Friday, February 28, 2014

Weekend reads and feeling crappy...

Working from home today with a nasty little bug. Sunny today but we're facing more snow on Sunday.  (Hooray, said no one here.)

I'm reading A Snug Life Somewhere by Jan Shapin this weekend, and then I plan to start The Mapmaker's Daughter by Laurel Corona.

I've also finally caught up with 2010 and joined Instagram, where you can see I post an embarrassing amount of cat spam with a healthy heaping of book spam. Friend or follow (or whatever it is one does on Instagram) and I will in return!

What are you reading this weekend?

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Mistress of the Wind by Michelle Diener

Title: Mistress of the Wind
Author: Michelle Diener

Genre: Fiction (Historical / Fantasy / Fairy Tale / Scandinavia / Magic / Trolls)
Publisher/Publication Date: Season Publishing (12/19/2013)
Source: NetGalley

Rating: Loved.
Did I finish?: I did.
One-sentence summary:
Reading Challenges: E-book, Historical Fiction, Netgalley & Edelweiss, What’s In A Name

Do I like the cover?: I do!

I'm reminded of...: Michelle D. Argyle

First line: Bjorn ran along a path of his own making, between the thinning trees at the top of the mountain.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Buy!

Why did I get this book?: I wait for Michelle Diener's novels with bated breath.

Review: I'm an enormous Michelle Diener fangirl. Her writing is warm and inviting, her stories the right mix of adventure and romance, her heroines are always delightful, and there's rich historical detail and ambiance in every book.

This one was familiar and cozy and new and imaginative, and was the kind of book I love for cranky days: it got me out of my head and wholly absorbed me.

Mistress of the Wind, inspired by the fairy tale East of the Sun, West of the Moon, is ambigu-historical, set in a land resembling Scandinavia (or thereabouts). Bjorn, a half-god prince cursed to live as a bear, searches for the woman he met when they were both children. Should he not find the maiden, he must marry a troll's daughter and unite his kingdom with theirs.

Astrid is a woodcutter's daughter who feels an affinity with the wind. Whether a fancy or real magic, her family doesn't care. Starving and exhausted, they are only briefly taken aback when a massive talking bear asks to take Astrid for the price of two bags of coins.  Astrid agrees out of curiosity and an awareness of her family's need for the money, but she's unprepared for Bjorn's rules once she arrives at his palace.  Despite their growing intimacy, she doesn't trust his rules and secrets, and becomes embroiled in the greater danger in Bjorn's kingdom.

While the story arc follows the fairy tale, Diener incorporates pieces of the Cupid and Psyche myth as well as original elements that make this a satisfying read.  The novel just races; I inhaled it in a matter of hours, unable to stop reading.  Astrid is a resourceful if not occasionally maddening heroine and I was charmed immediately by her.  The magical world Diener invents for Bjorn is intriguing and appealing.

Diener shares some of her thoughts about this book on GoodReads, but her comments could be spoiler-ish for those who aren't familiar with how the Cupid and Psyche myth shakes out.

For those who are intrigued by Elizabeth Blackwell's While Beauty Slept, this is another book to add to the queue.  Fans of fairy tales will absolutely want to read this one as well as those who enjoy fierce heroines who aren't flawless.  Diener's next endeavor, The Golden Apple, is inspired by the less often used fairy tale, The Princess on the Glass Hill and I am so excited for it.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Winner!

A rainy but positively warm weekend, at last! Lots of errand running, sadly.

But here's a giveaway winner!

The winner of Last Train to Paris is ... Jenna E.!

Congrats! If you didn't win, be sure to check out my open giveaways -- more coming this week. Hope you all are having a great weekend!

