Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Inheritance by Victoria Wilcox

Title: Inheritance (Southern Son: The Saga of Doc Holliday, Book One)
Author: Victoria Wilcox

Genre: Fiction (Historical / 1860s / 1870s / American Civil War / Georgia / John Henry Holliday / Historical Figures Fictionalized)
Publisher/Publication Date: Knox Robinson (5/2013)
Source: The author.

Rating: Loved!
Did I finish?: I did, finishing it in about three nights because I just couldn't stop!
One-sentence summary: The early years of John Henry 'Doc' Holliday's life, in post-Civil War Georgia, as he struggles to find his place in the world and the love of his life.
Reading Challenges: E-book, Historical Fiction

Do I like the cover?: I'm not wild about it, but I don't hate it.

First line: John Henry Holliday believed in heroes -- he came from a long line of them, after all.

Do... I love the wonderful extras available at the author's website?: YES. An annotated photo album of places in the novel, a detailed map of pretty much every place John Henry goes, a family tree of John Henry's family (Margaret Mitchell is related to him!), as well as music from the era, a cast of characters, and reference list.

Was... I surprised to learn Margaret Mitchell was related to 'Doc' Holliday?: YES! They're some kind of cousins (her grandmother's cousin was John Henry's cousin...), but most interesting is that John Henry's beloved Mattie was the inspiration for Mitchell's Melanie in Gone With the Wind.

Am... I dying for the second book in the series?: YES. Want it now.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy, especially if you like richly detailed historical fiction, Southern family sagas (while this focuses on John Henry Holliday, his close family ties means his relatives get good screen time), or novels featuring complicated main characters.

Why did I get this book?: I've always been horrified/fascinated by 19th century 'lawmen' and criminals of the Wild West.

Review: Until I finished this book, my only real notion of 'Doc' Holliday was of a gaunt, thin, possibly drug addicted gun fighter and cohort of Wyatt Earp. This biographical novel, the first in a trilogy, totally blew my mind and changed that whole perception.

Spanning 1862 to 1873, this book details the early life of John Henry Holliday, the only son of a commanding, unforgiving war vet and a sweet, polished Southern woman. Desperate for his father's approval, but impatient and wild-tempered enough to constantly get himself into trouble, John Henry struggles to find a place in changing, post-war Georgia.

Moderated by his pious and devoted cousin Mattie but chafing under his father's tight control and burning with the desire for his own bold, heroic life, John Henry's first serious misstep is a complicated and potentially devastating foray into revenge when a Northern politician starts stumping in Valdosta, Georgia. After his father saves him from a stint in prison or worse, John Henry finds himself in Yankee territory when he attends dental school in Philadelphia. (The practice of dentistry at this time was evolving from mere tooth extraction to the field as we know it now.)

Hoping to confirm whether or not his childhood sweetheart is indeed interested in him, John Henry returns to Georgia (after a fascinating side trip to St. Louis!), where his tensions with his father reach a crisis point and the worst happens. (Rereading this, I'm afraid I'm making it boring. Seriously, it's fascinating, and I just don't want to ruin the surprises about the boy who ends up being the infamous 'Doc' Holliday!)

Wilcox is an expert on John Henry: she's the founding director of the Holliday-Dorsey-Fife House Museum in Fayetteville, GA and did immense original research for her trilogy. It shows in the wonderfully detailed look at his life. She also managed to cram in those historical tidbits and details that make this genre my favorite: not just armchair travel, but time travel.

I'm not really familiar with Civil War Georgia or the years following the war outside of Gone With the Wind but Wilcox provides rich descriptions of the landscape, towns and cities, houses, clothes, offices and business, and trends of the day in a way that felt effortless. This book is dripping with details but not once did I face the dreaded infodump.

Speaking of the historical details and ambiance, I have to address the treatment of people of color. Historical fiction can be a tricky genre, especially when there are unsavory aspects to an era that shouldn't be whitewashed or ignored. The treatment of people of color in novels set during this time is significant and really hard to ignore, but can be incredibly hard to read as well. Wilcox doesn't ignore the racism and prejudice of the era, for which I'm grateful, but I will admit I had a challenging time with some sections and events. I think they're handled well, though, and Wilcox doesn't excuse her characters or give them an easy out.  They're products of their place and time. 

I'll be honest, I never expected to love this book. Like it perhaps, but not love it, and that's because I never anticipated liking John Henry. He's a hard figure to genuinely admire and yet, by the end, I was completely taken with him. (Watch Justified? There's a long-standing 'villain', Boyd Crowder, who is pretty despicable; and yet, my wife and I are completely invested in/kind of rooting for him because he's sort of so damaged and vibrant and real. That's about how I felt toward John Henry.) I wanted to loathe him but Wilcox provides enough psychological and emotional insight so that I can't write him off as horrible. He's real and flawed and aspirational and completely stupid -- and so, so compelling to follow.

Fans of rich historical novels will want this, as well as those who like Southern family sagas. (While focused on John Henry, his massive pack of relatives means there's some interesting drama!) And anyone who enjoys a complicated 'hero' should consider spending some time with John Henry. (For those curious, the first chapter is available online for preview. The e-book is currently $5.99 from the publisher -- it clocks in at about 350 pages-- and is totally worth it, I think.)

*** *** ***

GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to offer a copy of Inheritance to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US/Canadian and UK residents, ends 8/16. Be sure to check out my interview with the author on 8/7 for another chance to enter!


Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Godiva by Nicole Galland

Title: Godiva
Author: Nicole Galland

Genre: Fiction (Historical / 11th Century / UK / Royal Intrigue / Edward the Confessor / Godiva / Historical Figures Fictionalized)
Publisher/Publication Date: William Morrow (7/2/2013)
Source: The publisher.

Rating: Liked!
Did I finish?: I did, very quickly!
One-sentence summary: An 11th century noblewoman finds herself condemned for her flirtatious politicking and must chose between surrendering her property -- the city of Coventry -- or riding naked through it.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction

Do I like the cover?: Guiltily, I don't! I appreciate seeing a full face, but she's a redhead! And she's clothed! Which isn't to say Godiva must be depicted naked, but, I don't know, if you're going to do a woman and a horse...

I'm reminded of...: Michelle Diener, Marina Fiorato, Karen Harper, Deborah Lawrenson

First line: In the time it took Godiva to wrest a concession from the young man, she could have easily spun a skein of yarn.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy if you're curious about the famous Lady Godiva, or want a brisk and fun historical novel

Why did I get this book?: I loved Galland's I, Iago and I've always admired the infamous Lady Godiva.

