Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The 25th Anniversary of The Joy Luck Club

Unbelievably, Amy Tan's classic The Joy Luck Club is 25 years old this year!  I read this book in college, about a decade after its release, and fell immediately in love with it.  (Shamefully [?] one of the things I remember most is Waverly -- I just thought that was the most dramatic and romantic name ever.)

Have you read The Joy Luck Club?  What did you think of it?

Here's the jacket blurb:
Four mothers, four daughters, four families whose histories shift with the four winds depending on who’s “saying” the stories. In 1949 four Chinese women, recent immigrants to San Francisco, begin meeting to eat dim sum, play mahjong, and talk. United in shared unspeakable loss and hope, they call themselves the Joy Luck Club. Rather than sink into tragedy, they choose to gather to raise their spirits and money. “To despair was to wish back for something already lost. Or to prolong what was already unbearable.” Forty years later the stories and history continue.

With wit and sensitivity, Amy Tan examines the sometimes painful, often tender, and always deep connection between mothers and daughters. As each woman reveals her secrets, trying to unravel the truth about her life, the strings become more tangled, more entwined. Mothers boast or despair over daughters, and daughters roll their eyes even as they feel the inextricable tightening of their matriarchal ties. Tan is an astute storyteller, enticing readers to immerse themselves into these lives of complexity and mystery.
GIVEAWAY!

Thanks to Penguin, I have two editions of The Joy Luck Club to give away!  The first is the newly released hardcover Drop Caps 'T' edition, from Penguin's Drop Caps collection.  The other is the paperback Penguin Classic edition.

To enter, fill out this brief form.  Open to US and Canadian readers, ends 5/9.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Interview with Stephanie Thornton

Yesterday I reviewed the delightful Daughter of the Gods, a historical novel about famed female pharaoh Htshepsut.  Dramatic, evocative, and emotional, this was an inhale-it-in-hours kind of read.  I'm excited to share my interview with Ms. Thornton, so read on to learn a little more about this book, her writing process, and what she's been reading recently.  Be sure to enter the giveaway!

Was Daughter of the Gods the original title of your book?

No, but it’s so much better than my original title. I wrote and submitted the novel as Hatshepsut: Pharaoh and Queen, but several people told me that sounded more like a non-fiction title. The new title came to me after a revision where I emphasized the role of the Egyptian gods, but it wasn’t until after I finished writing The Secret History that I officially changed the title of Hatshepsut’s story.

As you were writing Daughter of the Gods, was there a particular scene or character that surprised you?

Several, actually, but it was the opening scene that gobsmacked me. The first draft of the book took me two years to write and an additional year to edit, and during that entire time, the book opened with what is now Chapter 2. Then I had some very perceptive readers say that they wanted to see Hatshepsut’s sister on the page and I knew I’d started in the wrong place. That first chapter pretty much wrote itself, although I did have to track down several YouTube videos of hippo attacks!

Is there a particular association you have with writing Daughter of the Gods -- a food, a song, an object, etc.?

As far as food goes, I’d probably say hummus, but only because I ate a lot of it when I was in Egypt doing research for the book. Typically I write in silence (I’m like a squirrel, easily distracted by sounds or anything shiny), but there’s a dancing scene in Daughter of the Gods where I listened to Yo-Yo Ma’s Night at the Caravanserai on repeat for several days in order to get the feel for the right beat and tone. Even though his work is definitely not Egyptian, I love Yo-Yo Ma!

The historical figures you choose to write about -- Empress Theodora, Hatshepsut, the women in Genghis Khan's life -- have incredible lives. What is the great challenge you find in writing about them?

The toughest thing about all of these figures is that life in ancient times really was nasty, brutish, and often short. Each of my books depicts life as it really might have been, which means a fair bit of blood and gore, in addition to the often abysmal treatment of women. Theodora had to claw her way out of poverty and prostitution, Hatshepsut faced a bloody war abroad and an internal coup, and Genghis and his offspring were beyond brutal, pouring molten silver down people’s throats and performing horrific executions. Life was cheap in ancient times, and that’s often difficult to both read and write about.

What do you do when you finish a book -- celebrate? Start another one?

Okay, so I laughed at this one, because the answer is a resounding BOTH. So far I’ve celebrated writing “The End” in all my novels with a Coldstone ice cream cake, preferably Peanut Butter Playground, but the toffee/coffee one will do in a pinch. (Truth be told, I also eat ice cream cake while I’m drafting, revising, and editing… Pretty much whenever I want, but we’ll ignore that for now.) Thus far, finishing a book has always meant turning right around to start researching and writing the next one. (And yes, sometimes I think I’m a glutton for punishment, but I chalk it up to providing more excuses for more ice cream cake.)

Read any good books recently?