Friday, February 21, 2014

Under the Wide and Starry Sky by Nancy Horan

Title: Under the Wide and Starry Sky
Author: Nancy Horan

Genre: Fiction (Historical / 19th Century / Europe / American Ex-Pat / Artist / Robert Louis Stevenson / Bohemians / Marriage / South Pacific / Writing)
Publisher/Publication Date: Ballantine Books (1/21/2014)
Source: TLC Book Tours

Rating: Liked.
Did I finish?: I did!
One-sentence summary: The story of the American woman who would win the love of Scottish writer, Robert Louis Stevenson.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction, What's In a Name

Do I like the cover?: Love the cover -- so striking!

I'm reminded of...: Melanie Benjamin, Lynn Cullen

First line: "Where are the dogs?" Sammy asked, staring up at her.

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

Why did I get this book?: I'd heard nothing but good things about Horan's previous novel.

Review: I'd long been interested in Nancy Horan having heard nothing but raves for her first novel, Loving Frank, and I'd been long eying this book.

Opening in 1875, the novel follows American Fanny van de Grift Osbourne, who has left California with her three children after realizing her husband wasn't going to give up his mistresses. A beloved nanny, heartbroken at their departure, paid her own passage to join them, and Fanny and company move first to Belgium, then France, so Fanny and her daughter Belle can pursue an art education.

After devastating tragedy, Fanny meets a Scottish writer, Robert Louis Stevenson, ten years who junior, who is immediately smitten with her. Their love affair turns into marriage, a life of Bohemian artists and authors, exotic travel, petty squabbles and great passion.  I'm being vague because there's no point in recounting the details; clocking in at 496 pages, this beefy chunkser does the heavy lifting.

Horan's novel represents what I most love about biographical historical fiction: fascinating people made real, their decisions and choices explored and imagined, given emotion. I was immediately charmed by the ambitious Louis, as Stevenson preferred to be called, but felt most for Fanny. Being a woman with ambition in the 19th century was no easy thing, and though she found a kind of freedom in Europe after leaving her philandering husband, once she became Louis' wife she had other obligations that squelched her dreams.

Horan articulates both Fanny and Louis with tender warmth, so even when they behaved badly, I still cared for them. While the pacing of the book occasionally felt slow to me, I was gripped by their story. Horan's use of historical details was effortless, and her narrative had hints of the philosophical to it, which I adored. I've read nothing set in 19th century South Pacific, so the sections in Samoa were fascinating -- those who enjoy armchair travel will want this book!

Rich, dense, emotional, and stirring, Horan's novel is a meaty exploration of marriage, creative endeavors, and the price of partnership. Those who love novels about the unknown women behind great men will want this one, as well as anyone who's suffered through (or enjoyed!) studying Stevenson in school. Strongly recommended.

*** *** ***


GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to offer a copy of Under the Wide and Starry Sky to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US readers only, ends 3/7.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Girl on the Golden Coin by Marci Jefferson

Title: Girl on the Golden Coin
Author: Marci Jefferson

Genre: Fiction (Historical / 17th Century / Restoration / Frances Stuart / Charles II / Royal Intrigue / Historical Figure Fictionalized / UK / Royal Mistresses)
Publisher/Publication Date: Thomas Dunne Books (2/11/2014)
Source: The publisher /Netgalley

Rating: Loved.
Did I finish?: Oh yes.
One-sentence summary: The life of a 17th century English noblewoman wanted by kings who searched for love amidst the court intrigues and maneuverings.
Reading Challenges: E-book, Historical Fiction, Netgalley & Edelweiss

Do I like the cover?: Yes. I uh-dore it, especially because it is a portrait of the historical Frances Stuart, our heroine.  How often does that happen?

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

First line: Fireworks from St. James's Park lit the night sky as I stood outside my home, Richmond House, the finest at Whitehall Palace, and waited for one of my oldest friends.

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

Why did I get this book?: Hardcore hist fic yearning.

Review: I have been dying to read this book since last June, when I hosted the author on my blog ahead of the Historical Novel Conference. Since then, there's been a lot of buzz about this book because one, the author is sweet and adorable and I just want to eat her up with a spoon; and two, the novel has a staggeringly gorgeous cover (click the image for the full-blown hi-res version).

