Friday, January 31, 2014

Weekend reads and birthday month...

My wife's birthday was last weekend, which coincided with the ten year anniversary of our meeting! She got everything she wanted, from a homemade gourmet dinner to marathon-ing the Star Wars movies because I had never seen them. But we have a tradition in our family of celebrating the 'birthday month' which means my wife gets a few more weekends of fancy dinners made by me and dictating how we spend our weekends.  (Non-negotiable will be disassembling our Christmas tree, which we've obviously put off for weeks, oops!)

This weekend I'm reading Peter Swanson's The Girl with a Clock for a Heart. (The picture is from last night, not this morning -- I only do champagne before noon, and only on weekends!)

What are you reading this weekend?

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Book Spotlight: Cloaked in Danger by Jeannie Ruesch

I have a not so secret love affair with historical romances, and I'm happy to share info about a new one that's on tour right now!  If you're intrigued, be sure to enter my giveaway.

Cloaked in Danger by Jeannie Ruesch

Publication Date: January 27, 2014
Carina Press

Aria Whitney has little in common with the delicate ladies of London society. Her famous father made his fortune hunting archaeological treasures, and her rustic upbringing has left her ill prepared for a life of parties and frippery. But when Gideon Whitney goes missing in Egypt, Aria must embrace the unknown. Armed with only the short list of highborn men who’d backed her father’s venture, she poses as a woman looking for a husband. She doesn’t intend to find one.

Adam Willoughby, Earl of Merewood, finds London’s strangest new debutante fascinating, but when he catches her investigating his family’s secrets, he threatens to ruin her reputation. He doesn’t intend to enjoy it so much.

When their lustful indiscretion is discovered, Adam finds that he regrets nothing. But now, as Aria’s father’s enemy draws near, Adam must convince his betrothed that she can trust him with her own secrets…before it’s too late.

Praise for Cloaked in Danger

Cloaked in Danger has all the elements readers crave— larger-than-life characters, a vivid and believable setting, heart-pounding romance and just the right amount of mystery. Don’t miss it! It kept me reading deep into the night.” — New York Times Bestselling Author Brenda Novak

“In ‘Cloaked in Danger’ Jeannie Ruesch has crafted a taut, emotional thrill-ride through the streets of Regency London. Archaeological adventure and drawing room intrigue are combined in a story that will keep you reading late into the night. Jeannie Ruesch is an author to watch.” — RITA Award Nominated Author Elizabeth Essex

Purchase the Book

Barnes & Noble

About the Author
Jeannie Ruesch wrote her first story at the age of the six, prompting her to give up an illustrious, hours-long ambition of becoming a Dallas Cowboy Cheerleader and declare that writing was her destiny. That journey to destiny took a few detours along the way, including a career in marketing and design.

Her first novel, a fairy-tale like historical romance, was published in 2009, but the darker side of life had always captivated her. So after a dinner conversation with friends about the best way to hide a dead body, she knew she had to find a way to incorporate suspense into her writing. (The legal outlet for her fascination.) Today, she continues writing what she loves to read – stories of history, romance and suspense. She lives in Northern California with her husband, their son and an 80 pound lapdog lab named Cooper.

She is also the creator of the WIP Notebook, a writer’s tool to help stay organized while you write, which you can find at her website. You can also follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, and Pinterest.

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I'm thrilled to offer one e-book copy of Cloaked in Danger to a lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US and international readers, ends 2/14.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Facebook Party for Stephanie Dray's Daughters of the Nile

In December I read the final book in Stephanie Dray's delicious trilogy about Cleopatra's daughter, Daughters of the Nile. I adored it and it made my top ten of 2013 (which I hope to post someday!).

To celebrate, Stephanie Dray is hosting a Facebook 'party' this Thursday, Jan 30th, from 12pm Eastern to 10pm Easter.  She and a bunch of awesome authors (and me!!) will be hanging around, giving away prizes and chatting about their books. I hope you'll consider joining it -- it's sort of like a wild chat with a bunch of your bookish, geeky friends, and if you've never participated one, I hope you'll give it a try!

On January 30th, from 12pm EST to 10pm EST, an impressive roster of historical fiction authors and bloggers are hosting a Facebook party in honor of historical fiction, the 2,023rd anniversary of the Ara Pacis, and the release of Stephanie Dray's newest book, Daughters of the Nile: A novel of Cleopatra's Daughter.

