Friday, September 30, 2016

Weekend reads and chilly times...

It's been a crazy week in a crazy busy month. The flowers pictured were a thank you from my staff group after our retreat this week. It was wonderful to see all my colleagues in person and rejuvenating to my work, and the flowers were just icing on an already delicious cake.

The orange folder you see peeking out from the corner contains notes from my Novel Generator classes. I can't believe it, but I'm one of 14 novelists who are in this program, which is designed to help writers finish a first draft in nine months. I just finished up the second session last week, and I've already learned so much.

I'm returning to my novel idea from my 2013 sabbatical, the historical novel set during the pre-Civil War years known as Bleeding Kansas. It's a novel that daunts me so I'm really hopeful this course will help me learn craft as well as hone in on the kind of research I still need. (The overwhelming research and deep themes are partially why I abandoned my horrid first draft!)

My weekend read is Julie K. Rose's Dido's Crown, a historical novel set in 1930s Tunisia. It's an adventure novel against a war story, with bittersweet threads and a tough heroine who is seriously believable (at one point, she wakes up realizing she's drooled in her sleep. It's fabulous.)

What are you reading this weekend?

Monday, September 26, 2016

Book Review: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Title: The Underground Railroad
Author: Colson Whitehead

First line: The first time Caesar approached Cora about running north, she said no.

Review: This novel, a new Oprah pick, imagines the Underground Railroad as a literal railroad. Our heroine Cora escapes on it with another slave, Caesar, and they travel through the south in hopes on making it up north to freedom.

Though a real railroad, it doesn't offer a direct route to freedom: each passenger must choose a route and hope the station at the end is open. Cora and Caesar find themselves first in "liberal" South Carolina, but paradise is tainted (perhaps my favorite chapter, brilliantly recasting actual history). From there, Cora lands in places worse and less worse as she travels the rail line.

While the majority of the novel is in Cora's point-of-view, about a third of the novel follows Ridgeway, the slave catcher pursuing Cora -- fueled by his lingering fury at not catching Cora's mother decades earlier. There are one-off chapters featuring other POVs (her mother's chapter -- ohemgee, that one killed me!) but Cora is so appealing, the chapters without her were the loneliest for me.

An incredibly readable literary novel. Touches of magical realism with flat out realism; imaginative smudging with the historical timeline, too. I was captivated until the last chapter; the end didn't do it for me, however. It felt incomplete. (I haven't read Gulliver's Travels, which I think this is modeled on; perhaps that's how it ends?)

Still, I'm torn about "enjoying" this one; I'm haunted by Kara Brown's Jezebel article "I'm So Damn Tired of Slave Movies":
" I’m tired of watching black people go through some of the worst pain in human history for entertainment, and I’m tired of white audiences falling over themselves to praise a film that has the courage and honesty to tell such a brutal story. When movies about slavery or, more broadly, other types of violence against black people are the only types of films regularly deemed “important” and “good” by white people, you wonder if white audiences are only capable of lauding a story where black people are subservient."
It's different, of course, from a film made by white folks, but I still wonder if I'm feeding that machine. Need to sit with this a little and figure out the thornier parts. But a good novel, an accessible one.

In this year of #blacklivesmatter, Whitehead articulates the various ways America allows black lives to matter -- they don't; or they do if they [spoiler]; or they do if they accept the word of God; or, if, if if...

From a third into the novel: " might think one's misfortunes distinct, but the true horror lay in their universality."

Genre: Fiction (Historical / Mid-19th Century / US South / Slavery / Underground Railroad)
Publisher/Publication Date: Doubleday (8/2/2016)
Source: NetGalley
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Teaser Tuesday, September 20

Teaser Tuesday is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Books And A Beat.

I'm currently reading Anne Boileau's historical novel about Martin Luther's wife, Katharina Luther: Nun, Rebel, Wife.

This teaser is from the start of the novel, as a pregnant Katharina, a former nun married to a former monk, faces intense derision from the townsfolk.
I longed to return to the security and anonymity of my life in the convent. Or to my time with the Cranachs, when I was just one of the fugitive nuns, of no great import; I could go about my business without anyone taking any notice. But when I married Martin I became famous, like him; many people respected me because they knew and liked us both; but others were afraid of me, even hostile, and no longer honest. So that Friday morning in April I felt all the doors closing upon me. I felt trapped from without by hostility and malevolence, and from within by the child growing in my belly, a child which some say is an evil thing, the Antichrist as foretold in Revelation. (p4)

What are you reading right now? Any teasers to share?

Monday, September 19, 2016

Mailbox Monday, Sept 19

Since I've seriously scaled back on my reviews (and then, frankly, stopped doing pretty much any not associated with a tour, le sigh!), I've not got gotten as many unsolicited copies any more. It bums me out from a blogger perspective, in that it's one big indication that I'm not as active here as I should be, but on the other hand, I'm grateful I don't have to deal with the clutter of books I probably won't read.

I'm still a bit free with my requests for e-book ARCs, however, and I have been chewing through a handful of those this year. Here are some recent arrivals on this Mailbox Monday. What have you gotten? Any of these appeal to you?

Print Copies

Ebook Copies

Kate Howard, The Ornatrix
Sara Flannery Murphy, The Possessions
Laurie Notaro, Crossing the Horizon

Aprilynne Pike, Glitter
Cherie Priest, The Family Plot

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Giveaway Winner!

Late...but better late than never, right?

The winner of The Dark Lady's Mask is ... Joel N.!

Congrats! I've got a few more giveaways coming up (including an international one!), so be sure to check my blog this week and next. Hope everyone has been having a lovely weekend!

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Book Review: Without a Summer by Mary Robinette Kowal

Title: Without a Summer
Author: Mary Robinette Kowal

First line: Jane, Lady Vincent could never be considered a beauty, but possessed of a loving husband and admirable talent, had lived thirty years in the world with only a few events to cause her any true distress or vexation.

Review: This is the third book in Kowal's Glamourist series, a series of historical fantasies set during the English Regency, following glamourists Jane and her husband Vincent. (Here are my reviews for the first book and the second.)

After their tumultuous run in with Napoleon's forces while in Belgium, Jane and Vincent are back in the UK with Jane's family. Commissioned by an Irish Catholic family to do some glamour, Jane and Vincent find themselves becoming embroiled in a political plot against the coldmongers, who are being blamed for the unseasonably cold weather that summer.

Kowal picks up some of the emotional threads from the previous book, most notably Jane's sister Melody's moodiness although the spoiler! from book two is only barely alluded to here, disappointingly.

I've never been so dedicated to a series that has been so uneven for me; in all honesty, I almost DNF'd this one as I stalled out about 3/4ths of the way through before rallying. I was mostly exhausted by the emotional development of the characters. Vince's brooding felt less Darcy-like and more flat out sulky; I noted in my initial thoughts that Jane out-and-out irritated me, although right now I can't recall why.

What was appealing in this story was the pointed inclusion of a person of color in the narrative, a tertiary character, but a notable one nonetheless. As Kowal discusses the importance of diversity in historical fiction, I appreciate her working to incorporate it in her works.

Another review that damns with faint praise, I know, and I don't know why I'm doing this to myself. It's not fair to Kowal, I suppose, since I know what the books are like -- and yet, I want so badly to be immersed in this world that I keep trying. (I will say that I liked the fourth book, Vanity and Valour, very much, so I'm glad I kept trying!)

Genre: Fiction (Historical / Regency / Magic / Marriage / Sisters / Political Intrigue / Class and Society)
Publisher/Publication Date: Tor Books (3/18/2014)
Source: My public library
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction

Monday, September 12, 2016

Bloggiesta To Do; or, getting stuff done

Just a few books needing reviews...
I was just bemoaning on Twitter that I don't know how to get back into reviewing when someone suggested Bloggiesta, the quarterly marathon housekeeping blogging event to help bloggers do the stuff that keeps a blog spiffy and sharp. I always mean to participate, and never seem to pay attention to the dates, so I'm grateful the universe made me whine online at just the right time!

In looking at the list of books I still need to review, I realized if I actually did them all now, I'd have a review to post every weekday for a month. (!) It's ridiculous -- especially as most of the un-reviewed books are five star squeefests -- they deserve some love!

Anyway, here's hoping doing some blog work with the support/pressure of others doing the same will be motivation. Lots of folks advised me to try doing minireviews, so I'm going to aim for that as well -- better say a little something than a lot of nothing, right??

My to-do for this fall's Bloggiesta, which runs this Thursday through Sunday:
  • write three reviews
  • cross-post those reviews on GoodReads and Amazon
  • do one Bloggiesta mini challenge
  • change or fix one thing on your sidebar
  • change one thing on your layout and/or look
  • comment on other Bloggiesta partipants blogs
Any of you participating in Bloggiesta? Have any other tips for getting out of the not-reviewing rut?

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Interview with Mary Sharratt

I recently read, and luuuuurved, Mary Sharratt's historical The Dark Lady's Mask, a biographical novel about Elizabethan poet Aemlia Lanier. I'm thrilled to share this interview with Ms. Sharratt. She talks about this book as well as her past books, and introduces me to the word "powerfrau" (!). Read on to learn more!

Photo of Mary Sharratt, author
Author Mary Sharratt
Was The Dark Lady's Mask the original title of your book?

Yes, although in the beginning, I was debating whether to call it THE DARK LADY’S MASK or THE DARK LADY’S MASQUE after the court masques that were the only venues in England at that time in which women could act upon the stage—because they were wearing masks! I opted for THE DARK LADY’S MASK. Concealment and revelation form a major theme in the book.

As you were writing The Dark Lady's Mask, was there a particular scene or character that surprised you?

Aemilia’s husband, Alfonse Lanier, surprised me.

This was not a match made in heaven. When Aemilia discovered herself pregnant with the Lord Chamberlain’s child, her lover unceremoniously pensioned her off at £40 a year and married her off to Alfonse Lanier, an Anglo French court musician. This young man, some years younger than Aemilia, presumably married her for her money. The historical Aemilia complained bitterly about her husband to Simon Forman, her astrologer. She lamented that he wasted her money and treated her harshly.

In my novel, I struggled to find the right fictional treatment for Alfonse. I wanted to respect the historical record in portraying Aemilia’s despair and anger about her ill-starred marriage and yet reveal Alfonse as human and not a just a horrible husband. Nor did I want to depict Aemilia as an abused wife. So I gave her the upper hand with a “shrew’s” sharp tongue and witty repartee to keep her husband from getting the better of her. And then I found a way into Alfonse’s vulnerability that made him come alive for me.

Despite the unpromising beginning of their marriage, the historical Alfonso Lanier became his wife’s great champion. One of the few surviving copies of her book, Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, was her husband’s gift to the Anglican Archbishop of Dublin. So Alfonso was actively publicizing and promoting his wife’s book, as though he took the greatest pride and delight in her literary accomplishment.

Your novels cover so many different eras and locales; what do you do to ground yourself in the setting of whatever your current project is?

With a combination of deep, immersive research and a kind of imaginative time travel. L.P. Hartley said it best: “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”

When writing a historical novel, I do my utmost to truly inhabit that other “country,” to steep myself in its worldview.

When writing ILLUMINATIONS: A NOVEL OF HILDEGARD VON BINGEN, I listened over and over again to Hildegard’s music. I also made a special research trip to visit all the sites associated with Hildegard around Bingen on the Rhine.

With DAUGHTERS OF THE WITCHING HILL, it was a bit easier, because the searing story of the Pendle Witches took place almost literally in my backyard. I inhabit the same landscape as these women did. The ancestral memory in the land still whispers back the words of Mother Demdike, the cunning woman and healer accused of being the ringleader of the other so-called witches. I realized I had to write her story first person, in the local Lancashire dialect, something I found quite intimidating as an American expat. But once I surrendered the voice of the story to Mother Demdike, the pages just flowed and flowed. I felt I wasn’t making it up, just listening to her tell me her tale.

With my new novel in progress, ECSTASY: A NOVEL OF ALMA MAHLER, I made several research trips to Vienna, including an unforgettable visit to the Vienna Opera where Gustav Mahler once worked as director and chief conductor. In fact, I just returned yesterday from a tour of Alma and Gustav’s summer homes in Austria and South Tyrol in Northern Italy. Being physically present in their old haunts really helps me to feel their essence.

Research isn’t just about reading books to research the dry facts. It’s about visiting historic locations and soaking up the vibes. I find that if I keep immersing myself in my characters’ day-to-day experience, the voice of their story will rise by itself.

Do you have a favorite heroine from your published works?

That’s a tough one because I lived inside the skin of all my heroine’s, but Hildegard of Bingen was the ultimate powerfrau.

Her parents offered her up to monastic life as a child oblate. She was bricked inside an anchorite’s cell, condemned, as it were, to a life of silence and absolute submission. And yet she triumphed to become a visionary abbess and polymath. She composed an entire corpus of sacred music and wrote nine books on subjects as diverse as theology, cosmology, botany, medicine, linguistics, and human sexuality, a prodigious intellectual outpouring that was unprecedented for a 12th-century woman. She wrote the first known description of the female orgasm. And she extoled the virtues of beer drinking, saying it was most wholesome and pleasing to God. What’s not to love? I can’t imagine a stronger woman. Whenever I find myself in a quandary, I ask myself, “What would Hildegard do?”

Read any good books recently?

Elena Ferrante’s epic novel, The Story of a New Name, completely swept me away. It was so powerful. A truly searing coming of age story set in mid-twentieth century Naples, Italy.

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