Review: I'm having a shockingly hard time writing this review given that I had a great time with it and was provoked and amused by our heroine, Godiva.

Set in 11th century England, the novel follows two friends: the titular heroine Godiva, a flirtatious landowning noblewoman; and her best friend, Edgiva, niece of King Edward (the Confessor) and abbess of Leominster Abbey. Both girls grew up together in Leominster, but Godiva knew she would eventually marry while Edgiva, whose possible offspring could be contenders to the throne, was dedicated to the church. She became abbess at 18 without having the chance of deciding if this was her vocation.

It's this lack of choice that Godiva fights, for she is as active and commanding a ruler as her husband Leofric. One of the three most powerful lords in the kingdom, Leofric's wealth and army is a threat to the king, who maintains a harsh tax to pay for a foreign mercenary army to keep England under his rule.

Ostensibly, it is this tax that provides the catalyst for the novel's events. Shifting the legend a hint -- rather than her husband refusing to remove this tax, it is now Edward who levies it -- Galland posits that it might have been Godiva's frank sexuality and political manoeuvrings that provoked Edward into making his shocking demand: that Godiva ride naked thru Coventry.

Godiva, as we see from the opening scene, using her sexuality boldly, wrangling unruly lords into submitting to decisions they might otherwise fight. She will be, I suspect, a polarizing heroine for people because of this. Even I had a very uncomfortable response to her coquetry and impetuous use of her charms to get things done. And yet, as I discussed with Jessie of Ageless Pages Review on GoodReads, I don't believe that wives of rulers didn't use their skills to enact change as needed, wresting power as they could. Godiva's flirtatiousness is no different a strategy for control than a ruler's physical prowess or immense wealth.

Tangled in with Godiva's story is Edgiva's. A competent abbess and Godiva's closest friend, she has her own scandalous challenge, one that is worsened by Godiva's meddling. The two women have a loving and emotionally rich friendship, which is tried when Edgiva learns of Godiva's involvement in, well, I don't want to give away the details. But Galland doesn't shy from having these two fight -- painfully! -- and it brought tears to my eyes.

One of the things that delighted me most about I, Iago was Galland's emotionally resonate exploration of Iago. For Godiva, Galland took her own naked ride on a horse which influenced how she wrote Godiva's own nude ride. That section was particularly poetic, pretty, and moving, I found, and now I understand why!

The style of this book is 'lighter' than I, Iago, which isn't a bad thing; in many ways, the narrative style echoes Godiva: quick, pretty, flirty, surprising depth. Galland takes a brutal era and two stories -- one legendary, one historic -- and creates a novel that touches on surprisingly deep themes.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Interview with Ania Szado

Earlier in the month, I reviewed Ania Szado's Studio Saint-Ex, her inventive novel about famed pilot and author Antoine Saint-Exupéry, his wife, and a young fashion designer who becomes embroiled with the couple. I was so taken with it -- it totally changed my perception of Saint-Exupéry! I'm thrilled to share my interview with Ms. Szado about her book and interests outside of writing.

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

My early plots involved a lot of galloping, shooting, and tying up bad guys—my brother and I had cowboy action figures as kids, and I used to write about their adventures. My first adult stories were more low-key. One of them, for example, was about a girl in a bathtub gaining insight into her mother's suicide. I'm much more focused on plot now than I once was.

Do you have any writing rituals or routines?

Depending on what stage I'm at in a manuscript, my routines range from intense procrastination (which is excruciating!) to intense immersion in writing retreats of up to a month, with 15 to 20 hours of work daily (blissful). But there are a couple of common factors. One is black coffee. First thing in the morning, I think about the story as I brew coffee, then I sit down to read what I wrote the day before. I jump back into writing by beginning to tweak and cut. The other common aspect of my routine is to alternate between laptop and notebook. I write and edit on the laptop, working until I hit a wall or a question. Then I take up my notebook and write about the problem I'm facing. I write the answer, too—or many possible answers, contradicting myself, figuring things out as I go. I might ask, for example, "Why do I want X to do Y?" or "What am I writing about?" or "How might Y meet Z?"

Was Studio Saint-Ex the original title of your book?

It was. I made a long list of possible titles, many of which referred directly to elements of The Little Prince (which the author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry is writing in my novel), but other than Studio Saint-Ex, they all seemed too soft and romantic, or were too long or misleading. "Saint-Ex" was one of Saint-Exupéry's nicknames. I wish he had spelled it "St. X" or "St. Ex"!

As you were writing Studio Saint-Ex, was there a particular scene or character that surprised you?

Mig's brother Leo developed in ways that I didn't expect, and I didn't think I would become as fond of him as I did. It surprised me that he began to have his own dreams about the role Saint-Exupéry could play in his sister's life and in his own. That remains a fairly subtle part of the story, but I keep thinking about it, about what Mig calls "the admiration of man for man."

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

Reading is high on the list of pleasures, but I also love to do physical things like multi-day canoeing, hiking, and camp trips in the backcountry—and I especially love paddling. My friends call me Gadget Girl because of my soft spot for solar, manual, and lightweight outdoor gear. I'm an on-again off-again runner and indoor climber. I enjoy fixing things and doing small renovation projects. On the less strenuous side, I paint a little and want to do more. It's what I used to do—I went to art college before I became a writer.

Read any good books recently?

Yes, from all over the genre map. In historical fiction, Z by Therese Anne Fowler. In crime-busting "country noir," Crow's Landing by Brad Smith. Before that, Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men. I'm currently a few chapters into The Man Who Walked Through Time: The Story of the First Trip Afoot Through the Grand Canyon by Colin Fletcher. I'm also reading about artists as research for my next novel.

*** *** ***

My thanks to Ms. Szado for her time and thoughtful responses. You can learn more about her and her books at her website, and get in touch via Facebook and Twitter.

GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to offer a copy of Studio Saint-Ex to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US/Canadian readers, ends 8/2.


Saturday, July 27, 2013

Winners!

The nor'easter is gone, so it's bright and sunny and hot once more.  I'm not sure if I'm thrilled, since I rather enjoyed my cozy reading day yesterday, but after doing errands and what not, I'm going to park myself in the sun like a cat and try to finish up my book.

Last week's giveaway winner already had the book, so I've redrawn that winner along with the two for this week.



The winner of The Queen's Vow is ... Laura!

