: I did.
One-sentence summary: A young woman delves into her family's complicated past when she seeks out the truth of her great-grandfather and her family's connection to her ancestral home.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction

Do I like the cover?: It's fine, although with that little girl, I thought there'd be some kind of abuse, but this novel had a different kind of violence to it.

First line: As I understand it, Big Daddy was born that way, unable to help himself when he acted ugly and equally unable to recognize right from wrong.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy if you like good, tangled Southern gothic. This isn't V.C. Andrew's type family drama; more Truman Capote, perhaps, meets Elmore Leonard.

Why did I get this book?: I like Gothic-y Southern fiction.

Review: Spanning 1843 through 1981, this novel follows the Janson family, through Jo-Dee Janson Cipriano (a fictional take on the author, Jo-Ann Costa, I presume), a young woman fascinated by her great-grandfather, Big Daddy -- Horatio 'Ratio' Gage Janson. Rude, unruly, wild, downright 'randy' (according to her mother), Jo-Dee knows Big Daddy only as a wizened old man on the verge of death. His passing prompts her to seek out the truth of his story, propelled by a curiosity to know just how bad, how wild, and how randy he really was.

In proper gothic tradition, the circumstances of Big Daddy's birth are shrouded in secrecy and lies. His mother, the stunningly gorgeous and staggeringly selfish Mina Satterley is a Southern belle forced into exile from her family's plantation with the arrival of the Civil War. Her husband, sweet Clay Man Janson, besotted with her since a boy, has become a soldier and is presumed dead, unloved by Mina and unknown by Ratio. Mina has taken up with an Alabama senator for her keep, a man who loathes Ratio but offers employment to keep the boy out of trouble. Charmed, perhaps, with a good luck amulet from a childhood incident with the circus, Ratio manages well -- but still gets himself into trouble with the surety of a compass finding north.

Some of the characters -- Ratio primary -- are hard to like. They're cruel, mean, rude, ignorant, violent, selfish -- but they are fascinating. Like a car accident or a sordid argument, you can't look away -- and really, why look away?

Costa has a sharp sense of her characters and the appeal of a sordid, tangled drama, but I occasionally found the writing clunky. I preferred the historical sections as the more contemporary ones rang a tad awkward. I also have to confess that the use of dialect in dialogue was off-putting and distracting for me; I appreciate the desire to indicate a different style of speaking, but as all her white Southern characters speak grammatically correct English, it was noticeable that the slaves and freed people of color all spoke something more muddled and broken.

Still, there's a lovely kind of spoken rhythm to the story -- mimicking in some ways the storytelling that we see happen in the book, as happens at the Janson's reunion in 1981, relatives replaying and rehashing their shared familial memory -- and the reader is invited into that circle. If you like tawdry Southern family drama that steers toward Capote-meets-Leonard rather than V.C. Andrews, this is your book.

*** *** ***


I'm thrilled to offer a copy of The Bequest of Big Daddy to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US/Canadian readers, ends 5/10.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Pain, Parties, Work by Elizabeth Winder

Title: Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953
Author: Elizabeth Winder

Genre: Non-Fiction (Biography / Poetry / 1950s / New York City / Sylvia Plath / Mademoiselle Magazine / Depression / Pop Culture / Sociology)
Publisher/Publication Date: Harper (4/16/2013)
Source: TLC Book Tours

Rating: Liked a good deal.
Did I finish?: I did.
One-sentence summary: A poetic look at a month in Sylvia Plath's life, punctuated with trivia about 1953, American culture, women's lives, and New York City.
Reading Challenges: What's In a Name

Do I like the cover?: I love the cover very much -- adore those retro pics -- but my galley has no info about the image. I don't think it's Sylvia Plath on the cover, which is really too bad, as there are some wonderful pictures from this time that I would have preferred to see featured.

I'm reminded of...: Nancy Milford

First line: Sylvia Plath committed suicide with cooking gas.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy if you like unique biographies or are a Plath fan.

Why did I get this book?: I'm fascinated by Plath.

Review: The experience of a book is shaped by the reader: what she feels, thinks, values, believes, has experienced, wants to experience. Some books come with more baggage than others.

Sylvia Plath is a figure for whom I have intense, tangled feelings; any book I read by her or of her is seen through the many layers of experience and emotion I've tied to Plath. More than ten years ago, I wrote a sort of reflection piece on a non-book blog about The Bell Jar, trying post-college to untangle my feelings about Plath and her tragic hagiography. In college, as a young depressed teenager, the pathos of Plath's life as I understood it seemed immensely appealing -- crucial, even -- to my developing identity as an adult (and at the time, a writer) but now that I'm older, now that I'm dealing with my depression, I want to get past the flat caricature and see the complete woman.

This book is hardly a complete presentation, but the focused sliver is fascinating. In this 288-page volume, poet Elizabeth Winder narrows her sights on Plath's one month internship at Mademoiselle magazine in 1953 and the impact it had on her. (These four weeks later inspired The Bell Jar, an autobiographical novel about a brilliant, passionate, self-possessed young woman chafing life in the 1950s.)

Winder's Plath is a sensualist, a fashionista, a gourmand, a sociologist.  She's unlikable, predatory, sharp, cruel, insecure, competitive, playful, curious.  Using Plath's diary and new interviews with the other 'guest editors' who spent that June with Plath, Winder shapes a Sylvia who is less alien and more familiar than I anticipated.  (And far less melancholy!)

