Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Books Read in 2013


Edward Belfar, Wanderers
D.L. Bogdan, The Forgotten Queen
Carol K. Carr, India Black and the Rajah's Ruby
Stephanie Dray, The Princess of Egypt Must Die
Jade Kennedy, Silver Threads
Emma Newman, Between Two Thorns
Lisa O’Donnell, The Death of Bees
Chris Pavone, The Expats
B.N. Peacock, A Tainted Dawn
Phillip Rock, The Passing Bells
Sam Thomas, The Midwife's Tale


Melanie Benjamin, The Aviator's Wife
Maryka Biaggio, Parlor Games
Kit Brennan, Whip Smart: Lola Montez Conquers the Spaniards
Tara Conklin, The House Girl
Stephen Dobyns, The Burn Palace
Kevin Lynn Helmick, Driving Alone: A Love Story
Rita Leganski, The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow
Ludmila Petrushevskaya, There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister's Husband, and He Hanged Himself: Love Stories
Rod Rees, The Demi-Monde
Rod Rees, The Shadow Wars
Phillip Rock, A Future Arrived
Phillip Rock, Circles of Time
Alana White, The Sign of the Weeping Virgin


Anna Belfrage, Like Chaff in the Wind
Anna Belfrage, A Rip in the Veil
Carol K. Carr, India Black and the Shadows of Anarchy
Amanda Coplin, The Orchardist
Kate Forsyth, Bitter Greens
Abigail Gibbs, The Dark Heroine
James Mace, Forlorn Hope: The Storming of Badajoz
James Mace, I Stood With Wellington
Liza Perrat, Spirit of Lost Angels
Betsy Prioleau, Swoon: Great Seducers and Why Women Love Them
Liesel Schwarz, A Conspiracy of Alchemists
Paullina Simons, Children of Liberty
P.A. Staes, The Bruges Tapestry
Ellen Sussman, The Paradise Guest House
Carlos Ruiz Zafón, The Prisoner of Heaven


Maya Banks, Highlander Most Wanted
Nancy Bilyeau, The Chalice
Sandra Byrd, Roses Have Thorns
Jo-Ann Costa, The Bequest of Big Daddy
Michelle Diener, Daughter of the Sky
Patti Callahan Henry, And Then I Found You
Melika Dannese Lux, City of Lights: The Trials and Triumphs of Ilyse Charpentier
Donald Michael Platt, House of Rocamora
Donald Michael Platt, Rocamora 
Helene Wecker, The Golem and the Jinni
Elizabeth Winder, Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953
Jack Wolf, The Tale of Raw Head and Bloody Bones


Joanna Hershon, A Dual Inheritance
C.C. Humphreys, Jack Absolute
Mary Lancaster, A Prince to be Feared
Anthony Marra, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena
Megan Marshall, Margaret Fuller: A New American Life
David Morrell, Murder as a Fine Art
M.J. Rose, Seduction
Katey Schultz, Flashes of War
Curtis Sittenfeld, American Wife
Susan Tekulve, In the Garden of Stone
Nicola Upson, Fear in the Sunlight


Ellen Mansoor Collier, Bathing Beauties, Booze and Bullets
Ellen Mansoor Collier, Flappers, Flasks and Foul Play
Kathryn Kirkpatrick, Our Held Animal Breath
Annabel Lyon, The Sweet Girl
Shannon Stoker, The Registry
Simon Van Booy, The Illusion of Separateness
Kate Worsley, She Rises
Felicity Young, Anatomy of Death
Felicity Young, Antidote to Murder


Stephanie Carroll, A White Room
Nicole Galland, Godiva
Robert Goolrick, A Reliable Wife
C.W. Gortner, The Queen's Vow
Kristiana Kahakauwila, This is Paradise
Pamela Moore, Chocolates for Breakfast
Brandy Purdy, The Queen's Rivals
Ania Szado, Studio Saint-Ex
Stephanie Thornton, The Secret History: A Novel of Empress Theodora
Kara Weiss, Late Lights
Victoria Wilcox, Inheritance


Suzanne Desrochers, Bride of New France
Michelle Diener, In Defense of the Queen
Michelle Diener, In a Treacherous Court
Michelle Diener, Keeper of the King's Secrets
Elizabeth Fremantle, Queen's Gambit
David Gordon, Mystery Girl
Sue Harrison, Song of the River
Jason M. Hough, The Darwin Elevator
Steven W. Kohlhagen, Where They Bury You
Samuel Sattin, League of Somebodies
Kathleen Tessaro, The Perfume Collector
Ava Zavora, Belle Noir


Mary Balogh, The Arrangement
Dilly Court, The Best of Daughters
Jennifer Cody Epstein, The Gods of Heavenly Punishment
Shana Galen, True Spies
Juliet Grey, Confessions of Marie Antoinette
Karen Mack and Jennifer Kaufman, Freud’s Mistress
Susan McDuffie, The Study of Murder
Laura Joh Rowland, The Shogun’s Daughter


Susan Wittig Albert, A Wilder Rose
Jane Austen, The Annotated Pride and Prejudice
Nike Campbell-Fatoki, Thread of Gold Beads
Elaine Cougler, The Loyalist’s Wife
Michelle Diener, Banquet of Lies
Madeline Harvey, Evangeline Jennings, Zoë Spencer,Tee Tyson, Cars & Girls
Bárbara Mujica, I Am Venus
Deborah Swift, A Divided Inheritance


Stephanie Dray, Daughters of the Nile
Stephanie Dray, Song of the Nile
Avery Hays, The Sixth
Ariel Lawhon, The Wife, the Maid, and the Mistress


Elizabeth Blackwell, While Beauty Slept
K.B. Laugheed, The Spirit Keeper
Janice Law, The Prisoner of the Riviera
Jade Lee, What the Groom Wants
Sara Lindsey, A Rogue for All Seasons
Erika Mailman, Woman of Ill Fame
Elizabeth Michels, Must Love Dukes

Monday, December 30, 2013


While my Christmas was lovely, my wife and I were gifted with nasty colds that we can't shake.  We're both home and dragging ourselves around the house like, well, pathetic sick things!  Anyway...