The winner of Chocolates for Breakfast is ... Elizabeth B.!

The winners of The Queen's Lover are ... Anne F., Renae @ Respiring Thoughts, and Emma @ Words And Peace!

Congrats to the winners!  Be sure to check out my open giveaways (there are two international giveaways!) and check in next week as more are coming.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Weekend reads and keeping warm...

After ridiculous temperatures for the last few weeks -- 90 at 9am! -- we have a nor'easter blowing in, so it's cold and gray and rainy. A perfect fall day! If it were fall!

While my wife is away on a business trip, I'm hunkering down with this beast for the weekend: The Thinking Woman's Guide to Real Magic by Emily Croy Barker.

It's almost 600 pages which is quite appealing to me -- I think I'm just going to curl up and read the rainy weekend away! (I suppose I'll clean up the house, too, so my wife doesn't cry upon her return on Sunday.)

What are you reading this weekend?

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Interview with Stephanie Carroll

Yesterday I reviewed Stephanie Carroll's A White Room, a deliciously creepy novel set in early 20th century Missouri.  A little bit Shirley Jackson, a little bit 'The Yellow Wallpaper', it's a book I won't easily forget.  I'm thrilled to share my interview with the author, so read on to learn more about Stephanie's writing process, her book, and what she does when she's not writing.  (It's pretty amazing.)  Be sure to enter the international giveaway to win a copy of A White Room!

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

Oh wow – that’s a great question, but I’m not sure if I can remember. When I was in elementary school, I remember being praised for writing a six page story that had something to do with a river. It was the first time I was really praised for my writing.

I also remember setting out to write my first novel when I was 13 or 14 and that was going to be about a hiking trip gone wrong. A group of teenagers were going to be kidnapped by their guide who turns out to be a criminal. I never finished it and for a long time thought I couldn’t write novel-length fiction because of it. What’s funny is now I’m the type of writer that can only write long fiction and struggles with short stories.

I’ve always been writing, but I don’t have many fully fledged works from childhood because a long time ago someone told me I couldn’t make a living from writing fiction, so I set it aside in my mind as a hobby. All throughout high school and college, I went after academic and journalism courses thinking it was how to pursue writing as a career. I considered the creative writing classes something that would be a lot of fun but wouldn’t prepare me for the future.

Then I got out of college and was so excited to finally have the time to write a novel for fun. I came up with the idea for A White Room almost right away and realized this had always been what I wanted to do. It all turned out for the best because I earned a history degree in college, which was huge for writing a historical novel, and I learned so much about writing, publishing, marketing, and networking from my years working as a reporter.

Do you have any writing rituals or routines?

Sort of. When I’m really entrenched in my writing, I seem to go through mini-writer’s block cycles that usually last a week or so. They make me moody. My husband has a routine to help me get through the blocks. He forces me to take a day off, and he insists on my relaxing and taking in other forms of art to recharge my creativity. It actually works really well, but whenever I’m that into my work, I won’t take a day off willingly.

I do have a system for when I have a novel idea. I like to research a whole lot first and take notes by hand, and then I outline and figure out the plot based on the history and research. Next, I write everything I can as quickly as I can without worrying about grammar or even writing well. Then, I go back and read through and start fixing things. It’s kind of like a process to create the framework then I can go back in and make other layers shine.

Making the rest of the layers, really known as the editing process, is where things get crazy. I don’t have a system for it because it’s kind of a journey of discovery. I’ll know things are wrong, but I won’t always know how to fix them. When I discover the solution, it might take the story to a place I never would have guessed.

That happened a lot for A White Room. In the beginning I only had the idea for the first half of the story and just the story of Emeline – none of the subplots or stories of the other characters were there yet. Not even John’s story. It was just Emeline up until the point of her escape. I didn’t even know the second half. That all developed over several years through research, feedback, and discovery.

Was A White Room the original title of your book?

It was, and I was insistent upon it even though it has its pitfalls. For example, it’s a pretty general word combination so a million other search items pop up when you type it into Google. Plus a lot of people miss the “A” and call it “The White Room,” which is unfortunate because there is a different book called “The White Room.”

I insisted on keeping the title because the original inspiration for the story is this metaphor about a woman trapped in a white room. It’s referenced throughout the story.
“Sometimes while sitting there staring out the window, I imagined
a place in my mind, a white room. A simple space coated
in white paint. The white represented responsibility, obligation. It
didn’t require what responsibility and obligation required, but it
had the same effect. It maintained the person in the room; it kept
the person alive and well, along with everything and everyone that
person cared for, but nothing the person held dear existed in the
room. The person was alone. The person experienced no joy from
bearing the weight of responsibility, earned no prize.

I imagined a particular person in the room—a woman, also
clothed in white. This woman constantly faced a dilemma. She
longed for freedom. She longed to be the bird.

Her open palms grazed the rutted expanse of the wall. She
knew that something lay beyond—beyond the white. She could
burst out into the world of grass, sky, and lavender, but she knew
that if she broke through the barricade, everything she protected
would crumble, suffocate, and wither behind her. Her own freedom
would last only moments because she, too, couldn’t survive
without the white. Earth and water would smother her, and radiant
light would slice through her like a blade.

I imagined her pressing with both hands, weighing freedom
against existence and all that depended on her, but in the end she
lightened her stance and stepped away. She always chose to stay, to
fulfill her obligation.

I thought of the woman in the white room—she chose to
sacrifice her freedom for the people who relied on her to survive,
but how long could she possibly survive without freedom? How long
could she last before choosing the alternative?”

—Quoted from A White Room with the permission of the author.

I wrote this when I was going through a difficult time in my life, and I felt like the woman in the room. I didn’t know I was going to write a novel or a historical. I just wanted to get my emotions out, but once I thought of it, I had to write it down, and after I wrote it down, I couldn’t get it out of my head. I had to pursue it and turn this metaphor into a story.

It had to be “A” and not “The” because “The” suggests it’s the only one whereas “A” suggests it’s one of many, and the way I felt about it was that everyone has a white room of their own.

As you were writing A White Room, was there a particular scene or character that surprised you?

There are several scenes that surprised me but most of them are at the end, and I can’t say without saying too much. Many of the ending scenes were not a part of the original plan, so when I look at them now, I’m kind of surprised by how things developed.

The character that surprised me the most was James, Emeline’s brother. He wasn’t in any of the original versions and when I created him, he instantly became one of my favorite characters and an important part of the story.

Read any good books recently?

