Friday, May 31, 2013

Weekend reads and I'm melting...

It's about ten thousand degrees Farenheit (actual true temperature) in Boston today and my work hasn't turned on the AC in the building yet, so I'm wilty and a tiny bit surly.

me and author Tara Masih
However...

Last night I had another fangirl night -- I got to meet author Tara Masih for dinner.  Tara wrote Where the Dog Star Never Glows, an amazing collection of short fiction that converted me to short fiction, and that I loved so much, I gave it a shout out in Ladies Home Journal in 2012.

It's taken us that long to connect, but I'm so glad we did -- it was wonderful.  At her suggestion, we tried out this Mexican restaurant I've been dying to go to -- we each had a glass of sangria (much needed, yesterday was nine thousand degrees) and we both opted for dessert (we were delightfully like-minded in many ways!).

We gabbed about books, publishing, my blog, her work, our personal lives -- it was such fun and made me feel preeeetty fancy and awesome.  (Excuse my crazy squinting grin-y face; I'm apparently unable to smile like a normal person when around authors I like.)

So, amazing.  Makes up for my rather bleh day.  But I'm going to the Cape tomorrow with friends to park myself at the beach (it's so hot I may even venture into the always icy Atlantic!). I'm bringing along Jon Steele's The Watchers, Ellen Mansoor Collier's Flappers, Flasks and Foul Play, and Eli Brown's Cinnamon and Gunpowder

What are you reading this weekend?

Tomorrow I'll be posting about The Paris Wife, the Literary Wives June read.  If you've read it, please pop by and chat about it with me -- I've got complicated feelings!

Thursday, May 30, 2013

A Dual Inheritance by Joanna Hershon

Title: A Dual Inheritance
Author: Joanna Hershon

Genre: Fiction (Family Saga / 1960s / 1970s / 1980s / 2000s / Marriage / Daughters / Friendship / Infidelity / New York City)
Publisher/Publication Date: Ballantine Books (5/7/2013)
Source: TLC Book Tours

Rating: Liked a very good deal.
Did I finish?: Yes.
One-sentence summary: Two friends, forty years, and marriage, work, love, lust, loss, pain, agony, betrayal, and forgiveness.

Do I like the cover?: Yeah, I guess -- for a book that covers four decades, it would be hard to nail down a single image to convey that scope. The three figures certainly hit the vague sort of triangle of the plot, but I wouldn't say that triangle is the primary thrust of the story -- and they were never this bucolic or pretty.

I'm reminded of...: Sigrid Nunez, Bart Schneider

First line: Had he described Hugh Shipley at all over the past three years, approachable would not have been a word he'd ever have used.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy, especially if you like character-oriented novels about marriage, loyalty, and friendship.

Why did I get this book?: I'd heard good things about Hershon's previous novels and loved the premise and time span.

Review: I'm shocked I haven't heard more about this book already -- it has a kind of gossip-y, tawdry soap opera-y feel (marriage, divorce, adultery, social justice, social class) that makes it approachable with a sort of artsy writing style (not quite dreamy but not quite direct, omniscient, nearly 'literary'). It's being compared to The Marriage Plot, which sounds right -- Hershon's writing style reminded me of Eugenides' The Virgin Suicides.

Spanning 1962 through to 2010, this is a family saga, two friends and their families, the inevitable run of their lives. Opening at Harvard University in the early 1960s, the story follows Ed Cantowitz, a Jewish man from a working class family, ambitious and self-conscious, who abruptly, aggressively, and doggedly becomes friends with Hugh Shipley, a wealthy Boston blueblood.

For reasons both obvious and unlikely, the two become fast friends until they abruptly break contact -- ostensibly over politics but the reality is far crueler. Ed pursues wealth with the same hunger and drive as he did his friendship and studies, and finds his place in 1980s Wall Street as Hugh finds himself doing international aid work.

Both marry, have children, and their daughters -- Ed's Rebecca and Hugh's Vivi -- become friends when they meet at boarding school. Through their friendship, the families remain entwined -- occasionally embroiled -- in each others lives.

Vaguely, I had thought this book was going to be one giant extended look at the love triangle, and I was dreading it some.  It's nothing of the sort: while sexual and romantic entanglements make up a large part of the story, the novel is really about friendship and loyalty, love and betrayal.  It's about the times, too -- the 1960s and the 1980s -- and the mores of the last four decades.

No one is truly good or bad.  At times, I hated this book -- I hated the characters and what they were doing -- and other times, I couldn't stop reading if my life depended on it. (Or, say, sleeping or eating.) I really went through the wringer with it, too: Ed's daughter Rebecca is infatuated with Hugh, the father of her best friend, and Hugh has become a rather shameless philander. Ed's relentless drive for what he wants, at the expense of everything, is horrifying -- yet his desire to better and improve himself and his life is the cornerstone of American life. Hershon remains nonjudgmental about her character and their choices, leaving the reader to decide -- and in the end, I really kind of felt for everyone.

I will admit to some confusion at times; Hershon's writing style isn't direct. She comes at the story sideways, and I'd often go back to reread a previous chapter because I felt I had missed a detail or hint. At the end of the book, I think I got it all -- I'm certainly satisfied -- but I still can't decide if the ending was happy or sad.

Fans of character studies will like this one; it's a smart beach read for those who want a tiny bit of challenge. (It's also a chunkster at 496 pages!) It's a novel of New York City and New England, of social class -- so those who enjoy the Downton Abbey-ish look at the rich and not rich might enjoy the similar themes here -- and a snapshot of the last forty years or so.

*** *** ***

GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to offer a copy of A Dual Inheritance to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US readers only, ends 6/14.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Jack Absolute by C.C. Humphreys

Title: Jack Absolute
Author: C.C. Humphreys

Genre: Fiction (Historical / 18th Century / American Revolution / Historical Figures Fictionalized / Espionage / British Army / Theater)
Publisher/Publication Date: Sourcebooks Landmark (5/2013)
Source: The publisher

Rating: Liked a great deal -- practically loved.
Did I finish?: Oh yes, in just two days.
One-sentence summary: Former soldier Jack Absolute returns to the British Army and finds himself embroiled in a love affair, tangling with a secret society, and spying for the Crown.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction

Do I like the cover?: I do, I do -- it's the author, too, which makes it even more fun! (And this time, I'm gleeful that male models suffer the same fate as female models when placed on the cover of a historical novel.)