Some participating authors include:
  • Stephanie Dray
  • Jeannie Lin
  • Kate Quinn
  • Erika Shephard Robuck
  • Heather Webb
  • Vicky Alvear Shecter
  • J.F. Ridgley
  • Donna Russo Morin
  • Eliza Knight
  • Sophie Perinot
  • Kathryn Kimball Johnson (aka Mary Hart Perry)
  • Audra Friend
  • Alma Katsu
  • Roberta Oliver Trahan
  • Marci McGuire Jefferson
  • Stephanie Thornton
  • Stephanie Cowell
Readers can win free books, lunch at the next Historical Novel Society meeting, swag, gift cards, and other prizes from some of the hottest authors of the genre. Please join us, and RSVP!

Monday, January 27, 2014

Anvil of God by J. Boyce Gleason

Title: Anvil of God
Author: J. Boyce Gleason

Genre: Fiction (Historical / 8th Century / France / Northern Europe / Court Intrigue / Sibling Relationships / Historical Figures Fictionalized / Medieval Christianity / Paganism)
Publisher/Publication Date: iUniverse (7/26/13)
Source: Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

Rating: Loved.
Did I finish?: Yes, I inhaled this one!
One-sentence summary: In 8th century Europe, four heirs battle each other for freedom, power, and happiness after the death of their powerful patriarch.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction

Do I like the cover?: I'm on the fence. At moments, I really like it, and at others, I feel like it gives the novel a Dan Brown-y feel (which it isn't!).

I'm reminded of...: Marion Zimmer Bradley

First line: "God's will be done," Carloman whispered as the forward line closed on the enemy.

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

Why did I get this book?: Saw so many great reviews of it, I wanted in on the excitement!

Review: On the surface, this isn't precisely the kind of historical fiction I'm drawn to, a medieval tale of fathers and sons, conflict and war, a kingdom divided. But after seeing one rave review after another for this one, I jumped on the chance to review it, and I'm so glad I did.

Opening in 741, the novel follows Charles Martel (grandfather to Charlemagne) in his last days. Dividing his kingdom among his three sons Carloman, Pippin, and Gripho, Charles thinks to quell rebellion and infighting. Instead, pious Carloman chafes that the more pagan-minded Gripho has land, while Pippin is preoccupied with his mistress. Charles' daughter, Hiltrude, grew up indulged by her father to the point that she trained with a sword while wearing Saracen armor, but despite her wishes, is betrothed to a foreign prince to shore up his loyalty. Upon his death, Charles' plans are for naught as his children strike out on their own, and the resulting conflict has enormous implication.

This novel reads with the rich, lurid, dramatic, and soap opera-ish intensity of Marion Zimmer Bradley and Philippa Gregory. In addition to the battle between siblings, there is a war of religion, and Gleason's use of pagan spirituality is what lead to my Bradley comparison (although this is a decidedly non-magical novel). I'm not one for detailed descriptions of battle, especially in a book filled with battles, but Gleason marvelously described the events without making it a blur of weapons and tools and gore.

At 405 pages, this is a beast, but despite its size, the novel raced. Gleason's characters were distinct and huge with personality while the plot was, well, plotty! Shifting between the brothers and Hiltrude, Gleason kept hold of his story while stoking drama and tension. (There is a slight whiff of an anachronistic heroine in Hiltrude, the sword-fighting noblewoman, but I have to admit, I so liked how he handled her, her father's indulgence of her, and how she behaved through the novel that I didn't mind she danced the line between historical and wholly fictional.)

I have to admit I did give a small eye roll when I saw this is the first in a trilogy. Before starting, I thought surely there would be no more story to tell -- but I was wrong. Nothing dragged nor felt extraneous in this book, and when I got to the book's end, I could have easily dove into another 400 pages just to remain with everyone.

There are nice extras to help the reader -- a small map, a family tree, and chart detailing which noble belongs to which locale. Gleason's Author's Note is 9 pages long and footnoted, and covers the plot line, characters, and places in the book.

Although this is the first in a trilogy, I very much found it a stand alone novel as most everything is resolved (to a point), so one can walk away satisfied or, like me, be impatient for the next book. Fans of medieval fiction will absolutely want to get this one as well as those who enjoy the court/royal setting.

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I'm thrilled to offer a hardcover copy of Anvil of God to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US readers only, ends 2/14.

Saturday, January 25, 2014


It's getting balmy now -- nearly 40 today! -- but as it is my wife's birthday, we're doing some extravagant baking and cooking, marathon-ing the Star Wars movies since I've never seen them, and drinking our body weight in champagne.

The winner of The Harlot's Tale is ... Kara S.!

The winner of An Untitled Lady is ... Hanna @ Booking in Heels!

