Monday, September 30, 2013

Interview with Laura Joh Rowland

Last week I read Laura Joh Rowland's newest novel featuring her 18th century samurai detective, Sano Ichiro. It was my first time reading Rowland and I enjoyed this unusual historical mystery. I'm thrilled to share this interview with Rowland, who talks about her writing, this series, and what she does when not reading. Be sure to enter the giveaway for a copy of The Shogun's Daughter!

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

It was a short story about a group of idealistic hippies who go into a forest to found a utopian commune. Lightning strikes, a tree falls on the leaders head, and goodbye commune. (This was when I was in high school, in the 1970’s.)

Do you have any writing rituals or routines?

I go for a walk every morning and figure out what I’m going to write that day. Thinking is easier when my body is moving. When I get home, I have 5-6 pages planned out.

Was The Shogun’s Daughter the original title of your book?

Yes. It fit the story and my editor and I both liked it.

As you were writing The Shogun’s Daughter, was there a particular scene or character that surprised you?

I was surprised by how the climax went down. I write a fairly detailed synopsis of each novel before I start writing it, but unexpected things always happen. I didn’t know how big a risk Sano would take during his final confrontation with the killer. I think he and I were both astounded by the consequences.

This is your 17th novel featuring samurai 'detective' Sano Ichiro. How has the experience of 'being' with Sano this long been? Did you expect to write this many books about him?

Sano and I have been together so long, he and his family and friends and enemies are like real people to me. I never expected to write so many books about him. When I wrote the first book (Shinju), I was focused on finishing and selling it. I had no idea that it would be a series. Fortunately, I kept Sano alive at the end, so he could go on to solve more mysteries.

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

I paint. I’m illustrating a series of tarot cards set in New Orleans. It’s a homage to the city I lived in and loved for many years.

Read any good books recently?

Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953 by Elizabeth Winder. It’s about Sylvia Plath’s month as a guest editor at Mademoiselle magazine, a famous episode in the life of the iconic poet. I’ve been a Sylvia Plath buff for a long time. She’s an inspiration as well as a cautionary tale for writers. I’m fascinated by the way that her intense need to create clashed with her emotional demons. This book adds some enlightening new details to the picture.

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My thanks to Ms. Rowland for her time and thoughtful answers. To learn more about her and her books, check out her website and connect with her on Facebook.

GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to offer a copy of The Shogun’s Daughter to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US readers only, ends 10/4.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

The Arrangement by Mary Balogh

Title: The Arrangement
Author: Mary Balogh

Genre: Fiction (Historical / Regency / 19th Century / Romance / Marriage of Convenience / Blindness)
Publisher/Publication Date: Dell (8/27/2013)
Source: TLC Book Tours

Rating: Mostly liked, although it sticks a little.
Did I finish?: I did, very quickly.
One-sentence summary: A blind viscount and a poor mousy girl enter into marriage with an unusual caveat: an agreement to live apart if they aren't happy together after a year.
Reading Challenges: E-book, Historical Fiction

Do I like the cover?: I don't. The ARC had a prettier version, of our heroine looking off at a pretty estate that I vastly preferred. This cover made me grateful I was reading it on my e-reader!

First line: When it became clear to Vincent Hunt, Viscount Darleigh, that if he stayed at home for the remainder of the spring he would without any doubt at all be betrothed, even married, before summer had properly settled in, he fled.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow.

Why did I get this book?: Balogh has many fans and I like a historical romance now and then.

Review: I'm new to Mary Balogh's historical romances but I could see myself getting hooked. This one, the second in her The Survivors' Club series, features Vincent Hunt, Viscount Darleigh, a 20something vet of the Napoleonic wars who was permanently blinded (and temporarily deafened) during his first battle. (He is, however, still stunningly hot, and he has no visible scars.) For three years, after a rough convalescence, he's struggled with both his blindness and his new title, one he inherited after the surprise death of distant relatives.

Coddled by well-meaning female relatives, Vincent chafes at their attentions, but when his parents try to marry him off to a girl who acknowledges she's marrying Vincent only for her family, he flees. He goes to his childhood home in a country village, where his return sends ripples of curiosity and excitement. The village's local snobs descend upon him and try to trick him into marrying their horrid daughter, allowing him to walk into a dark alley with her in hopes that he'll propose when he learns of his error (and accidental besmirching of her reputation).

Instead, he's saved by the girl's cousin, Sophia Fry, who understands her relatives' designs and takes pity on the blind man. Grateful, Vincent chats politely with her, where they both admit their dream is to not marry, but live happily in the country, unbothered by people. The next day, Vincent learns that Sophia was tossed out in the night by her relatives who were angry at her meddling, and moved by guilt, he impetuously proposes an arrangement that he hopes conveys his gratitude and saves Sophia from a life of poverty: marriage to him.

The 'twist' is that Vincent promises if their marriage doesn't work after a year, he'll pay for her to have her dream. But he asks that she try, that they have marital relations and attempt an heir, but if they aren't happy in their marriage and there's no child, they can part ways as friends. Both agree they won't take lovers and neither will embarrass the other. Sophia, understandably tempted, agrees.

The rest of the novel is of their marriage and the wait to see just how, of course, they end up fully in love together.  A good deal of the book is about how Sophia helps Vincent manage his blindness so he feels less helpless as well as a significant portion dedicated to bolstering Sophia's self esteem. (We learn she's not horrifically ugly, but she's not pretty. In fact, I kept telling my wife she's very Jane Eyre or Anne Elliot -- plain but clever, suffering only from horrid relatives.)

