Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Midweek reads and wrapping up...

Dec/Jan TBR
I keep setting myself up for failure.

I want to write my top ten of 2015 blog post, but nearly half of my top ten reads have been unreviewed, so I keep putting that post off in hopes I'll rally and write those reviews. And I've got some thoughts on changes to this blog for 2016 I want to explore, but don't want to dive into that until I wrap up 2015 stuff. And I want to do some of that fun reading challenge geekiness but haven't nailed down my 2016 TBR.

This is what I do to myself all the time, be it blogging or writing or any other endeavor: lots of rules about how/when I do it. If I make one resolution in 2016, it'll be to give myself permission to just do what I want, the moment I want to do it.

Today is the first snow of the season in Boston, and it's deliciously dramatic from my living room window. My wife had to go to work in it, but I'm happily snuggled inside, although despite the wealth of books around me, I'm not entirely interested in reading (sadly). Apparently one doesn't have postpartum past one year, so I can't blame that, and I need to figure out why I'm still feeling so funky and numb and tired all the time. (Been on Paxil since June and it's helped with my crazy anxiety, but still feeling a bit cloudy and muted.)

I actually don't have much to say in this post, but felt like sharing a little -- I think others might feel as I do, and I could use a little blogger-ly "I hear ya"s.

I hope everyone has a wonderful New Year's -- if you've gotten anything good for the holidays, share in the comments so I can drool and grow my TBR! (A task that cheers me up no matter what!)

Thursday, December 24, 2015

2016 Reading Challenge: Book Riot's Read Harder

I was so intrigued by Book Riot's Read Harder challenge when it came out last year, but was not in the place to participate. But this year, with my goal to do more free-range reading, it seemed more reasonable. What I especially love about reading challenges like this one is that I'm forced to seek out some reads well beyond my regular reading -- and in this day and age when there's so much misunderstanding and lack of empathy toward those who are "other" than one's self, that feels very important.


Read Harder 2016

Read a horror book

Read a nonfiction book about science.

Read a collection of essays.

Read a book out loud to someone else.

Read a middle grade novel.

Read a biography (not memoir or autobiography).

Read a dystopian or post-apocalyptic novel.

Read a book originally published in the decade you were born.

Listen to an audiobook that has won an Audie Award.

Read a book over 500 pages long.

Read a book under 100 pages.

Read a book by or about a person that identifies as transgender.

Read a book that is set in the Middle East.

Read a book that is by an author from Southeast Asia.

Read a book of historical fiction set before 1900.

Read the first book in a series by a person of color.
  • N.K. Jemisin, The Fifth Season

Read a non-superhero comic that debuted in the last three years.

Read a book that was adapted into a movie, then watch the movie.
Debate which is better.

Read a nonfiction book about feminism or dealing with feminist themes.

Read a book about religion (fiction or nonfiction).

Read a book about politics, in your country or another (fiction or nonfiction).

Read a food memoir.

Read a play.

Read a book with a main character that has a mental illness.



Wednesday, December 23, 2015

2016 Reading Challenge: #ReadMyOwnDamnBooks

This is a book challenge designed for me, and I'm so very grateful that Andi at Estella's Revenge made it happen. #ReadMyOwnDamnBooks is exactly what it sounds like: a reading challenge that requires us to read our damn books!

I'm going to make my aspirational TBR as I unpack from our move, but I'm hoping to read 10 of my own damn books. And I'm planning to split it between my physical reads and my ebooks, especially as I've gotten spendy when it comes to ebooks. They're piling up on my hardrive while my physical bookshelves remain static, and I want to be sure I'm reading what I'm buying!

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

2016 Reading Challenge: Historical Fiction

I haven't done my roundup of how I did on my 2015 reading challenges, but I'm pretty sure the only one I successfully completed was the Historical Fiction one, and that's okay by me.

So obviously, I'm signing up for this one again!

