Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Guest Post by Lynn Cullen

Thank you, Heather, for inviting me to guest post. You ask, what do I hope readers take away from the story, i.e. what is the strongest message from the book? That’s a great question. There are actually several points that I hope readers will think about when reading the book, but today I’d like to talk about my favorite: the power of desire.

You know how in the book there is an ongoing courtly debate about which is the greater in love, desire and fulfillment? This argument, though played as a game by the Queen and her admirers, goes to the core of the story. Desire is the emotion that gets so many of the characters in trouble… actually, it gets all of them in trouble! But isn’t this how it is in life for all of us? We are driven by craving for something — for love, for attention, for success, for a family, whatever. We desire, and if we are fulfilled, we then desire something new. I keep this quote by Leonardo da Vinci handy:
“…Man who with perpetual longing always looks forward with joy to each new spring and each new summer, and to the new months and the new years, deeming that the things he longs for are too slow in coming; and who does not perceive that he is longing for his own destruction.  But this longing is in its quintessence the spirit of the elements, which finding itself imprisoned within the life of the human body desires continually to return to its source. And I would have you to know that this same longing is in its quintessence inherent in nature, and that man is a type of the world.”

To me, this sums up the nature of our existence completely. I wonder if k.d. lang knew of Leonardo’s words when she wrote the song “Constant Craving”, one of my all-time favorites.

But what fun we have in our craving, (when it’s not painful!) and without it, what would ever be accomplished?

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Creation of Eve by Lynn Cullen - 400 pgs

Book CoverAfter being caught in a compromising situation while studying with the great Michelangelo, Sofonisba Anguissola, a premiere painter of her time, decides to leave her home in Cremona, Italy to become the painting instructor and lady-in-waiting to the new Queen, Elisabeth de Valois. Arriving at court, Sofonisba meets the young and inexperienced queen as she first arrives at the palace, never expecting that Elisabeth will become her most cherished friend. Though the relationship between the king and queen is at first cool, the king soon becomes greatly enchanted by the young queen and begins to excessively dote on her and endlessly attempts to produce an heir with her. The queen, full of spirit and life, soon turns her attention elsewhere and finds that she has much in common with the three new young men in court: the king's son Don Carlos, his nephew Don Alessandro, and his illegitimate half brother Don Juan. The naïve Elisabeth quickly becomes entangled in a dangerous love triangle with both the king and Don Juan, a situation that causes no end of worry to Sofonisba. As the king and Don Juan grow ever more enamored of the young queen, the king becomes increasingly jealous and demanding of his wife's attention, a situation that puts Don Juan at great risk. Filled with political, religious and romantic intrigue, The Creation of Eve documents the trials of a powerful woman in love with two men and the havoc it wreaks upon her life as well as Sofonisba's.

The story in this book focuses on two very different women. The first, Sofonisba, is greatly bereaved by her decision to leave her family after a rash act threatens to ruin her reputation. Though she is very successful in her own right, her love for another of Michelangelo's students puts her at a disadvantage and rather than face the threat of scandal, she resigns herself to accept a position at court. As Sofonsiba plots a course to change her future, she realizes that that she is leaving the passion of her youth behind and struggles through her feelings of despair even as she begins her relationship as the queen's confidante. The queen, on the other hand, is young and fresh and hopes that her allure will be all that is needed to keep her husband from straying from her bedside. She is the kind of woman who is not savvy in her intrigues and is unable to keep from casting about in her desire for male attention. Sofonisba and the queen, though both kind and generous women, are very different. While the queen is unscrupulous and flighty, Sofonisba is more secretive and wary of all around her. The juxtaposition between the two woman gave this story an uncommon amount of depth, and I found it very interesting that despite the women's great differences, they had a lot in common as well.

