Thursday, June 28, 2012

BOOK REVIEW: Keeping the Castle by Patrice Kindl

I’ve been in the mood for some YA historical fiction, something light and fun, so I broke out my recent purchase, Keeping the Castle by Patrice Kindl. This is billed as a cross between I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith and Jane Austen. Since I’ve always been a fan of Austen and recently read and absolutely loved I Capture the Castle, I couldn’t pass this one up.

It is a Regency romance and does borrow somewhat (but not too much) from the plotting of Dodie Smith’s book. The seventeen-year-old protagonist, Althea Crawley, is a young lady of good birth but no means who lives in a rundown castle with her widowed mother, her young brother, and two nasty stepsisters. Althea has to marry well or the castle is likely to fall down around them before her brother will come of age to inherit. Luckily, Althea is extraordinarily pretty and is quite sure she can marry well, eventually. Unfortunately, the supply of eligible suitors in Lesser Hoo is quite limited,

Her chances improve when Lord Boring comes to claim a neighboring manor upon the death of his uncle. It turns out Lord Boring is young, charming, and naturally very rich. Althea decides to marry him. He seems to be taken with her good looks, just as she intends. However, there are a few difficulties. First, one of her stepsisters is equally determined to snare him. Second, a guest in his home, Miss Vincy, appears to have a prior claim on him. While she is plain (and Lord Boring has expressed a distaste for her appearance), she is very wealthy, and Lord Boring’s mother favors her. And finally, there is Mr. Fredericks. This is Lord Borings cousin and business manager. Antisocial and blunt to the point of rudeness, Althea has to put up with him, too, if she wants to spend time with Lord Boring.

The book is fast-paced and cute. The plotting is pretty predictable since it was a romance/comedy of manners that revolved around Althea and her sisters plotting marriage. It was entertaining and the ending satisfied all around. This would be particularly good for younger YA readers who like historical fiction.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

WAITING ON WEDNESDAY: Son of Venice by Dori Jones Yang

Waiting on Wednesday is a weekly meme hosted by Jill at Breaking the Spine. It's a chance to highlight your most eagerly awaited releases.

I'm going to be a stop on the ARC tour for Son of Venice by Dori Jones Yang (the sequel to the wonderful YA historical Daughter of Xanadu.) The tour is hosted by Good Golly Miss Holly.

I'm also going to have a guest post/interview with Dori on Wednesday, July 25th. So be sure to check that out!

Here is the description of the new book from the publisher:

Son of Venice continues the story begun in Daughter of Xanadu, set in thirteenth century China. In that book, Emmajin, an excellent archer and fictional granddaughter of Khubilai Khan, poured all her energy into her dream of becoming the first woman soldier in the Mongol army. When she met Marco Polo, a traveling merchant from Venice, he fascinated her with tales of romantic love and caused her to question her ambition. Son of Venice picks up the story as Emmajin begins her journey to the West, assigned by Khubilai Khan to carry a letter to establish peace and cooperation between her homeland and Marco Polo’s. Marco is to travel in the same caravan. But a shaman’s warning of traitors and danger casts a shadow over their journey. Emmajin wants to win respect as an ambassador of the Great Khan and also to enjoy her time with Marco Polo. But her guards—and her cousin, Temur—insist on keeping them apart. Plus, as she travels west with the army, she begins to doubt the Khan’s intentions. Does he really want her to make peace with the West? Told in alternating points of view, this book follows the adventures of Emmajin and Marco Polo as they head west along the Silk Road. They face battles, intrigue, sinister plots, and unexpected challenges to their unconventional love. Can Marco’s famed eloquence and cleverness help when Emmajin faces perils beyond any she imagined?

Friday, June 22, 2012


Book Blogger Hop

It's Friday! Blog hop time. Hosted by Crazy for Books, the blog hop is a place to share the love of books and blogging. Head over to Crazy for Books for the rules of the hop and to add your name to the linky link.

This week's question is:
 Do you immediately write a review upon finishing a book or do you wait and write multiple reviews at once?