I'm reminded of...: Christine Blevins, Carol K. Carr, Donna Russo Morin, Judith Tarr

First line: The snow lay deep over Hounslow Heath and the light was failing fast.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy, especially if you like Colonial US-era fiction.

Why did I get this book?: Love novels set in Colonial/Revolutionary US.

Review: I just need to get this out of my system: this book is an absolute riot. There. No more plays on the title, I swear.

This delightful, action-packed historical novel is inspired by a character from a real 18th century romantic comedy, The Rivals by Richard Sheridan. A popular hit, it was loved by both the English monarch and upstart American George Washington. Featuring a character named Jack Absolute, it's a romp of secret identities, forbidden lovers, duels, and eventual happy endings.

The author of this book played the part of Jack Absolute for six months in 1987 (it's him on the cover of this book!), a role he adored and could never shake off. The resulting fascination with that character has turned into this delightful novel.

Opening in 1777, Jack, newly possessed of a plantation on Nevis, is stopping over in England for a few weeks, leaving behind India for his new Caribbean home. No longer a captain in the British Army, Jack is stunned to find everyone in London knows his name, thanks to his bestie, playwright Richard Sheridan. Sheridan, Humphreys writes, co-opted Jack's name and romanticized an incident in Jack's past as the major plot to his popular play. When Jack starts a flirtation with an actress who has a beau, he finds himself in the midst of an illegal duel, which propels him to accept the offer from a former commanding officer General "Gentleman Johnny" Burgoyne. From there, he finds himself back in America, acting as chaperone, military attache, and spy.

Humphreys kicks off his story with dramatic panache: illicit sex in Chapter Two and a violent duel by Chapter Three. (The events establish Jack's character, but for good and bad, the cinematic fight scenes continue throughout the novel but the sexytimes dwindle to brief romantic asides.)  By page 35, I was in love.  (Just another notch for Jack, I suppose!)

The writing style is brisk, punchy, with a mix of banter-y dialogue (it's obvious Humphreys appreciates a good line!) and continuous action.  I'll be honest, when I learned the author was an actor first, I was a little bit nervous about the meat of the story, but my anxieties were for naught: Humphreys has done his research.  From dress to speech, customs, food, and gossip, the narrative was rich with detail without being too bogged down (although some of the military maneuvering made my eyes glassy, but that's just me).

Somewhere, I saw Jack described as a bit of James Fenimore Cooper's Hawkeye meets James Bond, and that's precisely the way I'd describe the character. He has a devoted, taciturn, and wryly sarcastic Iroquois sidekick (have you seen the movie The Brotherhood of the Wolf? I was reminded of that a bit, only without the mixed martial arts.) and a long string of love affairs with women he sincerely cares for.  He's a bit older, so he's left off the brashness of youth and has some of that delicious self-deprecating resignation I'm a sucker for.

In addition to just being flat out fun, I loved this novel for the real personality Humphreys imbued it with. Humphreys love for the theater comes through the characters, who are all passionate for amateur theatricals (a major source of entertainment in this time), and everyone and their mother is a playwright (Burgoyne penned at least five plays!). Novels are sentimental claptrap, according to Jack Absolute, an attitude held by many; the theater was where true emotion and story could be told.  Emulating many theatrical works, perhaps, this book even has a sort of play-within-a-play motif happening, as Jack finds himself performing 'his' role in The Rivals at one point, the other players significant actors in his real life.

I can't say how historically accurate some parts of the plot are (there's a secret society thing going on here, reminiscent of Dan Brown and National Treasure) but I enjoyed the mix of conspiracy with military espionage and adventure.  A wonderfully zippy read.  I'm grateful that there are two more Jack Absolute novels out there -- I will be reading them!

*** *** ***

GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to offer a copy of Jack Absolute to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US readers only, ends 6/14. Be sure to check out my interview with C.C. Humphreys for another chance to enter!

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Winners!

I am all off schedule!  Just now getting to my giveaway winners -- sorry for the wait!

The winner of Margaret Fuller: A New American Life is ... Lauren P.!

The winner of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is ... Kirsten M.!

Congrats to the winners!

Folks have until the end of Thursday to respond; I'll redraw winners at that point. If you didn't win, be sure to check out my open giveaways -- as always, more to come, too!

Monday, May 27, 2013

Flashes of War by Katey Schultz

Title: Flashes of War
Author: Katey Schultz

Genre: Fiction (Contemporary / Soldiers / War / Iraq / Afghanistan / Short Stories / PTSD / Military Families / Non-Combatants)
Publisher/Publication Date: Loyola University's Apprentice House (5/2013)
Source: MindBuck Media

Rating: Liked.
Did I finish?: I did, in a single morning.
One-sentence summary: Thirty-one short stories about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the soldiers, the survivors, and the citizens in Iraq and Afghanistan responding to the violence.

Do I like the cover?: I do -- it's simple and sparse. As many of the stories have the POV of someone young, the use of the toy soldier is smart, I think.

I'm reminded of...: Tara L. Masih

First line: Now there's waiting to get deployed and there's waiting to get shot at., from 'The Waiting: Part I'

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy, especially if you're interested in stories about the military and those impacted by war.

Why did I get this book?: Curiosity.

Review: This slender collection of short stories and 'flash' fiction packs a punch; I sat down on a Sunday morning with a little bit of dread, I admit, nervous about how grim the stories would be and how the author -- who has no military experience -- would handle the topic. Despite my wildly liberal political leanings, I'm from a military family and the US military is a complicated animal for me. I wasn't interested in a wholly patriotic wash nor aggressive criticisms. I was surprised to find I'd finished this book just as my wife came in for her first cup of coffee -- and that I really liked it. (My experience isn't dissimilar to that of Vestal Review, and we both had the same thoughts upon finishing.)