While the queen professed to love the king, it was with great alarm and uncertainty that I read about her relations with the other men at court. The queen, while professing to love one man, flirted shamelessly with another and lusted after yet a third! There were points that she verbally dallied with the king's son Don Carlos, but I suspect this was done in order to keep her real passion for Don Juan hidden. The king seemed to be led around by the nose by the queen, and I believe that is why it took so long for him to discover his wife's passion for his half-brother. It was a wicked game she played, one that kept everyone off balance, with no one but Sofi able to realize exactly what she was doing. I don't think that her escapades were done maliciously; rather I think the queen was just very juvenile in her desire to be loved by all those surrounding her, sometimes to the great danger of others. Don Juan's attachment to the queen was, I think, sincere, but in the game the queen played, she put him in serious danger, making me feel at once sorry for her and exasperated with her. She was at times a bit of a loose cannon, with her affections ranging far and wide.

The king was actually one of my favorite characters in this tale. He was an extremely kind and patient man and seemed to love the queen beyond all measure. When he discovered his wife's feelings for his brother, I felt that he did not act rashly or in anger, choosing instead to remain calm and handle his adversity with honor. Later sections of the book had me wondering what his true motives were towards his wife, and I think the author used this strategy of doubt to the height of its perfection. The reader is left wondering just what the king had done or not done, and forcing a speculation on him that may or may not be valid. It was clear to me that he loved his wife but other aspects of his character were more concealed. Did he or did he not engage in relations with a mistress? Did he attempt to stop his wife's dalliances at any cost? It's never clear what the king was capable of, for he only showed what he wanted to be seen. A very shrewd man he was, of that I am certain. There were many sides to his character and he remained malleable throughout the narrative.

Sofonisba's story was definitely the most touching of all the narrative threads in this book. Her fear and reproach for herself was hard to bear witness to. Though she struggled to remain strong, she was constantly filled with doubt and a suspicion that she could not shake. I feel that the author excelled at her creation, and witnessing her walk through her life with so much regret was like watching a woman live in slow motion. Unfortunately the things she left behind were never to be regained, a fact that saddened and sobered me, and although she gave so much care and attention to the queen, she was not able to do the same for herself. Hers was a story steeped in pain and heartache.

This was an excellent story told with a great lushness of language and brilliant intimacy. There was a great gravity to all the events that unfolded in the tale and a natural rhythm to the narrative. I think that those who enjoy historical fiction would greatly love this book, as would those who love stories that are filled with unexpected intrigue. I did so much enjoy this book and am excited to see more by this author. A great tale to get swept away with, highly recommended!

About Lynn

Lynn Cullen is the author of the young adult novel I Am Rembrandt’s Daughter, a 2007 Barnes & Noble "Discover Great New Writers" selection, and an ALA Best Book of 2008. Her previous award-winning novels and picture books for children include the critically acclaimed Moi & Marie Antoinette, The Backyard Ghost, and The Mightiest Heart, for which she was named 1999 Georgia Author of the Year. An avid traveler and self-taught historian, she grew up in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and now lives in Atlanta, Georgia. This is her first novel for adults.

Visit Lynn Cullen at her website.

TLC Book Tours I read and reviewed this wonderful book as part of a TLC Book Tour, so a hearty thanks to them for providing it to me. Please continue to visit the other stops on the tour to find out what others have to say about the book!

Friday, April 2nd:  Thoughts From an Evil Overlord

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Winner of Raven Stole the Moon!

Book Cover The winner of the giveaway for a paperback copy of Raven Stole the Moon is

Congratulations, Lisa! If you entered this giveaway and were not a winner this time around, don't fret! I will be hosting a few other fantastic giveaways in the near future!