Hosted by the fabulous Amy at the amazing Passages to the Past, I'm committing to 15 reads for the 2016 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

Books Read

Susan Wittig Albert, Loving Eleanor
Heidi Heilig, The Girl from Everywhere
Mary Robinette Kowal, Ghost Talkers
Mary Robinette Kowal, Glamour in Glass
Mary Robinette Kowal, Shades of Milk and Honey
Mary Robinette Kowal, Without a Summer
Michelle Moran, Mata Hari's Last Dance
Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea
Julie K. Rose, Dido's Crown
Mary Sharratt, The Dark Lady's Mask
Various, A Song of War
Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad

Monday, December 21, 2015

Books Read in 2015

January

Megan Mayhew Bergman, Almost Famous Women
Laura Foley, Joy Street
Mavis Gallant, From the Fifteenth District
Alex Myers, Revolutionary

February

Anna Freeman, The Fair Fight
Heather Webb, Rodin’s Lover

March

Seth Greenland, I Regret Everything
Jan Moran, Scent of Triumph [DNF]
David Morrell, Inspector of the Dead

April

C.W. Gortner, Mademoiselle Chanel

May

Elizabeth Berg, The Dream Lover [DNF]
Rashad Harrison, The Abduction of Smith and Smith
Mary Slaight, The Antigone Poems
Donna Thorland, Mistress Firebrand

June

Michelle Diener, Dark Horse
Kate Forsyth, The Wild Girl
Paula McLain, Circling the Sun
Kris Waldherr, The Lover’s Path

July

Nalo Hopkinson, Falling in Love with Hominids
Nuala O’Connor, Miss Emily
Chantal Thomas, The Exchange of Princesses [DNF]
P. G. Wodehouse, The Code of Woosters [audiobook]

August

Marci Jefferson, Enchantress of Paris
Naomi J. Williams, Landfalls

September

Karen Abbott, Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy
Jeannine Atkins, Little Woman in Blue
Laura Purcell, Mistress of the Court

October

Kate Beaton, Step Aside, Pops
Andrea Berthot, The Heartless City
Lynn Cullen, Twain's End

November

Kate Beaton, Hark! A Vagrant
Gregory Maguire, After Alice
Various, Castles, Customs, and Kings: True Tales by English Historical Fiction Authors (Volume 2)
Various, A Year of Ravens

December

Sophie Perinot, Médicis Daughter
Stephanie Thornton, The Conqueror's Wife

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Book Review: The Fair Fight by Anna Freeman

Title: The Fair Fight
Author: Anna Freeman

First line: Some folks call the prize-ring a nursery for vice.

Review: I loved this book. I just loved it. The awesome is just one layer upon another: the plot is fascinating, the characters intriguing, the writing spectacular, the author's story amazing.

Shamefully, I didn't pen my thoughts back in February when I finished this, because I was just back to work from maternity leave and feeling even more sleep-lost and fuzzy-minded than I am now. But ten months later, I'm still obsessed with this book, and I hope I can convey enough of what was brilliant to entice some of you to read it.

Set in the late 1700s, the novel is split between three narrators: Ruth, daughter of a prostitute, who gains notoriety and fame as a female boxer; Charlotte, the pox-scarred wife of Ruth's patron, who takes inspiration from Ruth to find her own rough freedom; and George, friend to Charlotte's husband, and complicated third in an unusual love triangle. The voice of each character is distinct and bold, although my love is devoted to Ruth and Charlotte more than George (who is deliciously slimy at times!).

This is a book about boxing, which isn't not my thing, but don't let that scare you from this uh-mah-zing story. While Freeman doesn't soft pedal the violence of boxing, she also doesn't make it overly grotesque or gruesome; I was uncomfortable but not grossed out, and the disquieting savagery was done artfully, grounded in the story and the characters.

And the characters. I was, and am, obsessed with Ruth and Charlotte. The two women couldn't be more unalike (and occasionally, more unlikable!) but they're captivating, and reveal the rough and polished possibilities for 18th century women in London.

Freeman's narrative style is bold and full of personality (read the first chapter here), and it makes this novel so gripping. There's a rough immediacy that holds up to the crazy plot and the intense characters, but it doesn't overwhelm or detract from the story. 
I could not tell anymore how much of the screaming came from my own mouth. I was borne up on the swell of it, I was the sound. We were all howling together, the poor and the quality, the boxing girl and the beast inside my breast. If she was a madwoman, then we were all of us with her, and I had never felt such savage elation, nor known that it existed.
This is a stunning debut novel, the kind of book that makes me so envious my teeth hurt, and it's a top ten read of 2015. (It might be among the ten best reads since I've started blogging, even!)

