The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller – Book Review

The Song of AchillesThe Song of Achilles is Madeline Miller’s sweeping and romantic Trojan war epic recounted through the eyes of enigmatic Patroclus, Achilles’s beloved companion. Miller begins her tale with Patroclus’s origins as the  despised prince of a simple-minded mother whose father banishes him in disgrace after the accidental death of a childhood playmate. Unused to affection, Patroclus expects more of the same in the Kingdom of Pthia, but his life unexpectedly changes as he comes to the attention of Achilles, the golden half-god of goddess Thetis  and Pthian King, Peleus. Their friendship gets its start when Achilles covers for a truant Patroclus, and though they are very different, their affection for one another grows. Thetis, who is conspiring to make her son a full god, even though war and death follow the pursuit of her goal, frowns upon their relationship. However, nothing but tragedy will separate the pair.

Miller’s tale is a marvel- easily illumining the lives and practices of the ancient Greeks and how they view family, duty, their kings and their gods. Her writing is beautiful and she constructs a careful record that operates within the accepted canon of the Trojan war, but deeply personifies its heroes and villains. I listened to the audio version of the book and the narration is a feat, with its laser focus on this timeless love story. I was riveted as it pushed forward to its sad and inevitable conclusion. Highly Recommended.

1DA652C2516038AE4D02F55645591F39 Dark Lie by Nancy Springer   Book Review

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Dark Lie by Nancy Springer – Book Review

Dark Lie by Nancy SpringerNovels featuring supernatural elements or slashers on the loose can be creepy but nothing raises the hair on my neck more than when ordinary people are faced with plausible horrific events. The former are scary, but how about when a suburban housewife living a quiet and comfortable existence with her devoted husband in a small  Midwestern town is called upon to face an evil that originated in her past? Dorrie Whiteare has a secret date at the mall nearly every weekend, to follow the daughter she gave up for adoption before meeting her husband, Sam. When Juliet is kidnapped from the mall one afternoon, shy and timid Dorrie throws caution to the wind and goes after the kidnapper to save her daughter, and Sam has to reconsider everything he thought he knew about his wife. As Dorrie throws herself headlong into danger, she fights with the fact that this kidnapping is not random at all.

One of the best things about Nancy Springer’s Dark Lie is how quickly and convincingly she is able to convey vivid, suspense-filled reality and combine it with relentless forward motion pacing. This plot demands movement  and quite literally Dorrie is in her car following  abductor and captive. Though the novel is fast-paced there is plenty of psychological exposition detailing Dorrie’s loneliness in her religion, her troubled relationship with her fanatical parents, isolation from her husband, Sam’s insecurity in being unable to pierce Dorrie’s defenses, and their quiet retreat from life when Dorrie’s lupus diagnosis prevents them from starting a family.

Dark Lie is a quick read mixing elements of mystery, psychological suspense, and religious fanaticism. Springer’s narrative seamlessly alternates through Dorrie’s past and present while including the perspective of her husband Sam, and Sissy Chappell, a young black police woman and handwriting expert, who is the only one realizing just how much trouble Dorrie and her daughter are facing. The horror of Dorrie’s story is a convincing one in Springer’s capable hands, and the result a startling page-turner. Recommended.

1DA652C2516038AE4D02F55645591F39 Twas The Night After Christmas by Sabrina Jeffries   Book Review

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Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwen – Book Review

Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwenSerena Frome starts off as many young women do, choosing a collegiate career to satisfy her parent’s desires and ambitions. Pressured into attending Cambridge University’s Newnham College for a degree in Mathematics,  Serena doesn’t have the depth of knowledge Cambridge requires. She spends  her free time reading classic and contemporary literature, and after landing a book column in a local magazine, fancies herself something of a critic – though by her own admission she is less than a careful reader.

While finishing her degree she starts a relationship with a middle-aged professor who guides her reading, and shapes her political opinions- thereby grooming her for recruitment at MI5, the English equivalent of the CIA. Serena’s literary studies make her the ideal agent on a project code-named Sweet Tooth, where she recruits young writers fitting predetermined parameters for covertly funded MI5 grants. Her first grant recipient is Tom Haley, a  talented writer struggling to publish, and supporting himself with teaching assignments. As the two become intimately involved and fall in love, Serena has a hard time deciding how much of her career should be shared with her lover.