Many! Although not as many as I would like. I have to admit, launching my novel has taken up much of my world right now, and I’ve been spending a lot of my reading time on books related to that. Most recently I finished Chuck Sambuchino’s Create Your Writer Platform, which is a really great resource for writers whether just starting out or already years into building their online presence.

I also just finished listening to the audio edition of The Host by Stephenie Meyer for the second time. If I want to read a book more than once, that means it’s really good. The only other novels I’ve read twice are Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife and Janet Fitch’s White Oleander. Now I need to finally see the movie version of The Host, but I’m afraid because I usually hate the movie if I’ve read the book first.

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

Believe it or not, I’m a fire dancer. I perform fire fans and fire poi as Ravyn with the group Twisted Embers in the Central Valley of California. You can see photos on Facebook.

I also write two blogs although technically that’s writing huh? Still, it feels different than my novel writing, and I spend a lot of time on them. I write The Unhinged Historian, which explores the dark side of the Victorian Era and Gilded Age, and I write Unhinged & Empowered Navy Wives, which is about conquering those little moments that make Navy Wives feel crazy! My husband is in the Navy, so I have first-hand experience.

*** *** ***

My thanks to Ms. Carroll for her time and thoughtful responses! You can learn more about her at her website, or find her on Facebook and Twitter.

GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to offer a copy of The White Room to two (2) lucky readers: a paperback copy for US readers and an ebook copy for international readers! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US and international readers, ends 8/9.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

A White Room by Stephanie Carroll

Title: A White Room
Author: Stephanie Carroll

Genre: Fiction (Historical / 1900s / Southern Gothic / Marriage / Insanity / Nursing / Marriage / Secrets)
Publisher/Publication Date: Unhinged Books (6/12/2013)
Source: NetGalley

Rating: Liked a great deal.
Did I finish?: I did.
One-sentence summary: In 1901, a young woman with some nursing training finds herself in a cold marriage, trapped in an eerie house, living in a town full of secrets.
Reading Challenges: E-book, Gothic, Historical Fiction

Do I like the cover?: I love it. I'm partial to Sargent anyway, but the image resembles a description early on in the book, of a woman in a white dress, twisting around to look behind her. This is very evocative of it.

I'm reminded of...: Shirley Jackson, Jennifer McMahon

First line: My father died with the taste of blood on his lips.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy, especially if you like atmospheric novels reminiscent of Shirley Jackson and Jennifer McMahon.

Why did I get this book?: Was quite tempted by the premise!

Review: This creepy, atmospheric novel kept me on the edge of my seat (or up all night in bed) for days.

Opening in 1900, the novel follows Emeline, a young woman returned from nursing school without a husband. When her father dies suddenly, her family is plunged into unexpected poverty. With three young sisters and her mother to support, Emeline makes the rash decision to ask her father's friend if she can marry his son.

To her shock, the family agrees, and in a matter of weeks, Emeline is married and brought from St. Louis to the isolated town of Labellum, Missouri, where her husband will practice law.  There, she learns how disastrous her impetuous decision was. Her husband bought a ghastly, monstrous house, full of furniture and decor that is outrageously grotesque and frightening. From her first step inside, the house frightens Emeline. Worse, perhaps, is her husband's continuing indifference to her, and Emeline swings between relief at ignoring him and deep hurt at his treatment of her.

This book, like the furniture, like Emeline's sanity perhaps, is snaky, hard to pin down. At first, I thought it was simply going to be a send up on Gilman's 'The Yellow Wallpaper', but it's more than just a look at Victorian attitudes toward women and their mental health. There's an oppressive kind of mystery, right out of a Shirley Jackson story or a Stephen King novel, with a close knit small town fighting to keep their secrets. I was tense the whole time, even though this book isn't a thriller, but I couldn't stand not knowing what was happening, and if Emeline was sane or mad.  Emeline's salvation, her freedom from the house, comes almost by accident, and shifts this novel from an homage to 'The Yellow Wallpaper' to a kind of historical mystery or thriller. 

Carroll's writing style is the star of this book. Emeline is an appealing, sympathetic heroine who manages to be wry and clever without dissolving into modern snark.  
I developed a talent for locating and consuming writing deemed unsuitable for a young lady, such as Dickens, Wuthering Heights, sensations like The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins, and various science and medical texts., p50
Her descriptions of this house -- and Emeline's mental health -- ratcheted up the creepy tension.  Like every other room in the house, Emeline's creepy sitting room is stuffed overflowing with bric-a-brac and outrageous color schemes.
Thousands of white and pink doilies drowned every table and chair and the little pink sofa, too.  It reminded me of an ocean of pink goo.  I was certain if were to sit in it, I would suffocate in a warm flesh-colored swamp. (p34)
And later:
The room pulsated with pink, as if it were a stomach preparing to digest.  (p83)
I also have to compliment the book's layout and design.  Each chapter opens with gorgeous Art Nouveau flourishes, and the e-book formatting is readable and clean.

I'm very nearly in love with this book, now that I've finished my review! It hits all the right notes for me in hinting at so many genres I love without being a flat pastiche.  Unique, surprising, and wildly fun.

*** *** ***

GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to offer a copy of The White Room to two (2) lucky readers: a paperback copy for US readers and an ebook copy for international readers! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US and international readers, ends 8/9.  For another entry, check out my interview with Stephanie Carroll.


Monday, July 22, 2013

Late Lights by Kara Weiss

Title: Late Lights
Author: Kara Weiss

Genre: Fiction (Contemporary / Boston / Young Adults / Juvenile Crime / Coming-of-Age / Gender Identity / Male - Female Friendships / Sex)
Publisher/Publication Date: Colony Collapse Press (2013)
Source: TLC Book Tours

Rating: Liked.
Did I finish?: I did, in one night.
One-sentence summary: Five interconnected stories of three young adults from Boston, struggling with identity, belonging, growing up, and making their way.

Do I like the cover?: It's great -- captures the gritty, urban feel of the stories (it reminds me of the opening titles to a crime tv show).

First line: Tonight, the halls are silent.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy, especially if you like gritty realism and fiction with young adults that isn't about insta-love and dystopias.

Why did I get this book?: I love books set in Boston.

Review: This slim volume of five interconnected vignettes offers a portrait of Boston teens that is heartbreaking, disturbing, and impossible to ignore.