Yes! I love a good book about disease (especially plague), and I just devoured Alan Brennert’s Molokai about the leper colony in Hawaii. Also, I really enjoyed Marci Jefferson’s Girl on the Golden Coin and I’m about to crack open Kate Quinn’s The Lion and the Rose. I can’t wait to find out what happens to Carmelina and Leonello as they traverse the world of the Borgias!

*** *** ***

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

GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to offer a copy of Daughter of the Gods to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US and Canadian readers, ends 5/16.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Daughter of the Gods by Stephanie Thornton

Title: Daughter of the Gods
Author: Stephanie Thornton

Genre: Fiction (Historical / Ancient Egypt / 15th Century BC / Historical Figures Fictionalized / Royalty / Intrigue)
Publisher/Publication Date: NAL Trade (5/6/2014)
Source: Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

Rating: Liked to loved.
Did I finish?: Yeah, I did, in a matter of hours.
One-sentence summary: The tumultuous life of Egypt's nearly forgotten female Pharaoh, Hatshepsut.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction

Do I like the cover?: Actually, I'm kind of cold on it, but that's fine: it's very good at expressing the feel of the book, which is what matters!

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

First line: The gods erred that day.

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

Why did I get this book?: Thornton's debut novel was awesome, and this second one just as good.

Review: I was just swept up by Stephanie Thornton's first novel, The Secret History, about Empress Theodora and as a result, was waiting impatiently for this book and her third novel (about the women in Genghis Khan's life!). Thornton has that wonderful knack for finding nearly forgotten women from history and giving their credulity-straining lives notice, dignity, and vibrancy.

In this book, she turns her attention to Hatshepsut, an Egyptian royal who ascended to Pharaoh, only to be almost completely erased from history after her reign.  A prophecy warned her that while she would bring glory to Egypt, it would come at the cost of everyone she loved -- a warning Hatshepsut was determined to circumvent.  She wanted glory, but she wanted love, too.

When it comes to drama and big emotions, Thornton doesn't hold back. By page 10 -- the end of the first chapter -- I was wiping away tears.  The reign of peace that Hatshepsut brought really came at dramatic cost for her, and I was hanging on every page. Love, betrayal, friendship, motherhood, war, and artistic endeavors: this book has it all!

Her Hatshepsut is strong-willed, occasionally stubborn, clever and ambitious -- believable traits in a woman who would crown herself Pharaoh.  While many of her personality quirks and preferences are wholly invented by Thornton, they rang true for me, and felt authentic to her heroine and the era she was from -- something I always appreciate in a historical novel!

As with her previous novel, Thornton makes the scandalous grounded and what could be tawdry or licentious touched with humane warmth.  Haptshepsut is married to her half-brother and is to sire his children, and Thornton handles that element in a way that recognizes history without totally alienating modern readers.

The historical details were well integrated in the narrative; through context, the reader is able to understand some of the more alien aspects of life in Egypt in 1400ish BC, and there's no over-explaining or info-dumping to slow things down.

Readers who love splashy historical novels with royal intrigue will want this one; Thornton joins the host of authors who shine a light on dynasties and families that give the Tudors and Borgias a run for their money.  Those who are obsessed with Egypt will also want this one, as well as fans of Stephanie Dray, Kate Quinn, and Michelle Moran.  Another highly recommended read -- perfect for the beach!

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GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to offer a copy of Daughter of the Gods to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US and Canadian readers, ends 5/16.  For another entry, check out my interview with Stephanie Thornton.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Read-a-Thon: Hour 12 Update: Successes and distractions

Here's the evidence of my successful read-a-thon so far: obliterated bowl of spaghetti-and-vodka sauce, plus two books down.  Feeling very good so far!

I have to share a little geeky silliness; there's a mini-challenge inviting readers to invent a drink based on a book or character, so I whipped up one inspired by Daughter of the Gods, the Hatshepsip.  I'm feeling very smug.

The Hour 12 meme is a check-in survey, so here are my answers (you'll note some odd numbering; I decided not to answer every question!).

Shelfie challenge
1. What are you reading right now?: Sandra Gulland's The Shadow Queen.

2. How many books have you read so far?: 1 and ... 0.5. My second read turned out to not be a book, per se, but a collection of numbered sentences. It's not really a thing you read and once, so I'm not counting it, although I spent about 45 minutes thumbing through it!

4. Did you have to make any special arrangements to free up your whole day?: A little -- my wife and I typically clean and run errands, and she did almost everything herself as a gift for me. I'm planning a fancy dinner for her as a thank you!

9. Are you getting tired yet?: Very! Who knew sitting around reading could be so exhausting! (Giant bowl of spaghetti probably isn't helping!)

