Friday, September 30, 2011

Mr. Fox by Helen Oyeyemi — 336 pgs

In this surreal and inventive tale, an author goes to great lengths to avoid alienating his wife as he falls in love with the imaginary muse that haunts his mind and fires his creativity. Mr. Fox is an author struggling to find purchase in his fictional imaginings. For some reason, he seems to have a penchant for killing off his leading ladies in very violent and bloody ways, and though he’s expert at creating mischief in his fictional worlds, Mr. Fox is looking for some new inspiration. She arrives in the form of Mary Foxe, a woman who lives solely in Mr. Fox’s mind. She’s a woman who is at once creative and enigmatic, and as she engages Mr. Fox in ever more complicit games of creativity, she begins to show him that they can co-exist very happily in the world of fiction. But there’s a problem, for Mr. Fox is married to Daphne, a very high-strung and easily offended woman who’s not happy that she has to compete for her husband’s attentions with a figment of his imagination. But as Mr. Fox’s heart is being tugged in two different directions, the ephemeral Mary Foxe is becoming more and more real, much to the consternation of Daphne and the delight of Mr. Fox. Studded in between bits of this very unusual love triangle are the stories that Mr. Fox and Mary have been so busily creating, and as Mary becomes more and more physically tangible, these stories begin to morph as well, leaving the strange and bloody gore behind and becoming stories that capture the subtle and exquisite machinations of the heart. Both versatile and complex, Mr. Fox is a treasure of the imagination that captures its readers in its unusual emotional vortex and hold them there with deft precision and skill.

When I began this book, I had no earthly idea what I was getting myself into. Often I like to go into a book having read little to nothing about it, figuring that this will enhance my pleasure and involvement in a story that’s completely new to me. While this usually works wonderfully, sometimes it backfires, as was the case with this book. As I dove in and read along, I realized I had no idea what was going on here! This was in part because the story opens with several short pieces of fiction that seem to share some of the same themes and characters, but not much else. Although it took me awhile to figure out what was happening, I didn’t dare put this book down due to Oyeyemi’s impressive and elastic way of setting her stage and creatively imbuing her tales with a strange and diverting life that I couldn’t ignore.

As the story progresses, the viewpoint shifts from exploring Mr. Fox’s fictional offerings (all starring a different version of his muse, Mary) to exploring the problems that Mr. Fox and Daphne are having keeping their love alive and fresh after the intrusion of a new imaginary paramour. Daphne is of course jealous, for Mary has been created as the perfect woman, and it seems to her that Mr. Fox would rather spend his time with his creative consort than with her. Though she realizes that it’s silly and ridiculous to be jealous of a woman who doesn’t even exist, she can’t help feeling rejected and discarded. But it’s Mr. Fox who has the greater dilemma, for he’s actually in love with both women and can’t decide between a love that lives only in his mind or a love that lives and breathes right next to him. Both women share a lot of the same qualities, which makes Mr. Fox’s situation and decisions even more precarious.

What I really loved about this book were the chapters that showcased the fictional stories written by Mr. Fox. These stories ranged the gamut from the sad to the wise to the violent, and in their creation Oyeyemi creates several very complex tales that veer between myth, fable and morality tale. I admit it took awhile to see exactly what she was doing, but when I discovered that this book wasn’t only a tale of a strange love story but an examination of the power and fluidity of fiction, I became very engaged and excited to see where it would lead. And I can’t say enough about the vision and originality of these stories. They were dark and powerful and wild, and they held an unforeseen energy that I couldn’t look away from. As the story of Mr. Fox and his two women becomes more clear, the stories running alongside lengthened and became more complex, like separate mosaics caught in the unwavering sunlight.

When Mr. Fox’s dilemma is finally solved, one woman is finally turned away and the other is left to gloat over her spoils. And even in this choosing, Oyeyemi surprised me, for events happened in a very clever way. At the last, we’re left with two competing short stories, one heartbreakingly stunning and one joyously flawless, proving to this reader that Oyeyemi is not only talented in the linear and organic ways of storytelling, but also in the figurative and indirect. This was a book that caught me completely off guard and held me captive with its odd style and brilliant execution. I would heartily recommend it to those looking for something that is both striking and original. A great read, highly recommended.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

SIBA: The Authors

On Monday I posted a big recap on SIBA the event, but felt that it was somehow incomplete. Having shared all the events with you in what became a super long post, I realized there was no way for me to fit in the author component of the weekend. So, I decided to write up a post for today that shares a little bit about the amazing conversations and experiences that our little group of bloggers had with the authors of SIBA.

Our first author sighting came when we had a wonderful and funny conversation with Taylor Polites, whose first book, The Rebel Wife is sure to be a favorite of mine. Taylor was relevant and erudite, and explained the backstory and influences surrounding the creation of his book. We were lucky to bump into Taylor quite a few times over the course of the weekend, and each time we did, he had a kind word or funny story to share with us.

Our next author encounter was with the elegant and intriguing Jennifer Niven (Velva Jean Learns to Fly) an author whose books readers have come to relish and love. We spoke with Jennifer for a few minutes before her panel, and she shared a little bit about her previous non-fiction book, which dealt with the 1913 Canadian Arctic Expedition (which I have to say is a must read for me!) and her current project of turning her best selling book The Aqua Net Diaries into a television series. Jennifer was friendly and attentive to our every question, and got me very excited about perusing her pages.

Later that afternoon, we were lucky enough to get to spend some time with Alma Katsu, the author of The Taker, which was a book I really relished. Alma shared the intricacies of creating the book and told us how the next books in the series were progressing. For those of you that have read The Taker, there are some pretty big surprises coming up in the following books! Alma shared a little about what her life was like before becoming an author, and we peppered her with questions about what it was like for her to concoct the amazing story she did. She was extremely friendly and put us all at ease, and we all enjoyed her company so much that our time with her just flew by.

Saturday morning on the exhibition floor, we were very excited to get the chance to speak with Tom Franklin, whose book Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter was a blogger favorite. Tom was extremely down to earth and gracious about meeting a little pocket of fangirls. He told us a little about what he’s working on now and shared a bit about his family with us too. He even agreed to pose for a picture with us before heading back to immerse himself in the festivities.

Saturday evening, the bloggers were both excited and lucky to have won the bidding to dine with  three favorite authors, and we were delighted to discover that we would be sharing our table with a fourth as well. We all headed downstairs to climb aboard the bus that would take us to Vickery’s Bar and Grill. The authors we were lucky enough to have join us were Marybeth Whalen (She Makes It Look Easy) Wendy Wax (Ten Beach Road), Lisa Patton (Yankee Doodle Dixie) and Jim Minick (The Blueberry Years). Our dining companions were lively and entertaining, and a great time was had by all. There were some great discussions about books, blogs and life, and the southern food was to die for!

The four of us had many, many great interactions with the authors of SIBA this year, and though I’d love to share each and every little story and detail with you all, I chose just a few of the many amazing meetings we had to share with you today. I’m telling you, if you want great times with great authors and you want to be totally immersed in the world of books, SIBA is definitely the place to be. I couldn’t have imagined a more wonderful weekend, and I’m already thinking about next year’s trip!

Monday, September 26, 2011

SIBA 2011 Event Recap

This year, the SIBA Trade Show was held in Charleston South Carolina. Though it was a bit of a trek from my hometown of Orlando, the awesome Sandy from You’ve Gotta Read This and I decided we would make a road trip of it, and our 6½ hour drive was filled with excited and eager chatting. Arriving in the mid-afternoon on Friday, we were ready to get our geek on, and SIBA became an event of excitement and fun that we won’t soon forget. Friday evening, Sandy and I were honored to meet the wonderful Swapna from S. Krishna’s Books, and excited to be reunited with Kathy from BermudaOnion’s Weblog. We had a great time getting to know one another and reminiscing, and decided we would go out to dinner and stop by a party to kick off a wonderful weekend.  We first made our way to a SIBA Welcome Party hosted by Nathalie Dupree and Cynthia Graubart and their husbands, Jack Bass and Cliff Graubart  at their beautiful home in Downtown Charleston. Nathalie and Cynthia co-wrote the cookbook Southern Biscuits, which looks divine and delicious, and I’ll definitely be trying out a few of their recipes. After the party we discovered it was restaurant week in Charleston and luckily squeezed our way into a table at 82 Queen Street, a restaurant that was both suave and delicious. Here is a photo from the restaurant:

Saturday morning we were up early for breakfast and then more chatting. We attended a mid-afternoon panel called Hideous and Haunting featuring W. Scott Poole (Monsters in America: Our Historical Obsession with the Hideous and the Haunting), Kala Ambrose (Ghosthunting North Carolina), Alma Katsu (The Taker), Kristen Painter (Blood Rights) and Kimberly Griffiths Little (Circle of Secrets). This was a very exciting panel that was chock full of interesting tidbits about some books that would be perfect for those of you who might be participating in the R.I.P. Challenge.

After the panel, we headed over to the Kick Off Lunch where we were treated to a great meal and a fascinating and eclectic selection of authors showcasing their books. We got a chance to hear about some great new children and YA reads from AVI (City of Orphans), Kadir Nelson (Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans), Gordon Korman (The 39 Clues: Cahills vs. Vespers Book 1: The Medusa Plot), and Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl (Beautiful Chaos) It was nice to see such a variety of children’s books, and I have to say that all of the speakers were very passionate and thoughtful when discussing their work.

After lunch, we made our way to a late afternoon panel which was entitled Book Club Reads, where we met the authors of several enthralling new works of fiction that are due to be on your shelves soon. The amazing authors and books featured were R. Overbeck (Leave No Child Behind), Matt Matthews (Mercy Creek), Kent Anderson (Cold Glory), Jonathan Odell (The Healing), Taylor Polites (The Rebel Wife) and Neil Abramson (Unsaid). You have my word these are books you’re going to want to be reading, and each author spoke eloquently and amusingly about their work and inspiration.

After our full afternoon of bookish goodness, we attended the First 180 Days Party which focused on all the great books that were released in the first half of 2011. I got a chance to meet and speak with many wonderful authors including Natalie Dupree and Cynthia Graubart (Southern Biscuits), River Jordan (Praying for Strangers), Wendy Wax (Ten Beach Road), Man Martin (Paradise Dogs), Nicole Seitz (The Inheritance of Beauty), Mary Alice Monroe (The Butterfly’s Daughter), Signe Pike (Faery Tale), Lisa Wingate (Larkspur Cove) and my good friend Marybeth Whalen (She Makes It Look Easy).

Sunday morning bright and early found us at the To Morrow Today Breakfast where we got a chance to hear a few wonderful authors discuss their new books. We were delighted to hear Dorthea Benton Frank (Folly Beach), Susan McBride (Little Black Dress) and Wiley Cash (A Land More Kind Than Home) speak about their new books. It was a great chance to get a sneak peek into these very intriguing books.

We spent the afternoon wandering the exhibit floor, where we met with many new and old friends from some of our favorite publishing houses while oohing and aahing over all the exciting new books that will be coming to the shelves of your favorite indie over the next few months.

Sunday afternoon found us taking our seats at the Southern Life Lunch, where we had the pleasure of hearing Ron Rash (Waking), Stuart Dill (Murder on Music Row), Michael Lee West (Gone With a Handsomer Man) and Hillary Jordan (When She Woke) speak about their new books.

In what was the coup of the weekend, we four bloggers attended the Writer’s Block Auction and Wedding on Sunday evening. There we had the pleasure of attending a mock wedding ceremony between two SIBA members and enthusiasts, and had the chance to bid on an author for a dinner date. We were all very pleased to be able to take Marybeth Whalen, Wendy Wax, Lisa Patton, and Jim Minick to dinner that evening. There will be more on that front in my upcoming post about the authors of SIBA.

As things wound to a close on Monday, we were lucky enough to be able to see the 60 Reps. 60 Seconds Each. 60 Books You Don’t Want to Miss presentation, where we heard about some amazing new books that will be sure to be crowd-pleasers. We then attended The Moveable Feast of Authors Lunch, where each of our respective tables was visited by a handful of authors who shared their new books with us and answered any questions we may have had. My table was visited by Holly Herrick (Tart Love: Sassy, Savory, and Sweet), Sandra Brannon (Lot’s Return to Sodom), Randy Russell (Dead Rules), Jillian Lauren (Pretty), Sherri Castle (The New Southern Garden Cookbook), Marjory Wentworth (Taking a Stand) and James Valentine (Southern Appalachian Celebration). It was a great chance to get to get to speak to these authors one-on-one about their books.

As we all drifted our separate ways after The Moveable Feast, we could hardly believe the great times, great conversations and great books we had been able to be a part of, and were already thinking of how best to share all the amazing highlights of our trip with everyone within earshot. We drove home from Charleston early Tuesday morning feeling a little nostalgia for all the people and places we were leaving behind, and vowing to make SIBA an annual tradition in years to come. If there was one place for book lovers to be on this crisp September weekend, it was in Charleston South Carolina, at SIBA. A place where a bibilomaniac’s dreams come true. A special thanks to the incomparable Wanda Jewell, who made this event the bookish event of the year.

Stay tuned for a post that features SIBA and the author experience!

Friday, September 23, 2011

Fiction Ruined My Family by Jeanne Darst — 320 pgs

Buy the BookIn this provocative and fast paced memoir, Jeanne Darst explores the ups and downs of being a member of a family of defunct writers, and explains how this has shaped her life as well as her ambitions. As a child growing up, Jeanne always knew that many of her relatives hailing from her father’s side of the family were authors of some kind or another. Whether journalists, biographers or fiction writers, the people in her family took reading and writing very seriously. But where Jeanne really throws her focus is on the life of her father, a man who has been laboring over his masterwork on F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald for decades. With zany insights and an affable style, Jeanne tells the stories of her father’s love of words and wordsmithing, his utter inability to make this type of life work for him, and of her mother’s eventual spiral into the depths of alcoholism. Both bizarrely fascinating and humorously adept, Fiction Ruined My Family is Jeanne’s attempt to explain her family’s ever puzzling contortions through their literary creations, to her eventual decision to become an author and playwright herself. Through it all she exposes the sacrifices and stumbling blocks she faces while trying to emulate the father she loves but secretly resents at times. Startlingly funny and at times emotionally piercing, Darst takes her readers along for the ride as she explores the lightness and darkness that encompasses a family of authors both famous and obscure.

I’ve come to realize that I am a memoir lover. I love all types and flavors of memoir, and some of the best I’ve read have been those that focus on normal people who have extraordinary tales to tell. This was one of those tales. Though at time Jeanne could slip into vulgarity, most of her tale was simply too strange and involving to ignore. There was a feeling of sharing her confusion at her insistence on living a life that had proved very disastrous to those closest to her, and a sense that her drive to live this type of life almost bordered on a compulsion at times.

This book was very tightly balanced between levity and sorrow. Though there were pages and pages of funny outtakes from Jeanne’s life, she would occasionally throw in a scene that would just floor me with a humble sorrow for what living this type of life had done to the members of her family. It was these glimpses into the profound starkness of living a struggling author’s life that really made an impression on me. Both Jeanne and her father lived a hand-to-mouth existence most of the time, and both found themselves profoundly suffering in search of their art. This led to many uncomfortable recriminations from other members of the family. Jeanne’s mother had an especially hard time with her husband’s career and found herself drowning her unhappiness and disappointment in alcohol. The book was filled with an extensive array of amusing anecdotes, there is no mistaking that, but overall I got the impression that living this type of life could be extremely demanding and difficult.

