Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Weekly Geeks: 2008 Favorites & Get Smart Giveaway Winners

*Grumble. Grumble. Grumble.* Have you ever had one of those mornings when you wish you could cover up your head with the blanket and forget about whatever you have to do that day? It was one of those mornings for me today. No reason in particular. I just didn't want to get up this morning.

I was awakened by a long and baleful mewing. I shot up in bed, worried that something was wrong with my dear Parker. It wasn't too long ago that he was sick after all. My husband is no good in situations like this, dead to the world in some far off valley in Slumberland. I jumped out of bed, fully awake, rushed to see what was wrong. Parker was walking towards me down the hall, with Anya close on his heels. I'm looking all over for signs of illness or maiming only to be led by my cat, Parker, to the kitchen door where he stood and stared, waiting to be let out. He isn't allowed outside and he knows it. It doesn't stop him from trying though. I truly believe that when Anya came to live with us, he thought that meant it was his turn to go out every once in awhile like his big canine brother, Riley. Anyhow, I scooped Parker up in my arms, all 11 lbs of him, and gave him a little corporal cuddle for the scare he gave me. And he purred and purred. That's how I know today will be a good one.

I have been participating off and on in Dewey's Weekly Geeks' events, picking and choosing which ones I take part in quite randomly. This is one of those times. This week, Dewey asks participants to compile a list of our favorite books published in 2008. I have managed to squeeze in quite a bit of new release reading so far this year. I thought I would share my top five list--all books I have read this year which have also been published this year. It was a lot harder to pare down than I thought it would be. I have read some great books. I will be brave though and take a stand.

The View From the Seventh Layer by Kevin Brockmeier
The Translator: A Tribesman's Memoir of Darfur by Daoud Hari
Janeology by Karen Harrington
Moonlight Downs by Adrian Hyland
Killing Rommel by Steven Pressfield
A Grave in Gaza by Matt Beynon Rees

Yes, I can count. And yes, I did list six titles instead of five. I told you it was hard.

It is time to make the day of five other people. Thank you to all who participated in
the Hachette Book Group USA Get Smart! Back to School Reading Bonanza Giveaway!

The winners were chosen at random using random.org. And the five lucky readers are

Congratulations to the winners!

Monday, September 29, 2008

Get Smart! Back to School Reading Bonanza: A Hatchette USA 10 Book Giveaway Reminder

Don't forget to enter the Hachette Book Group USA Get Smart! Back to School Reading Bonanza Giveaway! The deadline is fast approaching (September 29, 2008, 11:59 PM PDT); so enter today!

Review: Sweet Mandarin by Helen Tse

When your entire family works in restaurants, food becomes a family album—an heirloom that triggers memories. [pg 4]

Sweet Mandarin by Helen Tse
Ebury Press, 2007
Nonfiction; 279 pgs

One of my best friends during my childhood was a girl whose family owned and ran a Chinese restaurant. I remember once attending a birthday party at the restaurant and being awed by the Asian themes and decor—it was all so glamorous to me. It never crossed my mind to think of all the hard work my friend’s family must have put into the restaurant. Reading Sweet Mandarin, however, I couldn’t help but wonder if they too faced some of the same struggles. I wish now that I was still in touch with this particular friend and that I had thought to ask her about her family’s background. But, at the time, I was a child interested more in the present than in the past.

Growing up, most of my friends were Asian-Americans, in fact, although it was not really something I thought much of until one day a friend commented about my being her only white friend. Suddenly my whiteness stood out like a sore thumb. I didn’t know whether to feel embarrassed or honored. It never really dawned on me that I should care. The truth is, it shouldn’t and it doesn’t.—but in that split moment, it did. I cannot know the prejudice that she or any of my other friends may have faced because of their ethnicity. I would like to think that they didn’t face any at all, but that isn’t very realistic, is it? In my life, I have faced other forms of discrimination whether it be because of economic status or gender—and even in the form of reverse ageism.

I cannot really say why immigrant stories interest me so. Being a Heinz-57 (or as I like to call myself: a mutt), I always envied those who knew where they came from and could identify their roots so specifically. The older I got, however, the more I came to appreciate the diversity of my own family. We too had once been immigrants—at least my ancestors had. They worked hard and made a life for themselves just as so many others have had to do. They wanted the best for their children, to survive and prosper.

Helen Tse tells the story of her grandmother’s life journey in Sweet Mandarin, mapping out the path that led the author and her sisters to open their own restaurant in Manchester, England, leaving behind lucrative careers and reconnecting with their heritage. Lily, Helen’s grandmother, is an amazing woman. She knew poverty and success, love and betrayal. She worked hard for everything she accomplished, saw it destroyed by greed and ill-fortune on more than one occasion, and not once did she think to give up. She did what she had to do to survive.

Lily was born in a small village in China, moving to Hong Kong when her father’s soy sauce business began to take off. With her father’s early demise, Lily’s mother and her sisters stayed on in the city and struggled to make a living as best they could. They lived in abject poverty, dependent on others to keep a roof over their heads. Lily had always been a planner and she knew what she must do to survive. She worked as an amah, a maid and nanny, to the wealthy European families who settled temporarily in Hong Kong. When the Japanese invaded Hong Kong during World War II, she became a translator for the Japanese, burdened by the horrors she saw, and yet she somehow hung on. She left behind her children and husband to work in England, hoping for a better life. Her daughter and son would soon follow her, and eventually the family would settle in England, where Helen and her sisters and brother would call home.

Throughout this time, food played a particularly important part in the family’s history. From Lily’s father, Leung, whose ambition and foresight brought prosperity to his family with his soy sauce business, to Lily’s eventual opening of her own restaurant in England, which people would flock to from far and wide. The author’s mother, Mabel, would also find solace in the food industry. It was the family livelihood, their pride and joy. The children grew up surrounded by food. And even in their frustrations and wish for something more and different, they still always seemed to come back to it—it is a tie to the past, but more importantly, an honor to those who came before them, an appreciation of their struggles and hardwork as well as a bridge between the past, the present and the future.

Sweet Mandarin is an inspiring story. Lily is truly an admirable woman. I do wish the author had been able to delve more deeply into life in Hong Kong during the Second World War, but I also understand that it was a difficult time for her grandmother to talk about and therefore not something the author could easily write about. I was amazed at the amount of research the author did to learn more about her grandfather—his is a story that is both moving and tragic. Helen Tse honors her family with this book. Her love, respect and admiration for her family shines through on each page. If I ever find myself in Manchester, I will make a point of stopping at Sweet Mandarin and ordering Lily Kwok’s Chicken Curry.

Rating: * (Very Good)

Check out the author's website for more information about her restaurant and book.

Read what others had to say about this book:
Cheryl's Book Nook
Medieval Bookworm
Not Enough Books

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Sunday Salon: Lazy Day

Last night's performance of 9 to 5: The Musical was wonderful. The show is laugh out loud funny and the performers did a marvelous job. It was over way too soon, if you ask me.

I really haven't a clue what to write about today, and so I've decided that I'll just chime in with with a quick mention of how I will be spending my day (which book I will be drowning myself in) and leave it at that.