The rigors of working for Mademoiselle, the pressure of being a young woman from an Ivy League college in 1953, the transition from small town life to New York City all weighed on the women who made up the guest editors, Plath included.  Each one, they shared in their interviews with Winder, thought they alone were unhappy, stressed, or feeling isolated.  Oblivious, they rocketed from one event to another, cramming copy in between fashion shows and cocktail parties, Yankee baseball games and movies.  In their opening editorial, they declared they wanted careers and marriage (and three children each); Plath, however, fought against that inevitability bitterly.  She paid for her resistance, as well as her passion, with her first suicide attempt and subsequent electroconvulsive therapy treatments.

The book's unusual style reminded me of a magazine, with the sidebars, call outs, blocks of trivia, interviews mixed in with narrative. I didn't find it gimmicky; it read breezy and fast, layered, allowing Winder to tell her story without having to spell it all out.  I raced through this one, even when the last 100 pages grew weighty with the foreshadowing of Plath's coming suicide attempt.

My only real critique is that there were some glaring inconsistencies that might just be a result of my reading a galley (rather than a finished copy). Info offered on one page is contradicted on another ('she wrote in blue cursive' (p61), 'She never wrote in cursive.' (p62)); or repeated verbatim, like the tidbit of a guest editor writing to Mademoiselle in the 1970s, condemning them for ignoring Plath's vulnerabilities (p89 and p181). There was also the occasional mistake (Sylvia gifted someone Alice and Wonderland which I presume was meant to be Alice in Wonderland.)

I can't say I was exactly sad to leave Sylvia -- she's not a woman I think I would have been friends with -- but I do miss Winder's warm portrayal of that heady, busy, sad, stifling summer and the women who worked with her. (And for the most part, based on the quotes Winder shares, seemed to have liked Plath, in a way.) This is a partial, biased biography that unabashedly rings with admiration and affection for Plath, and I appreciated that. For those new to Plath, I think this a good introduction to her; those who are familiar with Plath might find nothing shockingly new other than the tidbits revealed by Winder's interviews.  Those who like gossip-y armchair escapes will love this book: New York City and some of her famous residents and notorious visitors appear, pushing for attention as much as Plath was.

*** *** ***


I'm thrilled to offer a copy of Pain, Parties, Work to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US/Canadian readers, ends 5/10.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Interview with Michelle Diener

I just loved Michelle Diner's 19th century historical novel set in South Africa, Daughter of the Sky. It was gripping and escapist and granted me some time away from the stress of last week, and for that, I'm grateful. I'm doubly so as Michelle Diener agreed to answer a few of my questions, so read on to learn more about her and her writing, and be sure to enter the giveaway for her wonderful book!

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

Oh, dear. Do I really have to? OK. If you go back in time to the 80s, when I was a child, my friends and I were addicted to a television cartoon from Japan. Manga-style, with girls with pink hair and boys with purple hair, who flew in space and were fighter pilots. Can't remember the series name, but I wrote extra episodes for my friends and myself, because we couldn't wait for the next week's episode to come around. But as an adult -- I had just completed my Masters' thesis in translation, which was on the translation of romance fiction, a surprisingly under-studied area given the massive amount of translation done on romance novels, particularly category romance novels. Having studied the structure of those novels as part of my thesis, I thought I'd give writing one a go. It was called Chequered Love. My heroine was a race engineer, just hired on to a Formula 1 team, and my hero was a Formula 1 racing driver. There was intrigue, disputes over car modifications, and ultimately, declarations of love. :) I submitted it, and received a very nice letter back saying while my writing was good, and I obviously had a flare for writing sensual love scenes, the plot would not appeal to their readership. But please to submit something else to them in the future. And that is probably more than you really wanted to know! :)

Do you have any writing rituals or routines?

I like quiet when I write. And I usually switch off my internet connection, so I'm not even tempted to look. But other than that, not really. I write all over the house. At my desk, on my bed, on the couch, and if it isn't too hot (I live in Western Australia), outside on the veranda.

Was Daughter of the Sky the original title of your book?

It was, although it took some time for me to think of it. I had planned the book for some time, done a lot of work in preparation, and still didn't have a title. It bothered me, but nothing I thought of worked, so it was called New Book or something like that until I was a couple of chapters in to actually writing it, and Elizabeth says she is a daughter of the sky, and it was like the heavens opened and the hallelujah chorus rang out, and I renamed the file Daughter of the Sky right then and there.

As you were writing Daughter of the Sky, was there a particular scene or character that surprised you?

The scene at the river, where Elizabeth goes to wash, and sees Lindani, and while they are talking, Jack arrives. That scene could have gone so many different ways, and I just let it come, without over-thinking it. I loved it because there were so many layers to it. Not one of them, Elizabeth, Jack or Lindani, knew the true motives of the others. Everyone is operating on incorrect assumptions and cultural misunderstanding.

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

I love baking. I try to walk for about an hour every morning. I walk my kids to school, and then keep going. It clears my head, even if I don't think over my current work, although I often do. I also love reading. That probably goes without saying, but I read a lot.

Read any good books recently?

I've just finished the copy edits for a book that is coming out in October, Banquet of Lies, and while I'm in copy edit mode, I find it incredibly difficult to read uncritically. I've started and put aside three books in the last two days, but about a week ago, I read a book called Ghost Planet by Sharon Lynn Fisher which I thoroughly enjoyed. It was recommended to me when I was asking around for sci-fi recommendations, and it didn't disappoint.

Thanks for having me, Audra!