Jeanne’s involvement with her father and his work really became the central focus of this book. As their relationship matured over time, it was Jeanne’s reflections on the struggles of his life and her fear that she would end up following in his footsteps that really drove the scope and narrative of this memoir. The angst she felt in having to deny herself a life in literature was compelling and even intensely moving at times, and one could see that these mental conundrums were painful for her to live through. I think the sections about how her father’s career had decimated her mother’s life were the most moving and sad parts in what was to be a very pithy but ultimately sobering book. Jeanne tells it all without censoring, and at times her honesty and candor about the life she was living made me a bit uncomfortable. But at its roots, this was a book about the alternating passion and reluctance that one person can feel about their life’s ambition to become an author.

I think this book would be of great interest to anyone who nurses a spark of creativity in their heart, and would probably make a lot of people understand both the pros and cons of letting go and following their dreams to their eventual fulfillment. It was at times a distressing read, but there was a lot to recommend it as well. It certainly revealed the intricacies of a kind of life I’ve long been curious about, and I think those readers who take a chance on this book might be surprised at how it all works out. A very intense but thought provoking read.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Have You Gotten In On Club Read Yet?

There’s a great reading event scheduled right around the corner! This October, get ready for Club Read, an all-inclusive 24 hour getaway that gives readers unlimited and unprecedented access to a dozen top authors. Guests will have the literary time of their lives with a series of personal readings, great meals and socializing with the authors participating in this year’s event. The list of author attendees is exciting indeed! Readers will love the opportunity to spend some time with Matthew Norman, whose book Domestic Violets has been the talk of the blogs for many weeks now, and Dolen Perkins-Valdez, the author of Wench, a book I instantly fell in love with. Blogger favorite Adriana Trigaini will also be in attendance, featuring her new book, Don’t Sing at the Table, along with Amy Stolls, author of The Ninth Wife, which was one of my favorite reads of the year. I could go on and on about all the great authors who will be there to read and chat with, but instead, I’ll leave you with a link that will give you all the information you’ll need. Club Read will be a great opportunity for readers of all kinds to escape their regular lives for one magical day and make some unforgettable memories with their favorite authors. Check it out for yourself, over at Club Read!

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan — 352 pgs

In this winding and complex narrative, we meet a group of eclectic individuals and share the stories of their lives as seen through the twisted vagaries of time. Sasha is a beautiful kleptomaniac with a heart of gold, who works for record producer Bennie, a man on the brink of being passe who has taken to enhancing his morning coffee with gold flakes that he thinks will cure his impotence. Spiraling backwards, we meet Bennie as a young teenager and get a look into his life and the lives of his friends as they traverse the punk scene of the eighties. We also trip backwards into the life of Lou, a badly behaved and narcissistic record producer. From there, the story flashes forward and back, traipsing through the past, present and future, encompassing the lives and times of a group of people connected through the six degrees of separation. This is a story of angst, camaraderie, and most of all music, and Egan, exploring the saying that time is a goon, gives us a tale that bends in its fluid structure and whips in perspective from character to character, giving us a tale that not only beautifully encompasses the lives of a group of people moving through time in an emotional path that traverses the bounds of conventional storytelling but turns it into a fine tuned art.

I had been wanting to read this book for awhile, and having read several great reviews of it all over the blogosphere, I knew it was only a matter of time before I read it for myself. Then it won the Pulitzer, and a little fire was lit under me not to let this book languish on my shelves any longer. And I ended up loving it. It was strange and somewhat directionless, but it was like nothing I’ve ever read before, and I enjoyed every last word. Egan does a great job with this ambitious story, and where it could have been a huge and sprawling mess, I found it to be intricately paced and very ingeniously plotted.

In the first few chapters, the reader is introduced to a handful of characters and is served a brief snippet of their lives. Sasha is stealing and trying to get help. Bennie is feeling old and out of it and is eating gold flakes. Then whoosh, we’re off, and everything is moving in the realm of tangents and one-offs, and we’re discovering just how Benny got to be who he is today, and are meeting other people who have a brief and fleeting relationship with our main characters. As the chapters push forward, we get closer and farther from Bennie and Sasha, but, like the characters in Six Degrees of Separation, all of these people are somehow related to each other. Egan handles this beautifully, and the only way to describe it is to imagine stepping into the lives of a crowd of people and jumping from perspective to perspective as you go careening through their life stories. But there’s no awkward confusion, no grasping or lingering uncomfortably as the story stretches aimlessly forward. Just a deep and resonating thrum as everything turns imperceptibly on its unexpected axis.

Each chapter is a vignette of another life, and as such they come across as a morphing of a short character study and a stylized short story focused on a the central themes of music and time. As we patter backwards and forwards through these characters’ lives, we begin to see that there’s no real linear progression in this book. Time is more fluid and expansive in the story that Egan tells, but it’s all done so skillfully that there is never confusion or trepidation when reading and experiencing something out of the ordinary. Time and issues elongate and contract, leading you backwards and forwards as if in a maze. These characters are not only interesting to read about, they are unusually perceptive about the lives they have led and will lead, leaving readers to marvel over the back bends that Egan performs in the juxtapositioning of her tale and its clever character contortions.

At the heart of at all is the reflection of time and what it does to even the most optimistic and casual observer. Egan goes to great lengths to show her readers what it’s like to live both in the moment and to look back on it. Music plays a great part of this book, and though I didn’t really know much about the bands and terminology she used, I found these sections thrumming with just as much life as the other sections. There was even a chapter that was related in a complex power-point presentation, proving that Egan is just as talented at mixing media as she is at creating the type of story that will keep readers flipping the pages and hungering for more. As I watched these characters come together and pull apart, there was a sense of  a rising nostalgia in me, as well as a hopefulness that played about the story’s edges.

Though I haven’t read many Pulitzer winners, I would have to say this book deserves the prize wholeheartedly. It’s a book that has the capacity to make readers nervous, what with all the nonlinear shuffles and strange combinations of characters and situations, but Egan handles it all like a master, so there’s no real reason to be anxious at all. It was a remarkable story that left me pondering for hours after I had turned the last page, and I heartily recommend it to readers who haven’t yet given it a shot. A complex but fascinating read. Highly recommended!

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Women of the Cousin’s War: The Duchess, the Queen, and the Queen’s Mother by Phillipa Gregory, David Baldwin & Michael Jones — 352 pgs

Book Cover In this stellar work of comparative history, Phillipa Gregory and her counterparts David Baldwin and Michael Jones undertake a literary excavation of three of the most powerful and influential women at the center of The Cousin’s War (or the War of the Roses). As Gregory states in her introduction, there is so little documentation surrounding these women that the authors had to piece together documents and sometimes speculate about the history to uncover the secrets behind these women’s power, determination and drive. Sharing their information with clarity and skill, Gregory, Baldwin and Jones recreate for the reader the intricacies of 1400’s England and share the political intrigues and motives that sparked the most vicious conflict over succession in England’s history. As the authors explain the many details of the factions that tried again and again to advance their champions into the seat of power, they share the private lives and public challenges of the three women who were at the center of it all, and go on to share the secret longings, scandals and motivations that surrounded each of these women. This is a complete history of the Cousin’s War that spares no detail and is both delectably readable and compulsively entertaining. A more thorough history could not be imagined, and in Gregory’s treatment of the subject, even those who know little about the Cousin’s War can walk away replete with knowledge and deep understanding.

It’s no secret that Phillipa Gregory’s books and I get on like a house on fire. She is an author whom I’ve come to understand will give me the history that I need mixed with a generous dose of scandal and speculation in her historical novels. I can’t get enough of her writing, and indeed, when life gets overwhelming, her books are the ones I run to for comfort and respite. Gregory’s books are like the best kind of brain candy for me. I was very interested in reading this one, though it’s a departure for Gregory, because I was interested in seeing her try her hand at straight history. I wasn’t disappointed with it in the least. I especially admired Gregory’s brief essay at the beginning of the book regarding the differences and similarities between history and historical fiction, and why she makes the personal choice to write in the genre that she does. Settling into the grist of her tale, Gregory employs a great deal of skill in unpacking the Cousin’s War for her readers, never skimping on detail or drama. Her writing partners complemented her style wonderfully, and also did a great job with explaining the very complicated history surrounding this war.