McEwen skillfully combines elements in this compelling novel exploring the role of government agencies using culture and the arts to gauge and influence political ideologies of its constituents. But even more than it is a spy novel, it’s also a commentary on readers and reading, wrapped up in a coming-of-story. I loved the way McEwen pulls it all together. The fact that it’s set in the 1970’s doesn’t make it any less relevant to growing up, trying to decide on a life, the work place and advancing in a culture that minimizes women’s roles, and making choices that you’d like to take back. I’m pretty sure the spy agencies have continued to do their thing as well.

McEwen writes beautifully and he takes a lot of time building up Serena and giving a good idea of what goes on in her head, and includes long and detailed synopses of what she reads and how she reacts to the material. You understand how her thinking is shaped and why she acts as she does, how her beauty and intelligence affects the way she is viewed and treated, and how ultimately it influences her views of her own value and capabilities. There are clever turns in this novel (read carefully!) and  a lot of discussion on how stories are created and told, and the different kinds of writers and readers. I have heard grumblings that Sweet Tooth is highly autobiographical, and not his best work. This is my first McEwen novel, so I really can’t comment, but if this isn’t his best, then bring on the rest! Highly recommended.

1DA652C2516038AE4D02F55645591F39 Twas The Night After Christmas by Sabrina Jeffries   Book Review

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Out Of Twenty: Karen Engelmann, Author of The Stocholm Octavo, Answers Six Questions

In this version of twenty questions, I send a list of questions to a willing victim author and they choose their own interviewEngelmann-Karen-ap1 by choosing which questions, and how many questions, they want to answer! Karen Engelmann’s  The Stockholm Octavo tells the story of a Swedish clerk who looking for love but finding himself deep in political intrigue.  Here is what Karen had to say about reading, writing, and the temptation of a chapter on The Virgin Lotteries.

Would you give us a bit of introduction and let my readers know who you are, how you got started writing, and what kind of books you like to write?

When I tell people that I am from Iowa, it usually elicits at least a smile if not a laugh. At surface level, there is something corny about that statement (pun intended) but then people remember the Writer’s Workshop at the University of Iowa and the smiles are replaced by a somber reverence. Ah, the Workshop… if only I had known what I really wanted back then! Although writing was a serious adolescent interest, visual art trumped it, and I received a BFA from the University of Iowa in drawing and design. This was my career for many years, but the desire to write never completely disappeared. There was a period of time I did drawings with text, but eventually I found that words served as a more satisfying tool of creative expression altogether. I kept my day job but spent a great deal of free time writing: first poetry and journaling, then longer works. I took classes, joined a writing group, read scores of how-to and self-help books for aspiring writers, then decided to immerse myself in an MFA program. That graduate degree was the turning point; I knew that I had found my tribe at last. Long fiction is what I love to read and what I love to write.

I am often struck by the different ways writers respond to the process of writing a book. Linus’s Blanket refers to my use of reading and other activities as a means of escape and comfort, can you share with us any routines, food or recipes, or favorite books or rituals that help you thorough the writing process?

A coffee alarm goes off in my head about every 90 minutes when I am writing. I stand up, walk to the kitchen, make a large fresh cup, go back to my desk. Sometimes the coffee will sit for 83 minutes, but then I drink it down stone cold, sometimes with a thin scum of milk on top. It is almost always empty just before the next mental ding. When I hit a bad patch or a sticky problem in the work, I either take the dog for a walk or clean — both very practical procrastinations. Maybe it’s just the physical movement, but that seems to shake out solutions. And I always have a scented candle burning on my desk when writing — there is comfort and inspiration in the flame itself, plus it masks the smell of my dog, who occasionally indulges his fondness for deer scat.

People live in stories, we are surrounded by them. What was it about this the story that made it the one you had to tell at this time?  What impact did telling this story have on your life?  Did you find that it had changed you?