It comes out in paperback in April 2016, I believe, and you must, must get it. I'll be buying myself a copy!

Genre: Fiction (Historical / 19th Century / UK / Boxing / Prostitution / Sibling Relationships / Marriage)
Publisher/Publication Date: Riverhead Books (4/14/2015)
Source: Edelweiss
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction, NetGalley & Edelweiss

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Book Review: The Conqueror's Wife by Stephanie Thornton

Title: The Conqueror's Wife: A Novel of Alexander the Great
Author: Stephanie Thornton

First line: Alexander deemed himself a god, the mythic descendant of Achilles and the son of Zeus, and entire nations fell to their knees in ecstatic worship of him.

Review: I loved this book. LOVED. Another top ten read for 2015.

To be fair, I anticipated I'd love it, having adored Thornton's previous novels (Daughter of the Gods and The Secret History). But this one, featuring those closest to Alexander the Great, really blew me away.

Unlike her previous novels about Theodora and Hatshepsut, it is the figures in Alexander's life who tell his story (and despite the title, more than wives, too): Hephaestion, Alexander's best friend and lover; Thessalonike, his adoring younger sister; Drypetis, the fierce daughter of Persia's King Darius; and Roxana, the scrappy Persian who becomes Alexander's first wife. Through these four points-of-view, we see a kind of Alexander as they know him: inspiring and loving, angry and vengeful, passionate and curious.

Each of the four narrators is wildly different in voice and tone (although almost all have a flirty/combative relationship with Hephaestion, interestingly enough!). And each figure has a different kind of relationship with Alexander, which makes for an intriguing and more well-rounded portrait. Thessalonike adores her brother while Drypetis wishes Alexander dead. Roxana is determined to keep Alexander captivated while Hephaestion has a long, deep, and complicated one with this mercurial man. While I never fell in love with Alexander, I was taken with each of these four narrators, mesmerized by their lives and their fierce determination to live.

As with Thornton's other novels, the historical details are wonderfully rendered, rich when needed and otherwise unobtrusive. The meat of this book is the relationships these narrators have with Alexander and each other, but the landscapes around them are neatly evoked and echo, in some ways, the tumultuous emotion racing between our four narrators.

Speaking of emotions, I can't finish this review without remarking on Thornton's handling of Alexander's and Hephaestion's bisexuality.
After a battle, you bed a woman to forget what has happened. You bed a man because he knows exactly what you're trying to forget. (p131)
She does so beautifully; it is normalized and remarked upon in equal part, treated in a manner that feels historically accurate without injuring bi/queer readers. There's nothing explicit, either hetero or homosexual, however, for those who aren't in the mood for a bodice ripper (and in fact, the sex here is a far cry from romance, really; a sobering reminder of how bodies are used and traded).

Thornton became an author I automatically buy after her first book; this one just confirmed her as one of my favorite historical novelists. No matter the era or figure, she manages to pluck figures from past and breath into them personality, life, and emotion. This is escapism at its best: treat yourself, and the other hist fic fans if your life, with this one!

Genre: Fiction (Historical / Ancient / 4th Century / Greece / Middle East / Alexander the Great / Romantic Relationships / Historical Figures Fictionalized / LGBTQ)
Publisher/Publication Date: NAL (12/1/2015)
Source: Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction

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GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to offer a copy of The Conqueror's Wife to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US readers only, ends Jan 1. See my Giveaway Policy for complete rules.


Monday, December 14, 2015

Interview with Ruth Downie, Stephanie Dray, E. Knight, Kate Quinn, Vicky Alvear Shecter, S.J.A. Turney, and Russell Whitfield

I just loved A Year of Ravens, a fabulous collaborative novel about the story of Boudicca and her rebellion against the Romans. It was gutting and gruesome, and had me in tears often. I've a soft spot for Boudicca as well as the stories of women forgotten by history, and A Year of Ravens handles both beautifully.

I'm so delighted to share my interview with the seven authors of A Year of Ravens -- Ruth Downie, Stephanie Dray, E. Knight, Kate Quinn, Vicky Alvear Shecter, S.J.A. Turney, and Russell Whitfield -- who reveal some fun tidbits about the process of creating this novel, working together, and what surprised them.


Where did the book's title come from? (And who came up with it?)