Congrats to the winners! Folks have until the end of Tuesday to respond or I'll redraw. Be sure to check out my active giveaways -- there are more coming next week.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Weekend reads and negative temperatures

Another ridiculously bitterly icy wintry weekend ahead of me!

I was feeling a bit book funk-ish until I started Anvil of God by J. Boyce Gleason. I'm on the tour for it, and would have passed except it got rave reviews and now I know why.

Snobbishly, I'm not wild about hist fic that doesn't have some ladies in it, and I was apprehensive that it would be all guys fighting all the time.  But so far, it's not!  The guys are rather plotty and there's a very kickass heroine I completely love. (Also, speaking of ladies, I don't know if you can tell, but the model on the cover is rocking abso-fantastic-lutely fabu eye shadow and I might attempt it one day...)

What are you reading this weekend?  Are you facing below zero weather too?

Monday, January 20, 2014

Isabella: Braveheart of France by Colin Falconer

Title: Isabella: Braveheart of France
Author: Colin Falconer

Genre: Fiction (Historical / 14th Century / Edward II / Marriage / Royal Intrigue / Homosexuality)
Publisher/Publication Date: Cool Gus Publishing (9/3/2013)
Source: Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

Rating: Liked a good deal.
Did I finish?: I raced through it.
One-sentence summary: The life of Isabella of France, a 14th century queen of England.
Reading Challenges: E-book, Historical Fiction, What's In a Name

Do I like the cover?: I do. I don't think the costume is accurate to the era, but whatever, I like the jewels.

First line: You will love this man.

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

Why did I get this book?: Very curious about medieval royalty and I've long wanted to read one of Falconer's novels.

Review: I went into this book having no idea who Isabella was nor even when this book was set. (In my copy, the first time a date appears is Chapter 16.) Despite that small hindrance, I had no problem getting into the story; Falconer plunges the reader into a world of arranged marriages, foreign courts, and royal intrigue with a clever, observant, and fierce heroine I loved from the start.

Married at 12 to the handsome Edward, Isabella finds herself with a kind but disinterested husband. Citing her age as a his reason for avoiding her bed, it comes clear to the reader, and soon, Isabella, that Edward's favorite, Piers Gaveston, might be more than just a boon companion. Hungry for Edward's affection and time, Isabella strives always to be his ally, urging him toward greatness rather than indulging his whims. But she grows increasingly frustrated when Edward replaces Gaveston with another unpopular favorite and his focus remains always on personal gain rather than what is best for the country.

I was captivated from the first page of this brisk story. Written in present tense, there's a taut immediacy to the narrative that had me racing through it, eager to find out what would happen to Isabella and her rather useless husband. At 218 pages, this is more a novella than a novel, and while I wanted more, this is a coherent and complete story. It's a lean story, too, with hints of detail to evoke time and place, sparse descriptions, a sort of 'modern' feel that I loved. (Gruesome, too, since medieval punishment was not neat nor kind.)

My copy didn't include an Author's/Historical Note, which I would have liked, but otherwise, I have no complaints about this book. It was a fascinating introduction to a British monarch I was unfamiliar with and is the kind of read that colors one's perception, I think: any future reads featuring Isabella will be compared to this book and Falconer's articulation of her.

Brisk, exciting, and zippy, this is a fantastic read for those who want something engrossing without a huge time commitment (I love chunksters, but sometimes, size can be daunting!). Fans of royal intrigue will enjoy this less-written-about era and ruthless heroine.

*** *** ***


I'm thrilled to offer an e-book copy of Isabella to THREE lucky readers! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US and international readers, ends 2/7. Only one entry per person.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

A Different Sun by Elaine Neil Orr

Title: A Different Sun
Author: Elaine Neil Orr

Genre: Fiction (Historical / 19th Century / Georgia / West Africa / Missionaries / Slavery / Marriage)
Publisher/Publication Date: Berkley Trade (4/2/2013)
Source: TLC Book Tours

Rating: Loved. LOVED. This will make my top 10 of 2014!
Did I finish?: I couldn't put this book down!
One-sentence summary: In the mid-1800s, a young Georgia woman marries a charismatic minister with a checkered past and strange ailments and moves to West Africa, where her faith in herself, God, and her husband are challenged.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction

Do I like the cover?: Actually, I don't. It has elements of the novel featured, so I ought to, but something about it doesn't gel for me.

I'm reminded of...: Geraldine Brooks, Amanda Coplin, Barbara Kingsolver

First line: In gray morning light, Emma Davis stood before the old slave's garden at the back of his cabin, looking upon the precise rows of cabbage planted for fall.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Buy or borrow, especially if you love rich novels that wrestle with faith, loyalty, and love.