I lived in Sweden for about nine years. That experience was potent, and emerged shortly after returning to the US in drawings, journals, an attempted memoir and poems. But there was a much larger, more ambitious idea that ambushed me later: historical fiction set in Sweden! This was fairly preposterous; I knew little to nothing about Swedish history and had never done serious research. But once I started reading, I was hooked: the story of Gustav III (Sweden’s fascinating, late-18th century monarch) was juicy material that I could use as a basis for my own fiction. Some scenes and ideas for plots were transcribed and tossed, then the demands of work, children and life took over. But the idea for this Gustavian story would not go away and demanded to be taken seriously. In 2007, I took on the challenge  and enrolled in the MFA program at Goddard College in Vermont. It provided me with the structure, professional advice, tools and deadlines to actually complete a manuscript, which eventually became The Stockholm Octavo. The experience changed everything for me — it’s difficult to enumerate the ways. I found my voice, my colleagues, my calling, my art. Writing this story taught me the true meaning of laboring for love, which is the real heart of the creative process.

What was the most interesting thing that you found out while researching this book that you ultimately decided not to include?

The Stockholm OctavoThere was a lottery in Stockholm in the late 18th century that was called the Virgin Lottery — it was set up to give dowries to young maidens of common birth in order to encourage marriages and population growth. The drawings were held with great fanfare, much drunkenness and all the excitement and despair that goes with gambling. Orphaned children would draw the winning numbers, and famous individuals in the Town would serve as officials. I wrote an entire chapter based on this event but had to let it go; it did not serve any real purpose other than I thought it was cool, which is a common temptation for writers of historical fiction.

 Did you know what you wanted the title of the book to be?  How involved were in choosing the name of the book?

The working title of the novel was The Octavo — even though in the early stages I was not quite sure what the octavo actually was or how it worked, other than it involved eight characters and the geometry of the octagon. By the time I finished the first draft, the concept of the joined octavos had emerged —two separate fortune-telling spreads combining to reveal a larger, more important purpose. I named the construction the Stockholm Octavo, and this became the title. When the book was picked up by Ecco, there was mention of a change but nothing more happened until the first cover was designed. At that point, there was a flurry of discussions about the word octavo and whether it was too esoteric and/or unpronounceable, and the title was changed for about two months to The Stockholm Eight. This was (happily) changed back before the galley copies were printed and the book began its journey to final publication.

 Did you have to do much research when working on your books, and do you tend to write first or research first?

TSO required loads of research — more than I ever imagined. The good news is that I thoroughly enjoyed it — like a treasure hunt that would turn up the most unexpected wonders. In many respects the research process mirrored the writing and revision: I did some fairly general research on Swedish and European history and culture of the period before I began writing. This supplied the big picture, but was not nearly specific enough to make a believable historical setting. As the manuscript progressed I got deeper into the details: how fans were made, common local food, clothing, architecture, maps of the town, herbology, cartomancy, card games and gambling, professions, politics, and so on. By the time I was at the copy editing stage I was checking recipes for eel and trying to determine the exact location of the baptismal font at the Great Church in 1791. The hardest part is knowing when to stop researching and determine what you can leave out; you cannot let the facts overcome the story.

1DA652C2516038AE4D02F55645591F39 Mrs. Robinsons Disgrace: The Private Diary of A Victorian Lady by Kate Summerscale   Trailer/Interviews

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‘Twas The Night After Christmas by Sabrina Jeffries – Book Review

Twas The Night After Christmas by Sabarina JeffriesSabrina Jeffries’s ‘Twas The Night Before Christmas fit the bill perfectly in terms of being a romance that strikes a perfect balance between being a plausible and well-plotted historical romance novel, and one still employing certain time tested tropes indicative of the genre. It is seasonal to boot. The problems of the main characters could have been solved more simply and quickly had they communicated better, but I suppose that wouldn’t have been much fun!

Pierce and Caroline have enjoyable romantic chemistry, and atypical of other romances she isn’t significantly younger than Pierce, but is a mature widow raising a child on her own – one she believes she needs to hide in order to keep her position. Pierce, of course, is intelligent handsome but has been hurt by his family  with secrets that leave him estranged from his parents. This has been particularly troublesome with his mother, who seemed to adore him. He just needs a good woman to help straighten him out so that he can be the loving and compassionate man he was meant to be (mini-eyeroll).