As it turns out, there's a pretty fabulous story here, too!

Set between 1661 and 1688, at the height of the Restoration in Great Britain -- the rule of Charles II -- the novel is narrated by English noblewoman Frances Stuart. Frances is part of a group of exiled English royalists holed up in France, serving the Queen Mother there while hoping for an invitation to join the court in England. When her great beauty attracts the attention of King Louis XIV, she becomes a pawn in a greater political struggle for power, as she is essentially ordered by both Louis and the Queen Mother to become mistress to the 'merry monarch', Charles II.

At risk of literally recounting the whole novel, I'll stop here, but add that Frances is an intriguing, complicated heroine. Loyal to her family, she tries to be obedient to Louis and the Queen Mother, but finds herself attracted to the rakish king.  Her purity and admiration of the man Charles can be becomes a kind of erotic charge between her and her monarch -- not helped that his wild mistress, the infamous Countess Castlemaine, Barbara Palmer, throws parties that invite sexual shenanigans.

Frances could have been portrayed as uncomfortably priggish or judgmental, but instead appears to be a very human woman: tempted, conflicted, concerned with both her honor and with the yearnings of her body.  She made the entire novel for me -- her 'voice' was warm and real -- and I loved every minute with her.  This is a coup for Jefferson, because ever since reading Susan Holloway Scott's Royal Harlot, her novel about Barbara Palmer, I've had a soft spot for the woman -- and in this book, I wanted to slap her for being so awful to Frances.

The historic details here are rich without overpowering the story and the pace is very fast -- Frances' life is full of excitement and drama. There are some sexytimes, too, but those scenes fit with the story and didn't feel egregious or outrageous to me. My only complaint is that I would have liked a little more lingering near the end -- the novel felt rushed at times, especially with Charles' death -- but otherwise, I was sucked in from the first page.

There's a full six pages of Who's Who at the novel's open, for which I'm deeply grateful, and a four page Author's Note.

A delicious debut, Jefferson's novel is a delightful introduction to a tempting heroine and a rich story of a wild, tumultuous era. In an interview with Megan of A Book Affair, Jefferson says she "became obsessed with the desire to do for the Stuarts what Philippa Gregory had done for the Tudors" and I think she's done that! Here's to more Stuarts, and to more from Jefferson.

*** *** ***

GIVEAWAY!


I'm thrilled to offer a copy of Girl on the Golden Coin to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US readers only, ends 3/7. Be sure to return on 2/20 for an interview with the author and another chance to win.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Kept Girl by Kim Cooper

Title: The Kept Girl
Author: Kim Cooper

Genre: Fiction (Historical / 1929 / Los Angeles / California / Noir / Murder Mystery / Raymond Chandler / Historical Figure Fictionalized / Cult)
Publisher/Publication Date: Esotouric Ink (2/1/2014)
Source: The author.

Rating: Loved.
Did I finish?: Oh yeah, I did.
One-sentence summary: Raymond Chandler, his smart secretary-slash-girlfriend, and a beat cop investigate an oil tycoon's involvement with a strange, possibly murderous cult in 1920s Los Angeles.
Reading Challenges: E-book, Historical Fiction

Do I like the cover?: I adore it. It's reminiscent of classic pulp novels and it's so eye-catching and atmospheric. I want to live in it!

First line: I woke up sour-mouthed in Muriel’s room at the Mayfair to the sound of vacuuming in the hall.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy -- support this small press endeavor!

Why did I get this book?: I love 1920s LA, I love Chandler, and I love noir-y fiction.

Review: On my bucket list is doing every bus tour offered Esotouric. My wife and I are both obsessed with Los Angeles and its sordid history, and when I saw that the Esotouric's creator had just written a novel about Raymond Chandler, I went it into a swooning fit.  Then I read the book, and swooned again.