STEPHANIE: Kate, Eliza and I were at Panera Bread trying to think of a title that would go with our previous release, ‘A Day of Fire’ and I stumbled onto ‘A Year of Ravens.’ I loved it so much that I then wouldn’t let them change it to anything else.

ELIZA: Stephanie’s genius took this one!

KATE: I suck at titles, so I let Stephanie do the heavy lifting there . . .

SIMON: I came to the project with the title already in place. I wouldn’t change it for the world. It’s fantastic. Stephanie at her best.

RUSSELL: Like Simon, I came in when it was already titled.

How did each author land on their character/POV? Was it challenging to knit so many different points of view into a single narrative?

RUTH: I knew I was writing the aftermath of the Roman outrage and we’d seen the royal viewpoint in Stephanie’s story, so I chose a slave as a complete contrast. It was great to have her react with characters who were actually created by other people, instead of projections from inside my own head!

STEPHANIE: I was supposed to write from the POV of the Roman procurator’s wife, Valeria. Meanwhile, Vicky Alvear Shecter was supposed to be writing about Cartimandua, but the Queen of the Brigantes was talking to me instead. So we all swapped!

ELIZA: I really really really wanted to tell the story of the daughters, because their history has quite literally never been written other than a few lines here and there which give us virtually nothing about them, other than they were raped. No names. No stories. I wanted to give them a voice, and I really hope I did them justice. I don’t think it was challenging to knit our POVs--it was fun to see my girls come alive in the other stories!

KATE: I picked a warrior so I had eyes in that final shield wall, and gave him the high-born Valeria as a slave so he had someone to argue with - they were Rome vs. Britanniaon a one-on-one level. I loved their arguments.

VICKY: When I realized we didn’t have a Druid in the story, I became obsessed by the idea.

SIMON: I was assigned the point of view of the Iceni in my brief for the story to help balance the various viewpoints. I might have screwed that up a little by giving him a somewhat Roman past, but it all worked out in the end.

RUSSELL: I think they thought “Russ is known for violence and swearing… and so are his books. Let’s give him the Army bit.” No, Agricola’s tale was on the slate when I was invited and I asked if I could do that one.

How was research for this novel handled? Were all participating authors armchair experts in this era?

RUTH: I have a longstanding obsession with Roman Britain - maybe because I went to school in Colchester, the first town Boudica’s army burned down. I just think I’m lucky to have found a job where this is seen as vaguely normal. Or at least, useful.

STEPHANIE: Because of my previous work, I’m particularly versed in Roman client kingship. But the ancient Britons were a total cipher to me so I was so grateful to pull in writers from the UK! We all helped each other, and Ruth was our wonderfully picky fact checker.

ELIZA: I know quite a bit about “Celtic” culture, but I stuck to the others’ expertise as far as Roman. There were several books I used for research: Boudica by Vanessa Collingridge; Boudicca’s Rebellion by Nic Fields and Peter Dennis; The World of the Celts by Simon James.

KATE: I pretty much lived inside my “Daily Life Among the Celts” tomes.

VICKY: I used this opportunity to purchase a number of scholarly books on the Druids because there is so much fantasy around the religion. There are actually only a handful of beliefs that have some kind of ancient mention, so I concentrated on those.

SIMON: I’ve been writing about the Romans and the Celts for the past decade, and my education is in classical history. Though my previous subject is the Republic vs. Gaul, the slip from there to Empire vs. Britons is remarkably easy.

RUSSELL: I just make it all up and blame wikipedia and Ruth Downie when it’s wrong. I didn’t think the time-travelling Ninja attack from the helicopter was a bridge too far, but I was voted down on that one. That and some very handy online resources - I knew a little about the Roman Army to start with, so it was really the events that I had to get right.

Was anyone surprised by something that happened in their own writing -- a scene, a character, or a sentence?

RUTH: I knew that writing from the point of view of a character who’d survived sexual violence was going to be challenging but I hadn’t expected it to have quite the emotional impact it had on me.

STEPHANIE: I was taken by surprise when my Roman procurator, Decianus, turned out to have had a mother who committed suicide for honor. I blame Russ, whose story got me thinking in that direction.

ELIZA: I was surprised at how strong Keena became, because she started out so frail. It was exciting to watch both of my characters grow and reach their ultimate goals.

