Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Armchair BEA 2015: Introduction

I'm delighted to participate in Armchair BEA 2015. For those who are unfamiliar with Armchair BEA, it's the web-based conference for those who can't go to New York City for Book Expo America, which is a massive book exposition and conference. Armchair BEA has developed into a vibrant online event in its own right. (See FAQ for more deets.)

Per today's theme, here's my intro. If you're participating in Armchair BEA, please link your intro in the comments so I may be sure to say hi!

In brief: I'm Audra. I'm in my mid-30s and I live in the Boston area with my wife and now 6 month old baby. I do communications work for a liberal religious organization.

When I'm not reading, I enjoy knitting and tarot (like books, I'm a tarot deck hoarder!). I'm at work on a historical novel set in the 1850s during the Bleeding Kansas conflict.

What is your favorite genre and why?

One of my favorite genres is historical fiction, which is pretty apparent from this blog. It's a genre I've loved since I was a child -- Island of the Blue Dolphins, The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, The Witch of Blackbird Pond, the Vesper Holly books -- and it's been a pleasure to become more involved with the genre through my blogging and the Historical Novel Society.

But I'm also a huge fan of classic noir -- Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Dorothy B. Hughes -- as well as modernist lit -- Djuna Barnes, Virginia Woolf, H.D. -- although neither genre appears much on my blog these days, sadly.

What does diversity mean to you?

I've been really excited by the We Need Diverse Books campaign and the conversations being had by bloggers about diversity in reading and publishing. Almost a decade ago, I made a commitment to focus on reading women over men, and accomplished that easily -- but my reading remained rather white and European/North American. My goal is to read more authors of color this year and to be more intentional about the books I'm reading.

While historical fiction can seem very white and European/North American, there's a growing interest in telling stories of people and populations outside "the norm". In 2013, I was part of a panel at the Historical Novel Society US conference that discussed historical fiction "off the beaten path". We lifted up hist fic that took place in unusual eras or featured non-traditional locales and characters and assembled (with lots of help) a list of releases that hit some of those notes.

I think it's important to encourage and support diversity in reading and publishing. Books save lives, and people need to be able to see themselves in their reading. Some experiences are universal, true, but there's something magical about opening a book and seeing a part of yourself in the narrative.

What book are you most looking forward to reading this summer?

I'm looking forward one million reads, including Kate Forsyth's The Wild Girl, Nalo Hopkinson's Falling in Love with Hominids, Patricia Park's Re Jane, and Chantal Thomas's The Exchange of Princesses.

How about you -- what are you most looking forward to?

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Interview with Elizabeth Berg

I'm thrilled to share my interview with novelist Elizabeth Berg, whose newest release is a rich historical novel about French novelist George Sand (Aurore Dupin). As I'm the world's slowest reader these days, I'm very behind on my review, but excited to have a chance to "talk" to Berg about this book, her writing, and what she does when she's not reading. To see what others think of The Dream Lover, be sure to check out the blog tour.

The Dream Lover
View it on Goodreads
Hardcover: 368 pages
Random House (April 14, 2015)

A passionate and powerful novel based on the scandalous life of the French novelist George Sand, her famous lovers, nontraditional Parisian lifestyle, and bestselling novels in Paris during the 1830s and 40s. This major departure for bestseller Berg is for readers of Nancy Horan and Elizabeth Gilbert.

George Sand was a 19th century French novelist known not only for her novels but even more for her scandalous behavior. After leaving her estranged husband, Sand moved to Paris where she wrote, wore men’s clothing, smoked cigars, and had love affairs with famous men and an actress named Marie. In an era of incredible artistic talent, Sand was the most famous female writer of her time. Her lovers and friends included Frederic Chopin, Gustave Flaubert, Franz Liszt, Eugene Delacroix, Victor Hugo, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and more. In a major departure, Elizabeth Berg has created a gorgeous novel about the life of George Sand, written in luminous prose, with exquisite insight into the heart and mind of a woman who was considered the most passionate and gifted genius of her time.

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

It was a short story about a woman who has lost a friend to suicide. The woman is in a diner she frequents regularly, looking around, seeing how the things you witness there--newspapers, eggs over easy, the conversations you overhear--can offer comfort. She's wishing her friend could have found something she needed there.