Why did I get this book?: I'm always eager for historical novels set in unusual locales.

Review: I don't know if I'll be able to coherently express just how much I loved this novel. It was fantastic. Compelling, emotional, plotty, and atmospheric, this book had me in its thrall from the first page.  This one will make my top ten of 2014, I'm sure!  (Apologies for the small novel that follows!)

Set in the mid-1800s, the novel follows Emma Davis, a young woman from a Georgia slave-owning family. Thoughtful, intelligent, and yearning for connection, Emma finds herself called to mission work, drawn toward the vague idea of an Africa she imagined a beloved family slave coming from. When she meets the handsome, charismatic Texas Ranger-turned-missionary Henry Bowman, Emma believes she's found her calling, and once married, she and Henry embark for Yorubaland (Nigeria) in West Africa.

Once there, Emma finds herself overwhelmed by and taken with West Africa, but struggles some in her new marriage. Henry is afflicted with a variety of vague, unknown ailments, ranging from a sensitive spleen to hallucinations, and he hungers for more a challenging mission. Emma, however, wants to settle down and build up a church and community, and finds herself challenged by her husband and her friendships with her West African neighbors and paid servants.

While this isn't a particularly quiet novel, it isn't bombastic or filled with wild drama.  The tension comes from watching Emma grow into herself and into her life, as we wait and wonder how she and those she loves will respond.  It's a gorgeous coming-of-age story, a wonderfully compassionate examination of marriage, and a captivating historical that illuminates and enlightens.

Despite the focus on missionaries, this isn't a religious or inspirational novel, but Orr deftly and convincingly handles the passion and pain of following a spiritual path.  That articulation of the hunger for a convincing religious life/experience is one of the best things about this book.  Emma's faith is rooted in a desire to spread Christianity in West Africa, to save souls (thankfully, the Bowmans aren't the hellfire-and-damnation sort), and yet, her happiness comes from far more mild experiences: teaching a child to read, keeping house well, being at harmony with her husband. 

Orr acknowledges race and slavery in an emotional and disquieting manner which invited the reader to see what took Emma so long to realize: that slavery dehumanizes everyone, however beloved, and is never a benevolent institution.  (There's a gutting scene where Emma draws a map of West Africa and the US in the dirt to show villagers where she came from and where they are, then she draws a line connecting Georgia to the village.  A villager walks along that line, and Emma has the horrible realization she's just drawn the slave route from Africa to the US.)  As with everything else in the novel, Orr handles this element gently, lightly, and while the novel is emotional and raw, it isn't devastating.

And the writing, the writing! The writing was so good it made me jealous. The narrative moved at a brisk pace, weighty with meaning but not heavy or ornate. It has literary sensibilities without feeling aloof, removed, or obfuscated. I got teary more than once while reading, caught up in the pain and beauty in Emma's life, and I often paused to linger over a turn of phrase.

Fans of Geraldine Brooks, Amanda Coplin, and Barbara Kingsolver will absolutely want this book.  (I'm stunned it didn't get more press when it was released last year; it has to me the elements of that popular literary-ish fiction of Brooks and Kingsolver.)  Those who enjoy historical fiction in unusually settings should absolutely add this to their TBR. An unforgettable read.

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I'm thrilled to offer a copy of A Different Sun to one lucky reader. To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US readers only, ends 1/31.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Interview with Heather Webb

Yesterday I reviewed Becoming Josephine by Heather Webb, a delightful debut novel about one of my favorite historical figures, Josephine Bonaparte. I just fell in love with Webb's articulation of her, and I'm excited to share my interview with her. Read on to learn more about her and her book and what she does when she's not writing.

Photo: author Heather WebbWhat was the plot of your very first piece of fiction?

You’re looking at it! LOL. Becoming Josephine was my first novel. I had a handful of historical romance short stories that I piddled with in junior high, but I never finished any of them.

Do you have any writing rituals or routines?

I leave my house every Saturday and Sunday morning and hunker down in a coffee shop somewhere and write for 5-7 hours. It’s when I get the bulk of it done, mostly because I receive fewer emails and have less social media crapola to deal with on those days. But also, because I still have young kids at home. Weekends, my husband is home. I’m looking forward to next year when I can spend the work/school day writing and the weekends with the family.

book cover: Becoming Josephine by Heather WebbWas Becoming Josephine the original title of your book?

The original title of the book was Becoming Josephine: The First French Empress. Needless to say, that’s way too long and the book is much more about Josephine growing into herself than it is about her being an Empress.