*** *** ***

My thanks to Ms. Diener for her time and thoughtful answers. Learn more about her and her books at her website and connect with her on Twitter.


I'm thrilled to offer one ready a copy of Daughter of the Sky (paperback or eBook, winner's choice). To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US and international readers, ends 5/3.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Mailbox Monday, April 22

Hosted in April by Mari @ MariReads, here's my Mailbox Monday for the last few weeks. Such a lovely distraction getting all these fabulous books -- I don't know where to start! To learn more about a title, click and it will open in a new tab/window.

What did you get this week?

For Review

Saturday, April 20, 2013


It's feeling pretty celebratory here in Boston although I know everyone is heartbroken over the additional loss of life.  Grateful it is all over and there is a suspect in custody.

I'm also excited to get back to books and blogging -- and share this week's giveaway winners!

The winner of The Tale of Raw Head and Bloody Bones is ... Jennifer M.!

The winner of Like Chaff in the Wind is ... Ann (summergal05)!

Congrats to the winners!  Folks have been emailed and have until the end of day Tuesday to get back to me.  If you didn't win, be sure to check out my open giveaways.

I'd also be grateful if you checked out some of the reviews from this week if you haven't already -- I hadn't had the focus to be online and promote things (for which I feel terrible!). 

Friday, April 19, 2013

Daughter of the Sky by Michelle Diener

Title: Daughter of the Sky
Author: Michelle Diener

Genre: Fiction (Historical / 19th Century / South Africa / Zulus / Anglo-Zulu War / Cross-Dressing / British Army / Cross-Cultural / Romance)
Publisher/Publication Date: Self published (2013)
Source: Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

Rating: Loved, especially as it was gripping enough to get my mind off the Boston Marathon bombings on Monday.
Did I finish?: I read this in one day -- about six hours.
One-sentence summary: Englishwoman Elizabeth Jones was raised by South African Zulus after surviving a shipwreck, and when British troops threaten the Zulu, she infiltrates the army by disguising herself as a soldier.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction

Do I like the cover?: On one hand, I do -- very pretty! -- but on the other hand, I don't think it sets the novel up well. Young, long-haired white girl with indigenous weapon is hardly our heroine, who -- while young -- crops her hair and uses a rifle.

First line: Lindani didn't run from anything, even a monster in the sea.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy -- the ebook is $3.99 and wonderfully fun for those who like historical romances in a non-traditional setting.

Why did I get this book?: I'm rather obsessed with fiction set in Africa.

Review: I was a bit apprehensive when I got this book: with a white heroine proudly emblazoned on the cover and a premise set during the 19th century Anglo-Zulu War in South Africa, I was afraid it would be White Man's Burden meets The Power of One. (And I say this as someone who loves The Power of One, but let's be real, it's problematic.)  Instead, this is a lovely historical romance with a bold heroine living in two worlds, belonging to neither, and a fascinating armchair escape to an era and locale rarely seen in historical fiction.

Set in 1878 in the eastern coastal region of what is now South Africa, the story follows Elizabeth Jones, a white Englishwoman who was washed up on the coast at fourteen when her ship wrecked. Taken in by the local Zulu tribe, she is raised alongside them, her rescuer Lindani virtually a brother to her. Now twenty, Elizabeth and her Zulu family watch in horror as the British army masses against them, clearly bent on war. At the behest of the Zulu king, Elizabeth crops her hair short and dons stolen British uniforms to infiltrate the army and report back to the Zulu what the British plan.

Through a tiny bit of helpful coincidence (which I forgive, because otherwise, things would have progressed way too slowly), Elizabeth ends up masquerading as a batman (a personal servant) to Captain Jack Burdell.  Jack is a seasoned soldier and a gentleman farmer, recently disillusioned with army life, a sentiment that grows when he reads his father's journals and finds his father felt the same way.

Fairly quickly, Jack sees through Elizabeth's disguise, but buys her cover story, and the two fight off their sexual interest.  Elizabeth, who witnessed the British Army at their worst as a child, finds herself softening toward the soldiers around her, less convinced she wants to be party to anyone's annihilation, Zulu or British.  As the story marches (literally) toward battle, Elizabeth has to learn who to trust and what world she wants to live in -- and of course, what the cost of that choice will be.

While the romance is straight-forward, I so loved Diener's acknowledgment of the hypocrisy of the mores and values held by Victorian British.  In one scene, when Jack learns Elizabeth dressed in traditional Zulu fashion -- that is, topless -- all her life, he is aghast.  For a moment, his sexual desire for her dissipates as he makes the erroneous leap that she was ravaged by the Zulu.  Her semi-nudity, he's convinced, was sexually explicit -- whereas the reality, as Elizabeth points out, is that no Zulu stared at her breasts the way Jack stared at them. The repressed Victorians are the savage ones here.

Diener's premise, while seemingly far-fetched, is based on some historical tidbits, including the real-life survival story of a ship-wrecked child adopted by locals as well as the fact that after the battle of Isandlwana, survivors were questioned as to whether they had seen a woman on the battlefield. (As Diener writes, why would anyone ask that question?, and I agree!) Every chapter opens with a historical quote from the Zulu or British from this time, prescient and heartbreaking, and there's a glossary of Zulu phrases as well as an extensive bibliography.

I raced through this book in a day, following the Boston Marathon bombings and it was just the read I needed. Easily losing myself in the story, it had a romance I was rooting for and a larger historical arc that was tense and fascinating. (Being unfamiliar with the Battle of Isandlwana, I raced to the end to see how it resolved.) Fans of unique historical settings will enjoy this, as well as anyone who hankers for a historical romance that is spicy, a little complicated, and very bittersweet.