Read-a-thon: Hour 0 - Kickoff Meme: Intro

Looking forward to meeting everyone as I settle in to the day. It's a bit disconcerting to have a whole day to just read; I keep futzing around the house and pestering my wife.  Here's my intro for those read-a-thon-ers who don't know me!

1) What fine part of the world are you reading from today?: Boston, MA!

2) Which book in your stack are you most looking forward to?: I'm pretty keen on my whole stack, but really jazzed for The Shadow Queen by Sandra Gulland. She wrote one of my all-time top ten favorite trilogies in the world.

3) Which snack are you most looking forward to?: I bought some fancy organic fruit yesterday and I plan to luxuriate in bed with tropical fruit, bubbly water, and my cats! Five very ripe champagne mangoes are calling my name!

4) Tell us a little something about yourself!: I'm married to a pretty fabulous woman (who's doing today's chores so I don't have to!), and I work full-time for a national non-profit. I'm in the process of knitting a Moby Dick afghan for my wife (it's her favorite book), and so far, it's only taken me seven months. I'm only 10% done, oops! Outside of reading, my other passions are writing -- I wrote a very bad first draft of a historical novel last fall; cooking; and reading tarot -- I have over 300 decks and can't stop buying them.

5) If you participated in the last read-a-thon, what’s one thing you’ll do different today? If this is your first read-a-thon, what are you most looking forward to?: Technically this is my second attempt but I don't count the first one, since I had to bail almost before it started!  I'm really excited about being able to just pick up one book after another...such fun!

Read-a-Thon kick off!

Okay, Read-a-Thon starts in a few minutes, and I'm wolfing down a delicious breakfast in preparation for a long day of reading! 

I plan to finish up Stephanie Thornton's Daughter of the Gods first -- so grateful for the read-a-thon today because this book is pretty un-put-down-able!!

Good luck to those participating, and those who aren't -- hope you're having a lovely Saturday.  Go #teamBronte!

Friday, April 25, 2014

Weekend reads and readathon

My FridayReads/weekendread is Stephanie Thornton's Daughter of the Gods. I may or may not have gotten teary on the train after the first ten pages. Fantastic read so far!

Tomorrow is Dewey's Read-a-Thon, which I signed up for last year and totally bailed on.  This year, I'm determined to do it, and win!  (Or, you know, read a ton.)  My planned TBR so far includes:

Daughter of the Gods
1,000 Feelings for Which There Are No Names
The Falconer
The Shadow Queen
The Quick
O, Africa!

Most of these are review reads, so it'll be nice to get a leg up, but I will admit to a little sadness I can't "free range" read, so to speak.  I hope to have a less scheduled October so the next read-a-thon I can really graze!

What are you reading this weekend?

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Interview with Ann Weisgarber

Yesterday I reviewed Ann Weisgarber's The Promise, a stunningly delicious novel set in 1900 Galveston, Texas, featuring two unshakeable narrators and a poignant story.  It's going to make my top ten of 2014, I know it, and I can't stop enthusing about it.  I'm delighted to share my interview with Ann Weisgarber to learn more about her and her writing (as well as how she and I met!).  Be sure to enter the giveaway, too!

*** *** ***

Audra, it was great fun meeting you last June at the Historical Novel Society Conference in St. Petersburg, Florida. It was at the book signing and when you introduced yourself, I bounced out of my chair to give you a big hug. You had written a lovely review for my first novel, and I was excited to meet you in person. Thank you so much for reading The Promise and for giving me the opportunity to be part of your blog again.

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

I’m a late bloomer. Unlike many writers, I didn’t write stories when I was a kid or when I was in my twenties. I did try to write poetry and took a non-credit poetry workshop when I lived in Des Moines. I didn’t have the talent or the perseverance to develop the craft. Yet, when I look at these poems, I see the foundations for my novels. Many are set in the West and one is about a man who chooses his ranch over his wife. This theme is suggested in my first novel, The Personal History of Rachel DuPree. Another poem is about a woman whose husband disappears in the Galveston 1900 Storm, a historic event that plays a role in The Promise.

I hadn’t thought about the connection until your question. Now I realize both novels began with poems.

Do you have any writing rituals or routines?

I write at home and in a small study that looks out onto our screened porch. I have an old-fashioned timer that I set for an hour. I make myself work at my desk until the obnoxious bell goes off. Then I set the timer for fifteen minutes and leave my desk. I run the sweeper, put a load of laundry in the washing machine or unload the dishwasher. When the fifteen-minute bell goes off, it’s back to work for another hour. That pace works well for me.

Was The Promise the original title of your book?

My original title was Galveston 1900. My Mantle editors in London quickly told me we needed to do better. I tried and tried but couldn’t think of a thing. One of the editors came up with The Promise, and I think it works well since there are many promises made throughout the book. It also reflects the promise I’d made with myself to remember the nearly forgotten people who lived on the rural part of Galveston Island in 1900.