My answer:
I always write my reviews as soon as I can after finishing the book. I have a terrible memory for details, so if I don't write a review quickly I'll forget character names and mix up plot sequence. If I were to try writing a batch of reviews all at once it would be a disaster. I'm sure I'd put a character in the wrong book.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

BOOK REVIEW: The Butterfly Cabinet by Bernie McGill

My niece suggested that I read The Butterfly Cabinet by Bernie McGill. We enjoy a lot of the same books, so I decided to give this one a try.

It seemed a strange coincidence that it is set primarily at the end of the nineteenth century in northern Ireland. The historical and political events in the background overlap those of my recent mammoth read, Trinity by Leon Uris. The central character in this book, Harriet Ormond, is also a member of a Catholic family but a wealthy, aristocratic one, which I wouldn’t have thought possible after reading Trinity. However, in this book, the politics are barely a backdrop. They’re there to give the story some context and shape, but never emerge as part of the story. The people in this book are aware of the great goings-on in the world but are not much touched by them. The tragedies here are played out on a smaller, personal scale. But make no mistake--this is a tragic book!

The story centers on the death of a four-year-old child, Charlotte Ormond, who died as a result of a punishment inflicted by her mother. Charlotte was locked in a wardrobe closet, tied up with a stocking that became tangled around her neck so that she was asphyxiated. Her mother, Harriet Ormond, was found guilty of causing the death and sentenced to a year in prison for the crime.

There are two voices in this novel, speaking in alternating chapters. Each circles around the events of the fateful day of Charlotte’s death until the final, telling details are exposed. Harriet’s own voice is one, told in the form of a diary written while in prison. We learn that Harriet is haughty and cold, having learned from an early age to repress her emotions. Her passion is given over to butterfly collecting and to horses—odd behaviors for a woman, which increase her isolation.

The second narrator is a servant of the family, Maddie McGlade. She was fifteen years old at the time of the murder, but her "voice" speaks much later. Generous, kind-hearted, innocent, Maddie carries secrets throughout her life that burden her with guilt. When she is in her nineties, she finally speaks out, revealing what she knows about Charlotte’s death

Everything was more complicated than it appeared on the surface.

This is a beautifully written book. Each of the women has a painful story to tell. It’s a difficult book to read because so many layers of unhappiness are revealed with each new piece of the puzzle. Although enough hints are dropped that the reader is likely to figure out Maddie’s secret before the big reveal, the plot is nevertheless complex enough to keep the story compelling to the end. Most importantly, it seemed a realistic portrayal of a damaged woman, struggling against her circumstances, leading to a tragic outcome.

This is my 12th Historical Fiction Challenge book. The challenge is hosted by Historical Tapestries.

Saturday, June 16, 2012


It's Book Blogger Hop time again--a weekly event where book bloggers get together to talk about books or bookish things. It's a great way to discover other book bloggers. The hop is hosted by Crazy for Books.

Book Blogger Hop

Read the History and Rules of the Hop. This link also includes information on how to submit a question for the Hop and how to be a potential Host of the Hop!
Want to plan your posts in advance? Click this link to check out the future Hop questions!

What to Do:
1. Post on your blog answering this question:

Do you belong to a book club, either online or in real life?
2. Enter the link to your post in the linky list at Crazy for Books (enter your Blog Name, Genre you review, and direct link to your post answering this week’s question; failure to do so will result in removal of your link).
3. Visit other blogs in the list, spending quality time getting to know the people you are visiting. Don’t just visit the post with the question, but click around and read some of the blogger’s other content, too! This Hop isn’t about the number of people you can visit, but the quality of each visit. Readers – find a new blog to read by clicking through the links in the list!

My answer:

Up until about a year and a half ago, I was not a member of any book group and really felt I was missing out when I heard other people talking about theirs. But I wasn't sure how to ask "Hey! Can I join your group?" And some of them met during the day, when I knew I wouldn't be able to make it.