Weiss' stories follow three friends -- Monty, who opens the volume with his stay at a juvenile detention center; followed by B.J., a young woman struggling with her body's change and the implications of it; and Erin, who escaped to boarding school but yearns for the easy friendship she used to have with Monty and B.J.

As I started, I was apprehensive these stories would be horrible for horror's sake; that Weiss would pull out every stereotype to offer shorthand to mood. Instead, I found her characters to be real, complicated teenagers, who stumble and trip over their emotions, their relationships. My heart broke over and over again as Monty, B.J., and Erin collided, moved by their past friendship but unsure now that adolescence and adult experiences push them past childhood, each nursing real hurts and injuries, physical and emotional.

While there's an urban feel to the stories, they aren't particularly 'Boston' in feel, which is fine. Place in this case isn't what shapes these teenagers and their lives. It's the adult who've failed them, the hard lessons learned against their will, the mistakes they keep making.

Weiss' writing style is brisk but evocative; her description of life in a juvenile detention center made my skin crawl and my stomach heave. Without spelling things out, she evokes the tension and drama of teenage desire and fear as well as the heavy weight of what is unsaid. There's only 120 pages or so to this book but the stories have heft and weight.

I was reminded a bit of Skins, the British show about teenagers -- both make me so uncomfortable having to acknowledge the realities so many teens face! Those who enjoy stories about young adults that aren't all insta-love and dystopias will enjoy this volume.

*** *** ***

GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to offer a copy of Late Lights to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US/Canadian readers, ends 8/9.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Mailbox Monday, July 22

Mailbox Monday is hosted in July at Tasha @ Book Obsessed and there's another awesome few weeks of arrivals! The eye candy, oh, the pretties!

To learn about a book, click on the cover -- it'll open to it's GoodReads page in a new window.

What did you get this week? Interested in any of these?


For Review























Saturday, July 20, 2013

Winner!

According to the local news, it's not the hottest day of the week, but up there. Hope the rest of you having summery weather stay cool!

Just one winner this week!

The winner of The Queen's Vow is ... Katherine of Historical Fiction Notebook!

Congrats to the winner! Be sure to check out my open giveaways -- as always, more are coming!

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Studio Saint-Ex by Ania Szado

Title: Studio Saint-Ex
Author: Ania Szado

Genre: Fiction (Historical / 1930s / 1940s / 1960s / Antoine de Saint-Exupéry / New York City / Montreal / Fashion Design / Infidelity / Marriage / French Ex-Pats / Quebecois)
Publisher/Publication Date: Knopf (6/4/2013)
Source: The publisher.

Rating: Liked a great deal.
Did I finish?: I did -- in just a few nights.
One-sentence summary: A young fashion designer in 1940s Manhattan meets famed author and pilot Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and his wild, reckless wife, and becomes embroiled in their marriage when she designs fashions for them.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction

Do I like the cover?: I do -- I believe it's a design by Valentina, who is a fashion designer mentioned in this novel. The artificial pose/setting is reminiscent of a show that makes up a huge part of the climax toward the end.

First line: I haven't even brought a book.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy, especially if you like novels about creativity, art, and the process of bringing a project to fruition.

Why did I get this book?: I know a little about Saint-Exupéry as a pilot and for his famed children's book, and couldn't resist this more...tawdry...look at him!

Review: I will admit right off I was nervous about a novel from the viewpoint of the mistress. I'm a wuss about infidelity in fiction. But what little I know about Antoine de Saint-Exupéry -- his famous book The Little Prince and his adventures as a mail pilot -- made me excessively curious about this novel, and Szado didn't disappoint. I loved this book and raced through it -- and adored our heroine.

Shifting between 'now' -- 1967, on the eve of a Montreal exposition dedicated to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry -- and 'then' -- 1940s, the novel focuses on the year Saint-Exupéry started his famed book, The Little Prince.

Mignonne Lachapelle is a young fashion designer in 1940s Manhattan, newly returned from Montreal after caring for her mother, nursing a kind of broken heart over her confusing friendship with Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Determined to pursue a career in fashion design, she is on her way to the atelier of her professor -- a woman Mignonne has discovered stole her designs and passed them off as her own. In a kind of devil's pact at a chance to be a designer, Mignonne is roped into working for this woman and using the Lachapelle family connections with the French ex-pat community to build up and gain clients for the atelier.

The dream client? Consuelo de Saint-Exupéry, the passionate, reckless, dangerous, and wild wife of Antoine.

Juggling her desire for professional success as well as her wish for Antoine to find some measure of happiness -- both emotionally and professionally -- Mignonne becomes embroiled in the Saint-Exupéry marriage. Unsurprisingly, it's hot, messy, messed up, sweet, heartbreaking, and deeply sad.

Both the resolution and the complicated relationships Mignonne ended up having with both Antoine and Consuelo surprised me and delighted me. I was fascinated and repulsed by both Antoine and Consuelo, and I just loved sweet, determined Mignonne. I found myself completely in Mignonne's camp, wanting her to find her happiness and her romantic dream (although, I'll admit, I wasn't as taken with Antoine as she was!).

In addition to the big characters -- everyone is a personality in this book -- the other star was the clothing. Szado beautifully conveys the tactile and visceral experience of creating art -- in thus case, haute couture fashion -- in such easy detail, I felt like I was handling the material Mignonne was handling, witnessing the dresses she made. (This book made me wish it had a splashy section of color pictures for Mignonne's fashions; I was devastated when I discovered Mignonne was wholly fictional and her designs aren't real!)

My only 'complaint', perhaps, is that the shift between the '40s and the '60s aren't noted. In a single chapter, we might go from the 'then' narrative -- World War II -- back to the 'now' -- the 1960s -- and it's only context that allows me to guess when we are. Otherwise, I was immersed in this book from the first page, captivated and fascinated by the Saint-Exupérys and Mignonne. I'm dying to reread The Little Prince now (as well as pick up the Stacy Schiff biography of Antoine!).

Fans of biographical historical fiction should get this one (and be prepared to want to dig out some biographies afterward!). Those who like books about artists, the creative process, or fashion design will also enjoy this book. Scandalous enough for a fun summer read, there's still emotional meat and resonance to make this satisfying. (And hard to forget!)

*** *** ***

GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to offer a copy of Studio Saint-Ex to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US/Canadian readers, ends 8/2. Be sure to check out my interview with Ania Szado for another entry!