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

Surprised me? Hmm…not really. But a scene I ADORED writing was the bal de victims, in which Josephine and her best friend Theresia met the wicked Paul Barras, wore shocking red silk, and the banquet of Terreur-themed foods were served. The verbal sparring between Josephine and Paul practically wrote itself. It was a blast!

You have a wonderful blog that includes, among other themes, a foodie theme! What food or drink do you associate with your time writing Becoming Josephine? Is there a food or drink you associate with Josephine and her life?

Good question! For a beverage I would say brandy. I tried several different varieties while researching what men drank during that time. In terms of foods, maybe petit fours or sugared plums; a few of Josephine’s favorites.

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

As you mentioned above, I’m a bit of a foodie so I love to try new recipes and new restaurants. I mean, what girl doesn’t love to eat? But also, I enjoy spending time with the kiddos, traveling, beaching it, Tarot cards, reading, films…

Read any good books recently?

Yes! Several, actually. I’ve just finished Letters from Skye by Jessica Brockmole and The Moon Sisters by Therese Walsh. I loved both! The Lion and the Rose by Kate Quinn and Longbourn by Jo Baker are next on my list.

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My thanks to Ms. Webb for her time and answers. You can learn more about her and her books at her website, and connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

blog tour banner

I'm thrilled to offer a copy of Becoming Josephine to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US and Canadian readers only, ends 1/31.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Becoming Josephine by Heather Webb

Title: Becoming Josephine
Author: Heather Webb

Genre: Fiction (Historical / 18th Century / France / Historical Figures Fictionalized / French Revolution / Napoleon Bonaparte / Political Intrigue)
Publisher/Publication Date: Plume Books (12/31/2013)
Source: Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

Rating: Liked a great deal.
Did I finish?: I raced through it!
One-sentence summary: The tumultuous, troublesome, sparkling, and charmed life of Josephine Bonaparte.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction

Do I like the cover?: I do -- it's rather eye-catching for a historical novel (no headless woman!).

I'm reminded of...: Lynn Cullen, Karen Harper

First line: The missive arrived in the night.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy, especially if you're a Francophile.

Why did I get this book?: I adore Josephine and I've been eager for this book since meeting Webb at the Historical Novel Society conference last June.

Review: One of my all-time favorite trilogies is Sandra Gulland's series about Josephine, which turned me into a full-blown Josephine fangirl. I must confess I started this novel nervously, afraid it wouldn't satisfy.

My anxieties were for naught.

Webb's Josephine is a fully realized heroine, steely and soft in equal part, a character who grows from a girl to a woman in the course of the novel, and it was a delight being with her. As with my favorite heroines, I miss her now that I'm finished with the novel!

Written in first person, the novel spans 1779, when Josephine -- then Rose Tascher -- is a teenager in Martinique to 1814, the year of her death. Brisk and plotty, the story races through the tumultuous events of Josephine's life without ignoring our heroine's development. From the first page, Josephine's charming and winsome personality shines through, making me fall as easily in love with her as her many admirers and friends. (I'm a stickler about that: if we're told a character has X trait, I want to see it demonstrated, and Webb more than once revealed a woman of grace, resolve, and passion.)

For those unfamiliar with Josephine's life outside of her role as Napoleon's wife, Webb's novel is a marvelous introduction.  The events of her life -- her marriage to a handsome rake, her imprisonment during the French Revolution, her life as an arms dealer -- are brought to life with the kind of effortless historical detail that makes me love this genre.  (As a tarot aficionado, I was delighted by the competent and respectful inclusion of the occult elements of Martinique in Josephine's story; it felt natural to the character and the era.)

Near the end of the novel, Webb's Josephine says, "Who I had become, where I longed to be, eluded me." (p298). It was a line that hit me emotionally; I felt very strongly that I knew who she had become, and yet, I felt acutely her own sense of being unmoored.  

My only complaint is that I wished the novel was longer; at 300 pages, it reads quickly, and more than once I wished the story could have lingered or delved more deeply into Josephine's life. But then again, I'm rapacious when it comes to Josephine.

A wonderful debut, this novel is a marvelous introduction to Josephine and a welcome reunion for those who know her already. Francophiles and fans of royalty fic will want this book as well as anyone who likes a rags-to-riches story.  If you want mood and an unforgettable heroine, grab this and book yourself a weekend to read -- you want want to put it down.

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I'm thrilled to offer a copy of Becoming Josephine to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US and Canadian readers only, ends 1/31.