Then, a couple people from work and I, who all read a lot of historical fiction and have spent years recommending books to each other and gabbing about things we'd read, decided to try and formalize this into a book-group-and-dinner-get-together. So now we've brought our spouses into the process, along with another couple or two when we can get them to come. We pick a historical novel or nonfiction history book to discuss over dinner at someone's house. We meet every 2-3 months, which is often enough because the books are sometimes chunky- like Trinity.

And, at about the same time, a friend of mine, who is a high school teacher, invited me to join a book group that she attends. They meet at a restaurant in the evenings once a month and discuss a wide variety of books. (This month we're talking about Room.) This is a great group because not only do I read outside my comfort zone (reading memoir and such), but I've met a whole new group of interesting people. It's a very casual group, not everyone makes it every month, and I can't get there as often as I like, but it's a lot of fun.

Book groups are great. Reading is such a solitary experience that the opportunity to share time with other book lovers is rewarding in itself. There are a lot of guides out there for how to have a successful reading group. I'm not sure either of mine would pass muster for getting the most out of the text, but the groups certainly add a little extra something to the books.

What's your take on book groups?

Monday, June 11, 2012

MAILBOX MONDAY: A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar by Suzanne Joinson

Welcome to Mailbox Monday, the weekly meme created by Marcia from A girl and her books (formerly The Printed Page) where book lovers share the titles they received for review, purchased, or otherwise obtained over the past week. Mailbox Monday is now on tour, and June's Host has been rescheduled to BE BURTON BOOK REVIEW!

It's been awhile since I participated in Mailbox Monday, although I haven't stopped accumulating books. I'm excited about my latest purchase. We happened to be at Barnes and Noble for a book my husband needed when I came across a historical novel that intrigued me. I wasn't able to walk out of the store without it. Here is the jacket copy:

It is 1923. Evangeline (Eva) English and her sister Lizzie are missionaries heading for the ancient Silk Road city of Kashgar. Though Lizzie is on fire with her religious calling, Eva’s motives are not quite as noble, but with her green bicycle and a commission from a publisher to write A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar, she is ready for adventure.

In present-day London, a young woman, Frieda, returns from a long trip abroad to find a man sleeping outside her front door. She gives him a blanket and a pillow, and in the morning finds the bedding neatly folded and an exquisite drawing of a bird with a long feathery tail, some delicate Arabic writing, and a boat made out of a flock of seagulls on her wall. Tayeb, in flight from his Yemeni homeland, befriends Frieda and, when she learns she has inherited the contents of an apartment belonging to a dead woman she has never heard of, they embark on an unexpected journey together.

A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar explores the fault lines that appear when traditions from different parts of an increasingly globalized world crash into one other. Beautifully written, and peopled by a cast of unforgettable characters, the novel interweaves the stories of Frieda and Eva, gradually revealing the links between them and the ways in which they each challenge and negotiate the restrictions of their societies as they make their hard-won way toward home. A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar marks the debut of a wonderfully talented new writer.
Doesn't that sound good?

Sunday, June 10, 2012

ESCAPE TO THE PAST WITH: The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington

I became aware of The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington because I saw this lovely cover popping up on a few blogs and a scan of the blurbs confirmed it was historical fiction. Naturally I wanted to read it. A closer read of the various reviews explained that it was not a new book but a re-release of a Pulitzer Prize winner first published in 1918. That made me want to read it even more.

The publisher that has now released it as an ebook (for only $1.99) with that lovely cover art is Legacy Romance. However, although a couple of rather moving love stories twine through the novel, it isn’t romance per se. So, now I really had to read it. I was about to download the book onto my e-reader, but at the last minute I decided to take it out of the library instead, knowing a deadline would keep me from letting the book languish on my growing electronic pile. I’m glad I bumped it to the front of my list.

This book is marvelous. It takes us back in time to the early 1900's, a transitional period when old ways (like horses and carriages) are giving way to factories and automobiles. Cities grow and change; people either adapt or are mown under. The novel follows the fortunes of the Ambersons, a well-to-do midwestern family, as social, historical, and economic forces and personal choices take its members from wealthy and prominent to insignificant and near destitute. It primarily focuses on one character, George Minafer, the only third generation member of the magnificent Ambersons. It is safe to say that George brings his downward mobility upon himself.