Monday, March 22, 2010

The Wives of Henry Oades by Johanna Moran - 384 pgs

Book Cover Based on the real life account of a 19th century bigamy case, The Wives of Henry Oades tells the story of a British accountant and his family in New Zealand. The family has relocated for Henry's temporary posting with a governmental job. Deciding that the cramped flat that they have been assigned is too small to house the family, Henry builds a cottage for his wife and children in the countryside. One morning while Henry is at work, a bloodthirsty group of Maori savages invades the house and takes Margaret and the children captive and burns their home. The Maori then march the family deep into the wilderness. They are held captive as slaves for six long years. When Henry discovers that his wife and children are missing, he presumes them dead and tortuously grieves his terrible loss. Henry decides to leave New Zealand for a fresh start and ends up in America where he is given a job as a dairyman. After some time, he meets and falls in love with Nancy, a beautiful pregnant widow, and begins his life anew. When his employer dies and leaves Henry the farm, the couple dreams of spending their quiet life together but are surprised one morning to discover Margaret Oades and her children on their doorstep. Mr. Oades' first family, having been released by the Maori, have made a grueling trip to return home to him, not knowing that he has a new family now. Henry, a kind and caring man, cannot stomach sending Margaret and his children away in poverty, so he decides to move them into the home he shares with Nancy and live his life as the husband and father to two separate families. This arrangement does not sit well with the local population, and soon Henry is imprisoned for bigamy. In this fast paced and riveting drama, Johanna Moran tells the unique story of Henry Oades and his two very different wives.

Imagine my surprise to discover that this book highlighted a culture that I have only recently become acquainted with, namely, the Maori population. This book dealt very differently with the indigenous peoples of New Zealand, but I found it very interesting to revisit this culture once again.

I really enjoyed this book for many reasons. One of the main reasons that this book was so engaging to me was because the writing style was very fluid and absorbing. There weren't a lot of wasted words and page space in this story and the intense and convivial quality of the writing made the grist of the plot seem to jump off the page. I also tend to enjoy stories that a have a good mix between plot elements and character elements, and this story fit that bill exactly. This was a story that had a wonderful human interest quality and one that didn't attempt to moralize Henry Oades' decisions. I fully understood his decision to not send Margaret away and felt that I might have made the same decision had I been in the same situation. The characters in this drama were all people that I could relate to and understand, which went a long way to further the believability of the story.

One of the most interesting things about this book was the relationship that Henry had with his wives. He did not remain romantically involved with both of them, instead choosing to focus his ardor on only one of the women. This brought a delicious tension to the narrative and made me feel very sorry for the woman who was not chosen to receive Henry's attention. The women at first reacted with anger and hurt at the situation, but as the story wound on, they manged to come to a sort of agreement between themselves and formed a close sister-like bond. Henry walked a fine line between the women, never making the outsider feel jealous, which put a lot of pressure on the favored wife. I found myself becoming very involved in the saga that the women faced and found myself liking both of them for very different reasons.

The reaction of the community to Henry's plight infuriated me. They never stopped harassing the women and children and found ways to make the blended family miserable, despite the fact that no one of either family did anything to enrage them. Henry and his wives were visited multiple times by the decency commission, and each time they forced their way into the home and tried to forcibly remove the women. They seemed to have no way of understanding the unusual situation and instead of trying to be enlightened and tolerant, chose to lambast and ostracize the Oades group. This went on time after time, and it was a constant source of heartache to both of the women and Mr. Oades.

The children of this blended family were also interesting to behold. The fact that they had two mothers only confused them initially. Once the situation in the house began to settle down, the children seemed to go on about their lives without much trouble. It was fascinating to see both of the women sharing the children and the responsibilities that they brought, and I marveled at the fact that neither woman was jealous with the fates of her own children. The only thing that seemed to mar the children's domestic tranquility was the interference from the outside community.

I would definitely recommend this book to other readers for a bevy of reasons. First of all the quality of the writing was not only outstanding, but captivating. The second reason for my recommendation is for the strange and compelling tale that it tells. I believe it would be very hard for a reader not to get caught up in the story of the two Mrs. Oades. Lastly, I think that this book has a lot to say about the society and lack of tolerance of the time that it attempts to capture. A very enjoyable and entertaining read. Recommended.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