I was pretty caught up in the two main characters and taken with their sweet and relatively turbulence-free marriage. Vincent was sweet and dreamy, and Sophia was clever and self-sufficient. My one hang up -- the reason this isn't an unabashed squee fest -- is that I found Balogh's handling of the sex and sexy times between them to be, well, uncomfortable. Sophia always gives consent, and repeatedly says she doesn't want Vincent to stop, but Balogh also always notes that she isn't an active participant or that she's passive. At one point, Sophia notes how sad she feels after sex. (!) Given that the character has no sexual trauma in her past, it felt particularly jarring and kind of made me feel uneasy. She wasn't coerced, but I'm not sure why the author kept telling us she wasn't into the sex.

That small hiccup aside, this was a fun read. It had very little of that maddening plot device where troubles arise only because the hero and heroine don't talk directly, but it was also pretty low on the conflict. (Which was fine with me.) The story is peppered with characters from either the previous Survivors' Club novel or forthcoming ones, and they're a motley crew. I'm definitely getting the first book and will likely read the next one, especially as Balogh has rather devoted fans.

With a smart and emotionally competent set of main characters, it's a fun read as summer winds down, especially for those who like Regency romances.

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GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to offer a copy of The Arrangement to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US readers only, ends 10/11.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Weekend reads and feeling busy...

I just realized I have two weeks of work left before my sabbatical starts!  I'm kind of agog.  For those who don't know, I'm taking 7-weeks off (in two weeks!) to try to write a novel.  (!!!!)

I've talked for ever and ever about wanting to be a novelist, and I'm always writing, but hope to use this focused paid time off to really see what I can do. (I hope to take the other 7-weeks off sometime next year, and use it to edit my novel.)  I eager and nervous!  My wife has found a little writer's retreat out in western Massachusetts, and I'll be spending five weeks there, all by myself, in a little carriage house, with nothing to do but write!  (I'm very much channeling Virginia Woolf's 'a room of her own' -- this will be an exercise in discipline among other things!)

As I keep trying to stave off panic about whether I can finish all my work before leaving, I will be doing a good deal of reading this weekend, I anticipate.  On Wednesday, I tripped and sprained my ankle! Happily, it's not a serious sprain and I can very much make lemonade from these lemons. I'll be finishing up The Midwife's Revolt by Jodi Daynard and starting I Am Venus by B├írbara Mujica.

What are you reading this weekend?

Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Shogun’s Daughter by Laura Joh Rowland

Title: The Shogun’s Daughter
Author: Laura Joh Rowland

Genre: Fiction (Historical / Japan / 18th Century / Edo / Samurai / Murder Mystery / Royal Intrigue / Smallpox)
Publisher/Publication Date: Minotaur Books (9/17/2013)
Source: Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

Rating: Okay to liked.
Did I finish?: I did.
One-sentence summary: In 18th century Japan, the sudden death of the shogun's daughter leads to a possible pretender taking power, and samurai Sano is tasked with finding out the truth of the daughter's death.
Reading Challenges: E-book, Historical Fiction

Do I like the cover?: I'm of two minds: on one hand, it just looks like an ambigu-Asian novel, but on the other hand, there is a (minor) character who has half her face obscured due to her smallpox scars, so this could be a nod to her.

First line: Moans filled a chamber lit by a single dim lantern.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow.

Why did I get this book?: I have long been interested in Rowland's series, and figured I'd just jump right into the pool!

Review: Set in 1704 in Edo, Japan, this novel is the seventeenth (!) book in a series about samurai Sano Ichiro. The novel opens five months after a massive earthquake (thought to be 8.2 in magnitude!) hit Japan. The shogun (who is not equivalent to an emperor, wiki tells me, but is answerable only to him) is in a panic about his legacy when his only child, his daughter, dies unexpectedly of smallpox. Without an obvious heir, he shocks everyone by dismissing his nephew and instead revealing a long lost son.

Although many in the shogun's court suspect the 'son' is really the child of the scheming chamberlain, the shogun is adamant the child is his. With the new heir declared, there's a purge in current positions, with many killing themselves rather than live with the shame of their demotions. Sano is demoted to Chief Rebuilding Magistrate, a position that surprises him, and Sano expected to lose everything. Rather, the position allows him to keep his estate and a few retainers, and although a step 'down', still gives him some access and power. Unsurprisingly, Sano is presented with a thorny mystery as soon as he returns home: the possibility that the shogun's daughter was murdered.

I was a bit nervous that I'd be totally lost stepping into the seventeenth book in a series, but Rowland does a fine job of providing enough back story to keep the new reader informed while carrying enough momentum for Sano and his family that loyal readers should be satisfied. While the overarching mystery is very mundane, Rowland includes a rather mystical subplot involving one of Sano's retainers, a man who has joined a magical martial arts sect. While I initially found those scenes jarring -- I wasn't prepared for any supernatural elements -- I actually rather liked that merging of ordinary and extraordinary.

Rowland's world of court intrigue mimics that of other 17th and 18th century historical novels, but becomes especially intriguing when set in Japan. The samurai 'bushido' code colors Sano's behavior and choices, and the cultural emphasis on honor makes powerful people react quite differently than they would in a Tudor novel, for example. As court life is very male-oriented, Rowland provides a strong cast of female characters to balance that out, who have power in their own spheres; Sano's wife is as much a participant in his investigation as he is.

