Friday, May 30, 2014

Weekend reads and still blah...

I'm feeling a bit Eyeore-ish, so I'm sorry if I sound especially maudlin.  We've had some housing drama come up (as in, we're scrambling to find housing unexpectedly!) so I'm a total stress bucket, but am trying to be zen.  Still am not feeling many of my reads -- I put down a rather good book because a plot twist gave me the red rage, and I figured, why torture myself? -- and I guiltily suspect I'll spend most of the weekend streaming movies.

However, in a fit of optimism, I've signed up for Roof Beam Reader's Moby-Dick readalong, which runs June 1 – July 15. Moby-Dick is my wife's all-time favorite book ever, and she's been begging me to give it a try. I've put it on my Classics Club reading list and she's started reading it to me every night in hopes of making our little sea monster a fan.  (All it serves is to put me to sleep in a matter of minutes, so it'll be June 2015 before we finish at this rate!)

What are you reading this weekend?

Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Quick by Lauren Owen

Title: The Quick
Author: Lauren Owen

Genre: Fiction (Historical / Victoriana / 19th Century / London / Supernatural / Secret Society)
Publisher/Publication Date: Random House (6/17/2014)
Source: TLC Book Tours

Rating: Eh -- okay (with moments of like).
Did I finish?: I did.
One-sentence summary: When her brother goes missing, a young Victorian woman leaves her family estate to find him, and is shocked by the world she discovers in seedy London and the truth about her brother.
Reading Challenges: E-book, Historical Fiction, NetGalley & Edelweiss

Do I like the cover?: I do but it only adds to my feeling of betrayal as it has really nothing to do with the book other than to convince you it's something it isn't!

I'm reminded of...: Elizabeth Bear, Karen Essex, Elizabeth Kostova

First line: There were owls in the nursery when James was a boy.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow.

Why did I get this book?: I love big chunksters set during the Victorian era.

Review: This is a cranky review of a book with a good deal of hype.  The writing is nice enough, and there's lots of plot, and some historical ambiance; but I have a giant huge quibble with the marketing and mystique surrounding it which, for me, didn't enhance my reading experience.

I'm hesitant to even try to recap the book lest I give away something I shouldn't. In brief, it's set in the 1890s in London, and features siblings who have to find each other as adults after some dramatic stuff happens.  There's lots of hype about a 'twist' in this book which I'll say is not a twist so much as a bait-and-switch.

Owen sets up her book deliciously -- a decaying country estate, two imaginative siblings, the push-pull of Victorian expectations for men and women -- and then, bam!, around 80 pages in, the wonderful sort of gothic-y family novel becomes something else entirely, and not, in my opinion, for the better.

In order to articulate why I'm so meh on this book, I have to just name what my problem with it was.  I've done so over here on my GoodReads review, which has a spoiler tag you can manually click to see my beef. I'll add that I don't think knowing the 'twist' will hurt your enjoyment of the novel -- if it's your thing, you're going to be super happy, and if it isn't your thing, you might be glad for the warning!

After the 'twist', my other complaint is about pacing. Owen uses a mix of third person narrative interspersed with diary excerpts, and I found it slowed down the already creeping plot even more.  Worse, the diary entries came before the characters were introduced, repeatedly, which made things even more frustrating.  I think I get what Owen was trying to do -- these snippets avoided lots of exposition -- but they didn't keep things chugging along or amp up the tension.  The novel's conclusion was uneven and meandering, and felt like Owen sandwiched together short pieces from other works.

Still, the writing was lovely, and there was great promise there; her articulation of a pragmatic marriage that might have, perhaps, blossomed into something loving, touched me, and I wished the novel had more of that, just as I wish the moodiness of the novel's start had lingered.

The raves for this book are unbelievable: Hilary Mantel, Kate Atkinson, and Tana French all blurbed it quite enthusiastically (although I did rather bitchily wonder on GoodReads what books they typically read if they found this one so swoon-worthy).  But other fabulous bloggers with great taste enjoyed it, too, including Amanda of BookRiot, so obviously, it just didn't work for me but might work for you!