KATE: I knew I wanted my Celtic warrior and my Roman woman to develop a grudging respect for each other despite culture clash and the slavery issue, but I didn’t know if I could pull it off.

VICKY: I wanted to understand how individuals rationalize terrible violence and I was surprised by the moments of humanity that kept poking through and how each boy shoved it away, calling it a sign of weakness.

SIMON: I was surprised at how my principal character grew far beyond the bounds of my original plan. He was a three dimensional character anyway, but when the other authors added their thoughts and ideas to the mix, he became four dimensional at least. I love the finished Andecarus.

RUSSELL: I don’t know - I was surprised at how real one of the minor characters - Paulinus - became to me. I felt possessed when I was writing him, I could really see it all in my mind’s eye. Even when I sobered up.

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My thanks to the authors for their time and thoughtful answers, and to Amy at Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours for facilitating!

Check out other reviews and interviews via the blog tour page, which includes purchasing info as well.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Weekend reads and the guilt, oh, the guilt!...

I am so behind on reviews! I have about seven books to review, I think, not including the ones I'm currently reading, and I'm trying to avoid looking and the calendar and panicking. (It's okay for me to review 2015 reads in 2016, right???)

If there's been one theme to my blogging year this year, it's this: feeling behind. My sweet, bookish baby just captivates me, so if I'm not working, I'm with him. But I also think I'm still struggling with some postpartum depression, because I have a hard time sitting down and writing -- be it a blog post, book review, or even work on my novel. (NaNoWriMo was mixed -- I didn't "win" but I did manage nearly 11,000 words and maintained about three weeks of regular writing.)

I've decided to seriously scale back my blog expectations for 2016. So far, I haven't signed up for any book tours and I'm trying to keep from doing so. (I don't think I've posted a book tour review on time once this year.) I'm requesting stuff still from NetGalley and Edelweiss, but I plan to read only if it really catches my interest. I'm hoping to do more "free range" reading and broaden my reading horizons via #WeNeedDiverseBooks and Book Riot's Read Harder challenge.

And since I'm swimming in guilt, my weekend read is Christy English's How to Seduce a Scot, and it is just the fluffy, silly, sexy, and fun read I need. (But when will I review it, eeek?!?!?)

What are you reading this weekend?

Monday, December 7, 2015

Book Review: Médicis Daughter by Sophie Perinot

Title: Médicis Daughter
Author: Sophie Perinot

First line: In my dreams the birds are always black.

Review: The extent of my knowledge about Marguerite of Valois begins and ends with the sumptuous 1994 film starring Isabelle Adjani, but the drama of her marriage and the days following have stuck in my mind for more than a decade. I've been dying to get my hands on this book since learning of it, as I enjoyed Perinot's debut and was eager for her take on the infamous French royal and her notorious family.

I was rewarded with a stellar read, a top ten for 2015, and I have no doubt I'll be haunted by this one for a long while.

Opening in 1562, a decade before her marriage, the novel is narrated by Marguerite. A smart young woman who craves the love of her mother -- Catherine de Médicis -- Marguerite is powerless against her conniving, mercurial family. Her brothers love her, but their affection comes with an enormous price tag. Marguerite wrestles for what small power she can, among which is a love affair at a time when surrounded by very few who truly loved her for her. But that, like so much else, costs her, too, and the heartache, cruelty, and betrayal Marguerite experiences is presented in plain, unvarnished light.

As with her previous novel, Perinot doesn't smooth over the rougher aspects of life for women in this historical era nor does she tone down the drama of the Valois family: there's enough soap opera-y drama to make this fun, but everything is anchored by Marguerite's voice and character. She's a different woman at the end of the book than at the beginning, and her development felt authentic and real. Surrounded by some over-the-top personalities (like her mother, ohmygod, her mother!), Marguerite manages to hold her own despite her powerlessness and it makes her choices following her marriage even more staggering and stunning.

This novel has one of the most deliciously satisfying closes I've read in very long time. Although I yearned for more of Margot's years, the precise moment Perinot chose to end the book with had me both cackling with triumphant delight and sighing a small, teary sigh.

Genre: Fiction (Historical / 16th Century / France / Royal Intrigue / Valois / Historical Figure Fictionalized / Coming of Age / Mother-Daughter Relationships
Publisher/Publication Date: Thomas Dunne Books (12/2015)
Source: The author
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction