Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Historical Novel Society - 2011 Conference: I'll be there, will you?

Here's some exciting news! (Exciting for me anyway.) I'm going to be one of the speakers for the panel discussion: Adult vs Young Adult Fiction at the Historical Novel Society's 2011 conference. The conference will be held in San Diego from June 17-19th. I've been to the HNS conferences before and they are fantastic. It's a great way to meet other historical fiction fans and a chance to meet some favorite authors. Cecelia Holland will be one of the keynote speakers! I can't wait to see who else will be there.  Registration for the conference is now open.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Guest blogging over at Whatcha Readin', Books?: A Teacher/Learner's Blog

I'm doing an interview over at Whatcha Readin', Books?: A Teacher/Learner's Blog. Come on over and browse around her lovely blog. (And check out my answers to Teacher/Learner's questions about writing and The Queen's Daughter.)

ESCAPE TO THE PAST WITH: The Killing Way by Tony Hays

If you like historical mysteries, you might want to check out Tony Hays’s medieval detective series. I was attracted to book one, The Killing Way, because it was billed as "An Arthurian Mystery." Being a great fan of Arthurian lore, I thought, why not?

It wasn’t quite what I expected. It doesn’t rely on the typical legends. In The Killing Way, young Arthur is about to be named successor to the High King, but he has dangerous rivals. When a serving girl is found dead and mutilated at Merlin’s doorstep, Arthur calls on an old war comrade, the one-armed Malgwyn, to investigate. Malgwyn’s success in battle (so impressive that he would be remembered by Arthur) was due to a keen intelligence as well as a burning hatred of Saxons—they’d killed his wife. But his career ended when a Saxon lopped off his arm. Arthur saved him, but Malgwyn believes a one-armed man is useless. He hates Arthur for denying him an honorable death on the battlefield. He’s been a bitter drunkard ever since. Now this "hard-boiled" drunkard takes up the challenge and must solve the mysterious death before Merlin is blamed, compromising Arthur’s chances for the throne.

Familiar Arthurian characters are present in the story but portrayed in an unconventional way: Gareth is a bard; Kai is a young love-struck boy; Tristan is King Mark’s son and a bit of a sop. It caught me off-guard, but given the subject matter, this approach was better than interweaving conventional Arthurian fantasy into the mix. Instead of fantasy, the author blended politics, Druid religion, and a top-notch detective story. Malgwyn is a fascinating character. The series is off to a great start. I have book two, The Divine Sacrifice, on my TBR pile.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

The YA Historical Fiction Challenge

The challenge has begun! The books I've read are listed below, with links to reviews (if reviewed.)

I've already signed on for one challenge for 2011, but when I came across this one, I couldn't resist. Sab at YAbliss is hosting a YA historical fiction challenge. There are three levels:

Level 1 is 5 YA HF books in 2011
Level 2 is 10 YA HF books in 2011
Level 3 is 15 YA HF books in 2011.

I'm going to try for level 2, and review as many of those as I can.

Check out the YAbliss blog post for a definition of what will count toward the challenge and links to examples of books.

  • All Historical Fiction books must be YA or MG
  • Books don't have to be 2011 releases.
  • Anyone can join. Please link (on the YAbliss blog) to a public (web) place Sab can find you.
  • You can join at anytime. The challenge runs from January 1, 2011 to December 31, 2011

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

YA BOOK REVIEW: Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly

Despite seeing wonderful reviews, I almost did not buy this book. When I read the blurb, it seemed more contemporary than historical. The premise, in a nutshell, involves a modern-day teen who finds a diary and then travels back in time. Normally, I like to stick to one time period at a time. It isn’t an absolute rule- that would be silly- but in general, books that involve long-lost diaries or time-slip portals don’t appeal to me very much. Maybe because the fiction in the work announces itself too strongly, whereas in more straightforward historicals I can more easily lose myself in the fictional world.

None of this matters, though, because I did decide to read Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly. And if I’d allowed myself to be dissuaded by preconceived notions of how I might react, I would have missed out on an incredible book.

Andi Alpers is a senior at an elite Brooklyn Heights private school where she had excelled as a student until two years prior when tragedy claimed the life of her younger brother. Andi blames herself for his death. Her mother is incapable of dealing with the loss and can offer no support. Her father, a Nobel-prize winning geneticist, had almost abandoned the family for his work even before his son’s death. In the aftermath of the accident, he made the break more complete. Andi is depressed to the point of suicidal. Pills, one good friend, and her music, are all that keep her alive, barely alive. She can’t find it in herself to care about school anymore and she is about to be expelled. When her father learns of this, he returns to whisk her off to Paris for winter break. There she is to get her senior thesis back on track while he works on a research project.

In Paris, Andi discovers the diary of Alexandrine Paradis, a seventeen-year-old girl who lived during the French Revolution. Alexandrine dreams of becoming an actress, but her day-to-day life takes her instead to the court of the royal family. There she is assigned the role of entertaining the young prince. Although self-serving at first, she gradually becomes devoted to the boy and makes his fate her own.

Andi becomes more and more involved in the story of Alexandrine and the prince, a story that is entwined with her own on multiple levels. As she delves deeper into the tragic past, a past she is helpless to change, Andi has to find a way to emerge from the world of the dead.

What made this book stand out was the powerful voice of its protagonist. Andi is in severe emotional pain. She lashes out. But she is, at the same time, a girl of great wit, intelligence, and kindness. I never found myself getting annoyed with Andi even when she was at her most self-destructive. She was a thoroughly believable character which made the time travel episode easier to accept. By then, I was willing for Andi to go where she had to go to find whatever she needed to find. The book deals with difficult issues. Moreover, it walks the reader through details about music, the French Revolution, and even brushes with genetics without ever bogging down. The relationships are moving, the dialogue entertaining. I can’t praise this book enough!

Monday, November 22, 2010

ESCAPE TO THE PAST WITH: My Name is Mary Sutter by Robin Oliveira

My Name is Mary Sutter by Robin Oliveira had great buzz. This is generally the type of book that I love or discover pretty quickly that I'm not going to like and don't read. (By this type, I mean historical fiction that focuses on medical people or medical themes.) I read the opening scene while browsing in a bookstore and was so captivated I bought it without hesitation, eager to read more. But by the time I finished, my overall reaction was...lukewarm.

Mary Sutter is a midwife in antebellum Albany, New York, who enjoys a great deal of local renown for her skill. Her competence springs in a small part from compassion for the women she cares for, but mainly from a strong intellectual curiosity. And Mary has outgrown midwifery. She wants to know more. She is desperate to become a surgeon. Unfortunately, she lives in a time when women are not admitted to medical schools and no surgeon will accept her as an apprentice.

The start of the Civil War provides Mary with an opportunity to pursue her goal. Beginning as a nurse, she puts herself under the tutelage of a surgeon whose circumstances are as desperate as her own. Gradually, she absorbs knowledge from him and begins to learn surgery.

This is the kernel of the book. Other issues are swarming around to round out the book: family, duty, love, the politics of the war itself. The author succeeds in presenting the war in all its gritty horror. She succeeds in showing the medical realities and shortcomings very realistically. Mary is indeed an admirable woman, strong in the face of human suffering, intelligent, and capable.

Mary was, however, human. And I suppose it was in showing her human side that the book bogged down for me. Because there was a parallel plot. Mary had a failed romance. She misinterpreted a man’s interest and could not bear to be around the happy woman he married instead. And so, she fled Albany for Washington to become a war nurse. She refused all entreaties to return home.

What was Mary's motivation after all? Sometimes, it seemed that it was not her vocation that drove her to and kept her in Washington, but simple spite. Perhaps having been hurt once, Mary was not going to open herself up to caring about people again. Humanity, yes; people, no. Her service to the wounded seemed not compassionate, but detached. I couldn't exactly fault her for this. Considering she lived surrounded by slaughter, she would have to develop a degree of emotional detachment or be destroyed. The novel portrayed the woman and her situation realistically. But I began to find Mary Sutter a bit tiresome. I wanted to finish the novel, but it wasn’t something I looked forward to reading.

So my summary is that this is a well-written, well-researched portrayal of a courageous and intelligent young woman whose determination to become a surgeon takes her onto the battlefields of the Civil War. Historical fiction fans who want to see strong female protagonists and who like a lot of historical detail will likely enjoy this. I think my negative reaction to Mary might have just been an overreaction to the way she dealt with her feelings of being jilted and the avoidable tragedy that results.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Back to the Classics Challenge

One of my goals for the new year was to find a reading challenge to participate in. As a new blogger, I wanted to take it pretty easy to start off until I learn the ropes of this whole challenge thing. (Am I defeating the purpose behind the idea of a challenge?) But I found one that sounds just right. Have a look at the Sarah Reads too Much: Back to the Classics Challenge 2011.

Essentially the challenge is to read 8 classics in the first six months of 2011. They must be:

1. A banned book.
2. A book with a wartime setting.
3. A Pulitzer Prize (fiction) winner or runner-up.
4. A Children's/Young Adult classic
5. A 19th century classic
6. A 20th Century classic
7. A book you think should be considered a 21st century classic.
8. Re-read a book from your high school/college classes

If you don't have a blog, you can comment on your progress in the comments section on Sarah's blog-- the challenge is open to all!

I've already picked out some of the books I plan to read and I'm still pondering the choices for others. But now I have my first challenge and a firm set of goals for 2011!

Friday, November 19, 2010

Literary Blog Hop

And for the other blog hop I like to participate in, the literary blog hop hosted by The Blue Bookcase, this week's questions are:

Is there such a thing as literary non-fiction? If so, how do you define it? Examples?

My answer is: Yes, of course. But my definition is not quite so definitive. "Literary" is such a squishy definition for me. I agree it has to have aesthetic merit, but there is a certain degree of subjectivity that goes into making that judgment. So my definition would be: in literary nonfiction the writing should be as important as if not more important than the content to the author's intention and to the reader's enjoyment of the work.

As for examples, I don't read very much nonfiction that isn't work related, and that is very content driven. It's not meant to be pretty.

If I had to come up with a book that stuck in my mind as a rather lyrical piece of nonfiction, it would be Zoe Oldenbourg's Massacre at Montsegur: A History of the Albigensian Crusade. Even though I could tell where her bias was, it was so compellingly told, I felt emotionally convinced by the way she portrayed the story.
Literary Blog Hop

Blog Hop

This week's blog hop hosted by Crazy for Books continues the partying tradition. Jennifer suggests that:

"Since Thanksgiving is coming up next week, let's use this week's hop to share what we are most thankful for and what are holiday traditions are!"

1. I am most thankful for (a) my husband. He's put up with me and helped me keep things in perspective for over twenty years...and (b) for my children who make it all worthwhile!

2. Thanksgiving was always a family holiday for me, so it was sad moving to a city where we were alone. Traveling at Thanksgiving can be a nightmare, especially once the kids were in school, so we needed a way to stay put and celebrate. Thankfully, we have wonderful friends who host a big holiday dinner party, and this has become a tradition we look forward to every year.

Book Blogger Hop

Thursday, November 18, 2010

THURSDAY- GOLDEN OLDIES: The Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett

"Lymond is back."
It was known soon after the Sea-Catte reached Scotland from Campvere with an illicit cargo and a man she should not have carried.

Thus opens The Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett. I read those words years ago, and was lured across the threshold of one of the greatest reading adventures I’ve ever had. After a few thousand pages, innumerable battles, a couple of continents, and several fictional years, I reached what I still consider to be the most—the most—romantic moment in literature. I still smile to remember it. Sigh.

(Any Dunnett fans out there? Can anyone guess the scene I’m thinking of? Or alternatively, what do you consider to be the most romantic scene you’ve ever read?)

Anyway, to reach the moment, you have to be willing to invest in the Lymond Chronicles series- a worthwhile investment for historical fiction lovers. Dorothy Dunnett is not an easy read. Her protagonist is brilliant and likes to show off his learning. It’s hard to keep up. The plot twists and turns are not always entirely plausible, but everything moves so fast, there’s no time for doubt.

The first book in the series begins in 1547 Scotland, a country threatened by England most immediately and by political machinations just about everywhere else. No one can be trusted. Even inside Scotland traitors abound. One of these (the man who should not be back in Scotland) is Francis Crawford Lymond. He is back to redeem his reputation, but goes about it in a way that seems designed to condemn himself further. He will either be the savior of his country or help bring about its ruin. Even those closest to him doubt his intentions. But as we watch Lymond at work, the reader can’t help but root for a man of such savage cleverness. A man who pretends so hard not to care must care a great deal.

This book, this series, is not to be missed.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

YA BOOK REVIEW- Cate of the Lost Colony by Lisa Klein

Lisa Klein is fast becoming one of my favorite YA historical novelists. I thoroughly enjoyed Lady Macbeth’s Daughter and was even more excited to read Cate of the Lost Colony to see what tale Klein could spin from the fate of the colonists.

Cate (or Lady Catherine Archer) is an orphaned young gentlewoman taken into Queen Elizabeth’s court to be a maid of honor. Catherine is grateful at first, and awed by her new surroundings, but soon finds the atmosphere at court stifling. It seems no one can even breathe except at the pleasure of the queen. Cate, who is independent minded, wishes she might earn the queen’s favor but is constantly frustrated by Elizabeth’s changeability and the unjust demands she makes of her maids. When Sir Walter Ralegh (author’s spelling) appears on the scene, Cate is smitten by the handsome courtier, and he is attracted to her pretty face and eventually also to her wit. Unfortunately, he is the queen’s favorite, and when Elizabeth is made aware of the budding romance, Cate is punished by banishment to Ralegh’s colony in the new world. There, amidst the hardship of daily struggle for survival and her frustration with the infighting of the colonists, Cate blossoms. Personality traits that doomed her at court serve her well in Roanoke. The new world offers freedoms she could never have imagined in the old one, including the possibility of a new love.

Knowing our history, we know the colony is doomed to fail. So what will happen to Cate?

This book just pulled me along. The story is told from Cate’s point of view and from that of Manteo, the Croatoan native brought to Elizabeth’s court to learn English customs and eventually act as a go-between. It also shows Ralegh’s point of view, primarily through letters and poems. Each voice comes across as authentic, but it is Cate’s that truly shines. She grows from an insecure but proud girl to a confident and wise young woman.
Just as an aside, the book reminds me of a novel published in 2006 that was somewhat similarly themed but for a younger age group, My Lady, Pocahontas, by Kathleen V. Kudlinski, which tells the story of the Jamestown colony. I reviewed this book for The Historical Novels Review, Issue 39, February, 2007. My review is as follows:

In grade school, we all hear the story of Pocahontas, the daughter of an Indian chief who befriends Captain John Smith and helps ensure the survival of the fledgling English colony established at Jamestown in 1607. But details of the relationship between Pocahontas and Smith are somewhat murky, and most times you never hear what happened to the "Indian princess." My Lady, Pocahontas, written for 10-14 year olds, tells the tale from the point of view of Neetah, a loyal Pamunkey girl whose very name means friend.

Pocahontas sees visions which lead her first to spy on the settlers in order to protect her people, then to believe she herself will prove a peaceful link between the two disparate cultures. Neetah stands by her friend through many trials, even when she begins to suspect Pocahontas’s visions might be clouded by love for Captain Smith. She remains steadfast when it appears Pocahontas’s machinations have not been protecting the Pamunkey from the newcomers but inadvertently bringing death and destruction.

Steady and true, Neetah understands Pocahontas’s heart and presents to young readers a sympathetic account of this Pamunkey woman whose life can be seen as both tragic and inspiring. Well-researched and engaging, this book is recommended, although it may be a bit mature for some ten-year-olds.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

FAVORITE BOOK GIVEAWAY- Great Maria by Cecelia Holland

I love this book so much, I want to share it. If you're a fan of historical fiction (or think you could become one) I recommend this remarkable novel.
My review is here.

And from the jacket back:

Her father is a robber baron...
Her husband has grand ambitions and a quick temper...
She will become...The Great Maria.
A lush portrait of the eleventh century that leaves out none of its harshest nature, Great Maria is Cecelia Holland at her most evocative. A mere fourteen years old, strong-willed Maria is betrothed to Richard. Theirs is a marriage of conflict, yet one that grows over the years into respect and partnership. As they struggle-- at times against each other, at times side-by-side-- Maria and Richard emerge as full-blooded characters you'll never forget.

The contest will run from now until November 30th. To enter, leave a comment below with your email address so I can contact you if you're the winner. You don't have to be a follower to enter, but if you are, (new or old) you get one extra entry. You also get an extra entry for blogging, tweeting, or linking to the contest on Facebook.

Good luck!

Monday, November 15, 2010


I’ll just jump right into this review. Released in 2008, if you missed it the first go-around, it’s well worth digging up.

In Serena by Ron Rash, a ruthlessly ambitious, soulless couple builds a lumber empire in North Carolina in 1929, killing off their rivals and adversaries and taking increasing pleasure in doing so. Serena and George Pemberton seem almost superhuman in their successes—terrifying and unstoppable. But Serena miscarries the baby she and George wanted. And he starts thinking about the illegitimate boy he fathered before marrying her. She decides the boy and his mother will be the next victims. This opens a fissure in the previously seamless husband-wife partnership. Things get even uglier from there.

This book is riveting. The scenery goes from beautiful to devastated. Characters are well depicted and yet, unreal. They embody such powerful evil that it makes good appear impotent. There is so much collateral damage, it’s impossible to say either side wins.

Overall, this was one of the bleakest, most exhausting books I’d read in a long time. But the story is so powerful, it was worth being put through the wringer.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Blog Hops

This week I'm participating in two great hops.

The first is the literary blog hop hosted by The Blue Bookcase.

The question of the week is:
What is the most difficult literary work you've ever read? What made it so difficult?

My answer is Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. It was a class assignment in college. The subject matter was distasteful, but I could have dealt with that if I'd found a character to work with. Unfortunately, I thought they were all unsympathetic. And, I knew I was supposed to be appreciating all the brilliant wordplay that Nabokov is so famous for, but I just didn't get it. I kept thinking I was missing something. Of course I was--which frustrated me. But somehow, I don't feel compelled to try again. There are plenty of other books out there to stretch my brain.

The second is the Book Blogger Hop at Crazy for Books.