Comprised of thirty-one short stories and flash fiction (shorts in 150 words), the stories share the points of view of active duty US soldiers, families in Iraq and Afghanistan affected by the conflict, military spouses and loved ones, the damaged and the healing.

While the opening piece felt a little too clever for me -- a soldier in Afghanistan is bitter about Americans watching Hollywood action flicks at the mall -- the rest of the collection wasn't self-conscious or smugly ironic. Sad, a little crude, bittersweet, frightening, and at moments, even happy, these stories run a range of emotions rather beautifully.

Schultz's writing is clear and to the point, no wasted words or flighty, aloof sentiments. While Schultz isn't graphic in articulating the violence these soldiers and survivors see, it's apparent, tempered with resilience and the grim determination to survive.

Some of my favorite pieces include 'The Quiet Kind', about a husband and father's 'quiet' PTSD and the frigid barriers between him and those at home; 'Deuce Out', in which the younger teenaged sister of a man serving in Afghanistan decides to emulate her beloved older brother; 'KIA', the sparse and heartbreaking outline of a man killed in action; 'Checkpoint', about the devastating impact of misunderstanding cultural gestures; and 'Aaseya & Rahim', about an Afghan couple in an arranged marriage who find themselves in love with each other as they both work hard to survive.

A surprising but satisfying collection, those who are interested in stories of the military and those impacted by war will likely enjoy these pieces. Schultz is another writer now on my 'to watch for' list.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Historical Novel Society 2013 Conference Panelist: Meet jay Dixon

In anticipation of the 2013 Historical Novel Society conference, I'm excited to share a Q&A with panelist jay Dixon, editor and author of The Romance Fiction of Mills & Boon 1909-1990s. You can learn more about Ms. Dixon by reading her panelist bio at the conference website (scroll down).

(You can check out the other Q&As with panelists via my hns2013 tag.)

What got you first interested in historical fiction?

I've been reading historical fiction since I was a child, but I suppose I first realised I was reading historical fiction when I discovered Georgette Heyer's novels at about the age of 11.

For you, what is the line between fiction and fact?

First define 'fact'! I suppose anything that can be corroborated by two other independent sources is a fact, and fiction is what you then make of it.

Do you have an anecdote about a reading or fan interaction you'd like to share?

Not an anecdote, but as an English editor I wish writers would get English/European titles correct - the basics are very simple, and can be found all over the web! And I get really annoyed when it is assumed a title can be refused by the heir, or bequeathed to whoever the current holder wishes. A title is a name, with strict rules of inheritance attached to it, not a piece of furniture!

Where do you feel historical fiction is headed as a genre?

Towards more popularity at all levels, from category romance to Booker Prize winner!

Is there an era/area that is your favorite to write about? How about to read?

I don't write, but to read: Regency and Edwardian.

Is there a writer, living or deceased, you would like to meet?

No - let their works speak for them.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Interview with Jennie Fields

Last year I read Jennie Fields' The Age of Desire, a historical novel about Edith Wharton's late-in-life love affair. It was a fantastic book not just at the famous author but at friendships that bridge social classes, the destructive joy of desire, and Paris in the early 20th century. Read on to learn more about Fields' novel and be sure to enter the giveaway!

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

I wrote a 'novel' when I was six called Emmy. It was about a poor girl who lived in a tenement played in the alley behind her house. I grew up in little tudor house in a leafy suburb. I knew nothing about alleys. But I was enamored with a children’s book called “Twig” and I did my best to imitate it.

Do you have any writing rituals or routines?

I make a cup of tea about two p.m., read fiction for about a half hour and then start writing. By reading before I write, I come to the page as a reader, and it seems to help control the inner-editor in me who says things like, “You call this writing? This is utter rubbish.”

Was The Age of Desire the original title of your book?

Awesome question! Actually, the original title was The Age of Ecstasy, but my publisher said it sounded like the drug ecstasy, and therefore the “Age of Ecstasy” would have been the 1990’s.

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

That’s another great question, because I do often find that my characters do things that I never planned. Are you a fiction writer yourself and that’s how you know that? I was surprised by the fact that Carl Snyder (a minor character) was drawn to Edith the summer after her affair with Morton began. I do think people in love give off a certain frisson that draws people in. I noted in Edith’s diary that summer, she said Carl Snyder interested her more and more. I found that curious.

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

I love to walk, and I love to knit. I walk from four to five miles a day with my puppy, Violet Jane. And I knit every single day. To me, there’s nothing more relaxing. I also cook. Here in the South, I grill all year round. Simple, healthy food like grilled ginger trout, and comfort food like carrot cilantro soup and coq au vin are my specialties.

Read any good books recently?

Recently, I’ve really enjoyed The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty, Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver, and Gilded Age by Claire McMillan. Interesting. All by women. I guess I do gravitate to books by women, although, of course, I do read male authors as well.

*** *** ***

My thanks to Ms. Fields for her time and responses. Learn more about her and her book at her website, on Facebook, or Twitter.

GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to offer a copy of The Age of Desire to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US readers only, ends 6/7.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Weekend reads and I'm feeling ambitious...

I have a four day weekend ahead of me and I plan to read like a reading thing.

The proof of my ambition is here: I've got seven books in my queue to try this weekend.  (Perhaps not try and finish, but at least have a go.  I'm hoping to finish a few!)

Mette Ivie Harrison, The Rose Throne
C.C. Humphreys, Jack Absolute
Paula McLain, The Paris Wife
Adolfo García Ortega, Desolation Island
Katey Schultz, Flashes of War
Anthony C. Winkler, The Family Mansion
Felicity Young, Antidote to Murder

Happily, I'll be spending the weekend with a friend (a kind of staycation, from one suburb to another!) who is as much a reader as I; I anticipate she, I, and my wife will spend a good deal of time on the back porch in companionable silence reading, interrupted only by cooking. It will be a delicious weekend (no pun intended!)