The winner of Woman of Ill Fame is ... Meg @ A Bookish Affair!

Congrats! I don't have any open giveaways at the moment, but there are many more planned with the start of 2014.

Hope all of you have had lovely holidays, if you celebrate, and have safe and joyful New Year's celebrations! I'm grateful for all of you!  I'm sorry I've fallen behind on commenting on blogs, but I expect to catch up once I shake this cold.  

(And, on January 3, it'll be my fifth blogiversary!!  I'm going to try to do something awesome!)

Saturday, December 21, 2013


It's a frantic weekend for me, being three days before Christmas, so I'm keeping this brief!

The winner of The Spirit Keeper is ... Xina!

The winner of Fires of London and The Prisoner of the Riviera is ... Natalie M.!

The winner of The Prisoner of the Riviera is ... Judith S.!

Congrats to the winners! Winners have been emailed and have until Friday to respond. Check out my current giveaway -- it might be the last for 2013 but I have many more coming up for 2014!

Friday, December 20, 2013

Weekends reads and getting festive...

Countdown to my winter holiday break! My workplace closes next Tuesday for a week, so I'm really looking forward to that.  I've got a massive holiday break reading queue in the works, starting with...

My weekend read is Mistress of the Wind by Michelle Diener. I'm an enormous fan of Diener's work, so I can't wait to see how she handles fantasy and a retelling of a favorite fairy tale of mine, East of the Sun, West of the Moon.

I've just finished two really fantastic books I can't squee about -- I'm blurbing them for Bloggers Recommend so you'll find out a little after the first. Then I'll be shouting about them nonstop.

I hope to get my top ten reads of 2013 posted on the 30th -- am still struggling with whittling down the list to ten!

What are you reading this weekend?

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Interview with Erika Mailman

Yesterday I reviewed Erika Mailman's marvelous historical novel, Woman of Ill Fame, about a young prostitute in 19th-century San Francisco who struggles for more than her daily income.  I was captivated by this book from the first page, and I'm delighted to share my interview with Erika Mailman.  Read on to learn a little more about her, her writing, and what she does when she's not working on a book.  Be sure to enter the giveaway!

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

I think that was in third grade and had something to do with a group of girls who would ride ponies together. I remember stapling it together and illustrating it. How I wish I still had it!

Do you have any writing rituals or routines?

I used to don lipstick and sometimes a beret…I was tickled when I later learned about Chris Baty’s admonition to wear a Viking helmet (he’s the founder of National Novel Writing Month: Nanowrimo.com). I’m lucky in that I can actually write in noisy places like cafes or my own home.

Was Woman of Ill Fame the original title of your book?

It was originally titled “Ill Fame.” I still like the brevity and in-your-faceness of that title, but I think the publisher Heyday Books was wise to add “Woman of…”

As you were writing Woman of Ill Fame, was there a particular scene or character that surprised you?

Well, yes, but it’s difficult to answer without plot spoilers. Let’s just say I wasn’t sure all along who was a good guy and who was a bad guy.

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

I like to read, watch Downton Abbey, and try to reconnect with my once-runnerly self (i.e., consider jogging, don running shoes, reconsider).

Read any good books recently?

The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips and Where’d You Go Bernadette by Maria Semple stick out as two that rocked my world.

Thanks for hosting me today!

*** *** ***

My thanks to Ms. Mailman for her time and answers. To learn more about her and her books, check out her website.


I'm thrilled to offer a Kindle e-book copy of Woman of Ill Fame to one lucky reader!

To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US readers only, ends 12/27. Only one entry per person; do not enter alternate email aliases or emails belonging to other individuals.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Woman of Ill Fame by Erika Mailman

Title: Woman of Ill Fame
Author: Erika Mailman

Genre: Fiction (Historical / 19th Century / San Francisco / Sex Worker / Murder Mystery / Serial Killer)
Publisher/Publication Date: (11/11/2013)
Source: Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

Rating: Loved.
Did I finish?: I did -- I inhaled this one.
One-sentence summary: A young Boston prostitute makes her way to San Francisco during the 19th century gold rush, in search of her own fortune, but finds herself seeking a serial killer instead.
Reading Challenges: E-book, Historical Fiction

Do I like the cover?: I adore it -- so eye-catching!

First line: While the other passengers disembarked, I remained in the galley lying on a rice bag.

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

Why did I get this book?: Was so deeply curious about the premise, plus I love 19th century West coast as a setting.

Review: From the first page of this delightful, delicious novel, our heroine Nora Simms makes no bones about who she is. A teenaged prostitute from Boston, Nora has moved to San Francisco in search of gold of her own, and she works hard to improve her standing in life.  As prostitutes are murdered, however, Nora finds herself doing a little organizing and crime-fighting in hopes of living long enough to enjoy her earnings.

There's a rave quote on the cover from Diana Gabaldon, and I have to say, it's no hyperbole: this novel is wonderful (it's just upset my top ten of 2013 list!).

This book has everything for a diverting historical read: great sense of place (19th-century San Francisco, back when it was a frontier town!), standout characters (Nora, our prostitute narrator; Mehitabel Ashe, her tender-hearted landlady; Abe, her simple-minded client); and various plot threads that are dramatic and fun (self improvement, murder mystery, and a search for a kind of happy ending).