My only real complaint is that in my ARC the Historical Note appears before the story, not after, and as a result, spoils the entire novel. I hadn't thought to ignore it, and so I read it without realizing it resolved the entire arc of the book. Hopefully it appears at the end of the book in the finished version. (A word of warning: Rowland's website offers an excerpt of this book and it opens with the Historical Note. I advise you to skip it and just start with the 'Prologue'.)

Japanophiles will want this one as well as those who enjoy court intrigue and drama. Rowland's 18th century Edo is alien and familiar, and provides an fascinating background. Be unafraid about jumping in midseries!

*** *** ***

GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to offer a copy of The Shogun’s Daughter to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US readers only, ends 10/4.

Come back on 9/30 to see my interview with the author!

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Interview with Susan McDuffie

This past weekend I shared my review of Susan McDuffie's The Study of Murder, a 14th-century murder mystery set in Oxford, featuring a Scottish amateur detective and scribe and his clever wife. I inhaled this book and am delighted to share my interview with the author.  Read on to learn more about her this book, how she 'found' her hero, and what she does when she's not writing. 

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

Thanks so much for having me as a guest on your blog, Audra! It’s such a pleasure to be here.

My first book was The Magic Mirror, a third grade oeuvre that was kind of a “Through the Looking Glass goes to Scotland”. It was one of those class projects in which we actually bound our little book. I remember thinking at the time how hard it was to plot, a thought that still flits through my mind at times when I’m staring at a blank sheet of paper. I probably would have forgotten all about that first effort, except my mom, who saves everything, sent it to me recently when she was cleaning out some things.

I didn’t start writing in earnest until I was about thirty-seven, after an abysmal day at work in the public schools. My first manuscript was titled Passion's Wild Wind, a historical romance set in Ireland and Spain during the time of the Armada. My dad really liked it, but in spite of that the manuscript is currently reposing in a box in my garage. It took me awhile to work my way over to historical mystery, but I finally realized the truth of the old advice “Write what you love to read.” And I do read more mystery than romance—always historical fiction, though.

Do you have any writing rituals or routines?

I can’t just dive in first thing in the morning; I am not much of a morning person. Although I do like the concept of morning and an early start I find I’m more productive in the afternoons. I tend to clean or putter awhile first—or maybe that is just procrastination—and remind myself of a dog, circling its bed a few times before lying down. Although I don’t always work this way, I enjoy writing first drafts in longhand with a fountain pen, then putting that draft in the computer is a rough re-write; the first of several.

Was The Study of Murder the original title of your book?

No, the working title was The Oxford Murders. It might have stayed that, except I belatedly realized that another The Oxford Murders had been published a few years ago. I had the manuscript all edited and was just about ready to send it off, when the title The Study of Murder came to me. Apropos, since it is set in a university.

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

I think the teenagers, Anthony, Crispin and Donald, were the most pleasant surprises in the book. They were a lot of fun to write. And Avice. Avice surprised me. I don’t even think I plotted her originally; she just kind of appeared in the story.

This is your third book featuring Muirteach MacPhee, the 14th century 'detective' who stars in your novels. How did he come to you?

Muirteach is based a great deal on the stories of the ancestral clan lands and stories of the McDuffie clan. They were the “Keepers of the Records” for the lords of the isles. As a child I had a great uncle who was quite a “Scottish nut” and I myself heard the stories from my own father, his nephew. It all sounded very mysterious and intriguing. A Mass For the Dead, my first Muirteach mystery, is my own attempt to explain how this might have come about.

On my first trip to Scotland, in 1977, I visited the beautiful priory on Oronsay. Oronsay is a tidal island and can only be accessed at low tide. As I recall we got stuck over there and had to get someone to take us back to the main island by boat. There are some incredibly carved medieval grave slabs at the ruins, memorials for the MacDuffee chiefs and the priors. Many of the priors were succeeded by their sons. My realization that they weren’t celibate churchmen also helped generate Muirteach’s character many years later when I began writing this series; he’s the bastard son of the prior of Oronsay.

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

Too many things! I love my flamenco dance classes, and the accessories are great—the skirts, shoes, fans, castanets! It’s also really good exercises, and so much fun it’s not hard to get to class. I also enjoy cooking, gardening, knitting (although my cats make that difficult—they’re too helpful), sewing, and reading, of course. In the past I’ve also made pottery but don’t have a workspace at this time (or time, to be truthful). A potter’s wheel currently resides in the garage, along with that first manuscript.

Read any good books recently?

I enjoyed The Gods of Gotham by Lyndsay Faye this summer. Another book I really loved is A Catch of Consequence by Diana Norman (AKA Arianna Franklin). Also Lady of the Reeds by Pauline Gedge; her books set in Egypt are just fantastic! My “desert island” book would have to be Sword at Sunset by Rosemary Sutcliff, a retelling of the King Arthur story. Research-wise, I’ve just been reading The Lost Laws of Ireland by Catherine Duggan about Gaelic Brehon law.

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My thanks to Ms. McDuffie for her time. You can learn more about her and her books by visiting her website.

GIVEAWAY!

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

To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US readers only, ends 10/4.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Confessions of Marie Antoinette by Juliet Grey

Title: Confessions of Marie Antoinette
Author: Juliet Grey

Genre: Fiction (Historical / 18th Century / France / French Revolution / Royalty / Marie Antoinette / Motherhood)
Publisher/Publication Date: Ballantine Books (9/24/2013)
Source: Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

Rating: Liked.
Did I finish?: I did!
One-sentence summary: The final four years of Marie Antoinette's life.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction

Do I like the cover?: Love it! Was iffy about the covers for the previous two books although now that it's not a photograph of a model, I'm sort of missing it...