What are you reading this weekend?

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Spirit of Lost Angels by Liza Perrat

Title: Spirit of Lost Angels
Author: Liza Perrat

Genre: Fiction (Historical / France / 18th Century / Rural Life / Herbalism / Paris / French Revolution / Secret Identities / Revenge / Historical Figure Fictionalized / Motherhood)
Publisher/Publication Date: Triskele Books (2012)
Source: The author.

Rating: Liked a good deal.
Did I finish?: I did.
One-sentence summary: The tumultuous fifteen years in the life of an 18th century French village woman, from innkeeper to prisoner to reinvented storyteller.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction, What's in a Name?

Do I like the cover?: I really like it -- it's quite lovely and although it has the chopped head motif, the close focus is a nice change (rather than another long tall headless woman). There are plot elements featured on the cover as well.

I'm reminded of...: Michelle Diener, Sidney Sheldon

First line: The early light burns Victoire's cheeks, like a beacon warning her this summer day will bring something special.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy if you're a Francophile or enjoy dramatic historical fiction.

Why did I get this book?: I love books set during the French Revolution.

Review: This fun historical novel has the wild plot of a Sidney Sheldon with the kind of dramatic machinations of The Count of Monte Cristo (both very good things).

Set between 1768 and 1794, the novel follows Victoire Charpentier, a sweet girl from a rural French village. Her seemingly enchanted life -- loving parents, adored family, a childhood love -- is shattered when her beloved herbalist mother is drowned as a witch.

Sent to Paris as a maid for a noble family, she learns first hand the violent cruelties the wealthy heap upon those less fortunate, and she finds herself pregnant. After giving up her baby, Victoire returns to her home and finds herself married -- not to her childhood love, but to the father of her crush.  To her surprise, it proves to be a satisfying relationship, and she and her older husband open a successful inn.

Happiness, however, isn't prone to lingering around Victoire, and tragedy strikes once more with devastating effect. There's prison, a notorious noblewoman, some shocking episodes, wild vengeance, mistaken identities, and a bittersweet ending. (I'm doing broad strokes here to save some surprises!)

With such an extravagant plot, there's potential for a book like this to just turn into a plot heavy 'and then she' style novel, but happily, Perrat balances the action with solid narrative, a nearly too-sweet-to-be-believed heroine, and lavish historical detail that made me think, now and then, I was in revolutionary Paris. (The sensory details of what a Paris street was like made my skin crawl!)

While our heroine Victoire was lovely, I must admit that my heart went to Jeanne de Valois, most infamous for her real life role in the 'affair of the diamond necklace'. It's obvious Perrat feels some warmth for the notorious figure, and her Jeanne is dangerous, amusing, shocking, and sexy. I could go for a whole novel about her! (According to Perrat's website, this is the first in a historical series, so color me excited!)

A delightful debut, this novel was escapist fun -- Francophiles will want this one and those who enjoy historical fiction that doesn't focus on royals will also rejoice. (If you're curious, you can read an excerpt here.) Great fun for the summer -- and I can't wait to see what Perrat does next.

*** *** ***

GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to offer Spirit of Lost Angels to THREE lucky winners! One winner will get a paperback copy; two winners will get e-books. To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US and international readers, ends 6/7.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

In the Garden of Stone by Susan Tekulve

Title: In the Garden of Stone
Author: Susan Tekulve

Genre: Fiction (Historical / 1920s / 1930s / West Virginia / Sicily / Immigrants / Coal Mining / Marriage / Family Saga)
Publisher/Publication Date: Hub City Press (5/2013)
Source: TLC Book Tours

Rating: Liked a very good deal.
Did I finish?: I did!
One-sentence summary: Spanning almost fifty years, the story of a family in rural West Virginia and their passion for place, each other, the foreign and familiar.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction, Immigrant Stories

Do I like the cover?: I do -- months and bees feature rather prominently for two of the main characters.

I'm reminded of...: Jennifer Haigh, Ursula Hegi

First line: On Monday, washday, the two boys standing outside the white frame house looked like wizened old men.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy, especially if you like fiction of place, immigrant stories, and the vignette-y look at family a la Jennifer Haigh's Baker Towers.

Why did I get this book?: The era, the place.

Review: I was interested in this book because my paternal grandmother's family were Sicilians who ended up in West Virginia and western Maryland coal country. We're a taciturn people on my father's side of the family; my wife and sister-in-law marvel at the long, drawn out conversations we have about weather -- the current weather, the past weather, the weather to come -- but for my brother and I, that's just how you communicate with those relatives.

My wife and sister-in-law, being bolder, nosier people who didn't get the memo that one talks about the weather, are unabashed questioners, a trait I've come to deeply appreciate as they've elicited some of the loveliest and surprising stories from that side of the family. Unfortunately, my grandmother passed away after she and my wife met only once, and that brief glimpse into her family's life was eye-opening and fascinating. It's one of my greatest regrets I didn't get to talk to her about more than the weather.

In some ways, this book felt like I got a chance to continue that conversation.

Spanning almost fifty years, from 1924 to 1973, this novel is a collection of vignettes following a West Virginia family. Emma, a 16-year old Sicilian immigrant, loathes her mother's joyless existence and marries impetuously. Caleb, her new husband, works for the railroads and has a generous but drifting kind of focus that emerges even more strongly in his son Dean. Tragedy forces Dean from his family's land and upon his return, his devotion to the ground, the earth, the animals, and even the people he crosses creates joy and anguish in equal part. His daughter comes of age when her immigrant Italian relatives are old and frightening and the lure of the world outside of her family's property lines calls her more than her family's link to the land.

Tekulve's writing style is pretty, poetic, but not ornate or obfuscated. Each chapter feels like a self-contained short story in many ways; together, they show the arc of a family and place, but individually, there's a brilliant, bright, or blinding moment that stings or illuminates. I got the sense that some of the pieces were composed independently of the volume: Tekulve occasionally repeats an incident or a particular turn of phrase from one story in another, as if trying to offer context to a chapter were it removed from the collection. I didn't mind the repetition as it sort of emphasized the almost fairy tale quality to the family: fatherless children, magical gardens, temptations.