Nora tells us her story, and she's a charming and warm narrator. And though Nora is funny and wry in her narration, Mailman doesn't use quippy banter to make light of the real desperation of Nora's life and situation. Nora is trying to improve herself, but she's not a self-loathing woman swayed by Christian reform. No, Nora wants to work in a parlor house and refashion herself a kind of courtesan rather than a common street woman.  When faced with real threats on her life and those around her, Nora acts with courage and cleverness. (Why yes, I'm now a Nora Simms fangirl for life!)

Mailman's inclusion of historical detail is wonderful. With first person narrators, infodumps can be especially awkward, what with our narrator lecturing us, but Mailman never lectures. Nora shares small tidbits about 19th century San Francisco in a way that felt authentic and effortless, and I felt immersed in that dirty, grimy, frontier city.  Mailman doesn't whitewash Nora's work, so those who are uncomfortable with the realities of sex workers might want to pass, but the scenes are presented without salaciousness.  They were grim, hilarious, adorable, sexy, discomforting, scary, and weird, and they helped me get a sense of Nora and her world.

My only complaint is a lack of Historical Note (something I depend on now to help me separate the imaginary from the factually historical).  Otherwise, this novel is flawless -- a real delight.

Highly recommended, Woman of Ill Fame will appeal to those who enjoy stories of the American West and the women who tamed it, as well as those who enjoy novels with a strong voice.  This is a can't-put-it-down-once-you-start-it read, so splurge and hope for a snow day!

*** *** ***


I'm thrilled to offer a Kindle e-book copy of Woman of Ill Fame to one lucky reader!

To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US readers only, ends 12/27. Only one entry per person; do not enter alternate email aliases or emails belonging to other individuals.  Be sure to check out the interview with the author for one more entry!

Thursday, December 12, 2013

A Rogue for All Seasons by Sara Lindsey

Title: A Rogue for All Seasons
Author: Sara Lindsey

Genre: Fiction (Historical / Romance / Regency)
Publisher/Publication Date: Sara Lindsey (6/1/2013)
Source: The author.

Rating: Liked a great deal.
Did I finish?: I raced through it gleefully!
One-sentence summary: A wallflower facing spinsterhood finds herself in a mock courtship with a stunning rogue when both realize they want their courtship to be real.
Reading Challenges: E-book, Historical Fiction

Do I like the cover?: I'm not wild about it, but I'm actually not really a fan of historical romance covers.

I'm reminded of...: Maya Banks

First line: For a girl of only eight years old, Diana Merriwether was very good at hiding.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy -- charming, engaging, and very sexy!

Why did I get this book?: A woman I met at a friend's wedding is friends with the author, and she asked if I'd be open to connecting with the author.

Review: I'm a sucker for happily ever afters, but I'm picky about the journey. When a historical romance doesn't work for me, it's usually because the obstacles are created due to lack of direct conversation or there are misunderstandings so outrageous they beggar belief.  When historical romances do work for me, they feature a hero and heroine who are learning about themselves as much as they are learning about each other, and the challenges in their courtship are dramatic and emotional without being unhealthy.

This book is one of those that work.

Henry Weston comes from the blessed Westons -- wealthy, good-looking, good-humored.  While his sisters have fallen happily into matrimony (Lindsey's two previous novels), Henry is just as happy to keep up with his string of women and fun-loving life.  Except, he's kind of not.  When he finally acknowledges he has an aspiration -- to breed horses -- he learns that the owner of the famed stud he plans to purchase is afraid Henry will turn it into a brothel or some pleasure palace.  To purchase the stud, Henry has to prove he's a real gentleman.  Henry's parents are agreed; if Henry can find investors for half the cost, they'll front him the other half.

Diana Merriwether is the granddaughter of a duchess, facing her seventh season single.  Resigned to being a spinster, Diana has guarded herself from all impropriety due to the scandal of her parents' separation more than fifteen years earlier.  Wounded, too, from her father's rejection of her and preference for her brother, Diana is certain that love is fickle.  She wants none of that nonsense.

After being encouraged to be nice to Diana for years, including being urged by his mother to dance with her at least once if they're at the same event, Henry offers Diana an odd bargain.  If she'll enter into a mock courtship with him to make him seem as if he's the reformed gentleman -- for who but the blameless would Diana Merriwether court? -- he guarantees his interest in her will draw other suitors, and she may 'throw him over' at the end of the season for her real choice.

You can imagine the shenanigans that ensue from this arrangement.  Refreshingly, while there are some moments of miscommunication that do add conflict, Lindsey doesn't turn this into an agonizingly long wait for Diana and Henry to just admit their feelings.  

To my surprise and delight, the novel's end doesn't come with their inevitable to marriage, but their growth as a couple learning to trust each other and behave honestly.  Diana doesn't trust that she's loveable.  Normally that's a trope I loathe in a heroine but Lindsey articulates it in a manner that makes sense, given Diana's past, and when Diana gets over it, it's so very satisfying.  (And kind of made me teary, because, yeah, I've got my own anxieties about my loveable-ness!)

Now, for the important part: the sex is hot.  They're into each other, there are no weird hang ups about liking sex or their bodies, Lindsey doesn't use any uncomfortably odd euphemisms for body parts, and happily, it's more than just missionary style.  Those who are shy or prude-ish might be uncomfortable but the sexy scenes still feel romance novel-y rather than erotica-y.

I was stunned to discover upon finishing this book, that this is self-published. The quality of the writing, the editing, and the e-book's formatting had me assuming this came from a traditional publisher. Kudos to Lindsey for that.

I'm absolutely eager for another book from Lindsey and can see why her fans keep calling for more of the Westons.  They're a charming bunch, and I'm smitten.  If you're facing hectic holidays, consider adding this one to the queue for fun, engrossing escapism.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Interview with Janice Law

Janice Law wrote one of my top ten reads of 2012, Fires of London, and I was delighted by the sequel, The Prisoner of the Riviera. I'm thrilled to share this interview with Ms. Law, who talks about her writing, why she chose Francis Bacon as her protagonist, and what she's been reading lately. Be sure to enter the giveaway to win her two Francis Bacon mysteries!