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

First line: "We will take the queen dead or alive!"

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy all three books if you like historical novels about royalty, France, and/or biographical novels of the notorious made human.

Why did I get this book?: I love Marie Antoinette and Grey's previous two novels about her.  (See my review of the first book, Becoming Marie Antoinette.)

Review: Marie Antoinette is one of those historical figures I will always be drawn to; I'm rather sympathetic toward her and feel she was treated unfairly by history. Grey's trilogy about the infamous queen is a welcome addition to the subgenre of royal historical fiction.

Her first book, Becoming Marie Antoinette, beautifully articulated the teenaged queen in an honest but appreciative light (many of the insults and crimes lobbed at Marie Antoinette, including the infamous 'Let them eat cake' quote, had been previously attributed to other hated women in power) as the second, Days of Splendor, Days of Sorrow, showed the young queen carving out some measure of pleasure and happiness for herself, at great personal expense, a woman growing into herself despite -- or because of -- intense public scrutiny.

This book, the final in the trilogy, plunges immediately into the wild, violent turmoil of the burgeoning French Revolution. Grey splits the narrative in this book between Marie Antoinette and a 'commoner', a (historical) sculptor named Louison Chabry. While I initially resented this interloper, within a chapter, I was convinced. As Grey explains in her afterword, Louison allows the reader to see what Marie Antoinette can't, and the result ratchets up tension and anxiety.

This novel spans October 5, 1789 through to October 16, 1793 -- the day of Marie Antoinette's execution. (I will admit I bawled at the end.) Scarred by the loss of two children, the cruelties of court life and the unceasing hatred thrown at her by the populous, the queen's steely resolve -- seen through all three books -- is even more obvious as she strives to support her husband first and foremost. More than once she says she'll die at his side than flee to safety. The heart-wrenching abuse heaped upon the royals makes me wonder if I might be a closet royalist, especially as she reveals the twisting machinations of the revolutionary supporters that Louison knows. Despite knowing how everything ends, I was fairly breathless most of the book, just dreading That Moment.

Biographical fiction can be tricky: authors need to stick to t historical record but must also convince the reader of the emotional truth of any decision or action. From the first page of the first book, Grey had me convinced: I believed her Marie Antoinette, I understood her, and I empathized with her. One of the aspects of Grey's trilogy I've come to deeply appreciate is that she alters her Marie Antoinette from one book to the next. The Austrian princess we meet in Becoming Marie Antoinette is a very different creature from the one we say goodbye to at the end of this book, yet she's not a whole new character in each volume. Grey articulates the way this sweet, occasionally superficial teenager grew into a mature woman -- a flawed creature I just loved.

Those new to the trilogy might be able to follow the novel - Grey lightly reminds us who is who in the narrative, but I think the emotional oomph could be missing for those who haven't read the first two books. (For example, there's a historically accurate scene in which the previous king's mistress offers shelter to Marie Antoinette and her family. Readers who missed their acrimonious interactions in the first book might not get the same emotional sizzle I did.)

Grey offers an extensive - 19 pages! - afterword about all the major players from the trilogy, which is satisfying and peppered with enough tidbits to make me wish many would get their own novel.  Grey's considerable research is apparent but not obvious: the story comes first, and it's impossible not to be gripped.

This final book was just the conclusion I needed, filled with rich detail and human emotion.  Grab all three books and settle in for an emotional, surprising armchair escape and get to know one of history's more infamous royals.  Vive Juliet Grey!  (May she write more books for me to inhale!)

*** *** ***

GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to offer a copy of Confessions of Marie Antoinette to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US readers only, ends 10/4.

Be sure to check out my interview with the author and another chance to enter!


Saturday, September 21, 2013

The Study of Murder by Susan McDuffie

Title: The Study of Murder
Author: Susan McDuffie

Genre: Fiction (Historical / 14th Century / UK / Oxford University / Murder Mystery)
Publisher/Publication Date: Five Star Publishing (9/16/2013)
Source: Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

Rating: Liked.
Did I finish?: I did, very quickly.
One-sentence summary: Scottish scribe and detective finds himself at Oxford University to support his young ward and becomes embroiled solving murders, disappearances, and the source of a mysterious manuscript.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction

Do I like the cover?: I do, actually: first, I find it it kind of hypnotic; and second, the stoniness matches both the university and

I'm reminded of...: Priscilla Royal

First line: The nymphs first.

Did... I love the author's Gaelic pronunciation guide she has on her website?: YES. Typically (shamefully?!), if I can't immediately pronounce a character's name, I tend to just spend the rest of the time mentally mumbling it. I found the guide ahead of my reading, and was able to say Muirteach correctly ('Moor - tech')!

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy especially if you like medieval fiction, historical mysteries, or a good Scottish hero.

Why did I get this book?: I like historical mysteries, the medieval era, and I was intrigued by McDuffie's book after briefly meeting her at the Historical Novel Society's conference this past June.

Review: Set in 1374, the novel follows Muirteach MacPhee, a Scottish scribe who is the Keeper of the Records for the Lord of the Isles, who is accompanying the Lord's 13-year-old son who is off to Oxford University. (I will admit I jumped a bit at that detail -- what is this kid, a genius?!)

Joined by his wife Mariota, they quickly find themselves sucked into Oxford life when there's a murder on the university grounds just after a pretty young townswoman disappears. (More happens, but all this unfolds in the first 60 pages.) Simmering tensions between the town and university start to rise to a boil, worrying those who remembered the St. Scholastica Day riot only 19 years early that resulted in more than 90 dead.

This novel is the kind I relish, loaded with ordinary details about a world I'm not familiar with and, frankly, have a hard time imagining. (Shamefully, sometimes I land on crazy extremes for my mental images of the medieval era -- either sparkling pretty fantasy-lite or a step above cave people.)

The world McDuffie evokes felt real, peppered with tidbits about the era that made it feel real for me. (I will say, the tension between the town and university made the squabbles between my own alma mater and the town it was in seem tame; funny that university towns still chafe at the relationship between the two!)

Written in first person, Muirteach is a wry narrator, appealingly ordinary. Whether dealing with his wild teenaged ward, his clever wife, or fighting crime, he responds with a resigned sort of patience I find appealing -- not quite the hardboiled PI we're used in in contemporary mysteries, but certainly an early ancestor of one.  Mariota, his smart wife, trained in medicine, is a woman immediately after my heart: unwilling to spend her days sewing while her husband trots about the town, she makes lemonade, so to speak, of the lemons she's given. The secondary characters are distinct, and while I can't say how 'hard' the mystery was to solve (I'm not one to guess), it felt sufficiently complicated enough that I was impatient to get to the big reveal!

While this is the third novel featuring Muirteach, I found I was easily able to dip into the story without feeling lost. McDuffie recaps a little of Muirteach's past and he often alludes to his anxieties about murder and crimes -- presumably the events of the previous two books -- and I never felt like I was missing anything.

Having inhaled this one, I'm eager to go back to McDuffie's previous two novels and I hope there's a fourth Murteach MacPhee book in my future. Not quite a cozy, but not exactly a hard-boiled, this is an atmospheric mystery that might please those who love Scottish heroes, university settings, and medieval life beyond knights and castles.

*** *** ***

GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to offer a copy of The Study of Murder to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US readers only, ends 10/4.

Be sure to come back on September 25 for my interview with the author -- and another chance to enter!

Friday, September 20, 2013

Weekend reads and staying up way too late...

I cheated and posted this picture of my weekend read last night (Mrs. Poe by Lynn Cullen) as I knew I'd be reading it once it became Friday morning. And I was right!

I'm a bit overtired but dying to get back to it -- and I'm sure I'll finish tonight --so will have to tack on something else for my weekend read.  I've got about four books started that I need to buckle down and finish.

What are you reading this weekend?

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Interview with Jennifer Cody Epstein

Yesterday I reviewed the marvelous The Gods of Heavenly Punishment, a wonderfully gorgeous and gutting novel of World War II that focused on Japan and a handful of people there. It was kind of a revelation and I can't gush about it enough! I'm thrilled to share my interview with the author, Jennifer Cody Epstein, who talks about her writing, her book, and what she does when not writing. Enjoy! Be sure to enter the giveaway to win a copy of this great book.

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

It's all rather hazy now, but I believe it was about a magic swingset that could swing you into another dimension. That, and fighting with siblings!

Do you have any writing rituals or routines?

I'm rather remarkably unstructured (according to those around me, at least). But my rule is to try to put in at least two hours of something writing-related a day. As I get closer to a deadline, those hours will grow, however--when I'm in "the zone" I sometimes write for five or six hours a day.

Was The Gods of Heavenly Punishment the original title of your book?

It was! It was actually a title that came to me unusually easily--the moment I saw that the phrase (it's the title of an old Japanese "Hell Scroll") I thought a-ha. That's it. It just summed up so much about what the novel was for me--the idea of man as god, as divine punishers, of the punishment that is war and that comes in its wake.

As you were writing The Gods of Heavenly Punishment, was there a particular scene or character that surprised you?

Anton Reynolds was a bit of a surprise--largely because I had no idea, when I first began writing him, that he'd end up being such a Casanova! I initially saw him as a very dry, somewhat pretentious (albeit very talented) little man, and I didn't have any real plans to explore facets of his personality other than his architectural decisions. But when I crossed his character with that of Hana Kobayashi--the sultry, troubled, London-schooled wife of Anton's master carpenter--sparks really flew; and I found trying to imagine his response to that unexpected passion really fascinating to delve into literarily.

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

I love hanging out with my daughters, running with my dog, and doing yoga, and also eating really good food (thankfully my husband is an incredible chef) and drinking great wine. And bourbon. And of course, I really love reading.

Read any good books recently?

I have! Over the summer I read and enjoyed The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin (lovely language), City of Women by David Gillham, and Black Swan Green by David Mitchell (who is as close to a literary hero as I have right now). I'm currently reading Sarah Jessica Cane's The Report and in my spare time grabbing snatches of World War Z--largely because I got a real kick out of the movie (and, um, Brad Pitt!).

*** *** ***

My thanks to Ms. Epstein for her time and her thoughtful responses. You can learn more about her and her books at her website and find her on Twitter.

GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to offer THREE readers a copy of The Gods of Heavenly Punishment! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US/Canadian readers, ends 10/4.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Gods of Heavenly Punishment by Jennifer Cody Epstein

Title: The Gods of Heavenly Punishment
Author: Jennifer Cody Epstein

Genre: Fiction (Historical / 1930s / 1940s / World War II / Japan / US Navy / Architecture / War Crimes / Parent-Child Relationships / Post-War Society)
Publisher/Publication Date: W. W. Norton & Company (3/11/2013)
Source: Edelweiss

Rating: Liked a good deal.
Did I finish?: I did, in a matter of hours!
One-sentence summary: The interconnected stories of an American couple, an expat architect and his photographer son, children who love and fear their fathers, the beauty of Japan, and the impact of World War II on them all.
Reading Challenges: 7 Continents, 7 Billion People, 7 Books, E-books, Historical Fiction

Do I like the cover?: I do, very much -- the black-and-white photograph is reminiscent of a photographer character, and I'm rather grateful the cover is slightly more upbeat that some of the action!

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

First line: The climb felt almost arduous, the engine juddering and restarting four times during the creaking ascent up the Ferris wheel.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy, especially if you're a fan of Japan, World War II fiction, or complicated characters who are lovely and awful.

Why did I get this book?: I'm drawn to World War II narratives that aren't wholly from a US or British viewpoint and this one intrigued me.

Review: Historical fiction set during wartime is a favorite genre of mine (or, I suppose, a 'favorite' -- I'm not a fan of war) because there's a real focus on the ordinary, everyday people against a massive canvas. Jennifer Cody Epstein's novel represents what I most love about this genre: it's illuminating and educational without being cold, it's emotional in ways both familiar and alien, and it offers the reader a place to see herself in a situation she, hopefully, will never experience.

Set between 1935 and 1962, The Gods of Heavenly Punishment shifts between Japan and the US and follows a handful of people loosely connected by their pre-war lives in Japan (or, in one case, the US). Written in a vignette style, each chapter opens with a location and date, often jumping years ahead of the previous chapter. Epstein's skill is seen in that the narrative never felt rushed nor choppy, and the characters indeed changed during the unseen time.

There's Anton, a Czech expat and brilliant architect who loves Japan but betrays his soul's home to help the US war effort and his son Bobby, a sensitive photographer with his own secrets; Kenji, Anton's Japanese best friend and colleague, a visionary for Japan during the war; Hana, his beautiful but resentful wife and their daughter Yoshi, who witnesses betrayal, crime, and the horrific bombing of Tokyo. There's a young American pilot who joins 'Doolittle's Raiders', his smart wife and devoted younger brother.

Delightfully and disturbingly, Epstein's characters are human, warm and flawed. I liked Kenji despite myself - and his cruelties - just as I adored broken Hana. There wasn't a particular 'villain', per se, as most everyone was articulated in shades of gray. The descriptions of time and place put me immediately into the story, and I couldn't put this book down. The tension comes from needing to know who survives and at what cost; from the meager hope more than one ends up happy.

Refreshingly, the novel's focus on Japan and sympathy for the Japanese makes this an appealing read. While portraying atrocities on both sides, Epstein also evokes very complicated characters who hate and love their homelands, adopted or otherwise, who are selfish and selfless, who represent the innumerable dead.

While WWII is oft covered territory in historical fiction, I found Epstein's focus on Japan and the 1945 bombing of Tokyo to be fascinating (albeit horrifying). Much like one of the viewers at a photo exhibition, I assumed Tokyo was 'just bombed' but the reality is far more devastating (it was the deadliest raid of World War II, in fact).

I was strongly reminded of Jennifer Haigh's Baker Towers and Ursula Hegi's Floating in My Mother's Palm, both books I loved. This was a zippy read -- I finished it in a few hours -- but one that will linger with me.  Highly recommended, especially for those who enjoy World War II narratives or are interested in Japan.

*** *** ***

GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to offer THREE readers a copy of The Gods of Heavenly Punishment! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US/Canadian readers, ends 10/4.

Be sure to check out my interview with Jennifer Cody Epstein tomorrow for another chance to enter!

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Winner!

OOfta, what a week! Have done very little reading, sadly, and my Friday the 13th was a bit hairy -- how was yours?

One giveaway winner this week...!

The winner of Freud's Mistress is ... Nicole of Linus's Blanket!

Congrats to the winner! Shockingly, I've got no open giveaways at the moment but I have some coming next week.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Interview with Michelle Diener

Last month I gorged myself on Michelle Diener's Tudor series featuring a Flemish painter and her courtier husband: In a Treacherous Court, Keeper of the King's Secrets, and the newest novel, In Defense of the Queen.  While I still need to write reviews of the first two, I wrote a rather swoon-y review of In Defense of the Queen and I'm still sighing over our hero and heroine.  I'm delighted to share my second interview with Michelle Diener, who talks about the source of her heroine, some details about this newest book, and what she's been reading recently.  Enjoy!

Was In Defense of the Queen the original title of your book?

It wasn't :). In the very beginning, the first book in my series was entitled Illuminations, not In a Treacherous Court. But after the ARCs had already been printed, my publisher decided Illuminations didn't tell the reader enough about the content of the book. It worked as a title, because my heroine is an illuminator and artist, and she uncovers a conspiracy, but they were right, that was only meaningful if you'd actually read the book, not beforehand. So before the change, all the titles were different, one word titles similar to Illuminations. But once we had In a Treacherous Court, the other books had to change title, too. And I like In Defense of the Queen way better.

Where did the character of Susanna Horenbout, the court artist, come from? Is she inspired by a real figure?