If You Follow Me by Malena Watrous - 384 pgs

Book CoverWhen twenty-two year old Marina arrives in rural Japan to teach English, she brings along her girlfriend Carolyn and a tremendous amount of emotional baggage that she has been carrying since her father committed suicide. She soon comes to discover that living in rural Japan is a lesson in contradiction and strangeness. First off, there are the massively restrictive gomi-rules which require her to obsessively monitor her trash output, a feat which she can never seem to manage no matter how the locals scold her. Then there is the teaching job itself, in a school where real educational instruction seems to be put on the back burner in favor of technical advice and socializing. Lastly are the strange relationships that she shares with the local people, people who offer a strange kind of friendship tinged heavily with reprimand and advice. Though Marina and Carolyn are keeping their relationship status a secret from the locals, they are beginning to have an increasing amount of quarrels, leaving them ostracized from each other and the people surrounding them. Marina is also having issues with her supervisor and friend Hiro, a man who takes it upon himself to write her admonishing letters about the gomi situation and who seems to take a special interest in her personal affairs. As Marina navigates her way through the ever-changing strangeness of Japan, she discovers her true feelings about her father's death and her relationship with Carolyn, and comes to find her place in a very different and unintentionally hilarious new society.

I really loved this candid and thoughtful little book. Through her use of a dry style of comedy, Watrous is able to capture the eccentricities of rural Japan and its inhabitants in some really clever ways. Though the book was at times bittersweet, I felt that overall the story was told with a great amount of irreverence and originality, and it kept me entwined in the narrative circle throughout the whole experience.

I really liked Marina, and her confusion over the aspects of her life made her a very winsome character. She had so many issues in Japan, from the ever-growing tension of her hidden relationship to her trials with the local community and the strange camaraderie between Hiro-san and herself. She never felt sorry for herself though, which made me like her even more. She was at times very put upon, not really understanding where she fit in the society that she had been placed in, but she wasn't aloof and unfeeling in her adventures. I think some of the best parts of the book were the original reactions that Marina had to her surroundings and neighbors, her wonder and perplexity finished over with a cool veneer of acceptance and toleration. I felt bad that she had so many gomi problems as well, for that seemed to be her biggest battle. It was really funny to see the way the neighbors and Hiro-san kept returning the trash to their house after a wrong attempt had been made at disposal. The Japanese in this story were completely engrossed with their garbage and the potential recycling of the same. I thought there was a lot of symbolism in Marina's struggle with the trash. In a way it mirrored the struggles she was having with her unbidden emotions, and she was ever trying to put both the trash and her feelings into their proper perspectives and places.

Marina's relationship with Carolyn was fraught with tension throughout most of the narrative. It seemed that both of the women were emotionally bouncing off one another all the time, and the pressure of keeping their relationship a secret made them both act out in different ways. By being so clandestine, they really isolated themselves, and each other in the strictures of silence and acceptability. I thought that Carolyn could be almost a little emotionally abusive at times, for she was so cold and alienating towards Marina, and I was almost hoping that their relationship would come to a swift end. It didn't seem like they really fit together very well. They had different interests and different ways of showing emotion, and I thought that at times, Carolyn was a weight around Marina's neck that she would be better off without. Their relationship, fostered by the aftermath of tragedy was almost damaging to both of them, so I was glad that there was a bit of a resolution to their woes about each other.

One of the best things about this book was the way that it highlighted Marina's attempts at friendship with the local Japanese people. Marina was so different from them, and it took a long time for her to be able to really mesh with them, both in her personal and professional life. She had a very accepting view of the Japanese, and formed all different kinds of relationships from crushes to friendships to colleague-type relationships. The Japanese were very accepting of her, though they never lost an opportunity to try to guide her more correctly down her path. Her relationship with Hiro-san was, I think, my favorite part of the book. He takes a liking to writing her warning letters about her gomi infractions, but what first appears to be criticizing becomes the basis of a very deep and moving friendship that gave the plot of this book a winning edge.

As Marina comes to understand rural Japan, she also comes to deal with the tragedy of her father's death. There are some very insightful and emotional scenes of Marina's struggle to accept the fact of what her father has done and there is a lot of depth to her character and her actions. Her conflicting feelings about her father go very far in explaining her strange relationship with Carolyn and her desire to move half way across the world to teach in Japan. In running away from her home to Japan, she has outrun the devastation of what her father had done, and it is only natural that she must move through her strange notions of grief to obtain some kind of peace in her life. I felt very sympathetic of Marina's situation. She seemed lost most of the time, just going through the motions to fit in, but underneath there was a growing tidal wave of anger and confusion running through her.