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

The plot of my first novel was, believe it or not, based on the then-ongoing Watergate hearings. I kept thinking that some underpaid secretary must know what was going on. My underpaid secretary became Anna Peters and I moved the plot and cover-up to a big-oil firm— not the smartest move because I had to keep researching the petroleum industry, about which I knew nothing.

Do you have any writing rituals or routines?

When I am writing I try to write every morning except Sunday when I go to play duets with an old friend. To save my voice, frazzled from many years of teaching in large classrooms, I have High Quality Bruce on the Apple voice-synthesizer read my work. For many years Bruce had a faintly Swedish accent and now in my inner ear, I hear all my work in his tone. Rather odd!

What inspired you to write mysteries featuring Francis Bacon?

I happened to read Michael Peppiatt’s fine biography of Francis Bacon and the idea just came to me, although in general I do not like the idea of making detectives out of the famous. But Bacon stuck in my mind, perhaps because I am a quite serious painter myself. The vast differences between his life and mine and between our personalities deterred me for a while, until I learned that he lived with his old nanny. That fact decided it, because I grew up downstairs on a big estate and that was a relationship I figured I understood.

Was The Prisoner of the Riviera the original title of your book?

I think The Prisoner of the Riviera was my initial idea. Often I get either a plot or a good title but not both, but this time the muse smiled on me. I think I have a good title for the conclusion of the trilogy, too, as a matter of fact.

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

I paint a great deal and do a lot of drawings. I garden, play the violin (badly), and go birding.

Read any good books recently?

I love almost everything by Kate Atkinson and enjoyed her Life After Life—also the new Fred Vargas, The Ghost Riders of Ordebec. Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers was good and I really was impressed by Daniel James Brown’s The Boys in the Boat, about the American eights that won gold in the Berlin Olympics. Also Douglas Smith’s grim but enlightening Former People about the destruction of the Russian aristocracy (and middle class).

*** *** ***

My thanks to Ms. Law for her time. You can learn more about her by visiting her website and you can connect with her on Facebook.


Thanks to the publisher, I have two giveaways for this! Grand prize: print copies of Fires of London and The Prisoner of the Riviera! Runner up: print copy of The Prisoner of the Riviera!

To enter, fill out this brief form! Open to US readers only, ends 12/20. Only one entry per person; do not enter alternate email aliases or emails belonging to other individuals.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Mailbox Monday, Dec 9

It's been more than a month since I've posted a Mailbox Monday update, so, here's my immense haul for the last five or six weeks.

Mailbox Monday is a weekly meme, hosted in December by Rose City Reader. The creator of the meme is polling bloggers about the future of Mailbox Monday, so if you care or are interested, check out the post and vote.

To learn more about any title, click on the cover; it'll open to the GoodReads page in a new tab/window.

What did you get this week?

For Review


Won, thanks to Dark Jane Austen Book Club!

Won, thanks to the author

Friday, December 6, 2013

Weekend reads and I'm home!

Technically, I've been back since Thanksgiving, but I finally feel like I've settled back home.  I already desperately miss my 'room of my own' out in western Massachusetts.  I got an incredible amount of writing done -- the most I've ever accomplished -- and learned a great deal about myself, my own writing habits, and the skill it takes to write a story.  My original plot line changed wildly once I went to work, which was a surprise, and I've found about two million holes I need to fill with more research.  I won NaNoWriMo for the first time in my life (I did 50K words in November) and am at about 70K words total.  All in all, I'm very satisfied!!  Here's hoping I can keep up the momentum and continue to write once I resume working; I think my chances of being a lady of leisure are pretty nil.

The weekend, I'm reading a trio of historical romances for review here or the Historical Novel Society: What the Groom Wants by Jade Lee, A Rogue for All Seasons by Sara Lindsey, and Must Love Dukes by Elizabeth Michels. As this is my last day of sabbatical (!!), and with the crazytimes of the holiday season upon us, I'm grateful for the escapist reads. It's just what I need!  (That's some Emergenc-C with my e-reader, to stave off what feels like a cold!)

What are you reading this weekend?

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Daughters of the Nile by Stephanie Dray

Title: Daughters of the Nile
Author: Stephanie Dray

Genre: Fiction (Historical / Ancient Rome / Historical Figure Fictionalized / Herod / Magic)
Publisher/Publication Date: Berkley Trade (12/3/2013)
Source: The author

Rating: Looooooooooooooooooooooooved like a loving thing!
Did I finish?: Oh yeah -- I even reread the second book in anticipation.
One-sentence summary: The final chapters in the life of Cleoptra's daughter, Queen Cleopatra Selene of Mauritania, and her battle with the Emperor Augustus.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction

Do I like the cover?: I do - so dramatic and lurid!

First line: I will never see my mother's Egypt again, I think.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Buy, buy, buy -- and get the first two, too!

Why did I get this book?: Because I adore Dray's writing and this series is electrifying!

Review: Wow. Wow. It's been a few days since I've finished this one, and I'm still struggling with how to articulate just how much I adored this book. Loved it so much I want to just yell at everyone in all caps to convey my deep passion for it! 

Daughters of the Nile is the final volume in Dray's trilogy about Cleopatra's daughter, Cleopatra Selene. (I've reviewed both the previous volumes, Lily of the Nile and Song of the Nile.)