Although my purse is big enough to carry a decent sized hardcover book, I decided to travel light to the theater in Los Angeles last night, and so The Tenth Case by Joseph Teller, a mass market paperback copy, came along for the ride. I do not especially like to watch the road when my husband is driving through L.A. traffic and so having a book handy is a must. Plus, it makes the time pass all the more quickly.

I enjoy a good legal thriller now and then, and already I am quite taken with Joseph Teller's novel--he has a great "voice", with just the right amount of humor. I hope to spend much of today with defense attorney Jaywalker as he defends the accused murderer, Samara.

My immediate TBR stack has been growing lately instead of shrinking. I received a copy of Traci L. Slatton's historical novel Immortal in the mail yesterday. It's stopping over for a short visit before heading to its real home over at Melody's. She was lucky enough to win a copy in one of J. Kaye's giveaways. I also received a copy of Christine Weiser's Broad Street, the first release by a new publishing outfit called PS Books. This novel is about an all girl rock group that is trying to make it onto the Philadelphia music scene during the mid-1990's.

Other books added to the ol' TBR collection:
Tears of the Desert by Halima Bashir (recommended by Megan)
Guernica by Dave Boling (recommended by Wendy)
Mistress of the Revolution by Catherine Delors
Compulsion by Jonathan Kellerman
Signs in the Blood by Vicki Lane (recommended by Karen)
Bad Monkeys by Matt Ruff

Week in Review:
ARC Challenge Wrap Up
Murder on a Girls' Night Out by Anne George Review
Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman Review
Off Topic Chatter

Also, just a little reminder of the Get Smart! Back to School Reading Bonanza Giveaway. I fixed the link which has been wrong for who knows how long. I apologize to anyone who was wondering why in the world I would link a contest that ended a couple of months ago. Lesson for today: Make sure links work and send people to the right place before publishing post. The last day to enter is tomorrow.

Happy reading!

Friday, September 26, 2008

Friday Fill In Fun

1. The cooler weather, smell of fire in fireplaces, and pumpkin pie are some of the things I'm most looking forward to in October.

2. Sometimes I like to get in the car and drive with no destination in mind.

3. I once said I would never ride on an upside down roller coaster, and yet I did, and that's why there is a saying, "never say never"! (But I won't do it again if I can help it!)

4. When I'm down, I cheer myself up by listening to my favorite songs, reading a good book, or playing with the animals. They can always make me smile.

5. On a sailboat on the Pacific is where you'll find me most often (okay, so not really).

6. A rainy day is good for cuddling on the couch with the dog and cats and spending the day reading.

7. And as for the weekend, tonight I’m looking forward to watching the U.S. Presidential debate while enjoying a little pizza and lemonade, tomorrow my plans include driving into Los Angeles to see the 9 to 5 musical and Sunday, I want to catch up on some much needed reading and pretend Monday isn't coming so soon!

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Review: Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman

For more than two hundred years, the Owens women have been blamed for everything that has gone wrong in town.
[First Sentence]

Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman
Berkley Signature Edition, 1995
Fiction; 286 pgs

It has been ages since I have seen the movie version of the book, Practical Magic, and so I am unable to draw distinct parallels between the two. I still could not get Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman out of my head, however, as I imagined the two sisters, Gillian and Sally.

The sisters were orphaned at a young age when their parents were killed in an accident. They are raised by two rather eccentric aunts. Everyone in town fears the aunts and is quick to lay blame at their door for bad things that happen in town, but when it comes to matters of love, the townsfolk are more than ready to seek their help. The aunts are well known for their magic charms and potions in dealing with love.

Growing up, the two sisters, Gillian and Sally, wanted nothing more than to be normal. They were bullied and teased at school, ostracized because of their family reputation of witchery, and raised without much structure and discipline. Sally, the oldest of the two siblings, was the more responsible one—studious, diligent, and trying to do right. She was the one who made sure the family ate right and kept the house in order. Her sister, Gillian, was more of a free spirit. She was into boys and liked to goof off whenever she could. She was the dreamer in the family, whereas Sally was the practical one.

Both girls wanted to get away from their past and lead as normal of lives as possible. Gillian takes flight in the middle of the night to get married at the age of 18. Sally, however, stays behind and finds love only to be devastated by its loss. She finally has had enough, taking her two daughters and fleeing to New York to start her own life—one not influenced by her aunts or the family history.

The sisters, like all the Owens women, seem to be unlucky in love. Gillian cannot stay in a relationship long and Sally has tuned out that part of her, focusing solely on raising her daughters and trying to be as normal as possible. Things seem to be working out well for Sally until one fateful night when her sister shows up on her doorstep with a burden that will test the sisters’ relationship as well as their own individual spirits.

I fell in love with Alice Hoffman’s writing style when I read The Probable Future a couple of years ago, and I continue to be enamored with it after having read Practical Magic. There is lightness to her writing and yet it is lyrical in style. The characters are easy to relate to and empathize with. I most could identify with Sally, the bookworm of the bunch, perhaps in part because I know what it is like to be the older sister, the responsible one.

The theme of sisterhood and mother/daughter relationships runs throughout the book. Gillian and Sally had a unique relationship with their aunts—they were there for the girls during the worst moments of their lives and yet, as often children do, the girls rebelled against them in their own individual ways. Likewise, Sally’s daughters did the same, but in relation to their mother. Antonia and Kylie’s own relationship with each other, as well as Sally and Gillian’s, was mixed with animosity and sisterly devotion. They were there for each other when it counted most and yet could not shake off the envy and feeling of constant competition with each other.

Love was also a major theme in the book. Each of the Owens women had known the joy of love as well as the bitter side. They managed their feelings in different ways, and yet their longing for love was very similar. The aunts knew of love and loss better than anyone. Gillian and Sally were not sure they would ever find it again. And Kylie and Antonia, Sally’s daughters, were only beginning to learn about love.

As can be expected in a novel written by Alice Hoffman, there are hints of magic weaved throughout the novel. It is never over the top or out of place. Alice Hoffman’s Practical Magic is a beautiful and charming story about love and self-discovery. I look forward to reading more by this author.

Rating: * (Very Good)

Check out the author's website for more information about her books.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Review: Murder on a Girls’ Night Out by Anne George

Mary Alice flung her purse on my kitchen table, where it landed with a crash, pulled a stool over to the counter and perched on it.
[First Sentence]

Murder on a Girls’ Night Out by Anne George
Avon Mystery, 1996
Crime Fiction (MYS); 244 pgs

From the Publisher:
Patricia Anne -- "Mouse" -- is respectful, respectable, and demure, a perfect example of genteel Southern womanhood. Mary Alice -- "Sister" -- is big, brassy, flamboyant, and bold. Together they have a knack for finding themselves in the center of some of Birmingham's most unfortunate unpleasantness.

Country Western is red hot these days, so overimpulsive Mary Alice thinks it makes perfect sense to buy the Skoot 'n' Boot bar -- since that's where the many-times-divorced "Sister" and her boyfriend du jour like to hang out anyway. Sensible retired schoolteacher Patricia Anne is inclined to disagree -- especially when they find a strangled and stabbed dead body dangling in the pub's wishing well. The sheriff has some questions for Mouse and her sister Sister, who were the last people, besides the murderer, of course, to see the ill-fated victim alive. And they had better come up with some answers soon -- because a killer with unfinished business has begun sending them some mighty threatening messages...