Gregory was up first with her long essay on the Countess Jacquetta, Duchess of Bedford. Jacquetta may be best known as the mother of Elizabeth Woodville, one time queen of England, but here Gregory gives her history lavish attention and explains how this woman changed the course of history. Jacquetta, a woman of royal birth, found herself as the first lady of both the Lancastrian and York courts, and was a great favorite of the Lancastrian queen, Margaret of Anjou, whom she was also in service to. In fact, aside from the queen, there wasn’t a lady of court that was more highly placed. Gregory goes into great detail recounting her first marriage to the Duke of Bedford, who died in the battle of Rouen in 1485, and the family’s political and social ties with the Lancastrian court. Jacquetta’s second marriage was a marriage of love, which was almost unheard of at the time, and this marriage eventually produced sixteen children. Though few historical documents exist to tell her tale, Gregory shares how the her family’s personal myth of Melusine and the allegations of witchcraft that surrounded her not only put her in the hot seat politically and personally, but how she rose above these concerns and eventually triumphed in securing the hand of King Edward VI for her daughter Elizabeth, which later reprised the allegations of witchcraft against her.

Next up was the essay on Elizabeth Woodville from David Baldwin. Elizabeth, daughter to Jaquetta, was originally married to a gentleman yeoman, John Grey, a marriage of duty that ended when her husband was killed in battle. One day, Elizabeth secures a chance meeting with King Edward VI, and the king immediately falls in love with her and marries her. A marriage for love in this time period is unusual, but the marriage of a commoner to a king is almost unheard of! Baldwin goes on to share the tale of Elizabeth and her great misfortune when her husband the king dies and she is left at the mercy of his brother, the new King Richard. Baldwin also delves into the mystery of the princes in the tower; two of Elizabeth’s sons who are in line for inheritance and who are spirited away by their uncle Richard, never to be heard from again. Like her mother Jacquetta, Elizabeth faces allegations of witchcraft that her status as regent do not protect her from, and her eventual fate indicates that far from being passive, Elizabeth may have had a part in plotting against kings, to her own eventual downfall.

The last essay, written by Michael Jones, focuses on Margaret Beaufort, mother to the eventual house of Tudor and King Henry VII. Margaret Beaufort was a strange specimen, for though she was very religious, she was also a consummate schemer and plotter when it came to putting her son on the throne of England. Whereas Margaret had a troubled childhood and had to live with family disgrace, her eventual childhood marriage to Edmund Tudor produced her only child Henry, who was the light of her life and the focus of her days. Margaret spent much time and attention in the fulfillment of a prophecy that assured her that her son would be king, and was shrewd with her dealings with both the Lancastrian and York courts, taking the opportunities for advancement where they came. Her scruples put her squarely in the camp of the plotters, but Margaret was able to escape this taint and eventually become mother to the King and founder of the Tudor court, her relationship with her son a powerful and strong one for all her life. Margaret’s ability to not only control her destiny, but the destiny of her son and the destiny of England, is a think to be admired and wondered at.

Though this is a long review, it barely begins to scratch the surface of all the intricacies of the Cousin’s War. Readers of this book will be pleased to know that Gregory and her co-authors do amazing things in order to make this tale understandable and involving. Where once there was a void concerning  these women, there is now a definitive text that elucidates curious readers on every aspect of the lives of these three very strong and impressive women and the history surrounding them. If you are at all curious about the Cousin’s War, I would urge you to pick this book up and give yourself over to these authors as they attempt to explain it all, for they do it with verve, wit, and aplomb. A great work of historical literature.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Friday, September 16, 2011

It’s That Time Again!

So, it’s once again time for the SIBA Trade Show, and I’m rather excited to be attending for the second year in a row. This year my good friend Sandy from You've GOTTA read this! and I will be driving from Orlando to South Carolina to attend. As a matter of fact, we should be on the road as you read this! There will be authors and books galore once again, and I’ll get the chance to meet up with some of my favorite and most admired book bloggers, like Kathy from BermudaOnion’s Weblog and Swapna from S. Krishna’s Books. There will also be an opportunity for us to interview the very impressive Alma Katsu, author of The Taker, which I reviewed a few weeks ago, and loved! Unfortunately I won’t be able to make my regular rounds of your blogs until Wednesday morning, but once I’m back, I will of course be returning to regular commenting form. I’ll also have a full report of the event, with pictures of some of the highlights of the weekend. I’ll miss you guys, but I’m really looking forward to indulging myself into full bookish mode! See you soon, my friends!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Sandalwood Tree by Elle Newmark — 368 pgs

The Sandalwood Tree: A NovelMartin is a scholar who’s been sent to India to document the effect of the Partition that’s taking place in 1947 India. When his wife Evie decides she wants to tag along and bring their young son Billy, Martin is initially reluctant. But Evie persists and eventually wins out. Arriving and living those first few months in India is an idyllic adventure for Evie and Billy, but Martin is having trouble both in his marriage and in India itself. It seems that Martin is hiding some secrets about his time as an allied soldier in WWII, and these stresses are pushing him further and further from his wife and child. Evie is at a loss to explain what’s going on with her husband, and when she discovers a cache of ancient letters behind a brick in her kitchen wall, she uses the drama unfolding from her discovery as a way to distance herself from her ever-increasing problems with Martin. The letters Evie discovers are correspondence and journals dating back to 1857, and tell the story of two very unconventional Victorian ladies named Felicity and Adela who come to India to escape the threat of having marriages foisted upon them. As Evie hunts down clues to the women’s past, she uncovers a strange story of love and loyalty amid a backdrop of political tension that exposes them to the dangerous political rifts of India during the height of the Raj. Meanwhile, the tension is building around Evie and her family as well, as Ghandi’s plan for his people begins to cause friction and violence that‘s impossible to ignore. As each of these stories winds itself around the other, the tropical lushness of India comes alive, providing a stunning backdrop to two stories of troubled love, heightened cultural difficulties, and devastating and far reaching drama.

I absolutely love stories that take place in India. And while this story was more about British citizens living in India, I felt right at home and perfectly ensconced in this exquisitely articulated tale. I mentioned to my husband that slipping between these pages was like slipping into a warm bath, because the story felt so delicious and well written. Newmark has really done her homework on the all the sticky aspects of the British occupation of India, and all the eventualities that it entailed. The India portrayed here was something that was to be admired and reveled over, due to the level of detail and the lengths that Newmark went to in order to get every last sight and sound of the country into the framework of her story.

The half of the story that focused on Evie’s time in India was a little less involving than the historical story of Felicity and Adela, but there was a lot in it to admire too. Evie was very different than the other memsahibs in India at the time, and she definitely marched to the beat of her own drummer. While most of the other English women treated their Indian counterparts with disdain and had no trouble subjugating them, Evie was more magnanimous and offered the native people her friendship and insights. This didn’t earn her an esteemed place in the other memsahib’s circles, but she hardly cared. A lot of Evie’s mental energy was spent pondering the problems she had with Martin, who was secretive and alienating. Martin worked so hard at assimilating himself into the Indian culture that in some ways he disappeared and became only a shell of his former self. This was a big problem, because Evie felt he was putting himself and the family in danger, and in addition he was shutting her out. When Evie discovers the hidden letters, she’s ripe for the intrigue they provide and sets about desperately trying to learn more. This leads her into some dangerous situations with her young son in a time and place that is tension ridden and at times dangerous.