*** *** ***


I'm thrilled to offer one ready a copy of Daughter of the Sky (paperback or eBook, winner's choice). To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US and international readers, ends 5/3. See my interview with Michelle Diener for another chance to enter!

Thursday, April 18, 2013

House of Rocamora by Donald Michael Platt

Title: House of Rocamora
Author: Donald Michael Platt

Genre: Fiction (Historical / 17th Century / Judaism / Medicine / Amsterdam / Family Saga)
Publisher/Publication Date: Raven's Wing Books (11/19/2012)
Source: Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

Rating: Liked.
Did I finish?: I did.
One-sentence summary: 17th century Dominican priest turns Jewish physician in Amsterdam.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction, Immigrant Stories

Do I like the cover?: Not really, although with the Dutch setting, it has a kind of Vermeer-y look to it that I like!

First line: "¡Madre de dios!"

Why did I get this book?: The setting was unique, and I'd read the first one!

Review: This book is the sequel to Rocamora, a beefy historical novel following Isaac Vicente de Rocamora. Continuing the tale of real-life Dominican-priest-turned-Jewish-physician, Platt's book again delves deeply into 17th century life, this time focusing on Jewish communities in Amsterdam rather than the grim drama of the Spanish court.

I preferred this book to the first one, perhaps because of the more domestic focus. Vicente -- now Isaac -- is settling in his new home as a Jewish man, honoring his family's history in a way he couldn't while in Spain.

The reader follows Vicente through his education -- a bit of a crash course, as he's in his 40s and spent a good deal of his life absorbing Catholic doctrine -- and his courtship with the young, beautiful Abigail. A man who has run through a number of passionate, beautiful lovers, Isaac's focus on his family and his community is a refreshing change from the blood, guts, gore, and court intrigue found in Rocamora -- a shift seemingly so absurd I wouldn't believe it were it not based in fact!

As with his first book, Platt's meticulous research is clear and I found the historical details fascinating. Jewish culture and community in this era wasn't homogenized -- as with any broad denomination, there are various factions and levels of conservatism -- and Platt lightly touches upon the prejudices and tensions between these smaller groups.

Where Rocamora had plot so rich it dripped off the page, House of Rocamora is a quieter, slower novel, focused more on the man rather than the man's actions. I preferred this shift and enjoyed watching the man of action settle into life as a community leader, as a husband and father, and later, as a widower.

By the end of the novel, the story shifts to one of Isaac's children, and as with the first book, I found the ending could both be satisfying and a cliff-hanger, depending on your mood!

This edition has some lovely extras to help the reader: a map, a preface to set the mood and place, and information about the cost of living in the area -- helpful in evoking and imagining life there!

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Rocamora by Donald Michael Platt

Title: Rocamora
Author: Donald Michael Platt

Genre: Fiction (Historical / 17th Century / Spain / Inquisition / Court Intrigue / Religious Orders / Historical Figure Fictionalized / Judaism)
Publisher/Publication Date: Raven’s Wings Books (9/26/2011)
Source: Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

Rating: Okay.
Did I finish?: I did!
One-sentence summary: The story of a charismatic young man in 17th century Spain, who gains prestige and power as a priest with the Spanish royal court.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction

Do I like the cover?: I don't.

First line: El jorobado, the hunchback, reached under his tattered cloak and gripped the hilt of his dagger.

Why did I get this book?: I was interested in the setting -- you don't often see that in historical fiction!

Review: This immense novel clocks in at nearly 400 pages and is set among the tumultuous, violent, vibrant world of 17th century Spain. Growing up amidst a culture obsessed with limpieza de sangre, or the 'purity' of one's background, our hero Vicente de Rocamora juggles the truth of his heritage with his ambitions -- and that of his family.

The feel of the novel is like Margaret George meets Emilio Salgari: meaty, weighty, huge, enormously detailed, with a kind of swashbuckling hero and a melodramatic setting.

Unsure of his own heritage and his limpieza de sangre, a teenaged Vicente is forced by his very vile relatives to become Dominican priest.  His nautral intelligence and curiosity give him wisdom and the foresight to grab opportunities when they come; his natural charisma leads him to ladies.  Becoming confessor to the King's sister, Infanta Maria (later the Empress of Austria), Vicente uses his influence and stature to get revenge on those who betrayed him and to wrest control of the Inquisition, hoping to put an end to the outrageous torture and stifling effect religion had on Spanish society. (And there is torture in this one -- I sometimes found it hard to read!)

All this might seem pretty over-the-top, but Vicente de Rocamora is a real historical figure, whose life is the stuff of novels.  Platt has clearly done his research: every page drips with details of the era, and the effect is almost overwhelming.  (It is undoubtedly educational.)

There's a real saga-like feel to this one, too, as if we've followed Vicente his whole life, although the book only covers 26 years -- 1617 to 1643.  I think the book could have used a little tightening and some editing down, but overall, it's a pretty grand historical adventure.

Also, this book has the most amazing conclusion -- jaw-dropping, cinematic, really -- and makes for a fine ending or cliffhanger, depending on your mood. (Which, if you find it to be cliff-hanger-y, you'll be happy: there's a sequel!)

There are three pages of historical notes, and opens with a summary of the rest of Vicente's life, so if you plan to read the sequel, considering skipping down the page. There's info on the value of money during the era as well as an extensive cast list (helpful for keeping everyone straight!).