Friday, January 10, 2014

An Untitled Lady by Nicky Penttila

Title: An Untitled Lady
Author: Nicky Penttila

Genre: Fiction (Historical / 19th Century / Manchester / Class / Manufacturing / Political Unrest / Romance / Regency)
Publisher/Publication Date: Musa Publishing (12/20/2013)
Source: Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tour

Rating: I liked, very much!
Did I finish?: I did!
One-sentence summary: A young woman arrives in Manchester for an arranged marriage, only to find her prospects radically changed, and she struggles to make her way in the world amidst the political tumult in Manchester.
Reading Challenges: E-book, Historical Fiction

Do I like the cover?: Eh -- it's fine. It works as a non-garish romance cover.

First line: Nash first saw her as an apparition, a gilt London trinket set down by mistake at a dusty crossroads three miles north of town.

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

Why did I get this book?: I have a soft spot for Regency romances but the political themes in the book's blurb really sealed the deal.

Review: I was taken by surprise more than once while reading this book, for it is both a Regency romance and a beefy historical novel of early 19th century Manchester. For anyone who tends to dismiss historical romances, hear me out before passing on this one!

The novel opens with a ludicrous plot thread that seems typical to romances: young Madeline Wetherby arrives at Shaftsbury Castle to marry the new Earl, Deacon Quinn, having grown up being told by Deacon's father that she was his intended.  Her arrival is not greeted with enthusiasm, however, for her expectation comes as a stunning surprise to the Quinn family. None have heard of this engagement, and the louche Deacon is loathe to marry Maddie. Worse, Maddie learns her background is not what she was told and she has nothing to her name nor any prospects.  Deacon's younger brother Nash, a prosperous Manchester merchant, marries Maddie instead, wooed by familial obligation, a tiny bit of guilt, and a cash gift from Deacon. (While this might feel spoiler-y, this, and more, is revealed in the book blurb.)

Although the basic start of the novel has the kind of will-they-or-won't-they fall in love tension one expects from a romance novel, the story really settles into a more rich, complicated plot: found family versus blood family, loyalty to class and one's social station, the changing of 'traditional' industry to 'modern' industry.  Manchester in 1819 is a time of tumult and change, as the city chafes under lack of political representation in Parliament, and labor unions are forming an organizing, much to the panic and horror of the merchants and peers.

 Penttila's novel is rich with historical detail, ranging from clothes to landscape to the political temperature among various individuals.  The strength of this novel lies in the scope of the action rather than the relationship between Nash and Maddie.  (Maddie, I'm sorry to say, was not a favorite character of mine; she had great potential and I loved her go-getting attitude, but at times she did things that made me put down the book in frustration!)

Still, even with my conflicted feelings for Maddie, this novel was engrossing and rich.  I have to confess, there were moments this book reminded me of Thomas Hardy! Penttila's narrative style has a kind of dramatic flair to it that, when combined with Maddie's plight, made me think of the big, boisterous novels of the Victorian era that tackle social issues and romance with ease.

For those who like historicals that examine huge, sweeping issues of the day through the viewpoint of one or two characters, this is for you.  Anyone intrigued by the Regency era, but eager for a setting outside of London and focused on people beyond the ton, this is for you.

*** *** ***


I'm thrilled to offer an e-book copy (any format) of An Untitled Lady to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US and international readers, ends 1/24.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Taking What I Like by Linda Bamber

Title: Taking What I Like
Author: Linda Bamber

Genre: Fiction (Short Stories / Shakespeare / Literary Retelling / Academia / Teaching / Prisons / Jane Eyre)
Publisher/Publication Date: Black Sparrow Press (10/22/2013)
Source: TLC Book Tours

Rating: Liked.
Did I finish?: I did.
One-sentence summary: Eight short stories play with Shakespeare, imagine teaching Jane Eyre interminably, and examine the emotional impact of a painting.

Do I like the cover?: I do -- it's bold and eye-catching.

I'm reminded of...: Margaret Atwood

First line: Not Jane Eyre again.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy if you like short stories that play with literature's greats (Shakespeare and Jane Eyre).

Why did I get this book?: I like Shakespeare and stories that mess with great stories.

Review: This collection of eight short stories touches upon, reimagines, wrestles with, and are inspired by Shakespeare, Jane Eyre, and Thomas Eakins' painting, The Gross Clinic.  Funny, emotional, knowing, meta, and geeky, they read quickly but invited meditation and musing, whether one is a casual reader of some of the greats of the Western canon or a devoted fan.

The opening story, 'Casting Call', has the characters of Othello reincarnated, in a way, as professors in an English Department at a small university. Juxtaposing their shared collective past with the process of hiring a new faculty member, the story is both outlandishly silly and sweetly poignant, as Desdemona is tasked with ensuring their new colleague is more 'diverse'. Iago can't resist some behind the scenes machinations, and Othello's jealousy is provoked, but this isn't merely a re-imagining of the famed play -- Bamber gives Desdemona chance to name the horror that happened to her, which I found especially satisfying.