*** *** ***

GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to offer a copy of The Quick to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US readers only, ends 6/6.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Winners!

I must apologize for being so behind on announcing giveaway winners -- pregnancy brain! (Plus real life, stress, work, etc.)  Anyway, here are all the outstanding giveaway winners -- sorry, all, for the wait!

The winner of The Promise is ... Jenny Q of Let Them Read Books!

The winner of the Drop Caps 'T' edition of The Joy Luck Club is ... Meg of A Bookish Affair!

The winner of the Penguin Classic edition of The Joy Luck Club is ... Ti of Book Chatter!

The winner of Daughter of the Gods is ... Anita Y.!

The winner of The Shadow Queen is ... Meghan E.!

Congrats to all the winners! Folks have until end of day Wed to respond to my email; after that, I'll redraw winners. I have one open giveaway now and more coming this week.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Weekend reads and not reading much...

I probably can't keep blaming everything on being pregnant, but I've been in a real reading funk. I've got plenty of good books but little energy/motivation to read. There's some real life drama in my life that is stressing me out (not related to the baby -- he's fine, thankfully!) and I'm finding it hard to concentrate on much, sadly.

So sorry for not posting so much this month -- hopefully I can recover for June!

My weekend read is The Secret Life of Violet Grant by Beatriz Williams. I might also start Jane Austen's Emma, which was my Classic Club Spin pick.

What are you reading this weekend?

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

I Am Livia by Phyllis T. Smith

Title: I Am Livia
Author: Phyllis T. Smith

Genre: Fiction (Historical / 1st Century BC / Ancient Rome / Historical Figure Fictionalized / Coming-of-Age)
Publisher/Publication Date: Lake Union Publishing (5/1/2014)
Source: TLC Book Tours

Rating: Liked a great deal.
Did I finish?: I did.
One-sentence summary: A young Roman woman finds passion with a power-hungry Roman politician, but must make more compromises than she ever imagines.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction

Do I like the cover?: I do.

I'm reminded of...: Sophie Perinot, Stephanie Thornton

First line: I wonder sometimes how I will be remembered.

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

Why did I get this book?: I couldn't resist a novel about the infamous Livia!

Review: I've never considered Livia, wife of Emperor Augustus, to be a very sympathetic figure.  Popular culture tends to paint her as a cold, scheming woman but in Smith's hands, Livia is far more sympathetic, likable, and warm.  As an enormous fan of Stephanie Dray's trilogy about Cleopatra's daughter, I pretty much thought I'd never like Livia.  This book proves the power of a well-written novel: a reader, despite herself, can't resist a convincing main character and realistically articulated emotions and drama.

Opening in the 20s BC, I think, the novel is told by Livia at the end of her life. She begins with the event that shaped her life in many ways: the assassination of Julius Caesar. Her father marries her at 14 to a cousin to ensure his loyalty. And while Livia manages to make her marriage work, she is shocked by the attraction she feels for her family's enemy, Octavius -- Caesar's heir.

As Octavius wages a war of vengeance on those who betrayed his adoptive father, Livia struggles to hide her feelings for him.  Still, they marry, under shocking circumstances, and Livia casts her lot with Octavius. As politically minded as he is, they make a powerful couple, and with her increased influence comes, unsurprisingly, controversy!

In Smith's hands, the complicated (and for me, unfamiliar) world of Roman politics and Octavius' reign becomes intimate, easy to understand, and deeply compelling.  The Livia of cruel depravity and malicious machinations isn't seen here; instead, we have a young woman, deeply loyal to Rome and its citizens, passionate about improvement and urging her husband to be his best self.

This novel raced; Livia is a survivor, eyewitness to a tumultuous and violent time in Roman history.  While the story isn't heavy with historical detail, there is a sense of place and era there, and Livia is an appealing heroine.