This weeks question is submitted by Christina from All About YA Books.

If you find a book that looks interesting but is part of a series, do you start with the first title?

My answer:
Yes! Unless I didn't realize it was a series, and then I 'm peeved and have to go back. Not only that, but once I start a series, I have to read them all in order and I almost always have to finish the series, even if I'm just lukewarm about it. That used to be a more stringent rule. I'm more flexible now that I'm older and time is running away from me. (I think this is genetic because I seem to have passed this on to my kids.)

Literary Blog HopBook Blogger Hop

FRIDAY-ANYTHING GOES: Go With Me by Castle Freeman, Jr.

One of the first books I ever read based on the recommendation of a blog review was Go With Me by Castle Freeman Jr.

In this short novel set in rural Vermont, a young woman named Lillian, who is not a native to the area but who is determined to make it her home, is being terrorized by a local thug named Blackway. Lillian’s boyfriend has fled in fear, leaving her to defend herself. Knowing she needs help and unable to obtain it from local police, she enlists an unlikely posse of preventive vigilantes who will do what needs to be done. A group of local old men gossips provides running commentary on the drama. It’s drily amusing, fast-paced, and tension-filled. The prose is spare, and yet evokes the setting perfectly. I loved this book. It really hit the spot when I was looking for something well-written, quick, and a little bit out of the ordinary.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

THURSDAY-GOLDEN OLDIES: A Play of Isaac by Margaret Frazer

The first time I attended a Historical Novel Society North American Conference (the inaugural conference in the US!), this little gem, A Play of Isaac, was one of the books in my goodie bag. When I read the back cover...

"In the pages of Margaret Frazer’s national bestselling Dame Frevisse series, the player Joliffe has assumed many roles on stage, to the delight of those he entertains. Now, in the company of a troupe of traveling performers, he finds himself cast in the role of sleuth...

The year is 1434, and preparations are underway for the Corpus Christi festival in Oxford, England. Plays are a traditional part of the celebration, and Joliffe and the rest of his troupe are to perform Isaac and Abraham. Until then, their theatrical antics are in demand by a wealthy merchant—Master Pentenay—who offers them an opportunity to ply their trade for room and board.

But when the body of a murdered man is found outside the barn door where the troupe is lodging, Joliffe must raise the curtain on Pentenay’s mysterious past—and uncover the startling truth behind the murder..."

...my first reaction was "meh." I tossed it back into the bag.

In general, I like my historical fiction straight up, not diluted with mystery. (Lindsey Davis’s Falco series is an exception to that rule.) I do read genre historical romance sometimes, but I have to be in the mood. I wasn’t really looking for a murder mystery. I expected the usual gruesome violence, some bloody corpses, maybe a child mutilation or two to try to convince me it was a can’t-put-down-thriller. Bleh.

But it was a nice light paperback to take on the plane home. I can’t go as far as to say it changed my life; however, it did turn me into a stalker. The book was not what I expected. Intricately plotted, as befits a murder mystery, the real charm of the book was its character development. This troupe of players cares deeply about each other and Frazer shows it in little ways, unveiling their individual personalities to delight me over and over again. The star of the show was, of course, the reluctant detective Joliffe. An intriguing mystery himself. I confess I developed a bit of a crush. After this book, I read the next in the series, and then systematically worked my way through Frazer’s Dame Frevisse books stalking Joliffe. I’ve pounced on every "A Play of..." book as soon as it has come out. And I have the next pre-ordered.

Frazer blends an appreciation for historical (political) context into these stories so that the mysteries become increasingly entangled with what is going on in the greater world. There is a wonderful interplay between the early Joliffe in these books and the man you see later in the Dame Frevisse books. While each "A Play of..." mystery can stand alone, the overall storyline really works better if you start from the beginning and watch Joliffe’s progress.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

YA BOOK REVIEW(S): Happyface by Stephen Emond and Busted by Antony John

Who knew that teen boys are as angst ridden as teen girls? And that YA fiction starring teenage males exists that is similar to the contemporary YA girl fiction that fills shelves? It’s true—boys must also navigate the social-nightmare-that-is-high-school. Boys have issues too!

In today’s YA post, I’m going to discuss two "boy" books. The authors are men. I’d be interested to know if the books are being read by guys or by girls hoping to gain a glimpse of the male psyche. And having glimpsed it, what is the reaction to it?