Do you have any writing rituals or routines?

I like to write early in the morning, and try not to think too much about what I'm going to write. I like to just let it happen, to trust in the process. I have a word taped onto my computer: TRUE. Even though most of what I write is fiction, I like it to come from a place of absolute authenticity.

Was The Dream Lover the original title?

Nope. It was The Bird Lover. But everybody but me liked The Dream Lover better. But now I love that title, too. Who doesn't like the word "dream"?

Anything surprise you in the writing of The Dream Lover?

So many things surprised me, but most of all the character of George Sand. I had thought of her as a ruthless, incredibly strong woman. In some ways, she was. But in many others, she was so vulnerable. And she was a fool in love, just like the rest of us.

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

I'm afraid the first answer that comes to mind is: EAT. From the time I was a little girl, I have been in love with food. So I love cooking and eating, but I also love walks outside, looking for unexpected treasures in antiques stores, admiring any dog that comes along, and going to plays, movies, concerts and art museums.

Read any good books recently?

I'm in the middle of Volume 2 of My Struggle. It's fascinating! I also loved Anne Tyler's A Spool of Blue Thread, and Rachel Joyce's The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry.

Monday, May 18, 2015

The Abduction of Smith and Smith by Rashad Harrison

Title: The Abduction of Smith and Smith
Author: Rashad Harrison

Genre: Fiction (Historical / 19th Century / California / Civil War / China / Nautical / Sibling Relationships / Colonialism)
Publisher/Publication Date: Atria Books (1/6/2015)
Source: TLC Book Tours

Rating: Mostly liked.
Did I finish?: I did!
One-sentence summary: After the American Civil War, a former slave searches for his missing wife while his half-brother, the son of his owner, seeks him out to exact revenge, and both are caught up in a violent conspiracy abroad.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction

Do I like the cover?: I love it!

I'm reminded of...: Sarah McCoy, V.E. Ulett

First line: Moonlight rippled on the black water.

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

Why did I get this book?: Harrison's first novel, Our Man in the Dark, was awesome.

Review: I'm a huuuuuuuge fangirl for Harrison's first novel, Our Man in the Dark and I've been on pins-and-needles for his next release. I inhaled this read -- it's a dramatic, plotty, swashbuckling-ish yarn -- but am a little conflicted about how I feel!

Set just after the Civil War has ended, the novel follows Jupiter Archer, a former slave who fought for the Union Army, now living as a "crimper" in San Francisco. A crimper, as it turns out, is someone who essentially kidnaps -- or Shanghais -- men to work on ships. It's not the job he wanted, but he's frantically searching for his wife. He's also being pursued by Archer Smith, the son of his former owner; Archer also happens to be his half-brother. Theirs is a complicated relationship (no surprise, right?) made even more complicated when they both are crimped themselves and tossed onto a ship with the cagey, charismatic Captain Barrett. From there, the novel goes on a dramatic, action-filled journey halfway around the world while Jupiter and Archer struggle to get what they each desire.

As with his previous novel, the characters are evocative and compelling. Jupiter is a deeply sympathetic figure, but everyone in this book is complicated and shaded in gray. Archer seems, on the surface, to be one-note -- simply after revenge -- but as the novel goes on, we see the damage he suffered at the hand of his parents. Even the bombastic Captain Barrett, who has shades of Ahab and the Terminator to him, is a fascinating figure.

Harrison perfectly balances the adventurous plot with lovely ruminations; my copy is dogeared from all the delightful quotes I wanted to remember and note.
"I'm going to fight for my freedom," said Jupiter. So earnest, he was. Did he believe it? What did he know about fighting? Honor. Valor. Those were things he overheard the sons of plantation owners talk about as they played soldier with their wooden swords. What did he know of it? He was simply a mockingbird with his wings clipped, singing a song in which he mimicked the sounds but couldn't grasp their context. (p40)
My only complaint about the book is that it had an episodic feel, almost like a screenplay that had been filled out. A character might think of something -- a memory, for example -- and then Harrison would immediately whoosh to that scene in a slightly awkward way. Occasionally, events happened so quickly I felt like I was being rushed out the door, and I wouldn't have minded a longer novel to spend more time with Harrison's intriguing cast.