A great read; fans of ancient Rome will want this one, as well as those who are curious about Livia.  This has some shocking drama and the promise of romance (without being an out-and-out romance), making it a lovely summer read -- deliciously escapist!

*** *** ***

GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to offer a copy of I Am Livia to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US and Canadian readers, ends 5/30.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Classics Club Spin

I am woefully, woefully behind on my Classics Club reading challenge, having only read one item so far (and I still haven't reviewed it.)  So, in an attempt to get going, I'm participating in the Classics Spin.

In short, I pick out 20 books from my list, and on Monday, May 12, a number will be chosen by those at the Classics Club.  I'll have to read whichever book that is on my list by July 7!

I will admit that I picked what felt like 'easy' reads given that nearly half my June is going to be eaten up by a massive work conference.  I always read very little in June no matter what, and I don't want to hobble myself with a brick-of-a-read (like Moby Dick) that I'll never finish.  But I did list reads I'm dreading as well as ones I'm very keen on, and I will read which ever one gets picked!
  1. Jane Austen, Emma [No. 1 was rolled, so I'll be reading this one!]
  2. William Blake, Songs of Innocence and of Experience
  3. Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights
  4. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh
  5. James M. Cain, The Postman Always Rings Twice
  6. E.M. Delafield, Diary of a Provincial Lady
  7. Graham Greene, The End of the Affair
  8. Dashiell Hammett, The Thin Man
  9. Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises
  10. Christopher Isherwood, Goodbye to Berlin
  11. Henry James, Turn of the Screw
  12. Molly Keane, Good Behaviour 
  13. D.H. Lawrence, Lady Chatterly's Lover
  14. W. Somerset Maugham, Moon and Sixpence
  15. Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer 
  16. Flannery O’Connor, Wise Blood
  17. Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
  18. William Shakespeare, King Henry IV, Part 1
  19. Julia Strachey, Cheerful Weather for the Wedding
  20. Oscar Wilde, Lady Windermere's Fan
What do you think?  Any one you hope I end up reading?

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The Shadow Queen by Sandra Gulland

Title: The Shadow Queen
Author: Sandra Gulland

Genre: Fiction (Historical / 17th Century / France / Royalty / Mistresses / Historical Figures Fictionalized / Theater / Occult)
Publisher/Publication Date: Doubleday (4/8/2014)
Source: France Book Tours

Rating: Liked a great deal.
Did I finish?: Raced through this one.
One-sentence summary: A scrappy young woman, raised in the theater, becomes confidante and attendant to a demanding, charming noblewoman, propelling her onto the stage of court life, royal assignations, and occult occurances.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction, What's in a Name

Do I like the cover?: J'adore, as the French would say. It features the Shadow Queen herself, Athénaïs de Montespan.

I'm reminded of...: Lynn Cullen, Marina Fiorato, Susan Holloway Scott

First line: Winter was coming -- I could smell it.

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

Why did I get this book?: I'm a massive huge gigantic Gulland fangirl.

Review: Gulland won my undying readerly love with her fantastic trilogy about Josephine Bonaparte.  Her writing is warm and inviting, her characters rich and appealingly complicated.  I've been waiting on tenterhooks for this novel, as I'm slightly obsessed with the notorious Athénaïs de Montespan, official mistress to the 17th century French 'Sun King' Louis XIV, and this delightfully detailed and well-plotted novel did not disappoint.

Apologies for the clunky review; is it too early to blame pregnancy brain? In brief, I inhaled this novel. It has all those qualities in a great hist fic: ambiance, sense of era, historically accurate drama, some splashy interpersonal drama, and fabulous clothes.

While this book is titled for Athénaïs, this novel is really about her loyal and devoted attendant, Claudette de Oeiletts. Poor, from a family of theater players, Claudette would likely be forgotten were it not for her relationship with Athénaïs and Louis XIV.  Meeting the rich and spoiled noblewoman as a young teenager -- Athénaïs asked Claudette for a potion to kill her governess -- the two didn't cross paths again until in their twenties, when Claudette becomes a seamstress and confidante to Athénaïs.