Comments: I cannot remember where I first heard about this particular series, but I have had a copy of this book sitting in my TBR collection for quite some time. I added it to my 1st in a Series Challenge list in hopes of finally getting to it—and I am so glad I did. Anne George’s novel is both funny and charming.

I adore the main character, Patricia Anne, and her husband Fred. They both reminded me a bit of my husband and me in the way they interact and talk with each other. Mary Alice, Patricia Anne’s sister, is both eccentric and a hoot. One of my favorite parts of the novel was the interactions between the two sisters. The banter between the two, barbed at times and sweet at others, set the mood of the book nicely. The Southern setting was especially alluring.

The mystery itself was interesting and kept me guessing for the most part. I did figure out bits and pieces here and there, but the outcome was not quite as simple as one might expect in a cozy mystery such as this.

I definitely am looking forward to reading the rest of the series. If the other books are anything like Murder on a Girls' Night Out, they are sure to be delightful fun.

Rating: * (Very Good)

Check out the author's official fan website for more information about her books.

Monday, September 22, 2008

ARC Challenge Wrap Up

As my husband and I sat down for lunch yesterday, I told him how I failed to complete the easiest challenge I'd entered this year. True to form, he asked, "You mean the Graphic Novels Challenge?" I assured him that I would finish that one. There's still time after all. Even if only three months. It might be the only one I finish at the end of the year. Well, that and the 1st in a Series Challenge, which I am bending the rules to right and left and not at all sticking to my actual list.

Teddy from So Many Precious Books So Little Time created a shoe in of a challenge--perfect for me since I have been on an ARC reading kick lately. It was the easiest challenge out there. With the amount of Advanced Readers' Copies sitting here on my desk bookshelf, there was no way I could fail to read a measly four books for the The ARC Challenge. And yet, I wasn't able to pull it off. I was reading the entire time, and so it wasn't like I didn't open a book during the past three months. I did manage to fit in three ARC's. Given just a couple of more days, I probably could have finished the fourth. Why, oh, why didn't I join the Pub Challenge? I would have had that in the bag within the first few months of the year.

I actually am quite happy with what I have been reading lately, even if not all of the books fall neatly into my challenge categories. And that's really what matters. I don't think anyone would begrudge me that.

What ARC's did I manage to read during the past three months? Here's my list:

  • Nightwalker by Jocelynn Drake

  • Far World, Book 1: Water Keep by J Scott Savage

  • The Servants by Michael Marshall Smith

  • Interestingly enough, each of these books had elements of the fantastical about them. I liked them each for different reasons and am glad I had the opportunity to read each one. J Scott Savage's book was my favorite of the bunch--and not because he was kind enough to sit through my inquisition of him. All three of the authors were completely new to me and I am definitely interested in reading more by them in the future.

    Many thanks to Teddy for being such a great host and offering me a chance to take part in The ARC Challenge!

    Sunday, September 21, 2008

    Sunday Salon: A Bookish Dream

    Tomorrow marks the first day of my favorite season of the year: Autumn. I love the fall season. It is still too early to feel any chill in the air, but it's coming. In my part of the world, summer does not give up without a fight and I imagine this year will be no exception.

    I had a dream this past week that I was a child again, living with my parents in a little one room shack, much like the one Helen Tse's grandmother spent her early childhood in. My father did not like that I read so many books. My mother warned me to stop reading so much. She said I had to keep it down to three books a day or else my father would kick me out of the house. I was frightened at the prospect; and so I hid my reading, stealing snatches of reading time whenever I could while doing my best to read no more than three books a day. I wasn't reading children's picture books either, but adult chapter novels. Some were quite long, in fact. I wish I could remember the titles.

    My dad is a rabid reader in real life, and I imagine he would be the last person to limit the amount of books I read in any given time. I am amazed that I was able to read three books a day or more, frankly--even if just in a dream.

    I was also struck by the fact that the book I am reading made it into my dream. It happens occasionally. It is nothing new, and yet I am always fascinated by it. It makes sense though, doesn't it? The images I read before I fall asleep are fresh in my brain. As the neurons fire, they are bound to touch upon the last images created in my mind. In this case it was a minor image--that of a one room house.

    Does this ever happen to you? Do the stories you read ever weave themselves into your dreams somehow?

    The book I am reading at the moment is called Sweet Mandarin by Helen Tse. It is a true story based on three generations of women: the author, her mother and grandmother. The family struggled through many hardships and fought hard for their successes, often times only to have those successes turn into devestating losses. And yet they kept getting back up again, starting over and rebuilding. I am particularly drawn to the cultural and historical aspects of the book, which is set in China, Hong Kong and eventually the United Kingdom.

    I have not yet decided on what to read next. There are so many directions I could go. Maybe I should choose wisely because the next book might be the one I read just before I fall asleep tonight. And who knows what my dreams will bring?

    Saturday, September 20, 2008

    BBAW: Over So Soon?

    It has been a whirlwind week with plenty of blogging activities all over the blogosphere. For those of you participating or just following along with the Book Blogger Appreciation Week events, you know exactly what I mean. I enjoyed so many different aspects of this week, especially the coming together of bloggers from around the world to celebrate each other. I made new friends, picked up a few great tips, added book titles and authors names to my reading wish list, and feel a renewed sense of pride in what I am doing here at Musings of a Bookish Kitty. I am not sure I would have stuck to blogging as long as I have without the many wonderful friends I have made since I began, not to mention the opportunities and doors blogging has opened up for me. I am especially grateful to you all, my dear readers, as well as my fellow bloggers who have made this such a great community to be a part of.

    I had not intended to have a giveaway this week, but it turned out I had extra copies of a couple of books sitting on my shelf. I figured this was as good a time as any to find good homes for them. I was excited to see so much interest in them. I only wish I could offer a copy to everyone who entered the drawings. The winners were chosen randomly through random.org.

    The winner of Sweet Mandarin by Helen Tse is

    The winner of When A Crocodile Eats the Sun: A Memoir of Africa by Peter Goodwin is

    Jen Devourer of Books

    Congratulations to Alice and Jen!

    Book Blogger Appreciation Week in Review:
    A Little Bit of Blogger Love
    Interview with Bookish Ruth
    Review: Out by Natsuo Kirino & A Big Thank You
    Tooting My Own Horn
    A Big BBAW Thank You & A Little Friday Fun

    I have a stack of books I need to get back to, and so I will sign off for now. Remember to take time out each day to read, even if only a little something. Happy reading!

    Friday, September 19, 2008

    A BIG BBAW Thank You & A Little Friday Fun

    This summer, after book blogging was patronized in the mainstream media, Amy from My Friend Amy made a suggestion that we celebrate book blogging. From that idea, Book Blogger Appreciation Week was born. Many of us have participated in interviews, contests, give-a-ways, and through awards; but this would never have happened were it not for the dream, perseverance, planning, hard work and dedication of Amy. This has been a wonderful week and as members of the Book Blogging community, in one voice we want to thank Amy for all that she has done.

    Amy, you are truly the Queen of Book Bloggers and we love you!