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Interview with Sandra Byrd

Yesterday I went into swoons over Sandra Byrd's Roses Have Thorns, her novel of Elizabeth I's court. While not a Tudor addict, she hooked me from the start and I'm delighted to share my interview with Sandra Byrd about her book and her writing.  Be sure to check out the giveaway at the end!

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

It was a doomed love story between a hero from the North Pole and a heroine from the South Pole who desperately wanted to be together but were magnetically driven apart for all eternity. You can see why that wasn't published, right? I think I was about 14 when I wrote it. It was great fun, which is why we all start writing, anyway.

Do you have any writing rituals or routines?

I listen to sound track or instrumental music appropriate to the era when I'm writing a rough draft, and then I edit in dead silence. When I'm anxious about the book's progress I eat Lemonheads, which is getting to be a little hard on the crowns.

Was Roses Have Thorns the original title of your book?

No, I originally wanted something in the title using the word serpent, because Walsingham referred to Mary, Queen of Scots as Elizabeth's "bosom serpent." Elin had a bosom serpent, too, and it seemed to fit, especially when tied in with the Aesop's fable. But, it was decided that those words didn't make for a fetching title, and so we came up with Roses Have Thorns. I like it, too, because it reflects back to Shakespeare, and theater plays a role in the book. (Pun intended!)

As you were writing Roses Have Thorns, was there a particular scene or character that surprised you?

I was surprised that I sympathized in part with Eleanor Brydges, mainly because she seemed to be completely overshadowed by her mother and sister, and the one way she had to make a name for herself, the one man who seemed to love her, became her downfall and death.

I was surprised that Elin gave Sofia a maid. So often we think we have to either be weak and accommodating or completely hardcore. Elin showed me that you can be both strong and defend yourself while still handling things with grace, even in a situation where you've clearly been wronged.

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

I love to bake. If I weren't a writer I'd love to own a French tea shop. Debbie Macomber lives just up the way from me a little bit and she owns a tea shop. Maybe it's set a precedent that I could do both - if only I had her royalties to fund the thing! I'm an Anglophile when it comes to history, literature, landscape, and culture but a Francophile when it comes to food, wine, and style. I'd love to take the weekend cooking classes at the Culinary Academy.

Read any good books recently?

Mostly what I'm reading right now are nonfiction books that add to my research for my work in progress. When I'm writing a novel I can't read fiction because my imagination can't be two places at once. Also, I try to avoid reading in the genre I'm currently writing in so as not to inadvertently influence my take on things.

When I'm done with this draft, I'm going to finally read Gone Girl, and I haven't read anything by Sarah Jio next but she is also a Washingtonian, I think, and I've heard her books are excellent so I'm looking forward to digging in.

And if I may borrow a question from your arsenal: Coke or Pepsi? (Mead or Wine? Ale or Port?)

Coke, for sure, in glass, bottled in Mexico (where they use cane sugar and not corn syrup). Red wine, maybe a Rioja or a slightly chilled table Bordeaux. I don't like ale or port, but I do like cider, especially pulled at a pub. More than you wanted to know, eh?

Thank you so much for inviting me to your blog!

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My thanks to Ms. Byrd for her time and answers. You can find out more about her and her books at her webpage as well as on Facebook and Twitter.


I'm thrilled to offer a copy of Roses Have Thorns and a handmade Elizabeth I pendant to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US readers only, ends 5/3.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Roses Have Thorns by Sandra Byrd

Title: Roses Have Thorns
Author: Sandra Byrd

Genre: Fiction (Historical / 16th Century / Elizabeth / Tudors / Sweden / Court Intrigue / Religious Intrigue / Marriage)
Publisher/Publication Date: Howard Books (4/9/2013)
Source: Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

Rating: Loved.
Did I finish?: I did, in a night.
One-sentence summary: The story of Elizabeth's I court told through the eyes of a Swedish courtier who wants family, love, and friendship.
Reading Challenges: E-book, Historical Fiction

Do I like the cover?: You know what? I do. Even though it has the headless motif going on, I rather like the female figure's unusual profile. She seems a little zaftig, too, which I dig! I will admit that I keep thinking the other figure is a lipstick-wearing male attendant of some kind, and I'm loving that, too. (In my defense, I only have this as an e-book; perhaps it is more obvious with a physical copy.)

First line: I may have been a maiden just shy of seventeen years of age, but I was no simpleton.

Did... I about die of happy when I saw that blogger friend Jenny Q of Historical Editorial and Let Them Read Books got a shout out from Byrd in the Acknowledgements?!: YES! Especially since Jenny is super cool and I like it when super cool people get recognized by super cool authors!

Do... I love her Tudor Hall?: YES. Detail geeks, prepare to lose it: Byrd has family trees for everyone ranging from Henry to the Seymours, Parrs, and Wyatts.

Am... I loving her To Be Read column?: YES. She shares what she's reading, and offers wonderful interviews with other writers. I love seeing writers geeking out over other writers.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy, especially if you're in the mood for a historical that has some romance and drama without sex and violence.

Why did I get this book?: I've heard nothing but good things about Byrd's novels!

Review: So, I went into this knowing it was a Tudor book (featuring Elizabeth), but so many people swear by Byrd's novels I decided to give it a go. What I didn't realize until I got my galley was that this is a Howard Book release. (Howard Books is Simon & Schuster's faith-based imprint and belongs to the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association.) So I must confess I was immediately apprehensive, being not Christian and not inclined toward inspirational fiction.