The first is Happyface by Stephen Emond. Written in a journal format, it combines diary entries with comic/poignant sketches, occasional logs from emails and IMs and even a rare classroom assignment to give us the first person account of a shy, insecure, artistically talented teen who imagines life would be better if only a certain significant other would see him in "that" way. This person, Chloe, is his best friend, and he’s afraid to ask her out and ruin his only real friendship. As he debates this dilemma, his family life falls apart. This family consists of alcoholic parents and an older brother who excels at everything the protagonist does not. When his parents divorce, he moves across town with his mother where he must start a new school. He decides to face life anew, to reinvent himself as the guy with the unfaltering smile. A pretty girl, Gretchen, befriends him, dubbing him Happyface. The name and the mask stick. He becomes popular by adhering to this new persona. Yet he feels he cannot let Gretchen know who he really is, or let any of his new friends know what he really was. In truth, he is dealing with a whole lot of pain. And until he can be honest with people in his life, they aren’t his true friends and he isn’t happy.

The book shows the gradual process of Happyface opening up and coming to grips with his past. It’s a message book, but not a heavy-handed one. The format makes for a different and enjoyable reading experience. (Happyface the person is rather irritatingly self-absorbed. In another format he could easily come across as unlikeable, but a journal is supposed to be self-absorbed.) The book does a very good job of developing the characters even though we necessarily only see them through Happyface’s eyes and he only sees them as important in how they relate to himself. It was nice to see teens portrayed with depth. They all had their own insecurities, naturally, but they were not essentially shallow or divided into easy high school stereotypes.

The second novel is Busted: Confessions of an Accidental Player by Antony John. In this story, Kevin Mopsely, a shy, insecure, talented flutist is trying to expand his social life beyond his best friend Abby because he is desperate for a girlfriend. Desperation has never worked well for him in the past but this is his senior year and his last chance. He attends a meeting held by the jocks discussing Graduation Rituals and manages to insert himself into a power play between the Head Jock, Brandon, and one of the more obnoxious underlings. As a result, Kevin receives the plum assignment of compiling "the Book of Busts"—a record of the bust sizes of all the senior girls. Being the keeper of the book gives Kevin a new status, not only among the boys but the girls as well. It seems many of the girls are aware of the book and have a plan to get their stats recorded as quickly and painlessly (though not necessarily factually) as possible. The girls’ plan involves Kevin who is too dumbstruck by his sudden popularity to question what is going on.

Not everyone is going along with this (thank God.) For one thing, there is Kevin’s mother, a feminist and college professor who turns up at his high school to teach a Women’s Studies class. And then there is Abby. He doesn’t want her knowing what he’s up to. And there’s also the uncomfortable question of who is going to get her measurements for the book.

Eventually this will all have to blow up, won’t it? Will Kevin choose to stay on as Brandon’s best buddy or to redeem himself? Is redemption even possible?

Busted is a more conventional teen angst story that has some obvious parallels to Happyface. Kevin’s troubles are not as dire, but that said, teens might be able to relate to him more readily. He simply wants to fit in with the popular crowd. Some of the plot events seem a tad contrived, but it makes for a dramatic story that allows Kevin to be smacked over the head with his mistakes—and the boy needed a good smack in the head. Could a teen boy really be this dumb about girls? Or maybe romance requires a certain degree of self-delusion/fantasy no matter whether you’re male or female. At any rate, I found myself rooting for Kevin’s enlightenment.

These interesting glimpses into the male psyche are recommended for young adults of both genders.

By the way, John has a new book, Five Flavors of Dumb, to be released any day now. It sounds interesting, doesn’t it?

Monday, November 8, 2010

ESCAPE TO THE PAST WITH: Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

I should call this post Escape to the Recent Past, since the book is set in almost modern times, opening in the mid 1950's and closing in the late 1970's. Historical fiction? I’m afraid so, although I’ll be happy if you disagree.

I can’t say for sure how this book came to my attention. I was aware of it as a best-seller, a critics’ darling, but had never read an actual review. I knew vaguely that it was about a doctor in Ethiopia. It wasn’t a book I expected to buy.

However, I was at the mall with a chunk of time to kill and regretted leaving my book at home. The bookstore beckoned. I went in to browse, not buy—I had too many unread books waiting for me at home. Accusing me. But browsing wasn’t going to pass enough time. And I saw Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese.

After reading the first couple of pages, I bought the book.

It wasn’t the premise of the story that hooked me—I was still uncertain about that. It was the writing. I was drawn into the narrator’s exquisite world and wanted to know more about it. It wasn’t long before I became as captivated by the tale as by the prose.