I'm once more excited for Harrison's next offering (if there is one, I don't know!). A quick read that has the sort of feel of a "rip-roaring yarn" with a contemporary understanding of slavery, servitude, and family, this novel is worth picking up this summer for those who enjoy historical fiction, nautical tales, and stories that touch on what happens after war and other bloody conflicts.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Weekend reads and six months old...

Little Reader/Unabridged Baby turned six months earlier this week.

Six months!

I can't believe it.

What can I say about the experience that countless others haven't already said? It's been amazing. And so trying. Daunting. Beautiful.

He monopolizes my every thought, although I'm not sure that's a good thing always -- as I've mentioned a little in previous updates, I think I've got a touch of post-partum depression as I'm tending toward more worrying than normal.

However, I've gotten back into my knitting, which I was just wild about while pregnant. It's an especially satisfying hobby at the moment as it relaxes me and provides something tangible and useful at the end. As we're cloth diapering, I'm mostly making piles of soakers, longies, and other wool coverings (my most recent endeavor: wool shorts!).

I'm still reading, although very slowly as I still can't bring myself to stay up at night to read. So I read on my commute and when I can while pumping. I miss it, glutting myself on books, but I keep telling myself I'll back to that soon enough. When the baby stops keeping me up all the time!

My weekend read is finishing up Donna Thorland's super fun Mistress Firebrand. I started it in February but got woefully behind on reading once I went back to work.

I'm late on reviewing this one, as usual; I've gotten so bad at reviewing anywhere close to on time that I've stopped joining blog tours at the moment, which I have mixed feelings about!

What are you reading this weekend?

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

I Regret Everything by Seth Greenland

Title: I Regret Everything: A Love Story
Author: Seth Greenland

Genre: Fiction (Contemporary / Dual Narrators / New York City / Poets / Romance / Mental Illness)
Publisher/Publication Date: Europa Editions (2/3/2015)
Source: TLC Book Tours

Rating: Liked.
Did I finish?: I did.
One-sentence summary: A lawyer who moonlights as a poet struggles with his feelings for his boss' 19-year old daughter, an aspiring poet herself.

Do I like the cover?: Eh. It plays well with the title but doesn't capture the novel for me.

I'm reminded of...: David Gordon

First line: It would be easy to say my troubles began when a mysterious woman walked into the office but that would ignore the time freshman year in college when Aunt Bren called to let me know my mother had removed all of her clothes in the furniture department at Macy's and been taken to Bellevue.

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

Why did I get this book?: I like Europa Editions offerings.

Review: I am woefully late with this review. I finished reading it quite a while ago and am having to write this review from what lingers, more than a month later.

The novel alternates between Jeremy Best, a trusts and estates attorney who writes poetry under a pen name, and Spaulding Simonson, a 19-year old aspiring writer fresh from a stint in a mental hospital, as a friendship develops between them. In the span of about 250 pages, Greenland tackles unlikely love, work versus vocation, poetry, mortality, and the complicated tangle of family in a quirky, bright, and occasionally snarky manner.

Jeremy wants to write but he's also very good at his job. When the pretty and appealingly odd Spaulding -- daughter of his boss -- shows up in his doorway, his natural inclination is to put her off. But Spaulding -- who has been put off by everyone in her life -- is determined to get Jeremy's attention, especially when she discovers he's a well-regarded poet.

I will admit, when it became clear there was to be a romance between our 30-something hero and the 19-year old heroine, I initially couldn't stop a Liz Lemon-esque eye roll and "Oh, brother!". But once I got that out of my system, I found I didn't mind the burgeoning, awkward will-they-won't-they; both Jeremy and Spaulding were flawed creatures and faced intriguing obstacles, both of their own invention and from the people around them.

Greenland is a playwright and novelist who is also the producer and writer for HBO's Big Love, and the kind of bittersweet, dark humor that I've seen in the show also permeates (delightfully) this novel. His writing style differs between Jeremy and Spaulding, and while I didn't completely buy his articulation of a 19-year old woman, I loved his sheepish, creative, and conflicted Jeremy:
The field of trusts and estates presents ample opportunity for outright larceny. As clients are overtaken by the myriad indignities of age their minds will often cloud and the wily attorney, if endowed with a soupcon of unscrupulousness, can, with the mere adjustment of a comma, redirect amounts of money the size of the night sky. This was never my approach because greed is the lease attractive of the deadly sins. The truth is, I had never done anything that could remotely be construed as unethical much less illicit. (p146)
A fast read, accessible and fun, and perfect for the summer. A little knowing, a little sad, a lovely mix of literary and fluffy. For those new to Europa Editions, this is a great introduction to the kind of sophisticated, compelling stuff they release.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Weekend reads and still suffering the blues...