My apprehension was unnecessary.

I had a great time with this book -- it read fast, was plotty, well-written, and just the diversion I needed. I'm definitely a Sandra Byrd fan right now and will have to be less snobbish about some inspirational fiction!

Byrd tells the story of Elizabeth I's court through the eyes of a Swedish courtier, Elin von Snakenborg, who later becomes Helena, Marchioness of Northampton, the highest ranked woman in England after the Queen. At seventeen, Elin leaves Sweden aware that her charismatic sister and her fiance are liking having a fling, and spends the next ten months -- ten months! -- sailing to get to England. Upon arriving in England, Elin's only friend is William Parr, 1st Marquess of Northampton, an older widower who is taken with her. Hungry for family, chilled by the English courtiers, Elin's situation changes when she's allowed to stay in England to wed Parr after the Swedish delegation departs. But once her countrymen are gone, she learns the widower Parr isn't marriageable: his first wife still lives, and the courts can't decide if his marriage is legal or not.

Resolute -- more resolute that I would have been! -- Elin adopts a more English name, Helena, and uses her skills in herbal medicine to impress Elizabeth. As she slowly gains Elizabeth's friendship, Elin finally marries but learns what the spark of true passion is like. She's witness to the greatest upheavals and personalities in Elizabeth's court, and is even party to one or two scandals.

Even though this is a novel of court life, Elin's less ambitious nature made her a comfortable guide for me. Observant, loyal, and well-placed (no need for intrigue and shenanigans!), Elin could have been just a little too perfect but came off rather darling, and I admit, I was smitten. Byrd's Elizabeth is shown in her complicated glory, mercurial and moody, and court life exhilarating and exhausting.

Faith and religion certainly showed up in this story, but the context and use of it in the story fit. Religion, and the state of one's soul, was certainly on everyone's minds during this time, and the appearance of prayers and Bible snippets felt appropriate, in character, and unobtrusive. The theme of faith -- having faith in one's family, especially -- was echoed throughout the story, both in Elin's personal life as well as Elizabeth's.

There's no sex in this book (unless lightly mentioned among married folk) so it could be a 'clean' novel but that certainly didn't diminish any excitement in the story nor take away from the romance. (If you've got a young or teen reader chomping at the bit to read 'adult' historical novels, consider this one.)

There are tons of extras in this one: pages of family trees to help with lineages and familial connections, a meaty Afterword where Byrd shares what is historical, conjecture, and her own invention, a reading group guide, and a wonderful interview with her.

Recommended for Tudor fans as Elin's story is fascinating and almost unbelievable; for those who might be Tudor'd out, consider this one if you a novel that touches on that world of religion and intrigue without getting mired in it.

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I'm thrilled to offer a copy of Roses Have Thorns and a handmade Elizabeth I pendant to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US readers only, ends 5/3.  See my interview with Sandra Byrd for another chance to enter.

Sunday, April 14, 2013


Sorry for the delay in getting this up: I took advantage of yesterday's lovely sunny day to see friends! I'm having a particularly lovely weekend (grateful for that after my last few weeks!) and have Monday off as it is a Massachusetts holiday known as Patriot's Day (and also, it's Marathon Monday). Hope you all are having nice weekends! Now, winners!

The winner of The Paradise Guest House is ... Jessica D.!

The winner of The Prisoner of Heaven is ... Melissa from Confessions of an Avid Reader!

The winner of And Then I Found You is ... DarcyO!

Congrats to the winners! Folks have been emailed and have until end of day Tuesday to get back to me. If you didn't win, be sure to check out my open giveaways -- more coming this week!

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Literary Wives

Earlier this year I was invited to be part of a blog group book club (of sorts) of bloggers who were wives who wanted to read and discuss books about wives.  And while I'm a lot more than just a spouse, being my wife's wife is a huge part of who I am and my identity, and I just loved this frame for reading.

We'll be focusing in particular on two questions as we read:

1. What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

2. In what way does this woman define “wife”—or in what way is she defined by “wife”?

If you're intrigued, consider reading along with us and chime in!

We'll be discussing these books during the coming months (the plan is to read the previous month and have a review posted the first of the scheduled month):
Fall titles to come soon -- if you can think of books with 'wife' in the title, share in the comments!

Most excitingly, I'll be joining these fabulous bloggers:

Angela of Persephone Writes and One Tiny Violet

Angela is a a composition and literature teacher, editor, writer, voracious reader, home schooling mom and recovering academic (said only half-jokingly) who has never truly given herself permission to live her life's dream of writing. Until now.

Ariel of One Little Library * Facebook * Twitter

Ariel is an editor who will soon be trading her freelancing days for the life of an in-house editorial assistant at Corwin Press. A literature enthusiast, she likes heroines full of gumption and conflicts fraught with ethical dilemmas. Her favorite book is and always will be Jane Eyre.

Emily of The Bookshelf of Emily J. * Facebook

Emily is a Ph.D. student studying professional communication who has worked as an editor and a composition instructor. She is the mother of two little girls and loves chocolate and ice cream. The thing she wants most right now is a day in bed with a good book, preferably fiction.