Booth Tarkington is a master of characterization. In George Minafer he creates the worst, most self-absorbed spoiled brat to ever populate a page. Although physically attractive and able to project a certain charm when he wishes, George’s arrogance and bullying behavior gain him enemies wherever he goes. He doesn’t care because he considers so few people worthy of his time. He believes in his own superiority simply because his grandfather was such an important man in the town. He’s under the impression that his grandfather’s fortune is endless, and therefore, he himself need never be concerned about such mundane things as earning a living–work is for lesser men. The narrator explains early on in the book that people are eagerly awaiting the day that George Minafer should receive his comeuppance, and the reader anxiously joins that throng.

While the story follows George, and while he loses sight of great goings-on in the world because he is so focused on himself, the world changes around him. The novel demonstrates those changes beautifully. George’s city grows up around him until it is unrecognizable. His refusal to admit or accept change is part of what will ultimately break him. Interestingly, while the reader may be glad to see George trampled down, there is a bittersweet ambivalence to recognizing that all this progress does have its downside.

The Magnificent Ambersons was made into a movie by Orson Welles that also received a lot of acclaim and now I want to see it, even though I’m not a movie person.

I recommend the book highly, whether you opt for the new ebook release or find the classic in your library like I did.

And this is yet another book added to my historical fiction challenge list. The challenge is hosted by Historical Tapestries. A lot of wonderful historical novels are being reviewed by challenge participants. Come have a look!

Saturday, June 9, 2012


Welcome to the Book Blogger Hop Hosted by Crazy for Books.

Book Blogger Hop

Read the History and Rules of the Hop. This link also includes information on how to submit a question for the Hop and how to be a potential Host of the Hop!
Want to plan your posts in advance? Click this link to check out the future Hop questions!

What to Do:
1. Post on your blog answering this question:

If you were to write a book, what type of book would you write?
2. Enter the link to your post in the linky list at Crazy for Books (enter your Blog Name, Genre you review, and direct link to your post answering this week’s question; failure to do so will result in removal of your link).
3. Visit other blogs in the list, spending quality time getting to know the people you are visiting. Don’t just visit the post with the question, but click around and read some of the blogger’s other content, too! This Hop isn’t about the number of people you can visit, but the quality of each visit.

My answer:

This is an easy one since I did write a book--YA historical fiction, set in the middle ages. I'm currently working on another in the same genre. Historical fiction is what I most enjoy reading. The middle ages is my favorite period of history. And although I try to read widely, I keep coming back to those knights and castles, the chivalry, the romance, the gore and dirt, and the messy politics. It's also where I want to spend my time when I research and write.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

BOOK REVIEW: The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht

The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht is a "book-club" book that caught my attention despite descriptions like "magical realism." Usually I tend to mentally associate magical realism somewhere with paranormal and drop those books down toward the bottom of my interested-in-reading list. But Obrecht’s book has earned a huge amount of praise for its writing and subject matter and was also a 2011 Orange prize winner. I wanted to read something different, so here it was.

Natalia is the narrator, a young doctor in an unnamed war-torn Balkan country. She has spent her life anticipating war, living in the midst of war, and living in its aftermath. So has her grandfather, only his experience is not just with one war but many. Her grandfather is a well-respected –even famous– doctor in the country. Natalia idolizes him in many ways and loves him dearly, but he is also family and so she has, at times, been guilty of benign neglect.

At the book’s opening, Natalia is crossing the border of their fractured country on a medical mission to an orphanage when she receives word of her grandfather’s death. Her grandmother is frantic because he left home, saying he was going to meet Natalia. She had no idea he was even ill, then word came that he died at a faraway clinic. Natalia is left to sort out the mystery of his death as well as lingering questions about his life. She does this by interweaving stories of her ongoing mission with memories of her past with him and stories that he told her. Some of these stories were straightforward while others were the stuff of folklore or myths. The story of the Tiger’s Wife and the Deathless Man were the two recurring tales that, taken in the new context of her grandfather's death, began to explain much about the person her grandfather became, the way he lived his life and the way he chose to die.