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

One of the main characters, Nan Ogden, was originally a minor character. She’s a young woman born and raised on the rural end of Galveston who takes care of a little boy after his mother dies. As I wrote the story, her presence took over and demanded more space. It was a Eureka! moment when I realized she should be a second narrator. It seems obvious now but when the thought first occurred to me, it took me by surprise.

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

I’m a baseball fan, and my husband and I go to Astros games whenever we can. I’m one of those nuts who keeps score but I don’t take a mitt to the games. When a line drive comes my way, I dive for cover.

Read any good books recently?

Gary Schanbacher’s Crossing Purgatory is one of the best novels I’ve read in years. It takes place before the Civil War and the heart of the story is set in eastern Colorado. I’m thrilled that I’m meeting Gary at the 2014 Western Writers of America Convention in Sacramento in June. I’m excited about Ellen Feldman’s soon-to-be-released The Unwitting that takes place in the 1950’s during the Cold War. I read the advanced reading copy of Lin Enger’s The High Divide that will be published in September. He’s a gifted story teller with a captivating voice.

*** *** ***

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

GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to offer a copy of The Promise to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US and Canadian readers only, ends 5/9.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Promise by Ann Weisgarber

Title: The Promise
Author: Ann Weisgarber

Genre: Fiction (Historical / early 20th Century / Galveston / Texas / Natural Disaster / Marriage)
Publisher/Publication Date: Skyhorse Publishing (4/1/2014)
Source: Publicist

Rating: Loved! A top ten read of 2014.
Did I finish?: Oh yes.
One-sentence summary: Two women from different lives are bound together through a man and his child in 1900 Galveston
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction

Do I like the cover?: Actually, I'm kind of meh about it.

I'm reminded of...: Angela Davis-Gardner, Erika Mailman, Julie K. Rose

First line: There wasn't nothing good about funerals.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Buy! (Or borrow, but you want to read this one.)

Why did I get this book?: I love the premise and I adored Weisgarber's debut novel.

Review: In 2011 I read Weisgarber's fantastic debut, The Personal History of Rachel Dupree.  It was the kind of historical novel I adored -- unique setting and era, unbelievable heroine, fabulous historical detail.  It got tons of love (lots of wonderful prize nominations), and most recently, was praised at a writing class I took -- all for good reason.

Weisgarber's newest surpasses my love for Rachel Dupree. I'm in that flail-y, can't speak coherently kind of place with this review, so I'll just say this: read this book, stat!

Set in Galveston, Texas in 1900, ahead of the devastating hurricane, the novel follows two women loosely bound together by Oscar, a dairy farmer, and his five year-old son, Andre. Nan Ogden is a neighbor, a hearty woman asked by Andre's mother, on her deathbed, to care for him.  Devoted to the boy, and half in love with Oscar, Nan's unprepared and angry when he suddenly remarries.

Catherine Wainwright is from a monied Ohio family, college educated and gifted at piano. But she falls from grace (and society) when her affair with her crippled cousin's husband comes to light, and renews her acquaintance with Oscar, whom she knew when they were children.  Recently widowed, he proposes after a few letters, and she accepts with resignation that grows when she arrives in Galveston.

Despite the seeming love triangle set up, this isn't a novel about who wants who.  Instead, it's a book about family connections, secrets, obligations and the assumptions we make; Weisgarber describes an emotional storm ahead of the very real hurricane we know is coming.  

The descriptions of place are just stunning.  I know nothing about 1900s Galveston, and Weisgarber paints a world hot, steamy, bustling, and lonely.  (It turns out Galveston the city is also on Galveston the island; Catherine and I both assumed she'd be living in the city, but it turned out she was going to live out on the island.)  Catherine as an outsider means Weisgarber can load up on details about what Galveston was like, but it never feels awkward, heavy, for infodump-y.

The writing generally is just lovely, too: Nan and Catherine have two distinctive voices, their own views and prejudices, their own keen observations and their own blindnesses. But there's poetry and lovely evocation of place and mood through the book.
It was a sorrowful time; there wasn't no other way to put it. What the storm did to us was cruel, and I won't never forget it. Or forgive it. The storm did what it wanted and then blew itself out, leaving us to try to put things right. But some things can't be put right. (p290)
A must read for historical fiction fans, as well as anyone who a love for Texas.  This is a wonderfully emotional novel, too, in the vein of women's contemporary fiction, and I think those who aren't sure they like hist fic might want to consider this one for its exploration of love and family.  A top ten read for 2014, hands down.

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GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to offer a copy of The Promise to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US and Canadian readers only, ends 5/9.  For another entry, see my interview with Ann Weisgarber.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Winners!