Friday, April 12, 2013

City of Lights by Melika Dannese Lux

Title: City of Lights: The Trials and Triumphs of Ilyse Charpentier
Author: Melika Dannese Lux

Genre: Fiction (Historical / 19th Century / Paris / Cabaret Singer / Romance / Adventure)
Publisher/Publication Date: Books in My Belfry, LLC (10/23/2012)
Source: Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

Rating: Liked enough.
Did I finish?: I did.
One-sentence summary: A beautiful cabaret singer with a tragic past fights her evil Russian patron to find her true love and her estranged brother.
Reading Challenges: 7 Continents, 7 Billion People, 7 Books, Historical Fiction

Do I like the cover?: I'm not wild about it, but it fits the book -- the Eiffel Tour features rather prominently in the story.

First line: It was an age of glistening enchantment--the perfumed night air, the verdant trees lining the Champs Elysées, the decadent cabarets and dance halls offering solace in a glass of champagne, or comfort in a lady's arms.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow if you want something quick, diverting, and Parisian.

Why did I get this book?: I love all things Paris!

Review: This 156-page novel harkens back to the Victorian potboiler and 19th century penny dreadful: the characters are a bit predictable and the plot is breakneck, and that's where the pleasure of this book comes from -- you know what you're going to get, and it's fluffy, junky fun.

Set in 1894, the novel follows the angelically beautiful, likely virginal, excessively talented Ilyse Charpentier, star of Paris' cabaret scene. Affectionately nicknamed 'La Petite Coquette', she's been financially supported by the cartoonishly evil Count Sergei Rakmananovich whose obsessive designs have ruined more than one rising star (including Ilyse's bestie Manon).

Still, the Count is especially obsessed with Ilyse and goes to wild lengths to force her to marry him, including an elaborate scheme to befriend her estranged brother, threatening Ilyse's One True Love (a feisty Englishman named Ian), and kidnapping her. There's some insta-love for Ilyse, a harrowing family loss, lots of pep talks, and some over-the-top insidiousness that is laughable and entertaining. (With the kind of week I've had, this book was just what I needed!)

Jenny Q from Let Them Read Books summarized this book perfectly, I think, and if you read this as a kind of vaudevillian take on the damsel-in-distress motif, you'll have a good time. At the moment, the book is available to borrow for Amazon Prime members, so if you're also in need of a Moulin Rogue-ish dramatic adventure, give this one a try!

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Interview with Nancy Bilyeau

I'm still swooning over The Chalice, Nancy Bilyeau's newest novel featuring her ex-nun Joanna Stafford and the heady, hectic days of Henry VIII's reign. Nancy kindly did an interview with me last year so I came up with some new questions for her this year! Read on to learn more about her novel and how she landed on Joanna Stafford, as well as what she's been reading recently. Don't forget to enter the giveaway!

Was The Chalice the original title of your book?

Yes, I suggested it because the first book was The Crown. I thought it might be fun to keep going with one word titles beginning with “C.” Like Charlaine Harris does it with the word “dead.”

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

I feel that Geoffrey Scovill kept going in new directions. In the first book he was smart and physically strong and good at his work—with a bit of a sarcastic sense of humor. And obviously a yearning for Joanna. In the second book, he was up against more obstacles, not just in his relationship with Joanna but in other parts of his life. I found I was writing him as still highly competent but jealous, strident, lonely, wistful. He’s more complex. And perhaps in response I’ve gotten this outpourings of emails: “Oh, be nicer to Geoffrey! I care so much about Geoffrey!” I feel that I am deepening his character, making him more than just a traditional “leading man.” From what I can tell, the readers like it, but at the same time they’re suffering!

The Chalice is your second novel featuring Joanna Stafford. (The first is The Crown.) Had you intended to write a series when you began Joanna's story?

Not when I began. I was just trying to figure out how to develop a plot and craft characters. But by the time I was revising and workshopping the final manuscript my mind jumped ahead and I started coming up with new storylines for Joanna. I have a lot of ideas for her.

The Staffords are a real life family; is Joanna based on a historical Stafford?
Nancy Bilyeau

No. I based her upbringing and to some degree for worldview on what the Staffords lives were like in the first part of the 16th century. But there is no female Stafford who I am aware of that became a nun. There are “real” Stafford women who are pretty interesting: One of the sisters of the Duke of Buckingham is thought to have had an affair with Henry VIII when he was in the first years of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon and she was married to a nobleman. When scandal erupted, her husband and brother sent her to a nunnery for a while. That’s as close as anyone came to becoming a nun. The daughter of the duke of Buckingham, Elizabeth, married the abusive duke of Norfolk and had one of the unhappiest marriages of the entire 16th century. She appears briefly in both books. I may have based some of Joanna’s headstrong personality on reports that Elizabeth stood up to her husband and fought back.

On your website, you explain why you chose a nun for this era (rather than a royal). Why did you pick this era to write about?

It’s always been my favorite century to read about: lots of vivid personalities and dramatic events. So I have a base of knowledge to build on when I write my novels. My husband groans when I bring home a new book on the Tudor era but I can’t be stopped. It’s an addiction.

Read any good books recently?

Yes! I am on a real winning streak. I read Michael Penn’s Winter King, a nonfiction book about the reign of Henry VII and the transition period when Henry VIII was a young king. The prose is really first-rate. I can’t recommend it enough. I just finished a real page-turner, Andrew Pyper’s The Demonologist, about how a Columbia University professor who is an expert in Milton and Paradise Lost has to try to save his daughter using that knowledge. It was scary!

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Learn more about Nancy Bilyeau and her books at her website and connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.


I'm thrilled to offer a copy of The Chalice to one lucky reader!