Verghese writes about twin boys, Marion and Shiva Stone, raised in a mission hospital in Ethiopia during a time of great political upheaval and violence. Marion is the primary voice in the novel, a sensitive young man determined to become a physician. He is steady, calm, intelligent, but troubled. There are secrets about his parents that he yearns to uncover. Keeping those secrets are the caring physicians who bring them up, as well as the nuns at the hospital. His brother, the one who should best understand him, somehow does not. Marion and his brother are very alike and yet different in crucial ways that eventually drive them apart. We follow all these characters throughout many years of their lives. We are drawn deep into their relationships and conflicts. And this all takes place at a time of remarkable medical progress in the larger world contrasted with the poverty and warfare in Ethiopia. Cutting for Stone is one of those books that I read too fast because I couldn’t put it down but wish I had spent more time lingering over what it was telling me and how beautifully it was doing the job.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Whatcha Readin', Books? Giveaway

Today my post is a response to a giveaway hosted by Whatcha Readin', Books?
To celebrate her 50th follower, she has launched a unique and challenging contest, posing the question:

                                 What does reading mean to you?

This question required me to struggle a bit. It's not easy to express something so personal. But I decided to give it a try.

What does reading mean to me?

The short and simplistic answer is what I allude to in my "about me" section: reading is my safety valve. I escape into fiction to relax and to clear my mind of the troubles of every day life in the modern world.

However, if I examine the question more deeply I recognize how false an answer that is. Reading isn’t a way to escape from real life, reading has always defined my life. Books are a part of my earliest memories and books are entwined in the memories I have of my children’s lives. Just about everything tangible (and many of the intangibles) that I’ve accomplished in my career(s) are the direct result of this obsessive activity. Reading is not only what I do to relax, it’s what I have done, consciously or unconsciously, throughout my type-A driven life, to succeed. It sounds almost mercenary, but I don’t mean it to sound that way. As a child devouring Watership Down and the Chronicles of Prydain I didn’t think "I need to read this to get into medical school." I read because I couldn’t do otherwise. With every step in my life’s journey, reading has stretched my brain, fertilized my imagination, and taught me to look beyond boundaries to possibilities. And although I may gripe about my type-A driven life, I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I love what I do. I love the reading I do for work to learn something new. Moreover, reading is why I write. The written word has a way of spilling over, doesn’t it?

And so what does reading mean to me? It isn’t is verb. Reading is more than something I do– I am a reader. It’s who I am.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

A button for Reading World

Please bear with me as I try to create a button. In addition to exploring the wonderful world of blogging, I'm learning to play with my computer. This may be a disaster, but here goes.

Another Blog Hop

This week I'm also participating in The Literary Blog Hop hosted by The Blue Bookcase.
The challenge is to answer the following prompt:

Please highlight one of your favorite books and why you would consider it "literary."

One of my favorite books is Joseph and His Brothers by Thomas Mann. Aside from the fact that Mann was a Nobel winner and that this is considered to be one of his finest books, I believe it to be literary because the language is so extraordinary (granted I read a translation) and the themes are universal. It's a difficult and slow book to read and yet I was disappointed to finish because while I was reading I felt transported. It was a mind-opening experience. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to review this book for The Historical Novels Review. It was an editors' choice back in 2005, so my full review is available here (scroll down.)
Literary Blog Hop

Friday, November 5, 2010

FRIDAY-ANYTHING GOES: Ransom- A Novel by David Malouf

I have to rank this literary novel highest of all my Greek Week recommendations. It is stunning.

Ransom- A Novel by David Malouf is a retelling of a small portion of The Iliad. Achilles slaughters Hector in revenge for the killing of Patroclus and then treats the hero’s body barbarically. Hector’s father, King Priam mourns his son and also suffers under the heavy burden of kingship. It is his fate to lead a people doomed to be destroyed.

These scenes, these themes, have obviously been treated before (even Brad Pitt got into the act!) but Malouf makes the story fresh and exquisitely moving with the beauty of his words. As the characters progress through their painful duties, fragments of memory come to them. We come to understand the history behind the bond between Achilles and Patroclus. We learn who Priam was before he was king. We also experience the little details of the daily lives of the forgotten people of Troy, common people struggling alongside the heroes whose names have been immortalized. Malouf is able to bring out the humanity of the mythological heroes, so that oddly enough, in the midst of epic tragedy, you end up hopeful.

I recommend this book highly. In fact, I was so moved I went right out and bought one of Malouf’s previous works (which I hope to get around to reading before too long.)