Ohemgee, I am so behind on life.  I'm behind on reading, behind on reviews, and behind on announcing giveaway winners.  (Sorry!)  So, here are a few from the last few weeks; I promise I'll be more prompt from now on!

The winners of The Eagle and the Swan are ... Diane L. and Shannon L.!

The winner of To Live Forever is ... Ryan of Wordsmithonia!

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

Friday, April 18, 2014

The Winter Siege by D.W. Bradbridge

Title: The Winter Siege
Author: D.W. Bradbridge

Genre: Fiction (Historical / 17th Century / UK / Murder Mystery / English Civil War)
Publisher/Publication Date: Electric Reads (10/1/2013)
Source: Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

Rating: Liked a great deal.
Did I finish?: I did.
One-sentence summary: A cheese merchant slash constable has to deal with murders amidst the drama of guild politics, an approaching army, and the return of his old flame.
Reading Challenges: E-book, Historical Fiction

Do I like the cover?: Eh -- it's not my thing but it's done well enough.

I'm reminded of...: James Mace, Sam Thomas

First line: The small group of horsemen pulled up in front of the imposing sandstone towers of Kinneil House, allowing the riders to survey the scene in front of them.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy, especially if you like historical mysterious with meaty locales and rich ambiance.

Why did I get this book?: It got great reviews the first time it went on tour.

Review: I enjoy historical mysteries but must say my favorites are often set during times of war - Sam Thomas' Bridget Hodgson (17th century), Janice Law's Francis Bacon (WWII), Philip Kerr's Bernie Gunther (WWII), to name a few. The ordinary horror of murder becomes increasingly meaningful amidst so much other death, and touches on the best and the worst of humanity.

I was intrigued by this book after seeing nonstop raves for it following the first HFVBT for it. And since I adored J. Boyce Gleason's Anvil of God, another other fan favorite, I decided to take the 480+ page plunge with this one.

It was so worth it.

Featuring the same tense wartime era and enclosed urban locale as Thomas' series, this novel takes place during the winter of 1643/1644 during the English Civil War.  Set in Nantwich, Cheshire, the story is told by Constable Daniel Cheswis, a cheeseseller and salt works owner.

Clocking in at 488 pages, this is a brick -- but it doesn't read like it. In fact, if I was told that in addition to the murder mystery plot and the war time stuff, there was also rich details and subplots featuring the cheese selling business, the drama of salt guilds, and the political press, I might have passed, but Bradbridge makes the pages race.

A warm and sympathetic everyman, Cheswis' concern for his community guides him, even if it's a task he's rather not perform.  But when faced with not one but two murders, possibly political, both involving friends and family, he finds himself having to navigate the thorny world of politics as well as keeping the peace in the increasingly tense town.

Courted on one side by the parliamentary army to keep them apprised of details, the royalist-leaning families of Nantwich are quick to remind Cheswis that they will be around long after the army leaves, urging him to drop any political investigations.  Worse, an ex-flame from his childhood appears with her power-hungry printer husband, who is happy to print and distribute inflammatory papers in support of whichever group takes control.

Even though there's a thread of political drama, this isn't a politics-heavy novel; despite the wartime atmosphere, it's not a war novel, either.  It's a delightful historical novel that draws from the very rich mess of the era, and presents a slice of life that is both ordinary and exotic.  The drama of the arduous (but interesting) process of investigating the crime is balanced by enough interpersonal excitement to keep the story from feeling rote or familiar, and I hung on every page.  Highly recommended -- can't wait to see what Bradbridge releases next!

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GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to offer a copy of The Winter Siege to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US, UK, and Canadian readers only. Ends 5/2.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Frangipani Hotel by Violet Kupersmith

Title: The Frangipani Hotel
Author: Violet Kupersmith

Genre: Fiction (Short Stories / Contemporary / Vietnam / Vietnamese-Americans / Cross-Cultural Experiences / Supernatural Themes / Folk Lore)
Publisher/Publication Date: Spiegel & Grau (4/1/2014)
Source: TLC Book Tours

Rating: Loved.
Did I finish?: I did.
One-sentence summary: Nine chilling and atmospheric short stories about Vietnam.
Reading Challenges: E-book, NetGalley & Edelweiss

Do I like the cover?: Love it. It reminds me of 'Boat Story', the piece that opens this collection.

I'm reminded of...: Aimee Bender, Elizabeth Hand, Sara Maitland, Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

First line: The only photograph I have of my father doesn't show his face., from 'Reception'.

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

Why did I get this book?: I'm a short story fan.

Review: I loved this volume of short stories, right from the first page. Reminiscent of Aimee Bender, Elizabeth Hand, Sara Maitland, and Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, Kupersmith's stories have that wonderful mix of mood, slightly supernatural-y elements, and lovely language you just want to pluck out and savor.

These nine stories are set in Vietnan or in Vietnamese-American households in the US. Most have an undercurrent of creepiness to them due to a vaguely supernatural or paranormal element, usually due to creatures from myth and folk lore.  They're about family -- and the mysteries in families -- or one's identity.  They're about the power and danger of stories and questions.  They're flat out awesome.

I don't know if I can pick a favorite from the collection, as I adored each one as soon as I finished.  Kupersmith quickly evokes sense of place and characters in a few sentences, but nothing ever felt rushed or quick.  There's both mood and plot in every piece.
Our muddy patch of the world was already shadowy and blood-soaked and spirit-friendly long before the Americans got here. (p56)
I inhaled this volume in a night.  Apparently Kupersmith is writing a novel, and I cannot wait for it.  Given this taste of her style of writing, her novel is going to be incredible.

Highly, swoon-i-ly recommended.  Those who aren't wild about short stories should give these a try -- each story has a satisfying arc and a fabulous ending.  Short story fanatics will obviously want to get this collection.  Anyone who wants an armchair escape and a brush with something ghostly and otherworldly, this is your book.

*** *** ***

GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to offer a copy of The Frangipani Hotel to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US readers only, ends 4/25.




Monday, April 7, 2014

The Anatomy Lesson by Nina Siegal

Title: The Anatomy Lesson
Author: Nina Siegal

Genre: Fiction (Historical / 17th Century / Amsterdam / The Netherlands / Rembrandt / Historical Figure Fictionalized / Artist)
Publisher/Publication Date: Nan A. Talese (3/11/2014)
Source: Edelweiss

Rating: Loved.
Did I finish?: I did.
One-sentence summary: A day in 17th century Amsterdam, immortalized in a Rembrandt painting.
Reading Challenges: E-book, Historical Fiction, Netgalley & Edelweiss

Do I like the cover?: Adore it.  The image at the top is from the painting in question; the hand is also from that painting and is a huge part of the story; the doctor is named for tulips.  Such a brilliant design.

I'm reminded of...: Kathryn Harrison, Ami McKay, Louisa Young

First line: At the first toll of the Westerkerk bell Adriaen Adriaenszoon bolts awake in a dank stone jail inside Amsterdam's town hall.

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

Why did I get this book?: The cover: I was seduced by it!

Review: This slender novel -- just 288 pages -- is a rich, emotional look at love, ambition, the human soul, the creative impulse, the last immortality of art. And yet, despite the lofty themes, it's a wholly accessible, can't-put-it-down read-able novel with a handful of unforgettable characters and one devastating day.

Inspired by Rembrandt's massive painting, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, the novel takes place during the day of Dr. Tulp's anatomy lesson.  The narrative shifts between seven voices and point of view, but rather than distract and dilute the tension and the story, this serves to provide a dense, captivating experience.

We meet Adriaen 'Aris the Kid' Adriaenszoon, a criminal who, after his hanging, will be used for the anatomy lesson; Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, an ambitious Dutch doctor who conducts the lesson; Flora, the pregnant country girl who hopes to prevent her lover's execution; Jan, a curio collector who also moonlights as an acquirer of medical cadavers; René Descartes, who will attend the dissection in the course of his quest to understand where the human soul resides; and the twenty-six-year-old Dutch master painter himself, who feels a shade uneasy about this assignment. And in the twenty-first century, there is Pia, a contemporary art historian who is examining the painting.

Each voice is so clear, their arc so well delineated, that the myriad of characters doesn't muddy the plot nor lose the reader.  In fact, the story is made more rich by the variety of viewpoints.  I was unfamiliar with this painting and the circumstances surrounding it, but Siegal articulates the technical aspects of the painting's design and layout as well as the (likely fictional) events leading up to it in such an engrossing way, I couldn't put this book down for anything but work.  (It also makes me yearn for more novels about specific works of art!)

Highly recommended -- a really fantastic debut.  For those who like novels about art, or historical novels that feature more ordinary people, this is a must read.  Fans of lightly literary works will want to pick this up, too.  You can read an excerpt at the publisher's website.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Winner!

It's been crazy hectic in my personal and professional life, so apologies for the delay in getting this up!  But I have a giveaway winner at last!

The winner of The Debt of Tamar is ... Susan C.!

Congrats!  If you didn't win, be sure to check out my open giveaways (both open internationally!) -- more coming next week.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Interview with Ruth Hull Chatlien

Earlier this week I reviewed Ruth Hull Chatlien's fabulous novel The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte, about the American belle who married one of Napoleon's brothers. Her life verges on the unbelievable, and I inhaled this novel in a few days. I'm excited to share my interview with the author, so read on to learn more about the book and what she does when she's not writing.