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Interview with Stephanie Thornton

Yesterday I reviewed Stephanie Thornton's The Secret History, a wonderful novel of the 6th century Byzantine Empress, Theodora, who rose from the gutter to wear royal purple. I'm thrilled to share my interview with Stephanie, so read on to learn more about her, her book, and her current reads. Be sure to check out the international giveaway -- it comes with a Byzantine coin!

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

The first novel I wrote was about Hatshepsut, and her rise from being Pharaoh’s pampered daughter to Daughter of the Gods.
becoming Egypt’s first successful female pharaoh, all while thwarting internal palace coups, fighting against foreign uprisings, and falling in love with a commoner. I’m was thrilled when my editor told me she loved Hatshepsut’s character as much as I did; that novel will hit the shelves next year as

Do you have any writing rituals or routines?

I’m a full-time history teacher and have a six-year-old to keep me hopping, so I manage to carve out writing time for about an hour each night after papers are graded and my daughter is in bed. I have a wonderful little sunroom that I typically use as my writing room. It’s still light in there at midnight in the Alaskan summers and I painted it a wonderful shade of red so it’s nice and cozy in the winter.

Was The Secret History the original title of your book?

It was! I actually borrowed the title from Procopius, the official historian of Justinian and Theodora’s reign. He wrote several official histories on Justinian’s wars and building projects, and then a “Secret History” lambasting both rulers. It’s from this work that we have the story of Theodora’s early life as a child and on stage at the Kynegion; however, Procopius makes Theodora out to be a conniving, evil demon who enjoyed selling her body both on and off the stage. I felt I had to set the record straight about this amazing woman!

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

I’m so glad you asked that! I love, love, love Theodora’s friend Antonina! While Theodora’s character practically wrote herself, I often felt like Antonina was whispering crass jokes in my ear and waggling her eyebrows at every man in the story (including her strapping young godson). Based on what Procopius recorded, Antonina was just as outrageous (if not more) than Theodora, so it was fun to have a character that said whatever she thought, regardless of what people said about her.

According to your bio, you live in Alaska. Were you able to travel as you researched your novel? What helped you evoke the landscape of ancient Constantinople as you wrote?

I was incredibly fortunate to be able to travel to Istanbul as I writing the initial draft of The Secret History, and then again as I was editing. It was inspiring to be able to see the mosaics of the Sacred Palace that Theodora walked on, and imagine what she must have felt to look down from the Empress’ loge in the Hagia Sophia. I filled several notebooks jotting down all my thoughts and observations, and many of those notes made it into the novel—everything from boys playing ball with sores on their knees to the inscription on the interior of the Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus. (Which extols Theodora’s greatest virtues, of course!)

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

Giveaway includes a coin!
I’d love to spend all of my free time traveling, but unfortunately, I haven’t found a way to manage that quite yet. So instead I read (of course!), run, hike, do yoga, and spend a lot of time pulling weeds in my garden.

Read any good books recently?

Of course! I just finished Stephanie Dray’s Lily of the Nile and Song of the Nile, the first two books in a trilogy on the life of Cleopatra Selene. Hearing Birds Fly: A Nomadic Year in Mongolia by Louisa Waugh was a riveting look at what it takes to survive as a nomad in Mongolia and was great research for my third novel. (For the record, I’m pretty sure I’d die after only a few months in Mongolia. That’s a tough life!)

*** *** ***

My thanks to Ms. Thornton for her time. You can check out her website, or connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to offer one lucky reader a paperback copy of The Secret History and a Byzantine coin!

To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US and international readers, ends 8/2.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Secret History by Stephanie Thornton

Title: The Secret History: A Novel of Empress Theodora
Author: Stephanie Thornton

Genre: Fiction (Historical / Turkey / 6th Century / Historical Figure Fictionalized / Sex Worker / Royalty / Royal Intrigue / Christianity)
Publisher/Publication Date: NAL Trade (7/2/2013)
Source: Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

Rating: Liked a whole lot!
Did I finish?: I did, in a single night -- couldn't find a place to put the book down!
One-sentence summary: In 6th century Constantinople, a young prostitute rises through the ranks to become Empress of the Roman Empire.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction

Do I like the cover?: Oh, I do. It's probably not accurate, but oh, it's so exotic and pretty!

I'm reminded of...: Sandra Gulland, Philippa Gregory, Susan Holloway Scott

First line: My life began the night death visited our house.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy, especially if you like historical novels from the early medieval period

Why did I get this book?: Love Empress Theodora!

Review: Empress Theodora began as an actress and prostitute and became Empress of the Roman Empire. Her life reads like a soap opera, and in Thornton's hands, it's a fast, sex-filled (but not necessarily raunchy) historical novel that is perfect for the summer.

Theodora's story is not for prudish. After circumstances force her sister to become an actress -- which was a step up from a street prostitute -- Theodora becomes one as well. Not pretty exactly, but clever and smart, Theodora scrabbles her way to notoriety with a 'reenactment' of the Leda and the swan myth, becoming Constantinople's most talked about courtesan. After having a daughter she can barely care for, Theodora takes up with a merchant patron and leaves Turkey for North Africa, where she endures blackmail and abuse. (I'll admit, this section was almost too hard for me to stomach!)

She's dismissed and abandoned in Alexandria, Egypt, where she meets Severus, the Patriarch of Antioch, who takes her under his wing and tries to direct her toward a religious life. (Theodora, topically Christian, becomes baptized in a sect of Christianity less popular in the Empire.) After her return to Constantinople, a chance encounter with another famed courtesan gives her an introduction to the court of Justinian, the man thought to become Emperor after Justin, and from there, her life takes off in another tumultuous direction.

In a book with a sex worker as a heroine, it's important to me that the author treats our heroine well. However grotesque, grim, unfair, or unpalatable the life, it's crucial the characters be given respect and three-dimensional selves. Thornton does just that without either glorifying or victimizing her characters, and it tipped the book from 'good' to 'great'.

In fact, I found Thornton managed beautifully the dance required of a good historical novel: period details that gave me a sense of the era without overwhelming me, zippy plot that made it impossible for me to slip a bookmark between the pages and stop, and characters that I could respond to and relate with who didn't seem from the future.

That being said, those who are uncomfortable with the realities of life in this era will be, well, uncomfortable! Although Thornton ages Theodora up, children at this time became 'actresses' and prostitutes, and I'm grateful Thornton managed to make me more comfortable without completely anachronizing the era or Theodora's life.