She is a real figure! She was my inspiration for the whole series. I stumbled across a reference to her, and was completely captivated by the idea of a woman artist at Henry's court. Art historians had previously focused on her very famous father and brother, but then a marriage register came to light that showed Susanna married John Parker, one of Henry's courtiers, at least a year before her brother came to work at Henry's court. The inference must be that she was sent to work for Henry ahead of Lucas, her brother, but the records for that no longer exist. She was given a golden cup one Christmas by Henry for help offered the throne, and he sent her, as one of his court who spoke Flemish, to accompany Anne of Cleves to England for her marriage to Henry. She was a respected member of the Tudor court, and I am so sorry we don't have more information on her. There is one piece of art that art historians are more or less convinced is by her, a plaque, commemorating Susanna's mother. You can find it at All Saint's Church in Fulham. On Susanna's death, a number of Italian master painters commemorated her as one of the finest illuminators of her time. Which means she was working as an artist for many years. It's an unbelievable loss that we don't know what work she did. In the books I have her working on a number of portraits (her brother, Lucas Horenbout, is credited with being the artist who brought the art of the miniature portrait to England) and even based what she's working on on real paintings and drawings that are not attributed to anyone. And one illumination I describe her working on in Keeper of the King's Secrets was originally attributed to Lucas Horenbout, but it confused art historians because it was done before he was officially in England, and I think it is at least possible, given that Lucas and Susanna were trained together under their father, Gerard, that it was by her, instead. She was certainly in England at the time it was created.

As you were writing In Defense of the Queen, was there a particular scene or character that surprised you?

The scene with Jean when he grabs her in the Tower. I really didn't know which was it would go. There had been an underlying tension between them in Keeper of the King's Secrets which went beyond the obvious conflict they had. I felt then that Jean was drawn to her sexually, but was professional enough to set that aside and get on with his job. But when he's finally off the leash, as he is in In Defense of the Queen, he has no such constraints. Obviously, Susanna was always going to reject him, but I wasn't sure until I was writing the scene whether he would broach the topic or not.

This is the third book featuring Susanna Horenbout and John Parker. Had you intended to write a series when you started? Has the series progressed as you expected?

When I wrote In a Treacherous Court, it was most definitely as a stand alone. But then my agent read it and told me I couldn't stop there. And I realized she was right. I don't think I had any expectations. I just knew there was a lot of material I could use, and I have thoroughly enjoyed researching this fascinating time to come up with credible historical facts to fuel my imaginary plots.

I interviewed you in April of this year and you shared you like to bake when you're not writing. Was there a particular recipe, meal, or baked good you associate with your time writing this book?

Orange and almond muffins. Orange tarts were one of Henry's favorite dishes and I always seem to think of baking with oranges when I write my Susanna and Parker books. I think I also made some orange marmalade.

Read any good books recently?

Yes, a really fun cozy mystery novel by debut author Laura Morrigan. It's called Woof at the Door. It's about animal behaviourist and vet Grace Wilde, who gets caught up in a murder investigation. The only thing is Grace has always been able to talk to animals, Dr. Doolittle style, and the only witness to the murder is the murdered man's Doberman. I really loved it. Laura is not only a writer, she's my cover artist, and she skilfully negotiated getting my cover out for my release day with her own debut book release.

*** *** ***

My thanks to Ms. Diener for her time. You can learn more about her and her books by checking out her website, or connecting with her on Facebook and Twitter.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Winners!

I have about one million giveaways to announce -- this is what I get for missing a week!  Sorry for making folks wait!








The winner of Bride of New France is ... Ariel of One Little Library!

The winner of The Darwin Elevator is ... atlantisflygirl!

The winners of Queen's Gambit are ... Shannon @ River City Reading and Mary Beth!

The winner of Belle Noir is ... Elizabeth H.!

The winner of Song of the River and Mother Earth Father Sky is ... Heather D.!

The winner of Where They Bury You is ... Katie @ Doing Dewey!

Congrats to the winners! Folks have been emailed and have until the end of day Tuesday to get back to me before I re-draw winners. If you didn't win, check out my current giveaways -- as always, more coming this week!

Thursday, September 5, 2013

The Best of Daughters by Dilly Court

Title: The Best of Daughters
Author: Dilly Court

Genre: Fiction (Historical / WWI / UK / Social Class / Nursing / Edwardian)
Publisher/Publication Date: Arrow (12/17/2012)
Source: TLC Book Tours

Rating: Okay.
Did I finish?: I did, very quickly.
One-sentence summary: Young Daisy Lennox finds herself about to marry her childhood friend just as the first World War breaks out and worse, she finds herself in love with the same man as her best friend.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction

Do I like the cover?: Eh -- it's super pretty but the figure on the bike is so super wrong -- the characters pointedly make fun of bike riding in the story and not a single one, male or female, hops onto a bike!

I'm reminded of...: Catherine Marshall

First line: In her frantic dash to escape the police Daisy had lost her hat and broken a heel off one of her shoes.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy, especially if you want an Edwardian/WWI-era historical fiction.

Why did I get this book?: I'm a sucker for British-y novels of the Edwardian, pre-WWI era.

Review: Opening in 1912, this novel follows Daisy Lennox, a grounded young woman from a wealthy family who chafes at her mother's Victorian sentiments and ceaseless criticisms. Newly involved in the suffrage movement, Daisy befriends a working class girl, Ruby, after clubbing a police officer with her parasol when Ruby is being beaten with a truncheon at a suffrage protest. What scandal comes of Daisy's action -- her assault is photographed and published in the newspaper -- is forgotten in light of a greater tragedy: the complete loss of the family's fortune due to a criminal act.

Nearly penniless, the Lennoxes move to their summer home, a small country house that borders the family seat of the Pendleton family. The Pendletons are long friends with the Lennoxes -- Rupert, the Pendleton heir, is close friends to Daisy and her brother Teddy, and matriarchs from both families fancy a marriage between Daisy and Rupert. Rupert even seems to to want it, while Daisy finds herself smitten by the village's bad boy handyman, Barnaby Bowman. Worse, Ruby, now established in the Lennox house as a maid, is involved with Bowman as well, and out of confusion, Daisy agrees to marry Rupert -- but war is declared before the ceremony can happen. (This all occurs in the first 80 pages or so; the novel is 480 pages!) Daisy finally gets her chances at independence when she joins the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry, and she soon finds herself in Belgium as she, the Lennoxes, and all of Britian struggles with the changes wrought by the war.