In her time away from Athénaïs, Claudette lives in the vibrant world of playwrights and players, and Gulland's articulation of the people, protocols, and places of 17th century French theater makes this novel go from good to great.  (Honestly, the theater world stole the show, apologies for the pun, and made even the licentious court feel pale!)

Claudette makes an appealing narrator: her voice is knowing and unsure at believable points, brave without feeling anachronistically bold.  Her mistress Athénaïs is unbelievably awful, and yet, like Claudette, I was captivated by her, curious to learn more about her life.  But she remains, in many ways, shadowy even to Claudette, masked in more than one way. 

There are lovely extras in the book, including a five-page annotated cast list (which I didn't need: despite this being a heavily-peopled novel, everyone was so vibrant, they were easy to remember!), five-page glossary, a note about currency, and a genealogy as well as an Author's Note with some historical details. For theater geeks, Gulland's website includes her references and favorite websites about baroque theater.

Recommended for Francophiles and those who like court intrigue; but readers who enjoy novels about less wealthy heroines will also enjoy this.

*** *** ***


GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to offer a copy of The Shadow Queen to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US and Canadian readers, ends 5/23.

Monday, May 5, 2014

1,000 Feelings For Which There Are No Names by Mario Giordano

Title: 1,000 Feelings For Which There Are No Names
Author: Mario Giordano; Isabel Fargo Cole, Translator; Ray Fenwick, Illustrator

Genre: Non-Fiction (Novelty / Writing Prompts / Creativity / Emotions)
Publisher/Publication Date: Penguin Books (4/29/2014)
Source: The publisher.

Rating: Liked.

Do I like the cover?: I do -- love the detailed illustration.

Review: This intriguing little book -- less than 300 pages -- contains precisely what the title says: one thousand fleeting moments for which there is no single word to describe them. Whimsical, occasionally edge, melancholy and exultant in equal part, this is a lovely sort of coffee table book that invites one to thumb through and share.

Hand lettered and illustrated by Ray Fenwick, each feeling is articulated in a different font, punctuated with images and graphic elements.  (You can click on the pictures for a more hi-res view.)

The feelings range from embarrassing to ethereal.  Some favorites of mine:

188: The panic that you might not make it to the bathroom on time.

359: The disappointment that that smile was meant for someone else.

OR, one I can relate to all too much: 920: The helplessness in the face of your cat's whims.

There's a helpful index at the end which categorizes the various options: accident feelings, British feelings, red wine feelings, train-platform feelings, etc. The book has a great hand feeling, too: French flaps, and a slightly heavier paper inside, like a sketch-book.

A lovely gift-y sort of book for someone who struggles to articulate their feelings or those who are very good at it, as well as fun kind of graduation, house-warming, or birthday gift.  Those who are into illustration might also enjoy this.  My wife and I have been having fun picking out one feeling to sum up our day, and could be a neat sort of way to diary through life, noting what feeling you have when (and perhaps how often!).

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Winners!

Thank you, everyone, for the kind words and congratulations yesterday!  I'm really still quite stunned! 

The winner of The Frangipani Hotel is ... Ryan!

The winner of The Winter Siege is ... Susan M.!

Congrats to the winners!  Be sure to check out my current giveaways -- more coming this week!


Friday, May 2, 2014

Weekend reads and I'm expecting!

I'm not very good at being coy or clever, so hopefully the photo makes it clear: I'm pregnant!  I'm super excited/nervous/excited and still, even at 12 weeks, filled with disbelief!  (I've also been in agony keeping this a secret!)

My weekend read is The Quick by Lauren Owen which so far is pretty good. I've been avoiding baby books like crazy, although perhaps I'll pay for this hubris later. But I'm married to a professional nanny who is a bit of a know-it-all, so I feel like I'm in good hands.  (Again, I may pay for this later!)

What are you reading this weekend?  Got a favorite pregnancy or parenting book you think I should pick up?