    1. There is no need for an expensive cat toy when you have an Amazon box handy.

    2. Where in the heck did the book I was reading walk off to now?

    3. Reading just a couple of chapters is all I managed to do during my lunch break.

    4. Prospects for my house are still up in the air.

    5. Take time to read a book is the message I have for you today.

    6. Simplicity and tranquility are just what I could use right about now.

    7. And as for the weekend, tonight I’m looking forward to figuring out where I put that book, tomorrow my plans include a little bit of this and a lot of that and Sunday, I want to watch my kitty attack her brothers' tails!

    Thursday, September 18, 2008

    BBAW: Tooting My Own Horn

    Today's Book Blogger Appreciation Week Topic:
    Well, the awards are being handed out and congratulations passed on, I hear there's a best dressed/worst dressed in book blogging edition to come, but the truth is you are all pretty darned spectacular. So for today, why not show it off?

    Go hunt through your archives and find your favorite review, or author interview where you asked just the right insightful questions, or another post about something totally unrelated--a post where you think you're at your best and share it here! So today, it's really important to link to your specific post and NOT your general URL. OR. If you can't decide on just one, write up a new post containing the links to your favorites. It's your choice...do it whichever way you want!

    This should help us all get to know you a little better!

    Bragging about myself has never been my strong suit. I take humility to the extreme not because it is a virtue, but because I am a perfectionist and nothing is ever perfect. That is a concept I do accept, by the way. I am not perfect, and I can live with that. Not being perfect does not make me lose sleep or freak out (not most of the time anyway); so you don't have to worry about me there.

    I think my most favorite posts are the ones I didn't write. I recently had the opportunity to go on vacation, and I made arrangements with several authors and a publicist to stand in during my absence. Getting up the courage to ask my guests to post was a big accomplishment for me and then to put it all together took some work as well. There were a couple of moments when I wondered why I was doing this. My faithful readers would not begrudge me a vacation after all. At the very least, it would be one less blog post they would have to read every day. I also reminded myself that there have been days I haven't posted and the world still rotated, and so why was I so insistent that I have fill-ins?

    I wanted to offer a gift of sorts to my readers. I wanted to honor you and those who I blog about. I read all these books (not nearly as many as some of you), review them, offer up bookish chatter, and rarely take time out to thank the people behind putting the books in my hands. The internet has made it easier for readers to interact with authors and I am still awed that authors would want anything to do with me. When an author contacts me about reviewing a book, I have a moment of "Oh my goodness! Is he or she crazy?! Why me? I'm nobody!" And then I shoot off an e-mail to my husband if he's at work or turn to him if we're home and share my astonishment with him. He does not understand why I am surprised. He thinks I'm rather awesome (and he should since he married me, right?).

    I knew I was asking a lot of these authors to take time out of their busy schedules to write up a post for me. An interview might have been easier for each of them, admittedly, but I was going on vacation and didn't want to give myself that much work. They each did a wonderful job--even better than I could have hoped for. But what made it even more special for me were the comments left by those who stooped by, whether you responded to each post or not. You all made me feel like my extra effort was worth every drop of sweat I put into it. It isn't about the stats; it was about me wanting to do something for you that you would find useful and entertaining--and I am so glad that many of you did.

    Why am I going on and on about this? It's because I am trying to rack my brain to think of a stand out review I have written to link here. I really am terrible at singling myself out like this. What stands out for me are the books themselves and not so much what I have to say about them. It kind of defeats the purpose of the exercise, doesn't it? I'll just pick one at random, how about that? I especially enjoy writing reviews that touch me in a personal way. One of the big professional reviewer no no's is using "I" statements, especially if the reviewer goes so far as to talk about him or herself. And yet, those are the reviews that I like the most as a reader. My review of Ann-Marie MacDonald's The Way the Crow Flies is an example of this.

    A couple of years ago, I got on a kick of summarizing my reading each month in what I thought was a rather creative way for my online reading groups. I wanted to do more than just offer up a list of the books I had read during the month. It seemed to be a big hit, and I decided to carry it over to my blog. It lasted for two months. To this day, I still love the idea and wish I was motivated to start back up with it.

    Now that I seem to be on a roll, I have to mention The Booking Through Thursday memes, which have been great inspiration for me. Some of my favorites include:
  • Booking Through Thursday: Indoctrination
  • Booking Through Thursday: Enough About Books
  • Booking Through Thursday: After the Honeymoon

  • Then there is my rating scale, which I am quite fond of. I can't take all the credit for it, but it is a masterpiece if I do say so myself.

    It has been really exciting to watch my little blog grow over the last two years. I still cannot believe anyone would want to read what I have to say, but here you are.

    Wednesday, September 17, 2008

    Review: Out by Natsuo Kirino & A Big Thank You

    She got to the parking lot earlier than usual. [First Sentence]

    by Natsuo Kirino
    Translated by Stephen Snyder
    Vintage, 2003
    Crime Fiction (S/T); 400 pgs

    From the Publisher:

    Nothing in Japanese literature prepares us for the stark, tension-filled, plot-driven realism of Natsuo Kirino’s award-winning literary mystery Out.

    This mesmerizing novel tells the story of a brutal murder in the staid Tokyo suburbs, as a young mother who works the night shift making boxed lunches strangles her abusive husband and then seeks the help of her coworkers to dispose of the body and cover up her crime. The coolly intelligent Masako emerges as the plot’s ringleader, but quickly discovers that this killing is merely the beginning, as it leads to a terrifying foray into the violent underbelly of Japanese society.

    At once a masterpiece of literary suspense and pitch-black comedy of gender warfare, Out is also a moving evocation of the pressures and prejudices that drive women to extreme deeds, and the friendships that bolster them in the aftermath.

    Out is one of those novels that I find difficult to review, if only because I have a hard time putting into words why I liked this book so much. It was dark and real. The characters got under my skin (most of them, anyway), and I carried them with me even when I was not reading.

    Masako stands out the most among the characters. She is a leader of sorts; the one everyone turns to when things go wrong or they need help. She is in her 40’s, stuck in a marriage that has lost its luster and is raising a son who won’t talk to her. She does not have to work at the factory, but after being burned at her former job and wanting to do something, anything, she sticks with it, despite the harsh night hours and the poor working conditions. She seems to find comfort at work and in her friendships with her workmates.

    Yayoi is in an abusive relationship and trying to raise two young children while her husband gambles away their savings. It is all Yayoi can do to make ends meet. Then there is Yoshie whose strong work ethic and diligence has kept her going as she struggles to pay the bills, raise a teenage daughter and care for an elderly, not so nice mother-in-law.

    Kuniko, probably my least favorite of the four characters and yet one of the more complex ones, rounds out the foursome of women who are the backbone of the novel. Kuniko is young and naïve. She spends more than she can afford, borrows money she cannot pay back, and longs to be accepted and liked. She struggles with others as much as she struggles with herself.

    There is also Satake, a club owner whose sexual appetite runs to the morbid side. He’s struggling hard to maintain his self-control and out run his past, trying to establish himself as a respectable business man.

    My favorite of the male characters Kazuo—a lonely soul who only wants to be accepted and loved. He is a foreigner in his father’s homeland, struggling to fit in and make a living. There is an innocence about him that makes him endearing after awhile, despite his initial introduction in the book, which is less than flattering.