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

When I was ten, I started writing a historical novel called The Unknown Patriot. It was a combination of a spy story and Romeo and Juliet. During the American Revolution, two young lovers named Rebecca and Thomas were kept apart because their fathers—Boston merchants—had fallen out over political differences. Rebecca’s father was a Tory, while Thomas’s father favored independence. The young couple decided to meet secretly. Thomas was also approached to act as a courier for an American spy who communicated only by letter and called himself John Q to keep his identity hidden. The final manuscript was about 120 pages long and took me about six years to write.

Do you have any writing rituals or routines?

I like to start each writing session by rereading what I did the day before and maybe making a few changes. Doing that helps get me back into the flow of the story. If I’m really stuck on something, I like to take a long walk outdoors and let the physical activity clear out the cobwebs from my mind.

Was The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte the original title of your book?

Yes, the title came very early in the process. There is a famous quotation by the real Betsy that I used in the novel: “Tell the emperor that Madame Bonaparte is ambitious and demands her rights as a member of the imperial family.” In addition, as I read through Betsy Bonaparte’s collected letters, I realized that she often used the adjective ambitious to describe herself—and to distinguish herself from many of her acquaintances. She was well aware that she wanted much more than was typical of the other women she knew.

When did you first learn about Betsy Bonaparte, and why did you want to tell her story?

My husband and I were great fans of the Horatio Hornblower television series in the late 1990s. Then in the 2000s, we discovered an additional four episodes that we had never seen because they were produced much later. The last of those featured Jerome and Betsy Bonaparte. Despite my familiarity with world history, I didn’t know that Napoleon’s brother had married an American. When I looked up the facts on the Internet, I discovered that Betsy’s real life was far more interesting than the snippet shown (and distorted) in the television show.

One of things I wanted to do with the book was to portray Betsy in all her complexity. She’s someone who’s easy to dismiss as a stereotype. Older interpretations of her life focused on the romance and the injustice of Napoleon’s opposition to her marriage, while many modern historians disparage her because of her vanity, ambition, and obsession with rank. I think either interpretation is too simplistic. I wanted to create a more nuanced portrayal that showed both her flaws and her strengths, the qualities that make people want to shake her and the qualities that make people want to give her a hug. Even when I disagreed with her choices, I felt that it was my task to show why she made the decisions she did and how they grew out of her own values and goals, not mine as the writer.

As you were writing The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte, was there a particular scene or character that surprised you?

I think the scene that surprised me most occurred in Chapter Twenty-Seven. I had taken great care to depict Betsy’s son Bo as an even-tempered child who did his best to please his mother so I was shocked that, as I was writing the scene in which he learns that his tutor must leave him, he suddenly began to throw a tantrum. I tried to backtrack and start over, but Bo just would not play the scene any other way. After thinking about it for a while, I realized that I hadn’t done justice to the insecurities the boy must have felt because of the precarious status of his parents’ marriage.

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

I like to read of course, but I also have many interests not related to books. I’m an artist (in fact, I did the portrait of Betsy that we used on the cover). The two media I work in most are colored pencil and oils. In addition, I’m a knitter, a gardener, a doting owner of a 9-year-old schnoodle, and an avid football fan.

Read any good books recently?

I recently read Queen’s Gambit by Elizabeth Fremantle, which I enjoyed immensely. It tells the story of Katherine Parr, Henry VIII’s sixth and final wife. Fremantle is adept at plotting and characterization and she does a good job of demonstrating the personal qualities that caused Henry to marry Katherine despite her seeming disadvantages (she ha already been widowed twice). The descriptions offer enough period details to ground the reader firmly in the historical place and time without bogging down the prose. I think Fremantle is a promising new voice in historical fiction.

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

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

To Live Forever by Andra Watkins

Title: To Live Forever: An Afterlife Journey of Meriwether Lewis
Author: Andra Watkins

Genre: Fiction (Speculative / 1970s / New Orleans / Mississippi / Historical Figures Fictionalized / Child Narrator)
Publisher/Publication Date: World Hermit Press (3/1/2014)
Source: Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

Rating: Liked.
Did I finish?: I did.
One-sentence summary: A young girl is saved from a predatory man by the stuck-in-limbo ghost of Meriwether Lewis.
Reading Challenges: E-book

Do I like the cover?: I uh-dore it. Clean, sharp, eye-catching.

I'm reminded of...: Cass Dalglish, Michael Williams

First line: A drop of sweat hung from the end of my nose.

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

Why did I get this book?: The set up was too bonkers to resist!

Review: The premise of this book is completely bananas, and I mean that in the best way.