I must also mention that this book is extremely funny. Most of the humor comes in the strangeness of everyday situations. As a Westerner, I felt that Watrous really captured the absurdity that one can feel being surrounded by people who are so different from you, yet strangely the same. The social customs of the people that surrounded Marina, along with their perplexing love of garbage, provided a lot of comic relief to the story, which I feel would have been too maudlin without it. As it was, there was a perfect balance between the odd and the tragic, making the book seem weighty yet somehow emotionally uncluttered.

I think that those readers who like unusual stories or stories about Americans on foreign soil would do well to pick up this book. It was a tremendously engrossing read and was not predictable in the least. If you gravitate towards humor with a literary bent, this book would be perfect for you as well. It was a fun read and one that didn't bombard you with its messages, though it did have them. In the back section of the book, there are some great interviews with the author in which she writes about her own strange experiences in rural Japan as well as highlights a few of her favorite books about the area. I really liked these sections and thought that they were a welcome addition to the book. I do think that this book would appeal to lots of different readers, so I urge you to give it a shot. I doubt you will be disappointed!

About Malena

Malena Watrous is a graduate of Barnard and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, She was recently a Stegner Fellow at Stanford where she’s currently a Jones Lecturer in fiction writing. Her Pushcart-nominated work has appeared in Story Quarterly, Glimmer Train, Triquarterly, The Massachusetts Review and Kyoto Journal. She also contributes to and reviews books for the San Francisco Chronicle. She lives in San Francisco.

Connect with Malena Watrous on Facebook.

TLC Book Tours A warm thanks to TLC Book Tours for providing this book for me to read and review. Please continue to follow the tour by visiting these other blogs:

Wednesday, March 17th:  Stephanie’s Written Word
Thursday, March 18th:  nomadreader
Monday, March 22nd:  Books and Movies
Wednesday, March 24th:  Book Chatter
Tuesday, March 30th:  BookNAround
Wednesday, March 31st:  Bookstack

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Raven Stole the Moon, Review and Giveaway** by Garth Stein - 464 pgs

Book CoverAfter an argument with her husband at a party, Jenna Rosen impulsively takes off on an unplanned trip to Alaska. Jenna and Robert have been struggling with their marriage since their young son Bobby drowned at a posh resort near the Alaskan coast. The fight is the last straw for Jenna, who drives away from the party in her husband's car and boards a ferry taking her to what will be a very confusing, yet cathartic destination. Upon arriving, Jenna begins to check out the small town of Wrangell, where she is immediately drawn into stories and legends of the Tlingit Indians and the Tlingit kushtaka spirits, who are the thieves of souls. Meeting a local man named Eddie who offers her a room in his home in which to stay, Jenna is quickly drawn into strange circumstances and she soon comes to believe that the kushtaka spirits are not just a legend. Jenna has reason to believe that these spirits have stolen away her son's soul and that they are after hers as well. With her relationship with Eddie becoming more than just platonic and her growing belief that the malevolent kushtaka spirits are vying for her soul, Jenna escapes once again to find an Alaskan shaman to help her outrun the kushtaka and to restore her son's soul to rest. Blending elements of magical realism with the interpersonal story of Jenna's life, Raven Stole the Moon is a very complex and dark work of fiction.

I have read numerous good reviews of Garth Stein's book The Art of Racing in the Rain, and though I have not yet read it, I have been looking forward to sampling something by this author. I was very pleased to have been contacted to review this book, a re-release of Stein's first work of fiction that forays deeply into the magical realism genre. I have to say that the book was a little different than what I had been expecting, but nonetheless it was a great reading experience.

First of all, I felt that the relationship that was portrayed between Jenna and her husband Robert was very convincing and realistic. The arguments that they got caught up in were intensely dramatic and real and at times I would wince at the abuse that the two of them were hurling at each other. At no time did I feel that the couple didn't love each other anymore. Rather I felt that the heartache that was their son's death had compromised their emotions and minds and they couldn't seem to get any kind of emotional equilibrium achieved. It was very sad to see them so distraught, and by alienating each other, they were really alienating themselves. There are some sections of the book that deal with Jenna's total inability to cope with her child's death and her foray into prescription drug addiction and alcoholism. I felt that those sections were also realistic and they made me feel doubly sad for Jenna because it was clear that she had no handle on her feelings at all. When she basically runs away from her husband to travel to Alaska, I had been hoping that she would be able to use her time away as a means of healing herself and putting the past behind her.