The familiarity of Tekulve's characters and place resonated with me as much as the writing. She articulated the nuances of rural poverty that felt authentic rather than shocking or exploitative. In her description of the Sypher family property, with the creeks and trees, random cabins, farm animals semi-feral, men obsessively working the land -- hauling, pulling, cutting, chopping -- I was reminded of my grandfather, father, and even now, my brother. (A trip to see that part of the family isn't complete without something being hauled, a cabin or milk house explored.)

I will admit to laughing a few times Tekulve's characters remarked on the West Virginia landscape as resembling Sicily; my family was stationed in Sicily for a few years when I was a child, and the country was gripped in a terrible drought the entire time we were there. My memory of Sicily is of a dry, stony, yellowed place, scrub and withering trees rather than the sort of verdant hilliness I associate with West Virginia. It wasn't until a few years ago when traveling in the Mediterranean did I see Sicily as it usually is -- fresh, green, hilly but alive -- but I still can't shake the sense of it as I knew it. (This isn't a knock against Tekulve's description of place!)

The vignette-y style reminded me immediately of Jennifer Haigh's Baker Towers and Ursula Hegi's Floating in My Mother's Palm, so readers who enjoy those kind of family sagas will enjoy this volume (grandmother with Sicilian background not needed). Highly recommended for fans of immigrant stories and rural American life in the first half of the 20th century.

*** *** ***

GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to offer a copy of In the Garden of Stone to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US readers only, ends 6/7.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Interview with David Morrell

Yesterday I reviewed David Morrell's wonderfully grim, deliciously dark Murder as a Fine Art.  I'm excited to share my interview with Morrell, who reveals, among other tidbits, that he's working on a sequel to Murder as a Fine Art! (I am so excited.)  Read on to learn more about him, his writing, and this great novel, and don't forget to enter the giveaway!

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

My debut novel, published in 1972, was First Blood, the novel in which Rambo appeared. It’s an anti-war novel about the damage done to a man who was sent to war and discovered that he had a skill for killing, hating himself in the process. Ten years later, the film adaptation appeared, which follows the plot of my novel for the most part but reinterprets the story. It’s an odd feeling to be associated with a character that’s among the top five in the thriller world, using the criterion of characters who started in novels and then gained worldwide recognition through their film adaptations: Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan, James Bond, Rambo, and Harry Potter. This is my forty-first year as a publisher author, an eternity in the publishing world where most careers last 15 or 20 years. I think the reason I’m still here is that I keep trying to find new ways to extend the idea of what a thriller can be.

Do you have any writing rituals or routines?

I work from 8:30 to 5, with an hour for exercise in the middle of the day. Exercise is important because I sit for so many hours. I write five pages each day and print them out. In the morning, I read those printed pages in a place that is different from where I write. Then I type corrections into the digital version and write another five pages, printing them out at the end of the day. This process gives me a fresh perspective on the previous day’s work.


Was Murder as a Fine Art the original title of your book?

Yes, Murder as a Fine Art was the original title. In 1854, my main character, Thomas De Quincey, invented the true-crime genre in the third installment of his essay, “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts.” My novel is based on the notorious Ratcliffe Highway murders that De Quincey wrote about in his essay. I knew that my title would need to echo De Quincey’s title.

As you were writing Murder as a Fine Art, was there a particular scene or character that surprised you?

Although Murder as a Fine Art is a Victorian mystery/thriller, it is also a father/daughter story. In 1854, when the novel occurs, De Quincey was 69. His 21-year-old daughter, Emily, was his companion. The more I researched Emily’s relationship with her controversial father, the more fascinating she became to me. When I introduced her about 40 pages into the novel, I suddenly had the idea of having her speak to the reader via a journal (a common device in Victorian literature). I started the journal with this sentence. “This morning, I discovered Father again pacing the back courtyard.” Really, it was as if Emily were talking to me. With her bloomer dress and independent ways, she took over every scene in which she appeared and is the character that readers most ask about.

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

To research aerial scenes in my novel about the mysterious Marfa lights of west Texas, The Shimmer, I became a private pilot. I try to spend once a week in the air. I enjoy hiking and swimming and am also an avid vegetable gardener.

Read any good books recently?

I tend to read a lot of non-fiction because the style of some novels can get into my head and affect the tone of the fiction I’m working on. In my recent reading, I was impressed by Glenn Frankel’s The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend. Frankel discusses the Indian abduction of Cynthia Parker in 1836 and the many ways that the abduction and the search for her was recounted, especially in Alan LeMay’s novel, The Searchers, and John Ford’s film adaptation of it. The book is a fascinating blend of historical and cultural analysis. Otherwise, I’m continuing my research into Victorian London in the 1850s for a sequel to Murder as Fine Art. In both novels, my goal is to convince readers that they are actually in Victorian London.

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GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to offer a copy of Murder as a Fine Art to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US readers only, ends 6/7.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Murder as a Fine Art by David Morrell

Title: Murder as a Fine Art
Author: David Morrell

Genre: Fiction (Historical / 19th Century / London / Thomas DeQuincy / Laudanum / Serial Killer)
Publisher/Publication Date: Mulholland Books (5/7/2013)
Source: Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

Rating: Loved -- will likely make my top ten of 2013.
Did I finish?: Oh yeah.
One-sentence summary: A serial killer in 1854 London replicates -- and exaggerates -- a series of violent crimes from decades before, and laudanum-addicted writer Thomas DeQuincey is seen as the prime suspect.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction

Do I like the cover?: I do -- it's not super compelling but certainly evokes the feel of the novel: soot, fog, London, guys in hats.

I'm reminded of...: Matt Rees, Dan Simmons

First line: Titian, Rubens, and Van Dyke, it is said, always practiced their art in full dress.

Did... I die of surprise when I learned the author was the guy who invented Rambo?: YES. Morrell wrote First Blood in 1972 and was involved in the subsequent films. Crazy! I actually enjoyed this one so much I went out and got First Blood to read.