It’s a beautifully written book. The emotions are understated and yet palpable. I read it primarily on a long car ride and on the plane, and it was a perfect book for that kind of leisurely immersion. I came away from it with the impression that Natalia’s grandfather might have had a difficult life, but it was a life well-lived. I was glad Natalia shared him with us.

Monday, June 4, 2012

ESCAPE TO THE PAST WITH: Trinity by Leon Uris

Where have I been? Why all the blog silence? I’ve had a couple of real-world distractions recently, but I have been reading. I’ve been steadily working my way through my historical fiction/history book club’s latest selection, Trinity by Leon Uris. This epic set in early twentieth century Ireland runs just under 900 pages. But length is no excuse for the slowness of my reading. I don’t think it’s ever taken me this long to read a novel of this length before.

Trinity is the story of the Irish Catholic struggle against English Protestant oppression in the years before WWI. It explains the condition of the dirt poor Catholic peasantry and how they were kept in dire poverty by a corrupt political system abetted by religious bigotry.

Uris allows for no shades of gray in his portrayal of the greedy British aristocracy, manipulating the working poor Irish Protestants against the Catholics. He covers an immense amount of historical, political, and cultural material to produce an informative if one-sided account. It’s a very readable way to learn the material and it is a novel, after all, so the bias can be overlooked in favor of the story.

Trinity is primarily the story of Conor Larkin, a heroic protagonist who did not seem so much a man as the embodiment of the Catholic cause. Conor springs from a long line of doomed Catholic rebels. Freedom fighting is his destiny. The book follows his lengthy path to martyrdom. It also follows the lives of his various nemeses, showing just how formidable they are so we know what Conor is up against. More than formidable, the obstacles are insurmountable. Perhaps even more depressingly, he recognizes his fight isn’t winnable but he is driven to fight nonetheless. The book also gives us capsule introductions to the women in his life because, of course, the great man attracts great loves.

Trinity was first published in 1976 and is recognized as a classic of historical fiction. I can understand its popularity. I learned a lot about a topic that has always intrigued and confused me. It does contain many compelling scenes, particularly the climax. And it has some memorable characters. However, I found it a plodding book overall. I think it’s because the characters never really engaged me. Even though the situations were suitably gripping–I could understand that monumental wrongs were being committed and I cared about the fact that this or things like it had happened to people in Ireland--I didn’t really ever care that it was happening to characters in the book. These particular fictional characters fell flat for me.

How can this be? Conor Larkin is supposed to be one of the greatest, manliest historical fiction superheroes. Uris certainly had the hero-worship thing going and did his best to insist that the reader get on board. Conor was so perfect that his only weakness was letting love-of-his-life number two see him grieving deeply the violent death of love-of-his-life number one. Conor bravely fights every fight despite his dislike of violence. He survives beatings that would kill mortal men. He performs the equivalent of walking on to a professional sports team when in his thirties without having so much as practiced in months and becomes the star player. He is a talented, essentially self-taught blacksmith who is a better artisan than men with world renown in the profession. And he is the man who comes up with all the brilliant military plans for the Brotherhood when everyone else is stumped about how to proceed. Oh, and he is the handsomest man in all of Ireland.

I might have been able to hop on the I-Can-Read-About-Conor-Larkin-for-900-Pages bandwagon with more enthusiasm if Uris had not given him one particular fatal flaw: he is utterly humorless. True, there wasn’t much to smile about in this story of the downtrodden Irish, but I like my superhuman heroes to be able to laugh at themselves. Conor is humble, naturally, but he is seriously humble. However, Conor is intended to be a brooding, melancholy, poetic hero, and humor would have been out of place in Trinity.

This is a very good book club book, sure to stimulate a lot of discussion. A few of our members are re-reading it, and already have said how much they love it, so my lukewarm reaction is a minority opinion. And, now I’m ready for book club and I’ve read something by Uris.

I’m adding this to my list of books read for the historical fiction challenge. Check out the challenge at Historical Tapestries.