Blogger Hop (3)

Hello again. It's time for another Book Blogger Hop! These wonderful blog parties are hosted by Jen at Crazy for Books
This week's question (submitted by Vicki at The Wolf's Den) is
"What are your feelings on losing followers? Have you ever stopped following a blog?"
My answers are: first, since I've only recently started blogging, I don't think I've lost a follower yet, but I'm sure the day will come. I'll wonder if I said something that offended the follower or if they were just trimming their list. If I lose a whole block of followers at once, I'll know something is wrong! As for the second question, I have stopped following blogs. Not very often, and usually it's because I've checked in several times over the course of a couple months and there have been no new posts.
Book Blogger Hop

Thursday, November 4, 2010

THURSDAY- GOLDEN OLDIES: Firebrand by Marion Zimmer Bradley

2009- Roc

1987 Pocket Books

Many years ago, after reading The Mists of Avalon, I was desperate to find something else in the same vein by Marion Zimmer Bradley. I was happy to come across Firebrand. This is a re-imagining of the Iliad through the eyes of Kassandra, the sister of Hector and Paris. She is the ill-fated prophetess of Apollo, doomed to always tell the truth but never be believed. Kassandra is "priestess-born," beloved of Apollo but also sworn to honor and obey an older and more potent Earth Goddess. Many of the same feminist themes present in The Mists of Avalon are also explored in Firebrand. (Kassandra spends time among the Amazon tribes and is more comfortable in foreign lands where women have autonomy and strength than among the Trojans where they are subject to their warrior menfolk.) The storyline essentially follows the outline of the Fall of Troy in the Iliad, but with digressions to explore Kassandra’s development. And it’s these sidetrips that give Firebrand its soul. It’s a passionate and tragic story–how could it be otherwise?

While not exactly a literary tour-de-force (see tomorrow’s post for that), Firebrand is a compelling story that will make your heart ache for Kassandra. Having read it so long ago (and yet it, like Mists of Avalon, the story stayed with me) I was a little worried it might be a difficult book to find. But luckily, it was re-released in 2009 by Roc (with a less cheesy cover than my 1987 paperback) and so is still in print.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

YA BOOK REVIEW: Black Ships before Troy by Rosemary Sutcliff

Rosemary Sutcliff was a prolific British historical novelist who wrote primarily for children/YA but also some adult or cross-over books. I’ve been meaning to read her work for a long time, and finally settled on Black Ships before Troy, which was first published posthumously in 1993. (This book could actually fit in any of my categories: historical fiction, YA, or golden oldies!)

In all honesty, it’s my least favorite of the Greek Week readings. Good points are that it is comprehensive and yet, at the same time, it’s short and a very quick read.

My problem with it is that it’s fairly dry. It reads less as a novel and more as though it were a narrative summary of the Iliad—fleshed out a bit to round out the story—but a summary nevertheless. It’s a very good introduction to the story of Troy for anyone who wants to get a handle on who the main players were and a straightforward account of what happened. But for me, what was lacking was the emotional involvement I usually feel with the characters in various retellings. I know this is tragedy– I usually care more.

So, if you’re concerned your background knowledge in Homer might not be up to snuff, consider this a quick readable Trojan War primer. (There is also a companion volume: The Wanderings of Odysseus that I haven’t read, but that I suspect would be similar.)

Monday, November 1, 2010

ESCAPE TO THE PAST WITH: Penelope's Daughter by Laurel Corona

It’s hard to imagine more complete, complex, gorgeous tragedy than what Homer accomplished with the Iliad and the Odyssey. With such an extraordinary depth to their scenes and themes, it’s no wonder these epics have been mined for nuggets time and again. Each character in the tale—experiencing the events differently but within a framework that readers will recognize—is a gold mine of possibility.

One latest take on the story, Laurel Corona’s Penelope’s Daughter, is a worthy addition to the genre. Corona examines the myth from the standpoint of those Odysseus left behind in Ithaca when he reluctantly went off to Troy. But rather than telling the story through the eyes of the steadfast and wily Penelope, Odysseus’s wife, the author invents a new point-of-view character, Xanthe, their daughter.

Because she was born after the hero has sailed to Troy, Odysseus is unaware his daughter even exists. Xanthe grows up in a court in a state of suspended animation, waiting for her father’s return. Her youth is spent primarily learning to weave, despairing of her brother, Telemachus, who seems destined to fall short of everyone’s hopes, and doing her best to please her mother. Penelope has too many troubles; Xanthe wants her mother to pay more attention to her, but doesn’t want to be another burden. When the long-awaited news comes that the war is over, everyone expects Odysseus to come home. He does not, and things take a turn for the worse. Suitors not only contend for Penelope’s hand in order to inherit Ithaca’s throne, but spin plots around Telemachus and Xanthe. For her own safety, Xanthe is sent to live with Helen-no-longer-of-Troy. There she matures to young womanhood. However, she cannot hide from her destiny forever. Eventually, her brother fetches her home where her future is to be decided alongside that of her family’s, as soon as (or if ever) Odysseus returns...

This is a beautifully written story, ripe with skillful imagery, that captures the essence of the epic in an original way. It is rich in the details of every day life. The female characters are strong and sympathetic. And I very much enjoyed viewing Helen and Penelope from this new perspective.