Her 'Time to Teach Jane Eyre Again' had me cackling with delight; one of my best friends teaches Jane Eyre yearly to high school students, and it's a beloved favorite of hers.  (Sadly, not one of mine!)  The way Bamber describes the process -- the boredom and joy of going through the same text, year after year -- and the resulting conversation is fascinating and illuminating.  (It made me especially sure I'm going to read Jane Eyre this year.)

'An Incarnation of Hamlets' is another favorite piece, although I can't tell how fictional it is. Inspired by a real This American Life radio piece on the use of Shakespeare in prisons, Bamber's story includes Q&As with the play's characters, asides about the play's action, and biographical snippets and interviews with the prisoners involved.  Despite my loathing for Hamlet, it made me appreciate the play a little!

Delightfully, being unfamiliar with the source material isn't a hindrance to enjoying Bamber's stories as she includes enough background to understand where she's going. (For example, 'Playing Henry' is about a bunch of Shakespeare's history plays, which I've never read/seen, but I certainly understood the struggle Bamber's heroine had with working with her part, the tension with her father, the yearning to be really good at something.)

I think this volume would have wide appeal: English majors and lit geeks will find a kindred soul here, as well as readers who enjoy fiction that isn't neatly contained.  This would make a wonderful book club pick, too, especially if read in tandem with any of the works mentioned.  Needless to say, I want to read all the plays mentioned in this volume, if only to experiment myself with taking what I like from them.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Interview with Sam Thomas

Yesterday I reviewed Sam Thomas' The Harlot's Tale, the second novel featuring 17th century midwife Bridget Hodgson.  She's a fascinating heroine, and this is an intriguing, appealing series.  I'm thrilled to share an interview with the author, so read on to learn more about him, his books, and what he does when he's not writing.

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

That's a tough one! In high school I think I wrote some short stories, but have no memory of what the plot was. So my first piece of fiction - that I remember - was my first book, The Midwife's Tale!

Do you have any writing rituals or routines?

I have to, or I'd get nothing done. This time of year it is: Get up at 5:00, and brew a pot of coffee. While the coffee brews, empty the dishwasher, and peel and separate two (not one, but two!) Cutie oranges. (I eat the cuties with a fork so my fingers don't get sticky.) Then I write.

I wrote my first three books on the computer, but the last two (both in progress) I'm writing by hand and then typing. That might be a little insane, but I find it to be much more enjoyable!

Was The Harlot’s Tale the original title of your book?

Yes. (Sorry! Boring answer there.)

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

There is a scene near the end of the book that totally took me by surprise. As I started writing, I realized that a character whom I thought was going to be back for the third book in the series was about to die. I kept writing, an sure enough, s/he was dead as a doornail.

Until that morning, I had no idea that it was going to happen, but it worked out for the best for everyone. Except that character.

Had you intended for Bridget Hodgson's story to be a series?

Absolutely, and four a few reasons. First, I loved the characters and wanted to get to know them better. Second, Bridget lived in such a remarkable time that it seemed logical to follow her through such a turbulent period. You've got civil war, revolution, the execution of King Charles I - why would I stop at one?

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

Read, of course. I also teach full-time and love doing that. Oh, and I meet with book clubs both in person and via Skype, so if anyone is interested in a visit, let me know!

Read any good books recently?

I've been working on a stand-alone novel, and that's had me reading some US history. I read John Demos's The Unredeemed Captive, which is pretty amazing, and I'm part way through Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace. I recommend both!

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My thanks to Mr. Thomas for his time and thoughtful answers. You can learn more about him and his books at his website, and follow him on Facebook and Twitter.


I'm thrilled to offer a copy of The Harlot's Tale to one lucky reader. To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US/Canadian readers only, ends 1/24.

Only one entry per person; please do not enter multiple aliases. Be sure to come back tomorrow for my interview with the author and another chance to enter!

Monday, January 6, 2014

The Harlot's Tale by Sam Thomas

Title: The Harlot's Tale
Author: Sam Thomas

Genre: Fiction (Historical / 17th Century / York / Midwife / Religion / Murder Mystery)
Publisher/Publication Date: Minotaur Books (1/7/2014)
Source: Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

Rating: Liked!
Did I finish?: I did!
One-sentence summary: Midwife Bridget and her assistant Martha
Reading Challenges: Ebook, Historical Fiction, Netgalley & Edelweiss

Do I like the cover?: I'm not wild about the design of the covers for this series, but they're distinct, and I'm pleased they're consistent.