The other half of this story is mostly written in an epistolary from, and traces backward the thoughts and letters of the two Englishwomen of the past. The two have been friends since childhood, though Felicity was born in India to a very wealthy military family and sent to England for her formal education, while Adela grew up in England. When the two decide to join the “fishing fleet” (a group of English women traveling to India to “fish” for husbands) they both know they don’t wish to marry and decide to take their chances as spinsters in the mountain ranges of India. This life is idyllic and wonderful for a time, but eventually, complications begin to creep in and destroy the life they’ve tried to build together. From the very first, there are problems with expectations and loyalty, and themes of going native among the Indians and ethnic prejudices are explored fully and rather deeply. I relished the unusual story of Felicity and Adela, and found that these sections crept into my consciousness and flowered into some very pervasive thoughts about duty, sacrifice, and unconditional love.

What I most loved about this book was the way Newmark creates a smorgasbord for the senses in her loving descriptions of India. Food, clothing, native foliage, and the land and people are artfully rendered in a way that fully encompasses the story and gives it breathing and pulsing life. There were so many lovely and thought provoking descriptions to wash over the reader, and in this way, the India of this tale unfolded itself and remained almost as a character on itself. I also really enjoyed the way Newmark wasn’t afraid to imbue her story with so many dramatic arches, which were expertly crafted and handled with both ferocity and skin-tingling tension. It’s rare for dual narratives to have equal amounts of well coached suspense, but I can honestly say that in this story, there was a great pull into the dramatic elements of both halves of the story. Though I had inklings of where these tales would end up, the journey was colorful and enticing and kept me avidly reading to find out how the author would arrive at her destination points.

There was a lot here to love, and this book wins a place on the favorites shelf not only for its prowess in being descriptive about a place I love, but also for creating characters and situations that were both believable and diverting. If you’re a reader who loves the India of the past and who might like to explore the politics of the Raj in India in a way that also melds a fabulous set of stories around that information, I would highly recommend this book to you. It was a veritable feast for the senses and a wonderful read all around. Highly recommended!

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Oracle of Stamboul by Michael David Lucas — 320 pgs

The Oracle of Stamboul: A Novel (P.S.)It’s the summer of 1877 in Constanta, on the Black Sea, and a very special baby has been born. From the moment she enters the world, strange and unusual prophecies begin to unfurl. Though Eleanora's mother died during her birth, her father raises her with help from her maternal aunt Ruxandra, and Eleanora winds up being a very precocious young girl indeed. Able to mentally decipher all kinds of knowledge, not only academically but emotionally as well, Eleanora is kept marginalized by her aunt who wishes to avoid scandal attaching to the family name. But talent and skill will out, and soon Eleanora is on her way to becoming a very important fixture in Stamboul, a fate she never envisioned for herself. Meanwhile, the Sultan Abdulhamid II is trying to maintain a tenuous hold on his lands and is being besieged by foreign powers that have very different political aims than he does. Beleaguered with responsibilities to his realm and employing a bevy of spies, the Sultan Abdulhamid II has his eye on a man who has become very dear to Eleanora’s heart, a man who has sworn an oath to her father and who might be at the center of a secret and dangerous side of politics. When the Sultan gets word of the talented girl in his midst, everything about Eleanora’s life begins to change. Infused with touches of magical realism, The Oracle of Stamboul is a whirlwind trip into the heart and mind of a very special little girl, and the people who come to shape and change her life, for better or worse.

This was a story that had two prime focuses. The first thread focused on a young girl who was wise beyond her years. In all matters, Elenora conducted herself as girl who was much more socially and academically advanced than her counterparts, and after a bit of suspension of disbelief, it wasn’t difficult for me to see her as a very special sort of savant who had the ability to both meld herself to her circumstances and also to shape the world around her. I had heard some other readers thought Elenora’s rapid mental progress felt a tad disingenuous, but once I realized a main motivator in this book was Eleanora’s special prowess when it comes to the matters of the mind, I found that I was able to sit back and let the story flow over me more easily.

The second focus revolved around the Sultan Abdulhamid II and his political conundrum. Though these sections were no less detailed and descriptive, I found them to be the less engaging of the two parts of the book. Lucas manages to be very complex and relevant in these sections, but there seemed to be an emotional remove for me personally during these scenes. Part of what I think he was trying to do was to show the Sultan Abdulhamid’s humanness and how his lofty position didn’t preclude him form having the same issues as the people around him, but from my perspective, I much preferred the examination of Eleanora's humanness and splendor. During the main thrust of the book, these two spheres of storytelling continually veered towards and then away each other, eventually locking onto each other in a way that both heightened the dramatic tension of the tale and provided Eleanora a crux from which to deviate from the expectations of the others around her.

I felt it sort of strange that the magical realism in this tale was painted with such a light touch. I liked what I got but would have been tremendously pleased to have had more of it. It’s not as if an inattentive reader could have missed it, but I feel there was room in the story for much more interplay between fantastical elements and the elements of the everyday, and my eyes and mind were expecting the tale to give this angle to me more fully. And I think, based on Lucas’ ability to craft a genuinely eclectic and engaging story, he would have been able to pull off more of a magical realism bent had he decided to. I won’t say I didn’t like the direction and details that he peppered his story with, only that I had hoped there would be a more decided direction to take his tale into the depths of the magical realism genre.

I did end up enjoying this book a lot, and most of that had to do with the very creative and sympathetic creation of Eleanora. Her behavior was never fanciful, but when she was center stage, she shined with life and vigor. Even her heartbreak had the hallmarks of intelligence and aplomb, and for her sections alone, this book is one that I would recommend to a host of other readers. It was a very unusual tale and one that made me consider its heroine very deeply. Though some areas were not what I had expected, ultimately this was a charming and thought-provoking read.

Author Photo About the Author

Michael David Lukas has been a Fulbright scholar in Turkey, a late-shift proofreader in Tel Aviv, and a Rotary scholar in Tunisia. He is a graduate of Brown University and the University of Maryland, and his writing has been published in the Virginia Quarterly Review, Slate, National Geographic Traveler, and the Georgia Review. Lukas lives in Oakland, less than a mile from where he was born. When he isn’t writing, he teaches creative writing to third- and fourth-graders. He is also the author of The Oracle of Stamboul: A Novel.

Find out more about Michael at his website.

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:

Tuesday, August 30th:The Lost Entwife
Thursday, September 1st:Jenny Loves to Read
Friday, September 2nd:Wordsmithonia
Monday, September 5th:Books Like Breathing
Tuesday, September 6th:Literature and a Lens
Tuesday, September 6th:Rundpinne
Wednesday, September 7th:Lit Endeavors
Friday, September 9th:Let Them Read Books
Tuesday, September 13th:Raging Bibliomania
Wednesday, September 14th:JenandthePen
Thursday, September 15th:Café of Dreams
Friday, September 16th:Bookfoolery and Babble
Monday, September 19th:The Book Nerd Club

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Love at Absolute Zero by Christopher Meeks

Love at Absolute ZeroGunnar Gunderson is a physicist with some pretty straightforward ways at looking at the world. While his research delving into the physics of absolute zero is going very well and he’s just secured tenure at the university, Gunnar suddenly feels an intense need to find a mate and wants to act on this desire quickly. While on a small hiatus from his teaching and research, Gunnar decides to devote his three day stretch to finding a woman whom he can settle down with. But three days being what it is, Gunnar finds himself in a pickle when his strange preparations for meeting the girl of his dreams don’t go as planned. However, he’s delighted when a chance encounter puts him in the way of a very attractive woman who is receptive and open to Gunnar in a way that none have been before. From the moment they meet, Gunnar and his paramour are smitten, and when Gunnar agrees to go to great lengths to be with the woman he loves, he has no idea what he’s getting himself into. Thus the three day courtship of his imagination takes on some huge permutations, and Gunnar begins to realize there are huge differences between love and science. In this hugely heartwarming and emotionally eloquent saga of Gunnar and the stirring of his heart, Meeks shares with us a most endearing man, looking for love and enchantment in some very unusual ways.