I'd been waiting all year for this debut and it didn't disappoint. A beach-y historical novel in the vein, perhaps, of Philippa Gregory, I was also reminded of Sandra Gulland and Susan Holloway Scott -- authors who have heroines with big personalities and snappy, zippy, almost too-crazy-to-be-believed plot lines. Historical fiction fans should get this, as well as those who are interested in the Byzantine era, and anyone who wants a splashy novel that reads like a sexy tv series.

*** *** ***

GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to offer one lucky reader a paperback copy of The Secret History and a Byzantine coin!

To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US and international readers, ends 8/2.

Be sure to return tomorrow for an interview with author Stephanie Thornton!


Monday, July 15, 2013

This is Paradise by Kristiana Kahakauwila

Title: This is Paradise: Stories
Author: Kristiana Kahakauwila

Genre: Fiction (Short Stories / Contemporary / Hawaii / Tourism / Locals and Natives / Crime / Class Differences / Romantic Relationships)
Publisher/Publication Date: Hogarth (7/9/2013)
Source: TLC Book Tours

Rating: Liked to loved.
Did I finish?: I did, in a single night.
One-sentence summary: Six stories of contemporary Hawaii, the people who live there, and the culture of being Hawaiian.

Do I like the cover?: Adore it. Love the coloring, the font choices, the image of the stereotypical hula toy. Spot on.

I'm reminded of...: Jane Bowles, Tara Masih

First line: 1) Take a drink each time the haole pastor says "hell". from 'Thirty-Nine Rules for Making a Hawaiian Funeral Into a Drinking Game'

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy, especially if you like the grittier side of vacationlands and alleged paradises.

Why did I get this book?: Love Hogarth -- everything they've released is gold.

Review: I adored this collection of six short stories set in Hawaii, covering the world of locals and tourists, the flashy veneer of hotels and beaches, the mix and clash of cultures and social classes.

Kahakauwila's Hawaii is not the one we see in the tourist brochures -- it's there, a little, if you squint -- but the world she writes about is both alien and familiar. Her characters are locals in a tourist town, some charmed by the flash and the out-of-towners, others dismissive.

I loved almost all of the stories. The blackly comedic 'Thirty-Nine Rules for Making a Hawaiian Funeral Into a Drinking Game' had me laughing out loud, it's numbered list of hypocritical clergy and commentary on education and coming home.
With your degree in English, your aunties expect you to deliver the most grammatically correct homage to your grandmother. Take this responsibility seriously. Your copyediting skills are all you have to offer your family. (p112)
The opening story, 'This is Paradise', could be an episode of Law & Order, perhaps, or a Greek tragedy. Our narrators are the young local girls who surf and disdain the tourists; the older women who are housekeepers and have maternal affection for those they see; the young professional women who returned to Hawaii to shape it's future. All three groups -- Greek choruses -- interact with a young white tourist who comes to a tragic end. The story is poetic without being obscure; dark without being agonizing.

Perhaps my favorite is 'Wanle', which I should have hated as it's about cock fighting. A young woman takes it up in honor of her father, who died mysteriously, perhaps due to a rival. Despite her lover's constant entreaties, she continues to raise roosters for fighting, and in her pursuit of revenge, her lies do more damage than she anticipates. It's a dark and bloody story, but not grotesque nor graphic for shock value. Wanle calculates the damages her roosters can take -- perhaps the damage she thinks her lover can take, that she can take -- and seeks out happiness, success. What results shocked and surprised me and made me cry. (Yeah, I got teary for someone who enjoys cockfighting!)

Kahakauwila's stories made me uncomfortable. I'm very often that tourist swanning about a beautiful locale, willfully (or not) ignoring the reality of those who live there.  Her stories made me teary as she wrote about belonging, family, identity, and the yearning we all have to belong and fit in.  I inhaled this collection in a single night and probably reread each story twice since then.  A knockout collection.

*** *** ***

GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to offer a copy of This is Paradise to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form.

Open to US readers only, ends 8/2

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Winners!

Busy weekend (but then again, what weekend isn't?!). Excited to share this week's giveaway winners!



The winner of Bathing Beauties, Booze and Bullets is ... Mystica!

The winner of She Rises is ... Folliesgirl14!

The winner of The Queen's Rivals is ... Cynthia B!

Congrats to the winners! You can check out my current giveaways -- and be sure to watch for forthcoming ones!


Saturday, July 13, 2013

Nine Fold Heaven by Mingmei Yip

Title: Nine Fold Heaven
Author: Mingmei Yip

Genre: Fiction (Historical / 1930s / China / Shanghai / Gangsters / Love Affairs / Motherhood)
Publisher/Publication Date: Kensington (6/25/2013)
Source: Book Promotion Services

Rating: Liked.
Did I finish?: I did.
One-sentence summary: A young assassin returns to Shanghai to find an old lover, her child, and settle old scores with dangerous gangsters.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction

Do I like the cover?: I do.

First line: Three months ago, I was singing to loud applause in a Shanghai nightclub; a few days later, I became unexpectedly wealthy.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy, especially if you like fiction set in China and/or heroines who are unapologetically dangerous and sexy.

Why did I get this book?: Last year I read Yip's Skeleton Women; this is the sequel.

Review: While technically the sequel to Skeleton Women, which I read last year, Nine Fold Heaven works as a standalone novel. In essence, it's about a woman's quest to find her child, the father of her child, and some measure of safety.

Set in the 1930s, the story is narrated by Camilla, a former gangster's assassin and much lauded nightclub singer. Once a star, she fell from glory after a botched assassination attempt when she fell in love with her target's son and had a child with him. She betrayed her boss, stole from her target, and fled Shanghai in disgrace, wanted by both the police and all the gangs. Her old music teacher had lied to her and said her son was stillborn, but Camilla learned he was alive. Going between Hong Kong and Shanghai, Camilla revisits her past -- including her numerous lovers -- as she navigates her present, including a new, powerful lover. She struggles to remain hidden for fear for her life while her natural skills -- her singing and her beauty -- draws attention toward her once again.

Camilla is a hard heroine to like, although not surprisingly given her upbringing and childhood. A 'skeleton woman' -- a gangster's girl and assassin who turns men and women into skeletons -- Camilla was trained as a child to seduce and to kill. Only 20 in this book, she's shockingly worldly and has the bold arrogance of one not used to failing but she has the ability to reflect on herself and her decisions. (Refreshingly, she doesn't wallow in regret, angst, or remorse, which makes her hard, perhaps, to empathize with, but I found this to be accurate to Camilla's upbringing.)