Shenanigans ensue as Caroline tries to get Pierce to spend mire time with his mother, and he uses spending time in his company as a bargaining tool. Both are stubborn, but as they spend more time together, and slowly find out about each other’s past, they begin to let their guard down and think they can have something together.

I was charmed by the novel, and surprised to see that this was the sixth in a series. That goes to show you how well it can be read alone. Isn’t it good to know that if you like this one, you can look forward to going back and reading the others?Recommended.

1DA652C2516038AE4D02F55645591F39 Breed by Chase Novak   Book Review

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Break The Skin by Lee Martin – Book Review

Break The Skin by Lee MartinIn Lee Martins’ Break the Skin, Laney Volk is a lonely and awkward teenager from Mt. Gilead, Illinois. She is at odds with her mother because she can’t accept her beautiful singing voice, refusing to parlay her talent into a scholarship and a college degree. Working at the local Wal-Mart, she is befriended by Delilah Dade, a troubled and much older woman who invites Laney to live in her trailer along with a third roommate, Rose McAdow- dark, brooding and a novice practitioner of black magic. Damaged, insecure and having endured broken homes, poverty and bad relationships, the women are a needy bunch; the dynamic of their relationships intense and constantly shifting. Throw an attractive man in middle of that volatility, and you are sure to get fireworks…or  murder. Meanwhile in Denton, Texas, Miss Baby is earning a living as a tattoo artist, but desperation forces her into a relationship with a mysterious man who is somehow linked to the ladies of Mt. Gilead.

One of the most impressive aspects of Break The Skin is how much the author cares about his characters, makes them real beings, and makes it hard not to have compassion for them and their circumstances.  Bad things happen in this novel (murder, manipulation, threats, violence), but not least of all the environments and circumstances shaping these character’s lives, making it inconceivable for them to make the smart and healthy choices. Break The Skin is beautifully and feelingly written, and it doesn’t let go for a minute, alternating as it does between the equally compelling and drama-filled narratives of Laney and Ms. Baby.  This dark tale of good girls gone bad is nearly impossible to put down once Martin starts weaving his spell, exposing the tragedy and the humanity in the wreck of these lives. Highly recommended.

1DA652C2516038AE4D02F55645591F39 Breed by Chase Novak   Book Review

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Breed by Chase Novak – Book Review

Alex Twisden is a wealthy and powerful New York attorney whose existence is rendered complete when he meets and marries Leslie Kramer, whom he playfully refers to as his trophy wife. Despite years of trying for a child – naturally, fertility treatments and new age cure-alls, the couple remains childless. Alex’s old-fashioned notions of preserving the family line precludes adoption, so when they run into a pregnant couple who formerly attended their infertility support group, Alex will stop at nothing to learn the secret of their success. It leads them to a creep doctor in Slovenia, a frightening procedure, and horrible side effects, but fast forward ten years later and they have their own biological child, twins even. They are also locking their children up every night.

The rest of Breed, Scott Spencer’s horror novel presented under the pseudonym Chase Novak, concerns itself with Alice and Adam escaping from their parents when it become clear to them that something terrible is happening in their home. They (especially Adam) are troubled by the  family’s seclusion, strange noises they hear in the night, and maybe even their own origins. Breed is problematic in the times when it reads like a heavy-handed indictment of prodigious wealth and old world style paternalistic ideas of inheritance, breeding (ha!), and the inherent value of genetic parenthood – even if you have to defy the laws of nature and turn to inhuman methods to make it a reality.

The children’s champion and would be protector is a middle-class, gay teacher who is committed to his job and his poor rich students even as he fears losing it, and his only means of support if his sexuality is revealed. He is pitted against the moneyed insistence of Alex Twisden and the prestige of the tony prep school attended by Twisden’s twins. Novak’s writing can be fine but he mostly isn’t able to consistently blend literary panache with his genre stylings – certain parts seemed to fall in either category, and the less than subtle morality made for an uneven reading experience. I think horror fans might enjoy this, even though it’s more gross than scary, if only because it attempts a deeper and more philosophical reading experience than the average fare. Weeks after reading it, I still have really mixed feelings on its merits an shortcomings. The fact that it has stayed with me for so long is definitely something to think about.