At this point in Selene's journey, she's begun openly resisting Roman emperor Caesar Augustus in her endeavor to fully own her life.  After struggling with the heavy weight of her family's name and legacy, the lure of ruling Egypt always tempting her, Selene has paid for her ambitions -- and what was just her burden is now affecting others: her husband, King Juba, her daughter, Isadora, her niece, Phythodorida.  But pursuing her own dream isn't easy nor gifted to her by Augustus, and as with the previous novels, Dray doesn't coddle the reader nor hold back on the brutality, cruelty, and gutting reality of life for women in this era.

This is a historical fantasy, technically, but Dray's use of magic in this series is subtle and understated and felt so natural that I never noticed it.  The characters aren't using magic to enchant people or get work done; like everything else in this series, using magic comes at a considerable cost, and the decision to evoke magic is weighed carefully. 

Dray's storytelling skill is just marvelous, and seen not only in this book but in the trilogy over all. Selene's life is one of tragedy, and yet, as a heroine she is dynamic, determined, and dedicated toward getting what is hers. Dray artfully conveys Selene's growth, from a young prisoner of war in Lily of the Nile to a teenaged monarch and mother struggling with demons and her desperate desire to win at all costs in Song of the Nile to, finally, a woman fully realizing what must be sacrificed to save what she loves in Daughters of the Nile.

There are no static characters in these books; everyone changes, grows, develops, and their actions make complete sense.  Even the twisted, torturous Augustus -- a monster -- had moments of humanity, and had characters who loved him as much as they loathed him.

And oh, how I loved these characters.  Dray is as hard on everyone else as she is on Selene and to say Dray gutted me is an understatement.  As I was finishing this book, my wife woke to find me sobbing -- shoulder-shaking sobs! -- at 3am.  I had my heart broken about ten times in this book, and the way Dray built up, drew out, and brought all that pain and pathos to life was just astounding.  I loved every agonizing minute.

Here's the bottom line: Daughters of the Nile might be one of the best concluding volumes in a series I've ever read, and Dray's Cleopatra Selene trilogy among the best historical fiction trilogies out there.  It has everything for hungry readers of historical fiction: rich and atmospheric details that evoke a foreign time and place, a standout cast of characters that live and breath, resonant themes and deep emotional interactions that are impossible to shake off, and some deliciously disturbing soap opera-y elements in case you were feeling safe. 

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The Prisoner of the Riviera by Janice Law

Title: The Prisoner of the Riviera
Author: Janice Law

Genre: Fiction (Historical / 1940s / Monte Carlo / Homosexuality / Murder Mystery / Post-WWII)
Publisher/Publication Date: MysteriousPress.com/Open Road (12/10/2013)
Source: NetGalley

Rating: Liked.
Did I finish?: I did.
One-sentence summary: British painter Francis Bacon vacations in the French Riviera when he becomes embroiled in a murder and a case of mistaken identity.
Reading Challenges: E-book, Historical Fiction

Do I like the cover?: I'm undecided. At first, I think I dislike it, but if I look at it more, it reminds me a bit of a Hitchcock film, which appeals to me, so...maybe I do like it.

I'm reminded of...: Nicola Upson

First line: The war was over; Herr Hitler was dead; Hirohito was mortal.

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

Why did I get this book?: I adored her previous one!

Review: Last year I read and adored Janice Law's previous novel featuring 20th century painter Francis Bacon, Fires of London. (It made my top ten of 2012!) I loved it for its dark and slightly raunchy tone, for being gritty and gay (homosexual, not cheerful), and for being atmospheric and escapist.

I hadn't realized there was a chance of more Bacon so when I learned Law had written a second novel featuring him, I was over the moon. To my delight, the novel opened (literally, the second line!) with the same flippant seediness I loved in the first book. (We had flags and bunting, and I got marvelously drunk and committed a public indecency in Hyde Park -- my little contribution to Britannia's celebration. p5)

The war is over, and Francis is ready to leave post-war London, with the food shortages and lingering stink of war.  He rallies his childhood nanny, who is nearly blind and deeply devoted to him, and his respectable lover Albert, for a trip to Monte Carlo.  But after witnessing a man getting shot outside a club in London, Francis is tasked with taking the man's effects to his widow who just happens to live on the Riviera, and the endeavor proves more complicated than he anticipated.

Francis narrates the story, and in Law's hands, he's wry, pithy, and sarcastic.  Coy, too, for he sadly never dishes details on his liaisons.  His voice is what makes these books so captivating: he's a reliable narrator who prefers night to day, the grotesque to the beautiful, the luxuries of life while slumming it.  Law evokes the post-war Riviera in its complicated contradiction -- gorgeous beaches and sunny vistas, Vichy collaborators transforming themselves into Allied supporters -- and it makes a fascinating backdrop for a murder mystery.

Fans of WWII settings will enjoy this one; the inclusion of a gay lead makes it all the more novel and interesting.  Those new to the series will be fine picking this one up without being lost, but you will want to indulge in the delicious seediness of Francis, and I strongly encourage you to get Fires of London.  Then get this one, so there will be a third Francis Bacon book! 

*** *** ***


Thanks to the publisher, I have two giveaways for this! Grand prize: print copies of Fires of London and The Prisoner of the Riviera! Runner up: print copy of The Prisoner of the Riviera!

To enter, fill out this brief form! Open to US readers only, ends 12/20. Only one entry per person; do not enter alternate email aliases or emails belonging to other individuals.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Spirit Keeper by K.B. Laugheed

Title: The Spirit Keeper
Author: K.B. Laugheed

Genre: Fiction (Historical / 18th Century / Pennsylvania / Irish Immigrants / Native Americans / Prophecy / Cross-Cultural Romance)
Publisher/Publication Date: Plume (9/24/2013)
Source: TLC Book Tours

Rating: Liked a very good deal.
Did I finish?: I did!
One-sentence summary: In 18th century Pennsylvania, a teenaged Irish girl is taken in by two Native Americans from the Pacific Northwest to fulfill a seer's prophecy.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction, Immigrant Stories

Do I like the cover?: Yes, it's quite pretty; as our heroine's red hair is constantly commented upon, the focus on it is fitting, as well as the small touches reminiscent of art from Native American tribes in the Pacific Northwest.