But Jenna doesn't seem able to outrun her past, because from the moment she sets foot in Alaska, forces beyond her control seem to be gathering towards her, pushing their way into her mind and forcing her to believe in things that she finds at first outlandish. When she meets Eddie and begins to camp out at his house, he stresses to her the bizarreness and unbelievability of the ideas that Jenna is beginning to have, which drives a wedge between them. Though they are both attracted to one another, the tension of their differing beliefs keeps them apart, and it is in this section that we first begin to see the subtle magical realism in the tale creeping out of the story.

Though Robert is frantic to find his wife, Jenna seems to have no time to devote to thoughts of Robert, or Eddie for that matter, because she is starting to feel oddly compelled to discover whether the legendary kushtaka spirits have stolen her son's soul. Though it seems to be an off-the-wall assumption, the nuances of the story make it almost credible that Jenna would be looking towards these spirits for her son's salvation. The magical elements in the story were crisply delineated but didn't come off as awkward of clumsy. They also had a very artistic feel to them, which went far in my eyes to build towards a compelling and interesting conclusion. I think part of the reason for the feeling of cohesion in this story were the mythological qualities of the stories peppered throughout the first half of the book. Through the use of these stories, Stein captures a lot of the local feel of Alaska and its Native American inhabitants, greatly detailing stories of the Tlingit Indian spirit Raven.

In the last two sections of the book, the story turns sharply from interpersonal narrative to a detailed and frightening magical realism novel. Jenna is pursued and captured by the kushtaka spirits and it is not clear what will happen to her or, for that matter, her soul. Jenna also finds interesting information about the whereabouts of her son's soul and the story builds towards a heart-racing confrontation between the humans and the spirits who want to absorb them. I found this battle between the kushtaka and the humans to be woven really tightly into the story and because of the slightly otherworldly aspect of the earlier plot, it didn't seem like the story was overwhelmed with awkward and outrageous elements. In fact, I felt that the story's conclusion had really been built solidly on its magical realism foundation and it all came together in a rather scary and mind-bending way.

One thing that I thought I would mention in this review is the kushtaka spirits themselves. They come into the story as a sort of shape-shifter whose natural shapes seem to be of very human looking otters. These shape-shifters find ways to isolate human souls in peril and then take them down to their underground warren where they are transformed into kushtaka themselves. It is said in the story that once they have abducted you, you are never able to leave and that theirs is a hellish existence that no one would chose for themselves. They are remarkably frightening when they show up in the story as well, looking almost human but for the black glossy eyes and craggy teeth. They are also very forceful about abducting the humans, changing their shapes into those of people that the characters know and trust, stealing them away into the night with nary a sound. Stien mentions in the afterword of his novel that almost all of the otherworldly aspects of his story, including the kushtaka, have come directly from the real legends of the Tlingit Indians who inhabited this part of the world. I was really interested in that bit by the author and felt that he did an exemplary job of incorporating these legends into his tale.

I thought that this was a very interesting and diverting story and I think that those who have read other books by Garth Stein might be interested in this singularly unique tale that he has told. I think it's very different from the other books that he has out there and I really ended up liking it a lot. I also think that those readers who enjoy stories imbued with a good dose of magical realism would get a lot of enjoyment out of this tale. It's just spooky enough to make you want to read it in a well lit area but it also has the organic and personal feel of a novel about relationships. A very uncommon story by a well loved author. Recommended.

The publishers of this awesome book have generously offered one paperback copy to my readers. If you would like a chance to win it, please leave a comment on this post with your e-mail address, so I can contact you if you win. A valid e-mail address must be left in order for you to be entered in this giveaway. The winner will be selected at random on March 25th. Good Luck to all entrants!

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.
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