Set in 1929, the story is told by Raymond Chandler, then an oil company executive, who is tasked with ascertaining how his boss's son lost thousands of dollars, including oil leases, over the years.  This is historical Chandler -- an English ex-pat living in LA, melancholic, pipe-smoking, an older wife -- not Chandler by way of his fictional creation, Philip Marlowe. As such, he needs help with his investigation, and calls on his spunky secretary-slash-girlfriend Muriel and a beat cop whose moral compass cost him his promotion, Tom James.  But what seems to be a simple case of a couple taken in by hucksters turns out to be more complicated, dangerous, and messier than Chandler and company expected.

By far, Muriel made the story for me, and I wouldn't mind a whole series about her. (In a blog post about the novel's origins, Cooper says that once she had the idea for Muriel, 'everything came alive', and I couldn't agree more!)

Cooper's writing style is wonderful, warm and inviting, and rich with ambiance.  I don't think those unfamiliar with the era will be lost, as Cooper includes tidbits that evoke a strong sense of time and place without overwhelming the action.  Her articulation of Raymond Chandler is so good -- pathetic and intriguing in equal part, clever and cowardly -- and those who are new to Chandler will enjoy this seedy sort of introduction.

My only critique of this book is that there's a shift in narrative POV early on that I found jarring: the novel starts off with first person POV in Chandler's view point, but quickly drops that to third person POV between Chadler, Muriel, and Tom James.  I actually didn't notice it while reading, and it wasn't until I entered in the novel's first sentence did I realize at some point there was a POV shift.  I'm glad for it, as I enjoyed being with Muriel as much as I did Chandler!

According to this Kirkus Reviews feature, Cooper is considering a sequel, and like the author of the piece, I too am hoping she'll write one. 

In the end, a deeply delicious read.  Those who like ripped-from-the-headlines type crime stories will want this one, as well as anyone who enjoys the atmosphere of 1920s LA.  Until February 27th, you can enter to win a copy of the book via the author's website!

Monday, February 17, 2014

While Beauty Slept by Elizabeth Blackwell

Title: While Beauty Slept
Author: Elizabeth Blackwell

Genre: Fiction (Historical / Fantasy / Ambigu-Medieval / Court Intrigue / Fairy Tale Retold / Sleeping Beauty)
Publisher/Publication Date: Amy Einhorn Books (2/20/2014)
Source: Publisher

Rating: Liked a great deal!
Did I finish?: I did, in one day.
One-sentence summary: A young serving girl recounts her life with the princess who would be known as 'Sleeping Beauty', and her role in the girl's life -- and legend.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction

Do I like the cover?: I do -- it's rather dark and 'masculine' for a Sleeping Beauty retelling!

I'm reminded of...: Michelle Diener, Kate Forsyth

First line: She had already become a legend.

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

Why did I get this book?: I love a good fairy tale retelling.

Review: I raced through this book -- I think I started it around noon and finished it before dinner time -- and it was a satisfying, emotional read. I love fairy tale retellings, and Blackwell's is solid.

I've been struggling with this review only because I don't know where to start with the squeeing and gushing. I actually read this book in December and my estimation of has grown since then. (Also, this is a good reminder to never put off reviews!)

Blackwell's setting is an ambigu-medieval world, vaguely western European. (I will say, I struggled with identifying this has a historical novel -- historical fantasy, maybe?) When a plagues decimates her farm village, young Elise flees to the royal center to find her mother's sister, a prosperous merchant, who places her in a job at the palace. Due to kindness, loyalty, and the help of the King's imperious sister Millicent, Elise rises through the ranks to find herself serving Queen Lenore.

Unable to conceive, the queen has taken to consulting with Millicent, who is rumored to be a witch who practices the dark arts. When the queen gives birth to a healthy baby girl, Millicent makes a power grab that causes her to be banished from the kingdom -- and in revenge, Millicent utters a curse on the young infant. Panicked, the king and queen do everything in their power to protect their much wanted heir, including destroying all the spinning wheels in the kingdom. But as Rose grows, it becomes harder to remember what was so feared in Millicent, and then, of course, the worse happens.