To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US readers only, ends 4/26.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Chalice by Nancy Bilyeau

Title: The Chalice
Author: Nancy Bilyeau

Genre: Fiction (Historical / Tudor / Reformation / 16th century / Nuns / Religious Conspiracy / Henry VIII / Prophesies)
Publisher/Publication Date: Touchstone (3/5/2013)
Source: Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

Rating: Liked a great deal.
Did I finish?: I did!
One-sentence summary: Former nun Joanna Stafford finds herself a part of a prophesy and a conspiracy in 16th century England.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction

Do I like the cover?: I do -- that blue is quite eye-catching!

I'm reminded of...: Mary Doria Russell,

First line: When preparing for martyrdom on the night of December 28, 1538, I did not think of those I love.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy -- get this and the first book and be very, very happy!

Why did I get this book?: I loved Bilyeau's first novel and have been on pins and needles waiting for this one.

Review: It's no secret the Tudor era is not a favorite of mine but Nancy Bilyeau makes me sing a different tune: first, with her fabulous novel The Crown and again this year with the sequel, The Chalice.

Returning to the 16th century and her ex-nun Joanna Stafford, this novel delves more into Joanna's life and past as well as the drama Henry VIII's decisions were wrecking on the country. As with The Crown, Bilyeau opens her novel with another fantastic first sentence -- When preparing for martyrdom on the night of December 28, 1538, I did not think of those I love. -- and the story races from there.

Joanna struggles to make sense of her life and the rapid changes she's endured: once a dedicated nun, she's now living a secular life due only to a decree of the King and by no choice of her own. Raising her cousin's child -- a woman burned at the stake for treason -- Joanna hopes to make a living weaving tapestries when conspiracy and danger find her again.  Brought to London with the promise she won't be forced to go to court, Joanna instead is embroiled in a plot to return England to the Catholic Church when she factors into three prophesies, including one by Elizabeth Barton, the Mad Maid of Kent.  (Which, if there's going to be religious conspiracies, give me an oracle nun, and I'm in heaven.)

Although from a noble family, Joanna is hardly a typical courtier, which makes Bilyeau's novels such a refreshing entry in the Tudor genre.  Bilyeau articulates what it might have been like for those who took religious vows, forced by edict to abandon their life and their beliefs.  While the dissolution of those institutions might have ferreted out those who weren't truly religious, for those who were devoted -- like Joanna -- the world has upended. She still believes Henry VIII is divinely ordained, for example, and is rocked to the core when those around her suggest he isn't.

There are some hints of romance in this book, but there's a twist: Henry VIII banned former clergy, nuns, and monks from ever marrying.  Still, Joanna feels some attraction to men now -- a monk she's known, a sheriff she just recently met -- and she has to navigate this new tension as well.

I'm not super familiar with this era, so I can't say how many liberties Bilyeau has taken (if any) but I loved the mix of historical and fiction.  Joanna is able to move through two worlds -- court life and religious life -- comfortably, and as an educated woman, has a smart 'voice' through which to tell her story.  (Although I will admit, she maddened me at times with her choices!)

For Tudor fans, I think this is a must (I've read a few reviews by folks who say this one can be read as a fine standalone, but I encourage you to start with The Crown), and for those tired of Tudor novels, but interested in meaty hist fic, pick up these two.  Joanna Stafford might be one of my top ten favorite heroines and I'm dying for the third book.

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I'm thrilled to offer a copy of The Chalice to one lucky reader!

To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US readers only, ends 4/26. For another entry, see my interview with Nancy Bilyeau!

Monday, April 8, 2013

Interview with Maryanne O'Hara

Maryanne O'Hara's Cascade made my top ten of last year; I fell in love with it when I read it last fall and haven't shaken it yet.  (It also has one of the most stunning covers I've ever seen.) Read on to learn more about her and her writing, and what she does when not writing (it's very cool!).   Enter to win a paperback copy of Cascade!

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

I was about five years old when I wrote and stapled-together a book about my little dog who had just been killed by a car. It was my first experience of unbearable grief, and the impulse to write was immediate, instinctive, and such a balm. After that, I wrote a lot of grammar school fairy tales. I remember one was about how the ocean had become salty. It was a sort of prequel to Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, which I adored. (“But a mermaid has no tears, and therefore she suffers so much more.”)

Do you have any writing rituals or routines?

I keep my journal and a good book of prose or poetry near my computer. Before I start to write, I note the date and the hour; I note what’s going on around me. It helps me to slow down and focus. Then I read a line or two of excellent writing to get me inspired. And I turn off the Internet.

Was Cascade the original title of your book?

It was, for a while. But then it got called all kinds of names before we finally returned to Cascade.

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

I didn’t particularly like Abby, and I kept wanting her to be a nicer person, but she refused. The Shakespearean “mistaken identity” theme towards the end surprised and delighted me.

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

I love to travel, and a fall trip to Prague, for research on the new book, is in the works. I love yoga, and quiet meditation. I am a Reiki practitioner and I volunteer at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital once a week. I live on a river and kayak. I play tennis. I’m pretty active. I love cocktail hour, especially in summer, when the light is gorgeous and I’ve prepared a wonderful meal for favorite guests.

Read any good books recently?

Yes! In this new year, I’ve really enjoyed Dancer by Colum McCann, Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter, The River Swimmer by Jim Harrison, and The Book of Lost Fragrances by MJ Rose, to name just a few.

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To learn more about Maryanne O’Hara and her writing, see her website.  You can also find her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and GoodReads.


I'm thrilled to offer a copy of Cascade to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US readers only (sorry!). Ends 4/26.