Every time I discover that Chris Meeks is putting out a new book, I get unusually antsy about getting my hands on it. It’s always a pleasure to discover the way in which he will capture my attention and immerse me in the lives of characters that are so complex and concrete that they are difficult to separate from their real life counterparts. Meeks is always upping the ante and outdoing himself with each successive book, growing and stretching as an author whom I’ve come to trust and admire. This latest book was different for Meeks in that he explored the human comedy and tragedy of love in a perfect arena, juxtaposing it as he did with stone cold scientific fact. It was lovely the way the immutable played against the transcendental, and the way Gunnar emotionally slid from his staunch and scientific opinions on love to a more refined and relaxed attitude when it came to taking a chance and letting the desires of his secret heart be fulfilled.

Gunnar was one interesting dude. While he’s a very successful physicist and not a bad teacher, there’s a component of his life that’s lacking, and it takes a wave of success to realize that he needs someone to share it with. He’s funny and self-depreciating, but unrealistic about love because he doesn’t understand it or how it works. Gunnar is very comfortable looking at love as a scientific problem, and because of this his attempts to solve it as such are usually impractical and don’t make a lick of sense. And when you stop to analyze what Gunnar thinks about love, it’s enough to make you question what love is and wonder if there are any universal rules that apply to love at all. Meeks subtly proposes these questions by putting Gunnar through his paces, and as the reader laughs at the improbable notions of his protagonist, there’s an element of perplexity as to why it shouldn’t be so. Discovering love isn’t like discovering a new isotope or element, but there is the same flush of initial recognition and the same enthusiasm to share your discovery with the world. For all that, love will not and cannot react in an explicit and time tested manner. For Gunnar, this is a realization that comes to chafe at him. While I could sympathize deeply with Gunnar plight, I could also laughingly relate to what he was going through at times. He had an uncanny knack in his humanness to be thoroughly affective and involving, his confusion and beliefs both charged with the spark of genuine humanness that is a hallmark in Meeks’ writing.

When Gunnar decides to immerse himself in the experience of love and to let go of the safety of some of his ideas and his world, he’s in for a rude awakening. This new twist to his love affair baffles and untethers him. Once again, Gunnar tries to insert himself into science, but this time, the results are different. One of the most elegant things about this novel was the way that science and physics were more than ideas. Not only were they solid and sculpted plot elements, they gave the narrative a push/pull between two very different ideas and schools of thought that Gunnar tried to apply to his life. When leaving science behind to venture towards love, Gunnar becomes lost and directionless and finds himself fervently wishing to be ensconced in a world he understands and feels safe to him. But unfortunately, these new directions cannot be reversed so easily, leaving him feeling unmoored and angry. Always at the back of his mind is another opportunity for love that has passed him by, and as Gunnar grows less and less comfortable with the situation, his mind wanders to places where it’s painful for it to go. It was here that Gunnar loses himself and loses his way. The tenderness and confusion of his heart was on full display, and there was an element of hopelessness and melancholy that effused this section of the book and drew me deeper and deeper into Gunnar’s heartache and grief. But no matter how deeply shattered he felt, there was a glimmering light to his personality that clued me in to not counting him out of the game just yet.

While the first sections of the book were lighthearted and comedic, the middle was more somber and reflective. Towards the end, there’s a measure of redemption for Gunnar, and there’s a sense that the time has come for this man. Gunnar’s plight is the path that will take him from the safety of ideas he can hide behind to the raw and uncharted territory of the unknown, finally landing him in a place where he doesn’t need to have all the answers and can let his heart soar. I was rooting for this man to extricate himself from the mire he had unwittingly gotten himself into, but was also appreciative that Meeks gave his character a heart that was truly ardent and that I could relate to without difficulty. As a character, Gunnar grows exponentially, and that’s something I love to see in the books I read. Plot, character and motivation combine into the perfect confection of a book that sees its readers cheering along for the underdog: a specimen who seems to have it all figured out but is repeatedly shocked when his hypothesis doesn’t lead to the desired outcome. Gunnar and his life go from looking into the yawning maw of hopelessness to landing in a harbor of contentment and fulfillment with a satisfying and well deserved conclusion. There are elements that are left up in the air, but one has the feeling that this new Gunnar will react with with a preciseness of the heart that has eluded him before.

This book was another winner for Meeks, and decidedly so. It was in scope and emotion a very different book than The Brightest Moon of the Century, but in some ways, the concern I had for Gunnar both rivaled and matched the concern I had for Edward in Brightest Moon. This is a story that is fundamentally original and inventive. It forces its reader to ask pressing questions about not only the state of the protagonist’s heart and mind, but their own, and proves to both that the ideas we sometimes hold dear may limit us in imperceptible but very life altering ways. A deeply resonant read that manages to be funny without sacrificing its gravity. Highly recommended!

Author Photo About the Author

Christopher Meeks began as a playwright and has had three plays produced. Who Lives? A Drama is published. His short stories have been published in Rosebud, The Clackamas Literary Review, The Santa Barbara Review, The Southern California Anthology, The Gander Review, and other journals and are available in two collections, The Middle-Aged Man and the Sea and Months and Seasons. He has two novels, The Brightest Moon of the Century, a story that Marc Schuster of Small Press Reviews describes as "a great and truly humane novel in the tradition of Charles Dickens and John Irving," and his new comic novel, Love At Absolute Zero.

Christopher's Website.

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

Raging BibliomaniaSept. 12th
Alive on the ShelvesSept 13
Book BriefsSept. 14 & Sept. 15
Booksie's BlogSept. 16
A Casual Reader's BlogSept.19 & Sept 20
She Treads SoftlySept. 21 & Sept 22
This Miss Loves to ReadSept. 22
From the TBR PileSept 23
Butterfly-o-meter BooksSept.26 & Sept. 27
So Many Precious Books, So Little Time!Sept 27
The Book AddictSept 28th & Sept 29th
Lit EndeavorsSept. 30
Books and NeedlepointOct. 5
My BookshelfOct 6 & Oct. 7
Laurie's Thoughts and ReviewsOct.7 & Oct. 10
Gabriel ReadsOct. 10 & Oct. 11
Dan's JournalOct. 11 & Oct. 12
Words I Write CrazyOct. 12
Ramblings of a DaydreamerOct. 13 & Oct. 14
Drey's LibraryOct. 14

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Q: A Novel by Evan Mandery — 368 pages

Q: A NovelWhen the unnamed protagonist of this unlikely and intriguing novel finds himself in love and about to marry a woman he affectionately calls Q, he receives a visit from his future self, who warns him that he must not marry her. At first he’s sceptical and unwilling to follow this other self’s directives. After a few more unpleasant meetings with the man he dubs I-60, the facts surrounding his and Q’s relationship become painfully clear, and it’s up to him to make a choice: Either jettison Q and find himself alone, or marry her and find themselves in horrible straits later on. After making the hardest decision of his life, our unnamed hero continues onward. But much to his chagrin, he’s visited again by an alternate self from a different future, with more advice. Annoyed that his future self seems to always contrive dinner meetings that are both expensive and exclusive, the protagonist realizes he must once again take charge of the situation and change the direction of his fate. But no matter what he does, the visits continue, and situations always need rectifying. In between visits, our unnamed hero contemplates the singular meaning of life, struggles to understand the complexities of evolution, and tries his hand at crafting the perfect novel of alternate history, becoming increasingly complicit in his future self’s plans for the advancements of his future. Both absurd and highly original, Q tells the story of fate interrupted, and shares the intimate thoughts of the man who spends his time, and his future, interrupting it.

I would have to classify this book as riding the edge of absurdist literature, and due to my recent discovery and appreciation of this genre, I think I was unusually receptive to both the tale and the author’s very complex but winning way of relating it. It was the kind of book that came totally out of left field, but kept me laughing and, more importantly, thinking. Mandery has a way of getting to the crux of several different issues, and as the book winds it way through various plot points, he also spends chapter after chapter elucidating these subjects in a very pleasing manner. At certain points, I thought his highbrow attempts at humor and instruction would lose me, but I began to find that, with careful reading, I was able to hang on all the way through, much to my delight.