    Desperation drips off the four female protagonists and several of Natsuo Kirino’s other characters. Each of the characters is battered and weary. They all have had difficult lives and are struggling to survive in their own ways. Some desire money and acceptance while others simply want to be free of the invisible shackles that bind them to their lives.

    The women’s actions set off a chain of events that grow more dangerous and complicated as time goes on. Each one is tested, and they are forced to take a hard look at themselves and the direction their lives have taken. The author did a good job of painting the desperation and pain of the characters. There was a dreariness that hung above the characters like a constant storm cloud, capturing the mood and atmosphere of the book perfectly.

    Out is not only a suspense ridden thriller but also a harsh study of human nature. The story is as complex as the characters. I look forward to reading more by Natsuo Kirino.

    Rating: * (Very Good)

    Read what others had to say about this book:
    Bell Literary Reflections
    In Spring it is the Dawn
    Melody's Reading Corner
    Tip of the Iceberg

    I just discovered that I won the award for Best Commenter/Commentator along with Rip My Bodice, who I would like to congratulate too. Thank you so much, especially to those who took time to vote for me! I am still in shock. The good kind, I assure you. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

    I was nominated along side a wonderful group of bloggers, all who definitely deserve this title as well, and I hope you will take the time to drop in and visit them and see for yourself how friendly and great they are.

    OCD, vampires, and amusing rants, oh my!
    Peeking Between the Pages
    Rip My Bodice
    Trish's Reading Nook

    Tuesday, September 16, 2008

    BBAW: Interview with Bookish Ruth

    I had the privilege of being partnered with Ruth of Bookish Ruth for the Book Blogger Appreciation Week interview. It was a perfect match considering it was not that along ago when I first discovered her wonderful blog. This was a great opportunity to get to know her better and now you can too!

    Literary Feline: Why did you decide to start blogging?

    Bookish Ruth: I toyed with the idea of doing book reviews off and on from the time I started my LibraryThing account. It wasn't until I enrolled in the Early Reviewer program that I starting writing, though. I worried that it might take some of the enjoyment out of reading since I absolutely loathed writing book reports in school. But once I discovered that not only did I enjoy writing reviews, I was also getting more out of my reading by doing them, I was hooked!

    LF: What is your favorite type of book to read?

    BR: My favorite genres are young adult fiction, mystery, historical and literary fiction. I read a little bit of everything, but those are the genres that keep me coming back for more. I'm also a big fan of the classics. It's very rare for me to walk out of a bookstore without at least one classic among my purchases.

    LF: Who are some of your favorite authors? Books?

    BR: Authors: Jane Austen, Michael Crichton (The first "adult" book I ever read was Jurassic Park; I've been hooked on his stuff since), Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Sherlock Holmes is quite possibly my all-time favorite literary character), Agatha Christie, Patrick Carman, L.M. Montgomery (Interestingly, I've read all of her books except for the Anne books. Does that disqualify me as a Montgomery fan? I think it might...), Charles Dickens, Naomi Novik, C.S. Lewis and Phillip Pullman.

    Books: This is the not-so-short short list. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, Timeline by Michael Crichton, A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Moving Finger by Agatha Christie, The Dark Hills Divide by Patrick Carman, The Story Girl by L.M. Montgomery, Elantris by Brandon Sanderson, and Charlotte's Web by E.B. White (This was my childhood favorite, and it's still incredibly dear to me).

    LF: Is there any type of book you prefer not to read? If so, why?

    BR: I'm not big on romance novels. I tend to prefer plot-driven books, and the few romances I've read have been much more character-centric. I'm not anti-romance at all, though. I just don't enjoy the genre as much as others do. I will read romances if they pair up with another of my literary interests, though. For instance, I love stories that involve time travel, so I have The Time Traveler's Wife and Outlander on my TBR list.

    LF: Share a favorite reading memory.

    BF: One of my earliest memories is of being about two years old, snuggled up on the couch with my mother as she reads to me. She read to me before I was even born, and she is definitely the reason I love books so much.

    LF: How many books are in your TBR pile?

    BR: I have over 250 books tagged "unread" in my LibraryThing account. I try not to think about that too much, though, because it quickly becomes overwhelming. (And it would make me feel more guilty about trips to the bookstore!) My physical TBR pile is usually about five to eight books. I keep a stack of books on my nightstand and won't stack them above the height of the switch on my reading lamp. I did that exactly once; the ensuing avalanche of books that happened while I was fumbling for the light convinced me to never do it again.

    LF: What five characters would you invite to lunch if you could?

    BR: Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Watson, Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot and Amelia Peabody. (I think I've seen Murder by Death a few too many times.)

    LF: Do you have any reading rituals (taking notes, favorite reading spot, etc)?

    BR: My favorite reading spot is definitely my bedroom. I love curling up with a good book at the end of a stressful day. I take lots of notes so I always have a good pen and a yellow legal pad nearby. I also need to have some kind of noise when I'm reading. It's difficult for me to concentrate in complete silence, ambient noise is a must.

    LF: Do you prefer to read one book at a time or are you a multiple book reader?

    BR: I'm always reading more than one book. Sometimes I divide my time equally between them, but other times, I tend to focus on one book more than the others. It really depends on my mood and what I'm reading.

    LF: Are you the type of reader who has to finish what you start or do you sometimes give up on books that don't appeal to you?

    BR: I tend to finish a book once I start it, but I do employ the 50 Page Rule on occasion. If what I'm reading is for pleasure and it's not really grabbing me, I'll pick up an ARC and hope for better luck. I may or may not come back to the first book.

    LF: What qualifies as a good book for you?

    BR: Would I read it again? Did I feel something for one or more of the characters? Did I learn something from it? Did I have fun reading it? Would I readily recommend it to someone else? If one of more of those questions can be answered with a yes, odds are it's a good book in my opinion.

    LF: What are your book turn offs?

    BR: Poor grammar is my biggest book turn off. I'm the target audience for Eats, Shoots and Leaves. I cringe when I see run-on sentences, fragments, or sentences that end with prepositions. Misplaced punctuation makes me crazy. It's definitely not a good sign if, at page three, I'm already wondering what the book's editor was doing instead of editing the book.

    LF: Who or what inspires you?

    BR: Authors that can move me -- who really make me feel something through their words. Language can be so powerful and so intimate. I often come away from a good book feeling the same way that I do after I listen to beautiful music. There's something awe-inspiring about the perfect combination of words: a silent symphony on the page.

    LF: Thank you, Ruth, for taking the time to answer my questions!

    Isn't she brilliant? Do stop by Bookish Ruth if you have not yet. Also, if you are interested, head over to read Ruth's interview with me.

    Monday, September 15, 2008

    BBAW: A Little Blogger Love

    I have been twiddling my thumbs, trying to decide how to kick off Book Blogger Appreciation Week here at Musings of a Bookish Kitty. My being away for the past couple of weeks meant missing out on some of the bigger announcements such as the upcoming award presentation schedule and the various giveaways and raffles being held.

    Today's topic over at My Friend Amy's, the host site for the BBAW events, is to highlight favorite blogs and bloggers. There are many blogs out there that I am quite fond of--all unique in their own ways. When I began blogging, I never anticipated just how much of a community the blogosphere was. Your support, kindness, and generosity have not gone unnoticed and they are greatly appreciated. I am lucky enough to count many of you among my friends, having gotten to know you over the last couple of years.