While I initially was all swoons with this book -- I thought it was going to be a Philip Rock-like novel of World War I, only more from the viewpoint of the women -- it really is more of a Hallmark movie kind treatment. While there's tension, drama, a love triangle, everything is fairly sanitized, and in the end, the good get their happily ever afters and the villain is humanely punished. This isn't a bad thing: sometimes you want a BBC costume drama without the gut wrenching reality of war, and this book feels super British, has war drama and war death but not war angst, and some romantic entanglements without embarrassing sex scenes.

I quite liked Daisy, although she did border on (or, let's be real, cross over to) Mary Sue territory, but I enjoyed her tight friendship with Ruby. Even though they don't quite pass the Bechdel test, their mutual desires for the same man never threatens their friendship, amazingly, and both act with grace, kindness, and aplomb throughout the book.

Despite the length, this book raced, helped by Court's willingness to zoom through long expanses of wartime (whole seasons pass by in a mere few paragraphs). The final wrap up was a little too quick for my liking, but was satisfying -- no loose ends! -- and was a lovely introduction to this new-to-me author. Fans of World War I stories, riches-to-rags-to-independence narrative arcs, and Anglophiles will enjoy this light but fun read.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Freud’s Mistress by Karen Mack and Jennifer Kaufman

Title: Freud’s Mistress
Author: Karen Mack and Jennifer Kaufman

Genre: Fiction (Historical / 19th Century / Austria / Historical Figure Fictionalized / Freud / Infidelity / Sisters / Marriage)
Publisher/Publication Date: Amy Einhorn Books (7/9/2013)
Source: TLC Book Tours

Rating: Liked and disliked.
Did I finish?: I did.
One-sentence summary: The early sexual relationship between Sigmund Freud and his sister-in-law, Minna Bernays.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction

Do I like the cover?: I really ought to like it -- it's different, and it could be a scene from the book -- but I'm actually not wild about it! Fickle is me!

I'm reminded of...: Sarah Jio

First line: The season for suicides had begun.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow if you like historical fiction of affairs.

Why did I get this book?: Very curious about late 19th century Austria.

Review: I'm all over the place with this book: I liked some aspects of it and disliked others and I really don't know where to settle in the end.

Opening in 1895, the novel follows Minna Bernays, sister to Sigmund Freud's wife Martha. Minna is pretty, clever, and unwilling to settle into marriage for convenience or comfort. As a result, she's relegated to life as a domestic for upper class Austrian families, a job she routinely loses. Minna would prefer to drink gin and smoke cigarettes in her bedroom, reading her time away, and engage in sharp conversation on arts and science, but when jobless, penniless, and homeless, she goes to her sister Martha.

Martha, once the family beauty, is now a mother of six wild children, wife to brilliant but controversial Sigmund Freud. Exhausted, addicted to opiates, Martha no longer entrances Sigi, as he's nicknamed, and Minna immediately fascinates. Minna is as enraptured, and eventually the two become lovers.

Historically, we know Minna lives with the Freuds for over forty years, and recently it's been discovered that Minna and Sigmund checked into a hotel together as a married couple. Much of Mack's and Kaufman's novel, however, is conjecture, and the resulting book was, for me, frustrating.

I'm not always wild about biographical historical fiction, especially when the figure is question is 'famous' for being the sexual partner of someone more famous. The reasons for entering into an illicit sexual relationship can be fascinating material for a novel, however, and I was very curious about how Mack and Kaufman would articulate Minna's and Martha's relationship. (That to me was far more interesting to me than just how hot Minna found Sigi to be!)

Sadly, the predominant arc of this novel is on the first few liaisons between Minna and Sigmund with a six page Afterward that only lightly touches upon Martha's cognizance of the affair. The first third of the novel leads up to the sex, and the rest details their liaisons, Minna's alternating guilt and happiness, and instances of Sigmund being a total jerk. I was disappointed the relationship with Minna and Martha wasn't explored more; there's a brief hint offered that Martha not only knew, but understood and even expected Freud's lovers to take up certain tasks to keep him happy (and out of her hair).

The writing style is fine; despite the poetic and dramatic opening line -- The season for suicides had begun. -- the narrative is straight-forward and reads fast. Scenes where a demonstration of intelligence or wit were needed were summed up with a single sentence ("...Minna said, going on to discuss the disastrous ramifications of imperial support of Lueger, especially for the Jews.", p72) which felt a bit like a cop out. The narrative is peppered with historical tidbits that were fascinating -- the easy use of opiates and coca (cocaine) was amazing/horrifying -- and there's a sense of what the woman's sphere was like, from clothes to household details.

So, I can't easily say if I liked or disliked this one. I don't mind unlikable or irredeemable characters, but neither Minna nor Sigmund were truly ugly, awful, or horrible enough to be fun. They're merely selfish. I can't condemn the novel for not following a plot line I would have preferred, however. I think fans of 'popular'/women's historical fiction will like this one -- it reminded me of Sarah Jio and Christina Baker Kline (without the contemporary parallel story line) and contemporary writers like Patti Callahan Henry.

*** *** ***

GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to offer a copy of Freud’s Mistress to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US/Canadian readers, ends 9/13.