The time travel that brings our unnamed hero back to his past self isn’t fully explained, and other than the basics, the reader never learns much about how or why it works. In some respects, the time travel itself is the subject of jokes and odd speculations by the protagonist, but it’s never examined closely. More often than not, we are instead treated to intensive and complex philosophical discussions that revolve around the essence of life, the quandaries that surround the evolution of the species, and the transcendental aspects of life and love. The book is part speculative novel and part physiological treatise that manages to avoid being overly stiff and pedantic and instead falls into the category of well constructed and thoughtful exploration of life and its various importances and meanings.

Part of this tale revolves around the various changes the future selves propose and the unnamed protagonist’s adherence to change his life according to their tutelage. It is funny to watch him contort himself into all these different lifestyles, but as I was reading, I began to see that the ultimate message of the book revolved around the futility of life and the decisions we make, thinking they will change and shape our future for the better. In some ways it was a bit nihilistic, but nevertheless, there was an element of truth to it all that was presented in a way that was not only clever, but not overly depressing either, which was impressive given the circumstances that the book was attempting to decipher. Who’s to say that the life decisions we make today will ultimately have the impact we so desire in the future? Mandery examines this is a playful and entertaining way, but the message he seeks to impart is clear and well delivered. In his attempts to make his point, he illustrates it through the life of one man who is willing to do anything to avoid fates that are less than kind to him. Even so, things are made a hash of, and one begins to see that no matter how you order your days, there is really only so much you can control.

The other component of this book that is definitely worth mentioning is its above average humor and creativity. Some books are able to be either smart of funny, but not both. This book doesn’t have to choose one or the other because it excels at being both. Whether he is examining pop culture, little known bits of history or random assignations of the past, Mandery manages to be not only elegant and understandable, but uproariously funny to boot. Pillow dancing festivals and Frued’s amateur attempts at discovering the location of the testes in eels aside, one wonders how much of this book is based on an absurd version of truth, and how much spring forth from Mandery’s imagination. Whatever the case, his storytelling abilities are top-notch, and I can’t even begin to do them justice. There is no discernible direction in this book, which is excellent because everything seems to come perfectly out of left field and manages to linger in the reader’s mind just long enough to be penetrating, only scooting off the stage when the next unexpected tangent comes running through. It was a brilliant feat of imagination, and I was thoroughly impressed by it all.

I would honestly have to say this book is more a thinking adventure than one that you can just let wash over you, but please don’t let that description deter you! It was a solidly crafted tale that went the extra mile to be both humorous and weighty, all done with such panache that it would be a shame for you to miss it. I loved this book and thought that Mandery’s organization of his ideas and his playfulness was extremely satisfying, not to mention curious and strange. If you’re curious, I would advise picking this one up. It’s smart and at times very blithe and just plain good fun. Very highly recommended!

Author Photo About the Author

Evan Mandery is a graduate of Harvard Law School, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, and the author of two works each of fiction and nonfiction.

Visit Evan at his website,

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:

Tuesday, August 23rd:Unabridged Chick
Wednesday, August 24th:Books Like Breathing
Thursday, August 25th:Reviews from the Heart
Monday, August 29th:Amusing Reviews
Tuesday, August 30th:Life In Review
Wednesday, August 31st:The Bodacious Pen
Thursday, September 1st:The Scarlet Letter
Tuesday, September 6th:The Lost Entwife
Thursday, September 8th:Sara’s Organized Chaos
Friday, September 9th:Raging Bibliomania

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Midge Raymond, Author of Forgetting English: A Guest Post

Today I’m pleased to welcome Midge Raymond to Raging Bibliomania for a guest post. I just finished reading and reviewing her short story collection, Forgetting English, and found it to be both perceptive and affecting, which is something rare to find among short stories. So without further ado, here’s Midge, here to discuss her inspiration and to share a bit about her workspace with us today. Enjoy!

On Finding the Story
by Midge Raymond

In this recent photo of my writing space, my cat apparently decided I would have to do without some of my notes—at least until he decided to move to another window.

(This isn’t normally the way I write, but I’ve learned over the years not to attempt to move a content cat. I’ve got the scars to prove it.)

On this particular day, I was working on a revision; this writing space is where I revise. Somewhere between inspiration and finishing a story, I’ll be at this desk figuring it out.
Finding the beginning of a story is the easy part; stories are everywhere. Most of the stories in Forgetting English began during certain moments that stuck with me for one reason or another: The day a ring arrived in the alumni office where I worked (“The Road to Hana”); the moment I saw a Japanese couple clap their hands at the Zozo-ji temple in Tokyo (“Translation Memory”); the time I picked up a hotel room phone to discover someone else’s message (“Rest of World”). Because I have an overactive imagination, it doesn’t take much; all I need is an image, a snippet of dialogue, a gesture—and a story will begin to take shape.

“The Road to Hana,” for example, began when one of my colleagues at the alumni office received a ring in the mail, sent by an alumna who had stolen it from her roommate years ago and hoped we could return it for her. Immediately intrigued but not knowing anything about these people, I began filling in the blanks on my own—and this fictional backstory became a large part of “The Road to Hana.”

“Never Turn Your Back on the Ocean” began during a trip to Hawaii during which I was struck by how many nannies I saw taking care of children, how few parents, and how easy it was to tell the difference. The story simmered in the back of my mind for a while until eventually I wrote a few paragraphs, printed them out, and battled with the cat as I attempted to edit them.

Yet despite story beginnings that seem to write themselves, there’s a reason I need to spend so much time at this little desk: Finding the story is the more challenging part. I write draft after draft after draft, often so many that I lose count. “The Road to Hana” took only six drafts (which is kind of a miracle), “Never Turn Your Back on the Ocean” took eleven, and “Rest of World” took eighteen. And “Lost Art” holds the record for Forgetting English: I wrote it in no fewer than forty drafts.

Writing so many drafts may sound tedious to most people, but for me, it’s the most fun: writing pages and pages of dialogue and description, spending hours in another character’s head, exploring the myriad directions a story can take. The only real drawback is dealing with the scratches I’ll endure from the cat as I try to retrieve my notes—but on some days, he’ll curl up in my lap and purr. And those are the best writing days of all.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward — 272 pgs

Salvage the Bones: A NovelIt’s the summer of 2005 and Hurricane Katrina is threatening the Gulf Coast. Fourteen year old Esch and her unconventional family are living in Bois Sauvage, Mississippi and each member of her clan is beset by their own drama. For Esch, it’s is the fact that she’s recently learned she’s pregnant by a boy who’s neither romantically inclined toward her nor compassionate. Esch’s brother Randall is trying to make it to basketball camp where he’s sure to be noticed by collegiate scouts, while her father is desperately trying to make their house hurricane ready in between bouts of heavy drunkenness. But it’s middle child Skeetah’s drama that really takes center stage. Skeet’s beloved female pit bull China has just birthed 4 puppies, and it’s up to him to see that these little balls of fluff survive amidst the chaos and abject poverty. Complicating matters is the fact that Esch and her brothers are basically raising themselves in desperate destitution, as their father doesn’t seem capable of caring for them and things are only getting more dire. When the safety of the puppies is threatened, Skeetah goes to extreme lengths to keep them alive, while Esch tries desperately to hide her growing belly from her father and brothers. Meanwhile the hurricane reaches category 5 status and the family is unable to evacuate. Soon events begin to explode into one another upon the family, and it will take all the will they have to come out on the other side. But their future is far from certain, and where some will rise, some will fall. Deeply penetrating and hauntingly dark, this is the story of one family’s desperate struggle to survive through one of the fiercest storms on record.