First line: This is the account of Katie O'Toole, late of Lancaster Co., Pennsylvania, removed from her family by savages on March the 2nd in the year of Our Lord 1747.

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

Why did I get this book?: I'm always interested in historical novels from less frequently featured eras.

Review: I was so unexpectedly taken with this novel!

Opening in 1747, the story is told by 17-year old Katie O'Toole, the thirteenth child in a massive Irish family who are homesteading in Pennsylvania. One March day, a band of Native Americans raid their farm but before Katie is killed, she is singled out to be saved. Very quickly, we learn that two participants in this raid are not local, but rather from the Pacific Northwest, searching for the blue-eyed, redheaded woman who is the crucial part of a seer's vision. Our heroine, Katie, is deemed the one.

On that basic premise, I nervously continued reading. I'm apprehensive of novels that set up white folks to be the heroes for indigenous peoples and the first few chapters didn't allay my fears. The two Native Americans tasked with saving Katie are Syawa -- a goofy, seemingly-besotted seer -- and his boon companion and bodyguard, Hector. (Katie calls him that because she can't pronounce his name.) Syawa is abundantly generous to Katie, bending over backwards to provide for her comfort, and quickly, Katie decides to throw in her fate with him and his companion rather than fight to free herself and her surviving family members. (In what is both super stereotypical and probably accurate, Katie was horrifically abused, growing up in a mean and rough family. That she decided to leave that horror for something unknown isn't totally surprising.)

The three break off to travel West to return to Syawa's tribe. While I found that Katie came to trust her captors too quickly to feel believable, once that obstacle was overcome, the relationship between the three grew fascinating. As a non-native, Katie's ignorance allows the reader to learn a great deal and Laugheed manages to educate Katie and the reader in a way that felt natural, forward-moving, and plot relevant. At no point did I feel pulled out of the story by any kind of infodump, and the narrative never felt split between 'learning' scenes and 'doing' scenes. The journey continued to move forward, as Katie, Syawa, and Hector meet a variety of US tribes, French and Spanish traders, and rebellious raiders.

There's a romance in this, which I couldn't totally buy -- I kept thinking 'Stockholm syndrome'! However, Laugheed goes out of her way to have Katie explain to Hector more than once that she's never truly been free -- the obligations of her family entrapped her, much as she anticipated her future marriage would -- and that her choice to travel with them out to the Pacific was both a decision she made freely and one she made out of obligation. I rather appreciated that nuance, for Katie is a feisty heroine who thankfully stays on this side of anachronistic. She's bold and wild in ways I believed, and her world isn't black-and-white.

In the end, despite my hesitation, I was sucked into this story and raced to the end. There was a heartbreaking point that brought tears to my eyes, and I eventually came to root for the burgeoning romance. I really was very enamored of Katie!

I only have two real complaints. First, I wished the book was longer -- there were moments that were rushed through, and I would have preferred to spend more time on them; it would have been a richer story -- and the ending felt a bit off. (As it turns out, according to the author, the novel was much longer, and there is a part two that may or may not be published. Gah!)  My second is that the book lacks an Author's Note about the historical elements of the novel -- I would have loved to learn what elements of the story were historically based and which were fully invented.

Otherwise, I've no quibbles with this book. It was a fast, adventurous read set in a wild era and featuring cultures not often seen in historical fiction. A lovely debut; I'm eager to see what Laugheed does next!

Edited to add: I wrote this review immediately upon finishing the book, but some time later, I have to admit that a thematic element/plot twist in the last third of the book is so bothersome I'm contemplating changing my rating. It was mildly offensive, I think, and disappointing. Katie is blamed for something out of her control and punished out of proportion to it. She accepts domestic abuse and excuses her mother for staying with an abusive husband. It's left an unpleasant taste in my mouth!

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I'm thrilled to offer a copy of The Spirit Keeper to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US and Canadian readers, ends 12/20.  Only one entry per person; do not enter alternate email aliases or emails belonging to other individuals.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Literary Wives: Interview with Ariel Lawhon

I'm so delighted to be the December host of the first ever Literary Wives author interview! (Hopefully, the first of many more!)

For December, we read Ariel Lawhon's The Wife, the Maid, and the Mistress, and you can see what everyone thought by checking out their blogs: Ariel of One Little Library, Emily of The Bookshelf of Emily J., Carolyn at Rosemary and Reading Glasses, Cecilia at Only You, Lynn of Smoke & Mirrors, and Kay of whatmeread!

We all sent questions along, and Ms. Lawhon generously answered all of them.  Read on to learn more about this twisty, atmospheric tale of marriage, betrayal, and one big disappearance!

Lynn: I can understand the motivation to write provided by this “Hoffa”-like event, but what was the initial thought that piqued your interest enough to begin writing this novel?

AL: I’d never heard of Joseph Crater until I read an article about him in The New York Post nine years ago. I didn’t know that his disappearance was the biggest missing person’s case of the twentieth century or that he was a household name for almost fifty years. It was so fascinating. But in all of that, what intrigued me most was his wife Stella, and her strange yearly ritual. Starting on the first anniversary of her husband’s disappearance, she would go to a bar in Greenwich Village and order two drinks. She’d raise one in salute, “Good luck, Joe, wherever you are!” Then she’d drink it and walk out of the bar, leaving the other untouched on the table. She did this every year for thirty-nine years. After reading that article Stella Crater took up permanent residence in my mind. I’d close my eyes and she’d be there, in that corner booth, a glass of whiskey in her hand, practically daring me to tell her story. So I did.