The ghost of Meriwether Lewis (of Lewis and Clark fame) is on his 13th and last mission to redeem his soul when he's sent to 1977 New Orleans. Tasked with helping Emmeline, a 9-year old girl who was just sold by her prostitute mother to the highest bidder, he agrees to help her find her father.  They're pursued by a murderous judge who is convinced Emmeline is the reincarnation of his beloved wife -- and worse, as Merry discovers, the judge is a lost ghost like himself, and a dark figure from Merry's past.

To return Emmeline to her father in Nashville, Merry treks the Natchez Trace -- a 400+ mile long trail that runs from Natchez, Mississippi to Nashville, Tennessee -- which is also the site of his mysterious death.  The journey transforms them while providing many moments of danger and excitement for the reader.

Despite the crazy setup, the story works, and works well. Alternating viewpoints between Merry, Emmeline, and the Judge, Watkins manages to make this credulity-straining premise feel believable and real.  There's some philosophical wrestling that makes this lightly literary but doesn't get so ethereal as to lose the emotional oomph from Emmeline's plight.  The Judge is unabashedly malevolent while Merry struggles to be the best kind of (ghost) man he can for Emmeline's sake.  Emmeline herself shifts between childishness and too-early maturity and provides the real emotional hook of the story.

Watkins walked the entire Natchez Trace in honor of the book's debut and her passion for the place shines through in her writing.

While not precisely historical fiction -- the novel is set in 1977 -- it has a sense of place and time from our ghostly characters that inspired me to start googling the moment I finished.  If you like adventure stories with strong young women and you don't mind a little paranormal-ness, consider this one.  It might sound odd, but I promise there's a lovely emotional payoff along with some eye-opening details about Meriwether Lewis and the first governor of Louisiana (a double agent, as it turns out!).  

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GIVEAWAY!


I'm thrilled to offer a copy of To Live Forever to one lucky reader -- a paperback copy (US) or ebook (US/international). To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US and international readers, ends 4/18.




Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte by Ruth Hull Chatlien

Title: The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte
Author: Ruth Hull Chatlien

Genre: Fiction (Historical / 18th Century / Bonapartes/ Baltimore / Marriage / Historical Figures Fictionalized / Marriage / Motherhood)
Publisher/Publication Date: Amika Press (12/2/2013)
Source: Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

Rating: Liked a great deal.
Did I finish?: I did!
One-sentence summary: The life of Betsy Patterson Bonaparte, wife of Napoleon's brother Jerome.
Reading Challenges: E-book, Historical Fiction

Do I like the cover?: I do -- it captures the flavor and era of the novel.

I'm reminded of...: Liza Perrat

First line: Taking the footman's hand, eighty-five-year-old Betsy Bonaparte gingerly alighted from the carriage and readjusted her voluminous skirts.

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

Why did I get this book?: Couldn't pass up a Bonaparte hist fic!

Review: While I'm a fan of Josephine Bonaparte, I actually know very little about the Bonaparte family, so I jumped on the chance to read a novel about her sister-in-law. With the Bonapartes, I anticipated some drama, but I had no idea what I was getting into when I started this fabulous novel.

Baltimore belle Elizabeth 'Betsy' Patterson longs for more than the life as a merchant's wife, and as a child, is told she's destined for royal courts. When Napoleon Bonaparte's dashing younger brother Jerome appears in Baltimore, both are immediately smitten with each other. After a passionate courtship, they marry, and Betsy finds that being embroiled with the Bonapartes comes with a greater cost than she anticipated.

I'm being purposefully vague because I don't want to ruin any of the (historical) twists of the novel; if you, too, are unfamiliar with Betsy Bonaparte, don't google her -- just settle in and start this novel. I probably gasped aloud at least once a chapter -- the events of Betsy's life are shocking and surprising and make for a delicious novel.

Chatlien's writing is easy and reads quickly, although there were a few times where I wished the pacing had been tightened up, particularly early on in the novel during Betsy's childhood. However, once Betsy meets Jerome, the story races, and I found it impossible to put the book down.

While Betsy occasionally frustrated me with her life choices, she's portrayed sympathetically and with affection, and I couldn't help but like her. The numerous secondary characters, including the many famous 18th century American and European figures who crossed paths with Betsy Bonaparte, are evoked neatly and warmly.

The historical details are just wonderful in this book. I've never 'visited' 18th century Baltimore so this was a particular treat; Chatlien manages to evoke era and place in an effortless way, without the dreaded infodump.

There's a detailed bibliography and discussion questions included in this volume, although there was no Historical Note, sadly.

For Francophiles, this is a must read, as well as those who like historical novels about ordinary people coming up against the impossible (in this case, Napoleon Bonaparte's will!). A lovely, fast reading novel of a young American woman coming of age at an exciting time, caught up in a love affair that seems doomed from the start. I'm looking forward to Chatlien's next offering!