First line: Jane!

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy, especially if you like mysteries with a unique protagonist and locale.

Why did I get this book?: I'd read and enjoyed Thomas' previous novel.

Review: Set during a sweltering August in 1645, The Harlot's Tale returns to the dirty, tumultuous city of York and midwife Bridget Hodgson and her friends. Taking place a year after the first novel, The Midwife's Tale, this novel is a lovely reunion for those familiar with Bridget and a fabulous standalone for those new to her.

For me, the immediate appeal of this book is the unique setting: York following the English Civil War. Now that the city has been claimed by Parliamentary forces, York has been invaded by new hostile: 'godly' and zealous Puritan preachers, eager to transform York into a bastion of good. For midwife Bridget, her assistant Martha, and her nephew Will, the fiery fervor isn't particularly welcome, not with an unseasonable summer making everyone edgy and impatient.

A particularly vehement minister, Hezekiah Ward, has gained prominence and attention in York for preaching against 'harlots' but his sermons seem to be taken literally when young women begin to die in particularly gruesome ways. Bridget becomes embroiled in the investigation to find the killer and draws the unwelcome attention of Ward and his family, many city fathers, and others as she tries to prevent another murder.

As with Thomas' previous novel, this book is rich in atmospheric detail -- sweltering 17th century York is not my kind of vacation, I'll say! -- and peppered with a wonderful, appealing cast of characters. Bridget Hodgson remains a favorite heroine: she feels authentic and real, very much of her era but filled with the kind of independent spunk I like.  (Based on a real woman, Thomas' website details the historical Bridget and her world, and it's a fascinating rabbit hole!)

Unlike the previous book, this one has more of a murder mystery/procedural feel.  The shockingly gruesome crimes boggled Bridget and the city, and escalated the tension within York.  The murders aren't, however, just a series of horrifying events; in Thomas' hands, they force Bridget and her friends to wrestle with the lofty ideas of punishment and sin, the moral concessions made in every day life, and the values they wish their city (and family and friends) embody and live.  The very real, human response to the crimes kept me reading when I might normally have put the book aside (I'm not suuuuuuper wild about murder-y mysteries) and once more, Bridget's behavior and responses kept me engaged in the story.  I'll go anywhere with her!

Readers need not be familiar with The Midwife's Tale to enjoy this novel; Thomas recaps the events from the first book easily, and while the relationships between the characters builds from that book, a new reader won't feel lost or left out.  For those who enjoy unusual settings for their murder mysteries, consider adding this book to your TBR; anyone interested in midwives will absolutely want to pick this and the previous book up.

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I'm thrilled to offer a copy of The Harlot's Tale to one lucky reader. To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US/Canadian readers only, ends 1/24.

Only one entry per person; please do not enter multiple aliases. Be sure to come back tomorrow for my interview with the author and another chance to enter!

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Mailbox Monday, January 5

My first Mailbox Monday for 2014!

The winter blizzard delayed mail for a few days, which meant, once delivery resumed, I had a wonderful deluge of arrivals! A delicious mix of genres and themes. I can't wait to read each one!

To learn more about a title, click the image; the GoodReads page should open in a new window/tab.

What did you get? Have you heard of any of these? For those of you who celebrate Christmas, did you get the bookish haul you wanted?

For Review

book cover: taking what i like by linda bamber book cover: flight of the sparrow by amy belding brown

book cover: careless people by sarah churchwell book cover: gilded hearts by christine d'abo

book cover: devil may care by patricia eimer book cover: much ado about jack by christy english

book cover: hammett unwritten by owen fitzstephen book cover: the white lie by andrea gillies

book cover: the mist in the mirror by susan hill book cover: under the wide and starry sky by nancy horan

book cover: heathers by evangeline jennings book cover: niagara by evangeline jennings

book cover: the queen of the tearling by erika johansen book cover: the string diaries by stephen lloyd jones

book cover: the invention of wings by sue monk kidd book cover: never be at peace by m.j. neary

book cover: american blonde by jennifer niven book cover: a different sun by elaine neil orr

book cover: lovers at the chameleon club, paris 1932 by francine prose

book cover: the anatomy lesson by nina siegal book cover: the book of heaven by patricia storace

book cover: secrecy by rupert thomson


book cover: don juan by alessandro baricco book cover: gulliver by jonathan coe

Thanks to Pushkin Children's Books


book cover: steal like an artist by austin kleon

My Christmas present from my artist brother-in-law (the one who designed my masthead), who hoped to inspire my writing!

book cover: benjamin franklin's bastard by sally cabot

book cover: zelda by nancy milford