It's been an emotional and tumultuous few weeks for us. My one-year old niece, who had just been diagnosed with neuroblastoma (a kind of cancer), had a surgery earlier last week to remove a tumor from her neck. It went very well, but even more encouraging, my niece was bouncy and playful hours after the surgery. She was so perky, in fact, the surgeon released her the next day to recover at home.

She's been a whirlwind of energy there, which is such a relief, and we're cautiously optimistic about what's ahead for her. This coming week she'll get a full body MRI to see if all the cancer has been removed, and next steps will be decided. Needless to say, I'm so grateful she's doing so well and is her wild, joyful self once more.

I'm still in the thick of some crazy intense blues, not helped that all of us have been fighting a terrible cold the last week or so. I'm having a hard time motivating myself to do much other than cuddle the baby (who is turning 6 months next Tuesday!!!!!!!!!!).

This weekend I'm finishing The Abduction of Smith and Smith. I uh-dored his first novel, Our Man in the Dark, and I'm so excited for this read. I'm also finishing up The Dream Lover and Mistress Firebrand -- all fabulous reads. The only reason they're not finished and reviewed is because I'm just not in a reading place these days, disappointingly (especially as my wife surprised me with a new e-reader! How lucky am I?!).

What are you reading this weekend?

Monday, May 4, 2015

The Antigone Poems by Marie Slaight

Title: The Antigone Poems
Author: Marie Slaight; Illustrations by Terrence Tasker

Genre: Poetry
Publisher/Publication Date: Altaire Productions & Publications (6/15/2014)
Source: TLC Book Tours

Rating: Liked.
Did I finish?: I did.
One-sentence summary: A collection of poems inspired by the classic play Antigone that re-imagines the voice of the rebellious heroine.

Do I like the cover?: I do -- very gruesome-y and atmospheric.

I'm reminded of...: Margaret Atwood, Barbara Walker

First line: And sing/My bitter praises/To nails/And flint/And flesh...

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

Why did I get this book?: I was so intrigued by the title.

Review: Inspired by the classic story of Antigone, this stark collection of poetry is both an homage to a story of rebellion and an original exploration of a woman's fiery outrage.

Beautifully bound, holding this slender volume -- 104 pages -- is a treat, and the spare layout gives room to the explosive language Slaight uses.Written between 1972 - 1981, the pieces have a kind of '70s Second-wave feminist feel, but I don't mean that badly. This is the kind of stuff I cut my teeth on in college: violent, unabashed, pagan and passionate. I was reminded of Margaret Atwood, Barbara Walker, and Sharon Olds.

Whether one is familiar with the story of Antigone or not, the poems are easy to understand and appreciate. Slaight's "heroine" is by turns angry, quiet, and resigned, and the brevity only emphasizes the punch of her sentiments.

In this grey dawn
The debauched loneliness
Of your thigh
Across mine
My favorite piece has to be the closing, in which our heroine declares: "I wanted everything./To live all lives, all deaths, encompass all women." I can empathize with that enormous, dramatic sentiment; the mundane end to that poem is positively bittersweet.

The pieces are punctuated throughout by illustrations from Terrence Tasker. I don't know if they were intentionally created to pair with Slaight's pieces or if Slaight and Tasker decided simply to pair the two, but the haunting images are perfect. They give me the sense of Greek theater, further connecting Slaight's heroine to Antigone.

A lovely, dramatic volume for fans of poetry and those who enjoy classics, as well as anyone who enjoys feminist lit and poetry.

I have to give a shout out to this review from Kahakai Kitchen, which includes a delicious sounding recipe for Greek salad with halloumi.

*** *** ***


I'm thrilled to offer a copy of The Antigone Poems to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US and international readers; ends 5/15. See my Giveaway Policy for complete rules.