Do... I love the videos Morrell shares on his website about his research?: YES. He especially talks about how weird London in the mid 1800s was, which I appreciate, because hello, the Victorians were weird.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy if you like historical mysteries, the Victorian era, or unusual historicals.

Why did I get this book?: I've never seen DeQuincey featured in fiction -- how could I resist?

Review: I had such a flippin' great time with this book. From the first page, I was sucked in, and the only reason I didn't finish this one in a day is that I made myself slow down and enjoy the journey -- I could have taken another 300 pages and been only slightly satisfied.

Set in 1854, the novel opens with 'the artist', a violent serial killer bent on replicating -- and improving upon -- a series of violent murders from 1811.  (And ew, are they grim.)  For the police and the London public, these crimes are chilling and frightening, and one suspect immediately comes to mind: writer/philosopher/laudanum-addict Thomas DeQuincey whose essay 'On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts' detailed the 1811 murders and seemingly offered admiration for the killer.

DeQuincey, now in his 60s, is still infamous for his Confessions of an Opium-Eater, perhaps the first tell-all drug memoir published.  Chased by creditors, DeQuincey returns to London after a mysterious missive promises to reunite him with a woman from his past, accompanied by his smart, pragmatic, bloomer-wearing daughter, Emily.

Two London police officers -- an Irish detective named Ryan and a British constable named Becker -- are tasked with arresting notorious writer/drug addict Thomas DeQuincey for the murders -- and that's when things get really hairy.

This book hit every note for me: wonderful sense of place and era, fascinating characters, a gossipy treatment of history, and a narrative style that has as much personality as the characters. In the (wonderfully fascinating) Afterward, Morrell explains this novel is his take on the 19th century novel; he employs a third-person omniscient viewpoint and intersperses the narrative with excerpts from diary entries. The effect is fun without being exhausting (Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell was fun, but felt a bit much at times) and offered that lovely mix of 'education' (the narrative is peppered with trivia about the era) and escapism (there were some moments that were positively cinematic).

Hands down, Emily was my favorite character -- she might rank up there with my favorite heroines -- as she was smart, sympathetic, 'modern' (for the times), and vibrant. Morrell conveyed a Victorian woman raised with a rather unconventional thinker of father who still felt authentic to the era. She wasn't a contemporary woman in corsets (because Emily doesn't wear them, but you know what I mean.). I enjoyed every character, though, even our creepy 'artist of death', and I couldn't stop reading. There's non-stop action but the feel of the book isn't bombastic or exhausting -- having the cerebral DeQuincey helped temper the speed, I think, and balanced out the police officers and murders. He was certainly a fascinating foil for the story.

If you like Victorian London, take this trip. If you like historical mysteries, consider this one: the focus is less on the mystery since we know 'who' the murderer is (just not his name) and has a hint of the police procedural with a good helping of psychological profiling. I can't say whether or not DeQuincey nerds will approve of Morrell's portrayal of him and his daughter, but I just loved him and am super eager to read his works. (I kind of wish this would become a series with DeQuincey and company.)

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GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to offer a copy of Murder as a Fine Art to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US readers only, ends 6/7.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Winners!

Just two giveaways this weekend!

The winner of The Golem and the Jinni is ... Leah!

The winner of Fear in the Sunlight ... Nadia!

Congrats to the winners!

 I've emailed folks who have until end of day Tuesday to respond. If you didn't win, be sure to check out my open giveaways.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Weekend reads and feeling funky...

No cute picture today; I'm not exactly between books so much as sandwiched in a pile, all half started. 

Real life has me a bit funky lately -- the last four weeks or so -- and I'm having a hard time focusing on reading, never mind reviewing.  (Funk isn't helped by the pile of review books staring at me!)

What are you reading this weekend?



[image credit: Mo Willems]

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Historical Novel Society 2013 Conference Panelist: Meet Stephanie Cowell

I'm excited to share another Q&A with an author participating in the 2013 Historical Novel Society Conference this year, Stephanie Cowell.  Her books have long been on my TBR and now I'm breathless with anticipation for her newest (see her second to last question).  

Stephanie Cowell
What got you first interested in historical fiction?

Since an early age I believed I belonged in an earlier time, that my real life and were waiting for me there. I read historical children’s novels such as A LITTLE PRINCESS and felt that was my life, if I could only get to it. Even today certain places and times are a home I miss with all my heart.

How do you find the people and topics of your books?

Oh I am interested in many people and topics, and they come rushing at me. I can hardly leave a street in Europe or England without some fictional character tapping me on the shoulder and pouring out her story. Years ago I was walking behind my parents in a tiny village full of stone houses in Switzerland, and my father called back, “Daughter, where are you?” And I replied, “A character is following me.” My poor stepmother got SO upset and rushed back, thinking some deranged ragged person was trailing me. After that when I lagged behind, I simply called out “I’m just twenty feet and four centuries behind you.”

Do you follow a specific writing and/or research process?

I research as I write. I know something about the person or the times of course to begin with. In the last stages of the novel, I drop in all sorts of specifics…hat pins, things like that. I rewrite each novel several times trying to make a rising dramatic plot line out of a life.

For you, what is the line between fiction and fact?

I think it is most important to get the essence of a story, which means my character may have one big argument with her husband rather than seven, and live in one place in steady of fourteen. You have to change things a little to make a dramatic piece. We can’t change when Marie Antoinette died or the way she died, but we can change when she was playing with her children.

Do you have an anecdote about a reading or fan interaction you'd like to share?

Someone e-mailed me photos of the bookshop in Salzburg which sold my Mozart novel in German; it happened to be the same very old shop where Mozart himself bought books. So many things have happened! And Monet’s house in Giverny has a bookshop which carried my novel on him.

Where do you feel historical fiction is headed as a genre?

I don’t know. We go through fads. Considering everything from the beginning of time thru WWII is considered HF, we are taking over the world! That leaves us contemporary fiction and books set in the future.