    Some of you take the time to comment on nearly every post I write, and I cannot even come close to expressing just how much that means to me. I also appreciate those who are only able to stop in now and then as well as the lurkers who visit but remain anonymous. I know how busy life can be--not too mention trying to keep up with all the terrific blogs out there.

    I wanted to give a special shout out to one blog and blogger in particular that has become an important part of my blogging life. This particular person blogs about more than just books. She blogs about life as well. Her posts are always articulate and well thought out. Her comment box has become a place where I can express my own thoughts about topics that I do not broach on my own blog. Admittedly, that means my comments can sometimes get a little long. She's never complained though. She takes the time to respond to every comment left for her on her blog and has introduced me to many other blogs on a variety of topics.

    She understands what it's like to be stuck in rush hour traffic, loves dogs just as much as I do, appreciates a good movie, and has good taste in music. She has introduced me to books I might never have discovered otherwise. She is honest and encouraging. If you have not already, please do stop in and visit Florinda over at The 3 R's: Reading, 'Riting, and Randomness. She is one of my blogging inspirations.

    In honor of Book Blogger Appreciation Week, I think a book giveaway or two is in order, don't you? I am giving away my extra copies of When A Crocodile Eats the Sun: A Memoir of Africa by Peter Goodwin and Helen Tse's Sweet Mandarin (which I will be reviewing in the near future--so stay on the look out).

    To Enter:
    1) Leave a Comment to this post along with the title of the book you are interested in winning (you can request both but will only be eligible to win one).
    2) Share a link of a blogger or blog you appreciate and give a brief explanation as to why (if you are participating in today's BBAW topic, feel free to provide a direct link to your own post).

    Please remember to include your e-mail address in the comment section if it is not easily accessible on your blog so I can contact you if you win. The winners will be chosen at random, and the deadline to enter is Friday, September 19th at 11:59 p.m. (PDT). I will announce the winner on Saturday, September 20th.

    [Edited to add: Open to anyone with a valid mailing address regardless of country.]

    Good luck!

    Sunday, September 14, 2008

    Sunday Salon: Home Sweet Home

    I am all unpacked. The laundry is done and put away. The animals are settling back into their daily routines. My internal clock is not quite back on schedule just yet. And I have a tall stack of books sitting on my desk waiting to be entered into my LibraryThing catalog. I still am behind with my e-mails and responding to all the great comments left for me while I was away. Other than that, life has returned to normal. I appreciate your patience as I get back on track.

    Many thanks to my guests over the past couple of weeks. I cannot thank them enough for their willingness to step in for me during my absence. If you have not already, please do check out their posts. Each one is brilliant and more than I could have ever hoped for. Thank you also to all of you who stopped in and visited. It looks like there were some good discussions taking place.

    Colleen Gleason
    Clea Simon
    Joshua Henkin
    Karen E. Olson
    Karen Harrington
    Michelle Moran
    Lisa Roe

    My husband and I had a wonderful time in Hawaii. It never fails that something goes wrong whenever we take a trip. One year it was a flat tire in the middle of the desert, another a visit to the emergency room because of a severe bladder infection, and then there was the time I sprained my ankle on the day we were catching our flight back home. It was with some relief that we got that out of the way right off the bat this time around.

    The night before we were to leave for Hawaii, I made sure to set the alarm for 4:15, figuring that was enough time to be up and ready for the shuttle that would take us to the airport in the morning. At 4:53 a.m. that very next day, we awoke with a start when the doorbell rang. A quick glance at the clock, and I realized my mistake. I had set the alarm to go off in the p.m. instead of the a.m. It was the quickest I had ever gotten ready--drank my cranberry juice, washed my face, got dressed and out the door we went. All in seven minutes. Thank goodness we were all packed the night before!

    Major trip disaster this round: The alarm mishap and my husband kicking the door, taking a good chunk and several layers of skin off his little toe that morning in the rush to get out. And, oh, did it ever bleed! At least we got the bad event out of the way upfront so we could enjoy the rest of our vacation.

    The flight to Oahu was quite pleasant, and we arrived in Honolulu to sunshine and fantastic weather. When planning our vacation several months ago, my husband and I had decided to split our vacation into two halves, visiting the islands of Oahu and Hawaii. Not only were we interested in visiting Pearl Harbor, but I also wanted to revisit the area where I had spent three years of my childhood.

    Waikiki was crazy busy--very tourist oriented with the International Market and all the usual tourist trappings. Waikiki Beach was just across the street from our hotel. We had a nice view of the surfers and surf boarders. We did make it to Pearl Harbor, paying our respects at the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial and taking a tour of the U.S.S. Missouri Battleship. We took it all in--the history lessons and the sights.

    A person cannot visit Oahu and not see the more natural attractions, and my husband and I were no exception. Among the places we visited were the Northshore, walking along the Bonzai Pipeline as well as Sunset Beach; we took a boat tour of a royal fish pond, visited the Byodo-In Temple, and spent some time at the Halona Blowhole. We picked up a few souvenirs along the way, including a couple of bells for my collection and a box of chocolate chip macadamia nut cookies.

    Our time on Oahu ended all too fast and soon we were hopping on a plane to the big island of Hawaii. Unlike on Oahu, we had made arrangements to rent a car while on the Big Island, which made it easier to get around on our own--not to mention at our leisure. We arrived at our hotel in Kona and were very pleased to discover we had a room that looked out over the ocean. Our room was on ground level, and right outside our patio, just feet away, was the ocean, crashing against the rocks. It would be the sound that would sing us to sleep at night and ease us up each morning. The sunset was a sight to behold--beautiful in every respect. The quiet of the area we were in at Kona was such a change from the hustle and bustle of Waikiki. As much fun as we had in Oahua, it was refreshing to slow down a bit. Although, my husband might argue that we didn't really slow down any--other than in my head perhaps.

    We took in as much as we could, visiting the National Volcano Park where we could see the steam billowing out of a crater that had only months before damaged a lookout point at the park. We walked through the lava tunnels and rain forest. And later that day we ventured to a lookout point to see the lava flowing into the ocean. We nearly got lost on our way to the southern most point of the United States (it seemed like a lot of other tourists had the same problem). We spent my birthday visiting all of the water falls we could find along with the botanical gardens. Our final full day on the island, we dedicated to visiting the historical sites. My favorite was the Pu'ukohola Heiau built by King Kamehameha I. It was a temple created for the war god as part of the prophecy in which the king would unite all the Hawaiian islands once the temple was built. What makes it an especially intriguing structure is the way in which it was built. None of the stones used were allowed to touch the ground and so they were handed from person to person for a stretch of about 20 miles. Human sacrifices were made at the temple to incur the war god's favor and eventually King Kamehameha I would, in fact, unite the islands as predicted.

    The Hawaiian islands are rich in history--and my husband and I couldn't help but be pulled into the stories we learned. Driving around we took in the expanse of diversity of the land--desert-like areas leading into ranch and farmland, volcanoes, mountains, rain forests, and coastal and inland towns.