When I initially started reading this book, I became a little concerned. While this is ostensibly the story of one family’s fight for survival amidst a chaotic storm, it was also a story that had a lot of uncomfortable subjects housed under this premise. First off, there was the issue of a pregnant fourteen year old, which when you really think about it, is a soul-sucking situation that has no easy answers. The other problem I was worried about was that the pit bull that is part of this story is a fighting dog. I’m not sure if many of my readers are aware of this, but I own a pit bull, and he’s possibly the most docile and affectionate dog I’ve ever had the pleasure of owning. Needless to say, fighting pit bulls are very upsetting to me, and something I don’t necessarily want to read about. I took a chance anyway, and alternated between thinking it was a huge mistake and appreciating the honesty of the story in equal measure.

It was neither an easy nor a feel-good read. The family is one of the poorest and most emotionally damaged I’ve ever come across in the pages of a book. Their home is built in a place they call the pit, and they survive on almost nothing at all. Having lost their mother many years ago, their father is ancillary to their lives, and at times he seems almost comical in his aloofness and disregard. That is, until he gets drunk and becomes violent. His four children basically fend for themselves and have created an extended family out of the other adolescents that live in their area. They run wild and free, and there’s no guiding influence on them. The story is narrated by Esch, a bookish yet sexually promiscuous young girl who is as much a mother to all of them as she is a confused and scared little girl. Her attachments to her siblings is intense, and it appears that she is trying to save them all, with little success.

The second thread of this story revolves around Skeetah and his dog China. It was oddly conflicting to read about because while I think readers naturally want to identify with animal characters in the books they read, this dog was not the cute and cuddly type. She was fierce and there was a sense of unbidden violence in her attitude at all times. Even when birthing and caring for her puppies, she was aggressive and barely subdued. This doesn’t affect Skeetah’s love for her, and in some ways, he idealizes the dog and treats her with more love and compassion than his human counterparts. I sensed a lot of transference in Skeetah and saw the love he had for China was an offshoot of the love he couldn’t give to his family. I also lost patience with him regarding the dog fighting. Those scenes weren’t overly graphic, but they were highly upsetting to me. Part of me wishes I knew more about this book going in, because there was just no payoff for me to be reading such a dire tale.

When the storm rolls in, things begin to happen very quickly, and none of them are good. Emotions and tensions reach the boiling point, and secrets and motivations are revealed. As Katrina rips her way across the land, what was once a struggle for a relatively normal life becomes a struggle for survival. I think that Ward did an incredible job of making this story and her characters come to life, and though it was tough going, I was reluctantly invested in all that was going on. I sometimes think difficult and painful books can be undeniably beautiful and shake you to the core, but in this case, it was all so messy and painful that it was hard to appreciate in that way. I partially blame myself for not knowing enough about this book to guard myself against its potent powers, and I think if I were the type of reader that could hold myself at arm’s length from the things I read, I would have been better served here.

I can’t really say this is a story that I relished, but it did evoke some powerful emotions that I didn’t even know I carried around. It’s a story that was painful for a lot of reasons, and most of my disillusionment had to do with the plight of the dogs. It would be a hard book for an animal lover, I think, but it does genuinely speak to the power and impetus for human survival in the face of unimaginable tragedy. Emotionally sensitive readers might want to avoid this one, or at least be very aware of what this book contains and where it goes. It was a shocking book, but also gripping and rich with symbolism and raw human emotion. A complicated read.

Author Photo About the Author

Jesmyn Ward is a former Stegner fellow at Stanford and Grisham Writer-in-Residence at the University of Mississippi. Her novels, Where the Line Bleeds and Salvage the Bones, are both set on the Mississippi coast where she grew up. Bloomsbury will publish her memoir about an epidemic of deaths of young black men in her community. She is an Assistant Professor at the University of South Alabama.

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:

Monday, September 5th:A Bookish Way of Life
Tuesday, September 6th:So Many Precious Books, So Little Time
Wednesday, September 7th:Raging Bibliomania
Monday, September 12th:Wandering Thoughts of a Scientific Housewife
Wednesday, September 14th:Caribousmom
Thursday, September 15th:Linus’s Blanket
Monday, September 19th:Book Addiction
Wednesday, September 21st:The Scarlet Letter
Monday, September 26th:Well Read Wife
Tuesday, September 27th:Unabridged Chick
Wednesday, September 28th:Mocha Momma
Thursday, September 29th:Peeking Between the Pages

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Forgetting English by Midge Raymond — 164 pgs

Forgetting English: StoriesIn this charged and rousing new collection, author Midge Raymond gives us ten short stories centering around women on the emotional edge who have left the States to pursue adventure and sometimes healing in far-off lands. We meet a woman visiting her sister in Tonga who gets caught up in an illicit and ill-advised relationship that emotionally pits her against her sister, and meet a woman in Tokyo who is aching to relieve the pressure of an unexpectedly painful loss. Another woman is trying to emotionally distance herself from others and decides to choose a career devoted to penguin research in Antarctica, where she becomes complicit to a horrible accident that may not have been an accident at all. A young woman in Taipei is struggling with depression and anxiety that exactly mirrors what her language teacher and new found friend seems to be going through. Traveling the world, one woman finds herself lamenting her lost marriage and considers how putting her work first may have driven her husband away, while a young actress traveling to Hawaii as a nanny for a very wealthy couple frets about her dwindling prospects. In each of these stories, the unnamed women search their new and impermanent surroundings for the things they’ve lost or been forced to give up, and they come to understand the longing they feel cannot be left behind them when they finally return home. Both stylistically simple and deeply poignant, Raymond imbues the women in this collection with both wise self-assessment and heartbreaking reality, giving her readers an intimate peek into the minds of women that run the spectrum from obsessed to heartbroken to isolated.

What I really admired about this collection was that there were great dramatic arches in each tale. Though some of these were internal and more introspective arches, each story had a point where the drama abruptly shifted and became almost crystalline in the tale that was being rendered. There was a sense of these women reaching a turning point in their lives, and Raymond captures the flavor of their fear, uncertainty and hope with a great mixture of understanding and and an almost feral rawness that made me feel connected to the women. I think it was amazing the way each of these women felt so very different, and each had such varied motivations and circumstances. It was, in a way, like reading emotional vignettes on people that were human enough to be recognizable, yet also remained behind a gauze of the unfamiliar.

Part of what ties these women together was the feeling I got that they were all on some point on the path to change. We meet them when they’re fleeing to a new situation, away from messier lives and complications. There was a sense of renewing and reawakening in them, and most of them were reprioritizing their lives in some way. These short stories weren’t just a slice out of everyday life. They had movement and emotional mobility attached to their subjects and their outcomes. It was as if they were just realizing where there physical journeys had landed them, and it was left for the reader to explore just what kind of emotional metamorphosis was going to take place with them individually. In some stories, the tension crackled and spit with a character’s realization that their lives were on the cusp of change, while in some, there was just sort of a gentle surrender to forces greater than themselves.

What I liked about each of the women was their refusal to hide behind emotional facades and be stagnant. Their very situations required some type of resistance and movement, and this they did, seemingly with eagerness. There wasn’t a feeling of hiding out and letting things passively wash over them. Instead, they met their challenges with a willingness that felt somehow brave. I will also say I enjoyed the fact that all of the stories took place on foreign soil. I’m still thinking about how the juxtapositions between their alien environments and their alien situations enveloped and threw each other into relief, and what effect their status as foreign visitors had on their mindsets in relation to the problems they were each facing. It was also interesting to consider the people they came into contact with outside their normal lives and comfort zones, and the fleeting relationships and connections made during these times.

Although I’m not really a connoisseur of short stories, I often find that when I dip into the right collection, I can be very satisfied with the results. I found that when I read this book I was extremely receptive to the shifting locale and the emotional vulnerability of the women whose stories were laid out for me. It was a very promising read, and one that I was able to breeze through in a few short hours. I think that Raymond did a remarkable job with keeping things fresh but not too light for deeper reflection. An interesting collection. Recommended.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.
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