Is there an era/area that is your favorite to write about? How about to read?

Oh many different times…I prefer to read about people in the arts than kings and queens on a whole.

Is there a writer, living or deceased, you would like to meet?

I would like to be with Shakespeare at rehearsals of HAMLET.

What book was the most fun for you to write?

Marrying Mozart…it took nine months and was pure joy. I adore Mozart. It was my love story for him.

Can you tell us about your latest publication?

My newest novel which will not be out for some time is about the Victorian poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning. She was a invalid with great family problems when the handsome gifted Robert Browning swept her away to Italy where her passionate love for Robert was in conflict with her family devotion, her laudanum addiction, her refusal to consider her health and her newly freed genius…among which were the sonnets she wrote for him. “How do I love thee?” etc.. It’s about a woman of genius handling love, health and life.

Do you have a most interesting question or crazy anecdote related to your writing you would like to share?

My first B&N reading for my first novel (NICHOLAS COOKE) outside the city was a disaster! The book had debuted well as a People Pick, great printed reviews, etc so off I went to Albany. The reading space was situated between the busy front door and loud café and there was no mike. I screamed out my readings….then many many people came through the door but not one of them stopped for me. Finally I asked the manager where they were all going. She said, “Oh, Spot the Dog is appearing here today!” It was profoundly depressing! I had an ice cream sundae after and was almost too sad to eat any of it.

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Learn more about Stephanie Cowell: check out her website or see her speaker profile here (scroll down).

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

A Prince to be Feared by Mary Lancaster

Title: A Prince to be Feared
Author: Mary Lancaster

Genre: Fiction (Historical / 15th Century / Eastern Europe / Romania / Ottoman Empire / Court Intrigue / Historical Figure Fictionalized / Romance)
Publisher/Publication Date: Self published (4/2013)
Source: Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

Rating: Liked a good deal.
Did I finish?: I did.
One-sentence summary: The lifelong friendship and love affair between Vlad the Impaler and a Hungarian noblewoman in 15th century Transylvania.
Reading Challenges: E-book, Historical Fiction

Do I like the cover?: I do -- it's ambigu-royal but I think it conveys the more serious (non-paranormal) heft to the story.

I'm reminded of...: Jeanne Kalogridis, Matt Rees

First line: He made a perfect villain.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Buy -- the ebook is $2.99!

Why did I get this book?: I love hist fic in unusual settings, and having traveled through Transylvania over the winter, I'm eager to return -- in person or via book!

Review: A novel about Dracula that doesn't involve vampires?! Be still my heart!

Needless to say, when I was offered to be on the tour for this one, I leapt at the chance, and my leap was rewarded: this is a great novel of court intrigue, war, and love -- and I'm happy to say, this isn't a Tudor-esque fic simply plunked into Transylvania.

Alternating between 1474 and 1454, the novel follows Ilona Szilágyi, a Hungarian noblewoman, and her friendship, courtship and love affair with Vlad Dracula.

My historical knowledge of Vlad Dracula is fuzzy (or, really, nonexistent), and Lancaster's novel quickly and neatly delves into his violent and heartbreaking life -- hostage to the Ottomans, a pawn during war, an ambitious military leader regarded with awe and horror for his unapologetically brutal ways -- who becomes a Prince and eventual political prisoner.  Vlad's ambitions are boundless as is his determination to remain a ruler, and he allows himself to be used by the Wallachians and Hungarians to remain in power. Lancaster opens with Machiavelli's quote (better a prince be feared than loved), which is coined some forty years after Vlad's reign and yet exemplifies his leadership style.

And still, knowing all that, I was kind of into Vlad. Even with a mustache and his cruel military prowess, I was digging him! It helped that our heroine, Ilona, was fun, a realistic mix of innocence and boldness, a bit fiery and a bit shy; I could relate to her, and when she was smitten, I was a tiny bit smitten.

Lancaster's writing is effortless, geeky with detail without feeling like infodumping or oversharing. She plunges us into the story, opening with the end of Vlad's imprisonment before taking us back to his youth, when he first met the impetuous Ilona. The political tangle of that region is lightly explained but really offered through context, and I appreciated that. (For those who are curious, you can read Chapter One on Lancaster's website.)

There's a long cast of characters at the beginning of the book as well as a map of the region. There's no Author's Note or Afterward, which I would have liked -- I'm intensely curious about this era and the players now!

I'm unsure how to describe this one: it's beach-y fun to read, but it isn't a bodice ripper or a sexed up historical ala Philippa Gregory. It isn't the weighty military historical necessarily but it's obviously a novel of war and conflict. It's a tiny bit coming-of-age for our young noblewoman; it's a bit middle-age-looking-back-at-youth as well. Whatever it is, it's fun, and effortless to read, and worth picking up if you like court intrigue but want a little variation, or if you're curious about Eastern Europe in the 15th century, or even if you just want to know a bit about the historical Dracula. (And, at the moment, it's $2.99 as an ebook.)

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GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to offer an e-book copy of A Prince to be Feared to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US and international readers, ends 5/31.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Winners!

I'm super behind on life -- reading, reviews, and apparently, sharing giveaway winners! -- so my apologies for the wait!  Here are the winners for this week!

The winner of Pain, Parties, Work is ... Krystle C.!

The winner of The Bequest of Big Daddy is ... Emily of The Bookshelf of Emily J.!

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

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Mailbox Monday, May 13

In May, Mailbox Monday is hosted by Abi @ 4 the LOVE of BOOKS. Some wonderful arrivals this week! To learn more about any title, click the cover and it will open in a new tab/window.

What did you get this week? What do you think of these titles?

For Review







Swapped/Gifted/Purchased














All gifted to me by the amazing Amy of Passages to the Past! Thanks for letting me get these out of your house! ;)

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Historical Novel Society 2013 Conference Panelist: Meet Stephanie Dray

This year, I'm going to be attending the Historical Novel Society's annual conference -- a first for me -- and I'm going as a panelist! (So surreal!) 