    While in Hawaii, I had the opportunity to meet an online friend. We got together for dinner one evening, and she was a gracious and kind host. She answered all the questions we'd been saving up from our travels that day. She even came bearing gifts--one of which was a couple of slices of homemade pineapple upside down cake. Little did she know, the cake would serve as my birthday cake while we were there. It was wonderful putting a face to a name--and to have such a friendly person behind it!

    I finished all three of the books I took on vacation with me. Stay tuned for my reviews of Out by Natsuo Kirino, Murder on a Girls' Night Out by Anne George, and Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman.

    You didn't think I could get out of Hawaii without hitting a bookshop (or three), did you? Both my husband and I practiced great restraint, I'll have you know. Okay, so it had more to do with limited luggage space--we didn't want to have to pay extra for another bag--but it could have been much worse.

    Those who stopped in last Sunday know that Bridge of Sighs by Richard Russo was added to my TBR collection. While on the island of Hawaii, I also picked up copies of two new-to-me mysteries by Chip Hughes, Murder on Moloka'i and Wipeout!, both set in Hawaii. I had just enough room in my suitcase to bring home Song of the Exile, a novel that is described as an epic love story set during World War II through Hawaii's struggle to statehood.

    My husband also came home four books richer:
    The Girl with the Long Green Heart by Lawrence Block
    The Colorado Kid by Stephen King
    Shooting Star and Spiderweb by Robert Bloch
    Lucky at Cards by Lawrence Block

    Although sad to leave the beautiful state of Hawaii, we were looking forward to getting home and back to our animals. The flight home seemed longer than the one that took us there, despite being nearly a half hour shorter. There was a sense of relief when we reached home.

    The day after we arrived home, we collected the mail, which included several promising books. I got the look from my husband--but in my defense, I only spent money on one of them. My latest TBR additions include copies of
    Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith
    The Tenth Case by Joseph Teller
    Say You're One of Them by Uwem Akpan
    Shining City by Seth Greenland (many thanks to Lisa from Minds Alive on the Shelves )

    The cats and dog did well while we were gone. Anya has grown considerably. Parker, who had his teeth cleaned while we were gone, had to have one tooth extracted, but he is fully recovered from the procedure. No one gave us the cold shoulder--if anything, the animals have been more attentive than usual. Yesterday morning, as Anjin and I caught up on a little of our TV watching, I had a dog curled up at bend of my knees, a cat on my stomach and a kitten on my chest as I leaned against my husband--the five of us cuddled on the couch. What better way to celebrate our reunion?

    Just one more piece of business before I sign off. Thank you to all who participated in the Matrimony Giveaway. And many thanks to Joshua Henkin for offering a signed copy of his great book.

    The initial winner, Alyce from At Home With Books was lucky enough to pick up a copy of the book in another giveaway and has graciously offered to let someone else have a chance at the book.

    The winner of the giveaway is Lisa from Books and Cooks
    Congratulations, Lisa!

    Have a good Sunday everyone and happy reading!

    Friday, September 12, 2008

    Guest Appearance: Lisa Roe, Publicist

    Wendy of Caribousmom pointed me in the direction of Lisa Roe this past spring. Lisa is an online publicist who reaches out to readers who are interested in reviewing books online. She is amazingly approachable and always professional and friendly. She has a listing of books available for review on her website and she encourages blogger inquiries.

    Please welcome Lisa Roe!

    Lately, I’ve been lost in thought in children’s books. You see, my boyfriend came to me complete with a great smile, amazing sense of humor, mini-van and 3 children. While I have not met them yet, it’s really got me thinking…

    It’s no secret that I love books and always have. Looking back, I imagine I had a ‘sick kid at camp’ pallor to my skin as I stayed in the house and read. All the time.

    Now, I’m not expecting the same of my boyfriend’s kids. They’re far more active in sports than my gangly limbs ever allowed me to be. But I would love to be a positive book influence to them.

    So, I’ve been going through a mental list of my favorite childhood titles and wondering which ones to pawn off on which child. Could one of my old favorites become one of theirs?

    Now I had my staples: The Baby-Sitters Club and Sweet Valley High and a few R.L. Stein thrown in, but I also read a lot of obscure, little heard of titles that I seem to remember best. These titles truly made me the person I am today. I highly encourage you to suggest them to an important little one in your life!

    The Bunnicula series by James Howe: An adopted bunny who may or may not have vampire tendencies. Fangs. A cape. Evidence: a veggie drawer stuffed with colorless, shriveled vegetables, the juices seemingly sucked out. A whole cast of family pets join forces to investigate the mysteries surrounding Bunnicula, his cravings, and his late night wanderings.

    Bella Arabella by Liza Fosburgh: Arabella is a pampered 10 year-old who finds that her mother’s latest husband has started discussions to have her sent to boarding school. She finds comfort in confiding in her only friend: Miranda, her cat. A few bits of magic later and Arabella is now roaming the grounds of her home on 4 furry legs. Just like Miranda. In this state, she experiences life as never before and has to decide whether to stay in her present form, or risk changing back and being sent away.

    Beautiful Joe by Marshall Saunders: Joe is abused and mutilated as a pup and wonders if life will ever be anything but hardship and cruelty. But when he’s adopted by a loving family, he learns what it truly means to live and love. This book went a long way towards shaping my love for animals.

    Lisa Roe is an Online Book Publicist who connects readers with the books she is marketing. You can learn more about Lisa Roe and her current promotions at her website.

    Thursday, September 11, 2008

    Guest Appearance: Michelle Moran, Author

    About the time I finished reading Nefertiti by Michelle Moran, I came up with the idea of asking authors to fill in for me while I was on vacation. I instantly thought of Michelle Moran, a local author, and someone whose book I enjoyed immensely.

    Please welcome Michelle Moran!

    When Tracy Chevalier described the marketplace of Delft in her debut novel A Girl With a Pearl Earring, it almost seemed possible to put your foot down and feel the uneven cobblestones of the Dutch village she was writing about. And when Margaret George depicted the glittering city of Alexandria in her novel The Memoirs of Cleopatra, you could practically see the sunlight glinting off the “dancing blue waters” of the ancient harbor. But what is the secret to successful description, and is it necessary for an author to visit the places they write about in order to pen compelling and realistic historical fiction?

    Before I began writing my second novel The Heretic Queen, I took a trip to Egypt to see for myself the magnificent temple of Abu Simbel. One of the many building projects undertaken during the reign of Ramesses the Great, the temple façade is carved with statues of both Ramesses II and his beloved Nefertari. Twice a year a thin beam of sunlight crosses the temple to illuminate three of four statues sitting in a darkened sanctuary. The only statue the sun doesn’t strike is that of Ptah, the god of darkness. I had timed my trip in order to see this bi-annual spectacle, and with hundreds of other visitors I watched as the sun struck the statues of Amun-Re, Ramesses II and Ra-Harakhty in turn. It was an almost mystical moment, made even more poignant by the fact that the narrator of the book I was preparing to write would have witnessed the same event more than two thousand years ago.

    When I returned to America, I immediately began work on my second book, outlining the scene where Ramesses II takes Nefertari to his newly built temple in order to watch this special event. Did any of the wonderment I felt standing in Abu Simbel translate to the pages of my book? I hope so. But could I have written the same scene without ever having visited Egypt? The truth is that I probably could have. From research books to Wikipedia, a wealth of information exists on everything from fourteenth century weather to ancient Roman recipes. Although I trekked to Augustus’s villa on the Palatine for my third book, Cleopatra’s Daughter, if I’m truthful I would have to admit there was nothing I saw while I was there which couldn’t have been found in history books - or for that matter, on Google.