Despite the Sleeping Beauty plot frame, I'd argue this is really a coming-of-age novel. Elise grows up in a complicated world of protocol where friendships are easily bruised by betrayal and romantic entanglements cost more than one's heart. A medieval career woman, in a way, Elise is dedicated to the royal family, potentially at the expense of her own happiness. I was frustrated with Elise while reading -- I wanted her to behave differently at times -- but a few month's distance from my active reading I feel nothing but like and admiration for her.

The joy of this novel is the balance Blackwell finds in creating an engrossing original story that has all the elements, icons, and touchstones of the famous fairy tale. It is both new and familiar. The bones are Sleeping Beauty, but the meat of the story is a creative, emotional, and haunting tale of a woman who hopes to gain some measure of happiness in finding that for those she loves. Un-put-down-able and unforgettable.

*** *** ***

GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to offer a copy of While Beauty Slept to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US readers only, ends 2/28.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Winners!

Running very behind this weekend -- my wife celebrated her birthday with two other friends, and in typical fashion, we spent most of Saturday cooking and most of Sunday eating! As a result, I wasn't online much and totally forgot to announce giveaway winners. So...

The winner of Anvil of God is ... Peggy W.!

The winner of Cloaked in Danger is ... bn100!

Congrats to the winners! I still have a few open giveaways and many more coming this week.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Weekend reads and more snow...

My weekend read is Under the Wide and Starry Sky by Nancy Horan.  Kind of perfect for Valentine's Day and another snowy weekend.  If I finish it before Monday (which I get off from work!), I plan to settle in with Napoleon in America by Shannon Selin.

I really ought to do a little blog work this weekend, too: I'm wildly behind on a bunch of reviews -- have not had the brainpower to write them clearly. The backlog is daunting!

What are you reading this weekend? 

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Girl with a Clock for a Heart by Peter Swanson

Title: The Girl with a Clock for a Heart
Author: Peter Swanson

Genre: Fiction (Contemporary / Murder Mystery / Boston / Secret Identity / College Life /
Publisher/Publication Date: William Morrow (2/4/2014)
Source: TLC Book Tours

Rating: Liked.
Did I finish?: I did.
One-sentence summary: A middle-aged Bostonian is reunited with his college sweetheart, who is likely a murderer, and agrees to help her escape her latest predicament.

Do I like the cover?: I'm on the fence. It makes me think Miami/LA which is not the novel's setting. (There are some scenes in Florida, but none at the ocean or pool.) But it's eye-catching and very much ties into a crucial scene so...

I'm reminded of...: Stephen Dobyns, Ryan David Jahn

First line: It was dusk, but as he turned onto the rutted driveway he could make out the perimeter of yellow tape that still circled the property.

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

Why did I get this book?: The title, caught my attention first, then this tidbit from the author's GoodReads bio: "[He] is currently completing a sonnet sequence on all 53 of Alfred Hitchcock’s films." !!!, right?!

Review: I was really excited for this book: Swanson is a local writer, and there's been a lot of good buzz about this one, and I love noir-y stores with Hitchchock-ish elements.

First, I think the jacket blurb is safe to read, and I'm going to direct readers to it lest my recap accidentally spoil anything. Second, I found the novel slow to start (which bummed me out) but at about sixty pages in, I suddenly couldn't put it down. It got good, and then it got great.

Our hero, George, is an accessible everyman and even though he and I both knew better, we both wanted the best when mysterious, gorgeous Liana swept back into his life. But there's more than one double cross going on, as George knows more about Liana than we the reader suspect, and as George tries to help out Liana, the story of what just happened their freshman year of college unspools, more and more horrifying and twisty. I read it with wholly conflicted feelings: I half wanted George to get the love of his life and half wanted him to end up with Hamlet-level tragedy.