Kay: The story of Judge Crater’s disappearance is certainly an interesting one. What kinds of decisions did you find yourself making about how to present the story?

AL: Well, the first (and biggest) decision was whether to write the story at all. It seemed too overwhelming and too foreign to everything I’m familiar with. I grew up in a hippie ski town so 1930’s New York City seemed impossible. But Stella was insistent and after I finally committed to the story the issues of structure and narrator had to be settled. I knew I wanted the story to alternate between Stella’s last visit to Club Abbey and the events as they happened in 1930. However, it took me a long time, and several false starts, to realize that Jude was not the narrator. Once he moved into the background, Stella, Ritzi, and Maria became the clear choices.

Cecilia: Your details of 1930s New York and Maine are so vivid, from the nightlife to the tailor shop to the bank. How did you go about researching for the book?

AL: I was so scared of getting it wrong! That’s part of why it took me so long commit to writing the book. And I don’t think I would have tried if The Wife, The Maid, and The Mistress was a contemporary story. I’d avoided the story for several months when it occurred to me that anyone who’d lived in NY at that time was dead. The chances of being contradicted were pretty slim. So, there it was, literary freedom! After that I bought a copy of Stella Crater’s account of her husband’s disappearance, The Empty Robe, and a biography called Vanishing Point: The Disappearance of Judge Crater and the New York He Left Behind by Richard Tofel. Between the two I was able to piece together the major events and the specific period details. Stella’s memoir in particular was helpful with that. She recounted conversations and events in great detail. Places they went. Clothes she wore. Her time in Maine. Arguments. Emotions. So much of this story was inspired by Stella herself.

Lynn: For me, this novel read much like “noir,” which typically is not my favorite genre, but I found it enthralling. Is that the genre you meant to capture/depict? Or am I totally off base with this classification?

AL: I don’t think I really had a genre in mind at all. I was just trying not to let the story kill me. Weaving three distinct narrators and the Club Abbey scenes together felt like juggling chainsaws most days. The fact that the novel turned out kind of dark and twisty had more to do with the real people and events than any intention on my part. But I’m really proud of how it turned out. Like it was meant to be.

Audra: As you were writing The Wife, the Maid, and the Mistress, was there a particular scene or character that surprised you?

AL: I will never forget one afternoon when I’d just started the book, and I was typing away. There was Maria, working in the Crater apartment, and those two men break in. She hides in the closet, and I didn’t know until they walk into the bedroom that she was married to Jude. I just sat there, gobsmacked for a while, muttering, “Of course! Of course they’re married! They have to be!”

Audra: Was The Wife, the Maid, and the Mistress your original title?
Lynn: I am fascinated by the interplay of all three women, but curious that the title doesn't reflect any connection to the infamous judicial disappearance.

AL: Oh, titles! My very first title, of the very first draft when Jude was the narrator (Can you imagine that? It feels so wrong now), was The Missingest Man In New York. I loved that title since it was the actual nickname Crater was given after he disappeared. But clearly it’s a grammatically offensive mouthful. And Jude’s role as narrator didn’t last long so that title had to go. (But it is the title of a short story from his point of view that I’m working on.) Later, when I realized that the novel was actually about the three women Crater left behind, I changed the title to The Rule of Three. That’s the title it had when it sold, and I was crazy about it. But a book with a similar title sold roughly a zillion copies several years ago. So we had to go back to the drawing board. In the end, Bill Thomas, publisher of Doubleday, came up with The Wife, The Maid, and The Mistress. And it’s perfect.

Audra: In some ways, the wife, the mistress, and the maid can be seen as modern archetypes. How did cultural assumptions and associations with those three types of women help or hinder you as you wrote this novel?

AL: There is such a fine line between an archetype and stereotype. One is the blueprint and the other is cliché. And I think when you choose to write about people trapped within a social structure the trick is to make them surprising as individuals. Take the privileged trophy wife and ensure that she’s aware but helpless in the face of her husband’s corruption and infidelity. Take thebrazen mistress and make her deeply sympathetic, likeable even. Take the quiet, devout maid and make her sensual and deceitful. None of them had the option of being guileless or passive. They had to be present and engaged despite the fact that they lived within a culture where women were second-class citizens.

Ariel: The book is called The Wife, the Maid, and the Mistress, but really, all three women are wives. As a wife yourself, who did you relate to the most?

AL: I loved Ritzi most. Maybe I shouldn’t admit that in public since it brings my moral compass into question but she was my favorite. I love everything about her character. That said, I can relate to all of them in certain ways. I’ve never been a wealthy socialite but I understand Stella’s need to control the world around her, to force her circumstances into submission. And while I’d sooner give birth every Tuesday for the rest of my life than stand on a stage and sing, Ritzi’s desire to find her place in the world is very real to me. Maria is faithful and devout and if, when I die, those are the only things people remember about me, I’ll be happy.

Carolyn: Maria seems to be the most sympathetic character in the novel, and the one that you created mostly on your own. What inspired her characterization?

AL: There are only two references to the Crater’s maid in the historical account: one in Stella’s memoir and one in a newspaper article. Amedia Christian is the name recorded. And Maria’s character actually sprang from that name. Amedia means “beloved.” That’s what she was to Jude. Beloved and precious and essential. And of course Christian plays directly into Maria’s faith. So even though I didn’t use the actual name from history, it shaped who Maria became in the book.

Lynn: You mentioned to me that you love all these characters, particularly Ritzi. What is it you appreciate the most about her? Personally, I love the fact that she's a survivor, yet realistic. However, I admit I was surprised at her feeding information to a reporter. It seems she and Vivian were both playing with fire in this regard, though Vivian had much more information and was going for the big time takedown, all to get her daughter back. Although "witness protection" evidently was uncommon, perhaps it could have saved her life... Do you believe the corruption was all-inclusive of the police at that time? Did your research PROVE any such connection in this case?