    But how do other authors weigh in on the topic of whether it’s necessary for an author to have visited the places they’re writing about? Take a look:
    When you are writing historical fiction, the geography of your setting isn't nearly as important as a sense of the era and the people. Time machines don't exist, so we have to rely on our imaginations to make a distant time come alive. Sometimes, your imagination can give you a clearer sense of accuracy than you could ever glean from research texts or travel. I find that I'm better able to write about a location when I'm not actually there, as if the clutter of geographical facts get in the way of really understanding a place.
    Tess Gerritsen, NYT bestselling author of
    The Keepsake
    * * *
    Fortunately for me, the answer is no. It's not only not necessary, it is, in a very real sense, impossible. I write about ancient Israel – but the Israel of King David's time is not the Israel of today. Forests are cut down, rivers change their course, the weather patterns alter, many varieties of plants and animals vanish over the centuries. In a sense, no author of historical fiction ever really visits the places she or he writes about; they visit the place as it exists now. Using research and imagination, we do our best to conjure up past times, past places, past lives for our readers. Without a time machine, we can never know how well we actually succeed. As the opening line of THE GO-BETWEEN by L.P. Hartley reminds us: "The past is foreign country: they do things differently there."
    India Edghill (who loves travel, but who realized when she saw the huge red Coca-Cola sign just past the airport that the Athens of 1972 and the Athens in Mary Renault's THE KING MUST DIE were two entirely different places)
    * * *
    Well, it's always desirable to go see the place(s) you're writing about. Whether it's really necessary or not depends on what resources are available. If you're writing about a place that's very well documented—like Scotland, say, which has a robust tourist industry and a very literate history—you can find out most of what you need to know: what the landscape looks, what specific structures and locations look like, where they are, what the vegetation and weather are like, and so on. If you want to write about Mauritius, it might be a little harder. Equipped with this basic information, you can then extrapolate from your own physical experiences; a Caledonian pine forest is not that different from one in Arizona. Essentially, the only thing you normally can't learn from print and pictorial research is what a place smells like. For that, you need to be there.
    Diana Gabaldon, NYT bestselling author of the Outlander Series
    * * *
    It was at Megara, a suburb of Carthage, in the gardens of Hamilcar… Legend has it that Flaubert, as soon as he had written the opening words to his historical novel Salammbô, threw down his pen in frustration and exclaimed “I have to go there!” What is sure is that he traveled to Carthage, in modern-day Tunisia, to become familiar with the setting of his new novel. Salammbô was published in 1862, after four years of painstaking historical and archeological research, much of it on site, and many rewrites.

    I don’t mean to compare myself to the author of Madame Bovary and L’Education sentimentale, but I can imagine how he felt. It goes beyond mere physical knowledge: I need an emotional connection to the settings of my novels. These places become mine. Yes, I am very fortunate: the streets of Paris, the salons of Versailles, the mountains of Auvergne are mine. I possess them because they possess me. Otherwise I couldn’t take my readers there.

    As historical novelists we live in the past no less than the present. What better way to measure the passage of time than to stand, in the 21st century, on the embankments of the Seine, feeling, smelling the dampness of the river, taking in the beauty of it, and reflecting on how the same place looked hundreds of years ago?
    Catherine Delors is the author of Mistress of the Revolution and the upcoming For The King.

    So what is the verdict? Clearly, it depends on the author. Just as approaches to writing differ, so do approaches to research. But with so many resources before us as writers – the internet, libraries, bookstores, and scholars who are only an email away – it doesn’t seem necessary to travel across the globe to infuse your writing with historical authenticity.

    My advice to anyone who wants to write historical fiction? Delve in! Start in the bookstore and for every book that’s helpful to you, look up the bibliography and track down further books this way. And don’t be shy about contacting professors. While researching my novel Cleopatra’s Daughter, Professor Duane W. Roller, author of The World of Juba II and Kleopatra Selene, was enormously helpful. He answered questions I couldn’t find anywhere else. No one can be a specialist in everything, but while writing historical fiction, the author is expected to get it all right. Food, clothing, jewelry, flowers, herbs, building materials… Readers will want each of these elements to be historically accurate. So while visiting your location can be an added perk, there’s no way of going back in time without research and a great deal of imagination.

    Michelle Moran is the bestselling author of
    Nefertiti. Her second novel, The Heretic Queen, will be released September 16.

    You can learn more about the author and her books at her website and on her blog, History Buff.

    *Photo of Michelle Moran in Athens standing with a statue of Octavian.

    Wednesday, September 10, 2008

    Review: Janeology by Karen Harrington

    I stared at my attorney as he began his defense that I did not share the blame in the murder of my son.
    [first sentence]

    Janeology by Karen Harrington
    Künati, 2008
    Fiction; 246 pgs

    It is difficult to know where to start in describing a book like Janeology. It is thriller-like on one level but also a bio-psychosocial character study of a woman who committed one of the most heinous crimes imaginable, that of murdering her own child.

    Tom Nelson is on trial for failing to protect his twin children from their unstable mother. He hadn’t been present at the time of the drowning of his son and near drowning of his daughter. However, the prosecution and media are quick to lay blame at his feet. As the husband and father of the woman who murdered her own child, shouldn’t he have known she was a danger to the children? Jane's depression after the miscarriage should have been a clear sign, they said.

    Tom struggles with guilt, second guessing himself and the choices he made. He knows he was not the perfect husband, but he loved his wife and had no idea she was capable of hurting their children. Author Karen Harrington adeptly captures his pain, anger and confusion, putting the reader right into Tom’s shoes.

    Tom’s attorney suggests a radical strategy of defense—to map Jane’s genealogy in an effort to demonstrate a hereditary cause for Jane’s behavior, which would, therefore, absolve Tom of responsibility in a jury's eyes. Attorney Dave Frontella calls in a clairvoyant skilled in retrocognition to help prove his case. Mariah is able to read the past by using objects once owned by the dead.

    Tom, Dave and Mariah begin their journey backwards in time, uncovering the dark secrets of Jane’s ancestors, going back several generations. Jane’s own upbringing is enough to raise questions about the impact that had on her eventual breakdown. The question of nurture versus nature arises in the novel. Although it really isn’t a situation of one or the other—but a combination of both nurture and nature, and the author does a good job of weaving these themes throughout the narrative.

    Janeology is an intense and emotionally charged book that threads together family history to show one possibility of causation. Never in the novel did the author suggest this as an excuse for such behavior, only an explanation of how it might have led to such a tragic consequence. With the number of infanticide reports in today’s media,the author of Janeology deftly touches on a hot button subject, including the culpability of the non-offending parent. Karen Harrington is a talented writer and has crafted a thought provoking and intriguing novel.

    Rating: * (Very Good)

    You can learn more about the author and her book Janeology at her website.

    Read what others had to say about this book:
    B&B Ex Libris
    Devourer of Books
    The Inside Cover
    The Literate Housewife
    Maw Books Blog