Although set in Boston, the story takes place at a few fictionalized New England locales -- an invented liberal arts college in Connecticut, a beach side tourist town -- and with its sweltering summer setting, was a nice escape from these wintry days.

A great escapist read for the winter, a tiny bit stressful, very atmospheric, and un-put-down-able -- so get it and cross your fingers you get a snow day.

*** *** ***

GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to offer a copy of The Girl with a Clock for a Heart to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US and Canadian readers, ends 2/28.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Winners!

More snow coming apparently, and thankfully, I've got some awesome books in the queue.

The winners of Isabella are Elena V., Krystal H., and Michelle C.!

Congrats to the winners! Be sure to check out my open giveaways -- many more fabu ones coming!

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Last Train to Paris by Michele Zackheim

Title: Last Train to Paris
Author: Michele Zackheim

Genre: Fiction (Historical / 1930s / Paris / Berlin / World War II / Journalism / Mother-Daughter Relationships / Murder Mystery / Judaism)
Publisher/Publication Date: Europa Editions (1/7/2014)
Source: TLC Book Tours

Rating: Didn't really like.
Did I finish?: Nope.
One-sentence summary: A woman reflects back on her time as a journalist in pre-World War II Europe, which includes a love affair, the murder of a family members, and her struggles with her mother.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction, What's in a Name

Do I like the cover?: Yes.

I'm reminded of...: Cynthia Ozick

First line: Some days, I'm too angry for words.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow if you're a fan of World War II narratives.

Why did I get this book?: I like Europa Editions usually as they have unique angles or voices in fiction.

Review: I don't know what's wrong with me but I really ought to have loved this book.

Told in first person by Rose 'R.B.' Manon as she looks back at her time in Europe before World War II started, the novel is filled with action yet has an aloof, distanced narrative style that really left me feeling cold and detached. There are so many disparate themes and threads in the plot I couldn't find anything to really hang onto, and I didn't feel any sort of connection with Rose.

Born to a Jewish mother who denied her heritage and a Catholic father, Rose grew up in Nevada and wished to live in New York City where her parents were from.  In her twenties, she moved to Paris to be a journalist, covering Berlin and the rise of Hitler in Germany.  Tragedy strikes first when Rose's actress cousin Stella is murdered and later when Rose's lover is caught up in the violence in Berlin. Her strangely adversarial relationship with her mother comes to a head, in a manner, during the trial of her cousin's murderer. Through her journalistic work, she brushes up against famed European thinkers and writers, like Janet Flaner and Colette, which shape her as well.

Despite the rich potential of this novel, I just couldn't get into it. The various elements felt disjointed and distracting -- was it a novel of World War II? a kind of murder mystery? a coming-of-age and a mother-daughter tale? -- and I wasn't wild about the writing style, which felt so awkward and clunky, like:
Stella, near tears, was sitting in Clara's living room. "Damn this Hitler character," she said. "He's making us all so nervous."

"It's a scary time, Stella," I replied. "I don't think any of us can find a context for what we're feeling."
(p56)
or very heavy-handed:
The public was fascinated: that monster, who had no papers, crossed the frontier into France, killed a woman -- and almost got away with it.  It was a metaphor for what the German war machine was threatening across Europe -- except that the Germans were indeed getting away with it. (p105)
I started this book at least six times since I got it in December but it just didn't work for me. However, others have really enjoyed it, like Anna of Diary of an Eccentric (her review) so do check out the other blogs on tour for their thoughts.  Those who like novels about World War II will want to consider this one for sure.

*** *** ***

GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to offer a copy of Last Train to Paris to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US readers only, ends 2/21.


Saturday, February 1, 2014

Winners!

At 30-something degrees, it's positively balmy outside! I'll be running errands in this nearly spring-y weather, but hope to do a little reading. Hope you all are having a good Saturday!

The winner of Becoming Josephine is ... Lauralee J.!

The winner of A Different Sun is ... Carrie of Nomadreader!

Congrats to the winners! Be sure to check out my open giveaways -- more coming next week.