AL: I loved Ritzi because she was trapped in this terrible world of her own making. She made choices and betrayed people to get a shot at the big time, only to realize that behind the limelight are some pretty dark shadows. So for her the question was how, once you’ve completely mangled your life, do you make it right? And can you even accomplish that? Ritzi tried in the best way she knew how: manipulation. The reporter and Vivian and the NYPD, although real, were composites of the corrupt society in which Ritzi lived.

Cecilia: You are such a great storyteller. The pacing of book always felt natural and I easily connected to the characters, especially Ritzi and even Stella. Can you talk a bit about your writing life (when did you first start writing, did anyone influence you, when did you first know you wanted to write a novel)?

AL: Ah, thanks! That natural pacing took several drafts, many months of fine-tuning, and not a few late-night coffee and wine binge sessions (they cancel one another out, you know). But to answer your question, I was an early and avid fan of Agatha Christie. I will never forget being twelve years old and reading Murder On the Orient Express for the first time. I sat there, stunned, at the end when I realized that she had given me everything I needed to solve the mystery. But I didn’t. And I’ve always loved her for that. That feeling of total shock and respect was probably what first made me want to write.

I wanted to create something that did that. And not too long afterward I started playing with my own stories. I’ve never stopped.

Lynn: I admit that seeing a recommendation on the front cover from Melanie Benjamin was a huge plus for me. Do you ever discuss writing with her? Know her personally? Or was this just a spontaneous occurrence?

AL: Melanie is brilliant and generous but I’ve never actually met her. This was one of those truly serendipitous things. My friend, Marybeth Whalen, was at a large book conference shortly after my novel sold. While there she met Melanie Benjamin and during the course of the conversation raved about my book (as good friends are apt to do). Melanie said that she’d always been fascinated by the Crater case and would love to read the book when advance release copies were available. The rest is history and I’m very grateful for it.

Cecilia: Which authors have inspired you the most? What books do you count among your favorites?

AL: A few novels that have rocked my world in recent years are The Time Traveler’s Wife (I wept my way through the last fifty pages), The Book Thief (never have I seen a more beautifully written man than Hans Hubermann), Water For Elephants (the best ending of any book in the history of ever), The Thirteenth Tale (a case study in character development and withholding information), Peace Like A River (every sentence was perfect and beautiful and captivating), the Outlander series (she takes a pound of flesh with every novel and I love her for it), Game of Thrones (holy intrigue, Batman!), The Help (of course, but still, VOICE!)

I will read anything by Diana Gabaldon, Liane Moriarty, George MacDonald, C.S. Lewis, J.K. Rowling, George R.R. Martin, Tolkein (my favorite piece of his is actually a short story called Leaf By Niggle), Dick Francis (I grew up reading his horse racing mysteries and they are still my comfort food).

Carolyn: As a successful blogger, how did you balance blogging and writing your novel? Was one kind of writing helpful for the other?

Author Ariel Lawhon
AL: I don’t know how well I balanced the two, and I didn’t get much sleep, but I have learned to change hats quickly. I read so much for She Reads that I’ve actually become something of a book snob. I know quickly, within a page or two, whether I’m going to love a novel. There’s just something about the tone of a book that you can sense from the beginning. And this has transferred to my writing. I’m very mindful of tone and pacing when I write. So I’d say that blogging about books has definitely made me a better writer. And it’s given me a very clear idea of what people are actually reading. A helpful thing indeed.

Cecilia: I read on your blog that you also have 4 children. Can you talk about your writing process? When do you write and how do you balance the needs of your family with your writing time?

AL: I do love my little Wild Rumpus. All boys. All noise. All the time. And I’d like to say that I have a system in place but I don’t. I do, however, have a very supportive husband who is really good about sending me off to write.

I’ve learned to throw myself into work when white space appears on the calendar. And I’ve learned to shut my laptop when a little boy asks me to scratch his back or read him a story. Three of my kids are in school these days and one hasn’t started. So I’m still very much in twenty-four-seven parenting mode. The thing I try to remember when the balancing acts starts to feel overwhelming is that there will never be a convenient time to do this.

Life will always get in the way. So I have to practice the habit of working every day.

Cecilia: I love that you have co-founded a blog/site that promotes newly published novels written by women and that supports the literacy of women. What are your goals or hopes for the site in the coming year or near future?

AL: We’ve got a complete website re-design coming in January. We’ll be launching a Young Adult branch to the site. We’ve got some amazing projects and special partnerships lined up. We’ll continue supporting The Homecoming Queens, a literacy and support group for homeless women in Colorado. We’re doing a soft launch into the realm of live events early next year. So, you know, total world domination.

Cecilia: Are you planning on writing another book in the near future? Could you tell us a bit about it?

AL: I am knee deep in my next novel and hope to have it finished early next year. It is tentatively called The Faint of Heart and is based on the true story of a midwife in 18th century New England who became the key witness in a rape trial that unhinged a small community. It’s dark and gritty and hopeful and I spend most of my time amazed that this story I’m unraveling actually happened.

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My thanks to Ms. Lawhon for her time and thoughtful responses. You can learn more about her and her book at her website, or connect with her on Facebook or Twitter.

Ariel Lawhon is co-founder of the popular online book club, She Reads, a novelist, blogger, and life-long reader. She lives in the rolling hills outside Nashville, Tennessee with her husband and four young sons (aka The Wild Rumpus). Her novel, THE WIFE, THE MAID, AND THE MISTRESS, will be published in January by Doubleday. Ariel believes that Story is the shortest distance to the human heart.