1DA652C2516038AE4D02F55645591F39 The Blood Keeper by Tessa Gratton   Book Review

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The Blood Keeper by Tessa Gratton – Book Review

The Blood Keeper by Tessa Gratton Hard Cover Image

The Blood Keeper by Tessa Gratton Hard Cover ImageAnyone with a tendency toward hemophobia should not read Tessa Gratton’s The Blood Keeper. You will not make it through. Almost from the first page, the novel’s heroine, Mab Prowd is cutting open fingers and wrists, bleeding into bowls, and mixing it up with other ingredients to connect to the earth and work her blood magic. I often felt like I was trying to read the book between my fingers, but it’s an absorbing read, and slight squeamishness aside, I wanted to keep going.

Mab Prowd is seventeen when she inherits the title of The Deacon (a magical keeper of the land, one who contains curses, and maintains a safe place for all the other blood witches scattered across the United States) from her Uncle Arthur who after hundreds of  years as the Deacon has decided to move on. As a last request he asks her to destroy rose bushes planted in the garden. Unfortunately he neglects to explain the meaning behind this odd assignment, and Mab takes it upon herself to explore their power and essence before doing as he asks. She channels the energy of the roses into a creature she fashions out of mud and animal hearts. This turns out to be a big mistake – especially when her creation crosses paths with Will Sanger, a boy from the local high school who is struggling to define his own life choices at the time.

I liked The Blood Keeper a lot. Gratton can run long with her descriptiveness, making for some issues with pacing, but that was outweighed in the balance by strong, well-developed characters, solid mythology and details of the dark rituals comprising blood magic, and good story-telling. Point of view alternates between Mab, Will and a former resident of the blood land which slowly proves to have bearing on unfolding events.

The Blood Keeper is essentially the story of a lonely girl growing up on an isolated Kansas farm, weighted by the responsibility of inheritance and separated from people her own age. While she meets Will because of the danger she has exposed him to, they both need each other. Mab’s strength of character is sometimes to her detriment when she leaps before considering all of the possibilities, and she could benefit fun and the company of other teens. Will finds just as much comfort in her, as he tries to break away from the demands and traditions of his family in light of the unsettling death of his brother. Will was probably my favorite character in the book – his simple openness and trust, desire to do the right thing and his love for his dogs, made him very appealing and the romance very sweet. History, horror, romance and magic  coincide for a compelling escapist read. Recommended.

1DA652C2516038AE4D02F55645591F39 All The Books: Fall 2012 (1)

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All The Books: Fall 2012 (1)

I want to read all the books. This never happens. It’s one of the few times I am comfortable with using the word never. Here are a five of the many I am bummed to have not read…yet.

Adam McComber’s The White Forest got decidedly mixed reviews from bloggers whose opinions I trust, but still this is one that I want to try for myself at some point. It’s historical and supposedly has a Gothic element. Two things I really, really like.

Right, so we know that I don’t care much for contemporary romance, but Hester Browne’s The Runaway Princess promises a glimpse into the lives of non-British royalty, and so I’m curious.

With Thomas Norman DeWolf & Sharon Morgan’s book titled, Gather At the Table: The Healing Journey of a Daughter of Slavery and a Son of the Slave Trade , the name says it all. So curious as to what they talked about, and the labels they chose to apply to themselves.

 

I just finished and reviewed another book where Napoleon is  a marginally featured in the plot, In Jo Graham’s The General’s Mistress, he seems to have a bigger role here, with Robespierre added in for good measure.

Other Press consistently puts out great books. The latest on my radar is Peter Hoeg’s The Elephant Keeper’s Children, a novel telling the story of three children who have eccentric parents, one a vicar and the other an artisan. When their parents go missing, the children fear that it is because of their aggressive recruiting tactics to boost church attendance. Oh, snap.

1DA652C2516038AE4D02F55645591F39 The Emperors Conspiracy by Michelle Diener   Book Review

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