For the next few weeks, I'm going to be sharing some short interviews with a few of the panelists planning to come to the conference. I hope, even if you aren't attending, you'll find some new authors to add to your TBR!

I'm particularly excited to be hosting Stephanie Dray here -- as some of you may know, I kind of have a thing for her writing. (Good luck to me if I have a chance to meet her; there will be much gasping and swooning.)

Here are some questions Ms. Dray answered for HNS about her writing and books.

Stephanie Dray
How do you find the people and topics of your books?

I'm fascinated by the bad girls of history, not to mention the under-appreciated heroines of our past. When I learn about a woman that I feel I should know about, and don't, it's almost as if she's calling out to me to bring her to life. It's a miraculous thing.

For you, what is the line between fiction and fact?

I can be obsessive about getting the facts right. My agent and my husband once staged an intervention to stop me from fermenting crustacean shells in my back yard to see if I could recreate the ancient process of making purple dye. That said, I try not to be a pretentious person. I know what my job is. I am a novelist, not a biographer. My responsibility is to the story, first and foremost. I try to remember that history is written by the victors and that, especially when it comes to the ancient world, facts are fragmentary and a small piece of the puzzle. So I treat the facts respectfully, but I try never to be tyrannized by them.

What book was the most fun for you to write?

Let me tell you, instead, which was the least fun to write, and that was Song of the Nile. I knew that the book was going to touch on very problematic themes. I write about the Ptolemies, which means incest was going to come up for sure. I write about goddess worship when it was at its strongest and when it was imperiled. I write about the Romans, and rape was as embedded in their culture as it appears to still be in ours. I knew it was going to be a dark book and an over-the-top dramatic one. I kept pulling back the throttle, I kept avoiding writing the hard scenes, and when I did write them, I sometimes sniffled my way through them. In the end, it was my award-winningest book and I think, my most beautiful. But it hurt to write it and sometimes that's okay.

Do you have a most interesting question or crazy anecdote related to your writing you would like to share?

This is a very nerdy anecdote, but one that tickles me. I have been very fortunate to be able to consult with a professor of antiquities on the life of Cleopatra Selene. Because the date of her death is disputed, I wanted to get his opinion. I said, "Professor, I am quite certain that your theory about her death in 5 BC is correct, but that is very inconvenient for my story. Can I justify a later death date since most scholars, up until recently, believed she died in 17 AD?" He was quite firm in his opinion that I should adopt his theory because he was confident in its accuracy and worried that "if there is a cataclysm, and all books about Cleopatra Selene are destroyed about yours, don't you want it to be accurate?" I wondered what kind of person goes around worrying about such things! Then I realized that professors of antiquities do...and must...because so much in the ancient world is lost to us. In the end, I chose 5 BC...just in case there's a cataclysm.

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Learn more about Stephanie Dray: sign up for her newsletter, follow her on Twitter and check out her website. You can also see her speaker bio at the HNS Conference website on this page (just scroll down).

Thursday, May 9, 2013

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

Title: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena
Author: Anthony Marra

Genre: Fiction (2000s / 1990s / Russia / Chechnya / Secret Police / Emergency Room / Sex Trafficking / Doctors / Siblings)
Publisher/Publication Date: Hogarth (5/7/2013)
Source: TLC Book Tours

Rating: Liked a good deal.
Did I finish?: I did.
One-sentence summary: Six lives overlap, collide, and crash over a span of a decade, distilled down into five days in war-torn Chechnya.

Do I like the cover?: I adore it -- so sad, so evocative, so bittersweet!

I'm reminded of...: Jennifer Dubois, Valerie Laken

First line: On the morning after the Feds burned down her house and took her father, Havaa woke from dreams of sea anemones.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy -- I suspect this book will be getting a good deal of praise in the coming months.

Why did I get this book?: If it's from Hogarth, I'm reading it.

Review: I'm a total Hogarth fangirl now, having first fallen in love with I Am Forbidden and then The Headmaster's Wager.

Set in a small town in the Chechan Republic, the novel takes place over five days, shifting from 'present' -- 2004 -- back to 1994.  (The time jumps are beautiful noted at the start of each chapter with this timeline, the year in question bolded.)

The five days in question, the frame of the book, refer to the time spent at a nearly abandoned hospital by Akhmed, an incompetent village doctor, and Havaa, the 8-year old daughter of his neighbor, orphaned after Federal police seized her father and burned her house. Desperate to save her, Akhmed drags her to the city hospital (at one point in the book, he realizes it is the first life he's saved as a doctor).

There they meet Sonja and her crazy nurse. Sonja, paralysed with guilt and fear over her sister Natasha, missing again after being a victim of sex trafficking, works automaton-like numbness at the hospital, amputating limbs with quick practice and dealing with gangsters to resupply the hospital.

Every night, Akhmed returns home to care for his invalid wife, living in fear of his neighbor Ramzan, who is a snitch for the police (Ramzan is the reason Havaa and her father were turned in to the police) while nurturing a friendship with Khassan, Ramzan's historian father who has taken to ignoring his son as punishment for his betrayals.

Chechnya, a region in Russia perhaps only vaguely familiar to Americans in the last decade, is now increasingly familiar due to the Boston Marathon bombings. I will admit to some -- I don't know how to describe it -- some shaky unease reading about Chechan landmines and amputations when I've been reading about bombs and amputations here.

Marra's writing is gorgeous, not quite poetry, not simple statement, and as a result, whatever he articulates, be it a broken heart or severed limb, reads achingly real. (Which isn't to say it's all lofty philosophy: there are some literally stomach-turning, had-to-put-the-book-down-and-walk-away graphic or grotesque moments, like the aforementioned amputation scene.)  That said, I couldn't stop reading -- or wanting to read -- this book, and Marra's inclusion of such violence emphasizes the unstable destruction of the area, the unceasing  horror these characters live with.

Much like the old medical text that inspired the title, the characters are all points on a constellation, connected and separate.  I finished this book unwilling to start another, still working at the story in my mind.

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GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to offer a copy of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US/Canadian readers, ends 5/24.