Yip employs a very simple, almost story-like narrative style that feels deceptively plain (Chapter One has been shared online for this tour for those curious about the style). Camilla refers to poetry and classic Chinese literature as she tells her story, and the narrative is liberally peppered with quotes, which takes this rather grim story and gives it a fairy tale-like element.

Much of the plot is dependent on some seemingly improbable coincidences and a very zippy timeline, which normally would drive me crazy. But in Yip's hands, and through Camilla's eyes, there's a kind of formal aloofness to the unfolding action. Camilla isn't above bragging, but at the same time, she's not going to dwell on the grimy day-to-day details.

The historical feel to the story is thin, sadly, but I felt more a sense of Shanghai and Hong Kong in this book than in the previous novel.

I liked this one more than Skeleton Women, perhaps because Camilla's plight and adventure resonated more. As one refusing to love, Camilla is now a woman awash in love, struggling to do right by those she's impacted and affected, wanting her family because it is right.

As with Skeleton Women, I raced through this book -- there's non-stop action, sex, and intrigue -- and I'm interested in Yip's next offering. (Given the end of this book, not likely to be another story of Camilla's -- but I wouldn't mind a book about Camilla's mysterious friend Shadow.)

Friday, July 12, 2013

Weekend reads and I'm super busy...

A busy weekend ahead of me!

Doing a dinner party tonight for an out-of-town friend who is around just tonight and tomorrow I have my monthly-ish dinner club.  The theme will be grilled, and my wife and I are bringing a variety of grilled salads!  I'm seeing my in-laws on Sunday for a late birthday celebration (for me!) and will be meeting more friends for drinks at my new favorite bar.

Reading time will not be great, so I'm especially glad my weekend read is this slim volume of short stories: This Is Paradise by Kristiana Kahakauwila.

What are your weekend plans? What are you reading?

Thursday, July 11, 2013

My interview!

I'm delighted to say I was interviewed by Kayla Posney at the Pittsburgh Examiner about historical fiction.

Please check it out, then come back and tell me what your answers to some of the questions would be!

(Especially who you'd have at a dinner party!)

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The Queen's Lover giveaway!

Last year I read and loved The Queen's Lover by Francine du Plessix Gray.

This novel of Marie Antoinette's lover, Axel von Fersen, captivated me from the first page (turns out he was more than a nobleman with a pretty face!).

The publisher contacted me about offering a giveaway for the newly released paperback!

GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to offer a paperback copy of The Queen's Lover to three (3) lucky readers!

To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US readers only (sorry!), ends 7/26. 

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Chocolates for Breakfast by Pamela Moore

Title: Chocolates for Breakfast
Author: Pamela Moore

Genre: Fiction (Coming of Age / 1950s / Hollywood / Boarding School / Love Affairs / Mothers and Daughters)
Publisher/Publication Date: Harper Perennial (6/25/2013)
Source: TLC Book Tours

Rating: Liked.
Did I finish?: I did, very quickly.
One-sentence summary: The scandalous coming-of-age story of a 16-year old girl who has a crush on her female teacher, loses her virginity to a gay man

Do I like the cover?: I do, very much. Love the dated feel of the font and colors, the pretty figure, the retro coloring.

I'm reminded of...: Françoise Sagan, Sylvia Plath

First line: Spring at Scaisbrooke Hall was clearly the most beautiful time of year.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy if you like retro/vintage fiction, coming of age stories, and seedy settings.

Why did I get this book?: I had a spell in which I was briefly enamored of Bonjour Tristesse, and the comparison of this book to it made me desperate to read this one.

Review: Written by an 18-year old girl who started at Barnard College at 16, Chocolates for Breakfast is a sad, frenetic, pensive, self-indulgent, and deliciously dramatic novel of the late 1950s, Hollywood, and that horrible transition from child to adult.

Set in 1956, the novel follows Courtney Farrell, who at 15 is pulled out of her posh Connecticut boarding school when the school notifies her parents of Courtney's depression. Courtney is nursing a sapphic crush on a school teacher (which may or may not be reciprocal) and struggles with bouts of mania and depression.

Her divorced parents are self-absorbed and unwilling to take her on (over the holiday, both parent thought the other parent had taken Courtney, which meant she had been abandoned at the school for a few days until things were worked out). Courtney is moved out the Hollywood, living with her fading actress mother Sondra, at the idyllic apartment complex where F. Scott Fitzgerald once lived. It's there, left to herself, that Courtney teaches herself to drink, smoke, and eventually, make love.

The narrative style is quick, despite the fact we're in the mind of a dreamy teenager girl. This does like a first novel, both ambitious and a bit rough, but there's lovely sentences and creative twists of language along with a scandalous story. It's worth picking up for more than just the teenaged escapades.

Although only 18 when Moore wrote this book, there is some real maturity in her reflections and meditations on growing up, responsibility, desire, the search for happiness.

As with The Bell Jar, it's hard for me to read this book without projecting what I know about the author into the story and onto the characters. Like Plath, Moore killed herself with an infant in the house and had a history with depression and suicidal behavior.

Moore was often compared to Salinger, and in some ways, I can see this being the 'female' answer to Catcher in the Rye. (Certainly, more resonated with me in this book than in Salinger's.) While 'shocking' in the day, I'm not sure this book is any more graphic or dramatic than today's YA or New Adult, although those who are uncomfortable with teenagers drinking, smoking, and 'seducing' might want to pass on this one.

While the novel was entertaining, I will say the extras captured my attention more. Novelist Emma Straub is the reason for this book's reissue: she was gifted a copy by her 7th grade French and Latin teacher, who happened to be the author's son. Straub gave her novel to her agent, which resulted it its reissue. There's also an essay by Moore's son, Kevin Kanarek, about his mother, her diaries, and her 'missing years' after the publication of this book; an article by Robert Nedelkoff on Moore and the path of this novel's publication; and a piece comparing this edition to the French edition as well as the original manuscript (which, to my delight, has more lesbian-ish-ness to it!).

For those who like vintage fiction from the '50s, get this one. Fans of Plath's The Bell Jar or other coming-of-age novels by girls worldly beyond their years will find another kindred soul here.  YA and New Adult addicts might consider picking this one up, as well: Moore is an unlikely great-aunt of the genre, I think!  This is debauched beachy fun with an undercurrent of melancholy -- so good for those moody, sunny weekends.

*** *** ***

GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to offer a copy of Chocolates for Breakfast to one lucky reader. To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US/Canadian readers, ends 7/26.