Armchair BEA: Day 5 Giveaways

Friday, May 30, 2014

Today is a choose your own topic day for Armchair BEA and what "topic" could be better than free books?

Just fill out the different Rafflecopters below for the books you want - only U.S. residents please! - and I will send a copy to the winner.

Just remember you get extra - extra - extra points in the giveaway if you comment on this post. The question is: what is your craziest book-buying story?

We all have them - the last minute dash through a bookstore, the visits to used bookshops while on vacation, the library sale hoarding. You know you've done it!

My personal moment of pride/shame occurred at London's Heathrow airport at the end of my first trip to England. I was so excited to be able to visit the used bookshops on Charring Cross Road that I went a little nuts and bought everything in sight. My suitcase was so crammed full of books it burst open at the airport checkout counter. I had to sit on the floor of the airport while a crowd of angry travelers built up behind me. The zippers on my suitcase had totally come undone and I had to hurriedly gerry-rig it shut with "Fragile Luggage" warning tape (thanks American Airlines check-in agent!) so that it could be checked on to the plane!

I'm looking forward to hearing everyone's stories!!!!!!

NOTE: You only need to comment once if you enter multiple giveaways. 

ADDED NOTE: Don't forget to fill out the Rafflecopter forms after posting a comment!
a Rafflecopter giveaway a Rafflecopter giveaway

Armchair BEA: Day 4 Beyond the Borders

Thursday, May 29, 2014

It’s time to step outside your comfort zone, outside your borders, or outside of your own country or culture. Tell us about the books that transported you to a different world, taught you about a different culture, and/or helped you step into the shoes of someone different from you. What impacted you the most about this book? What books would you recommend to others who are ready or not ready to step over the line? In essence, let’s start the conversation about diversity and keep it going! 

 I've spent a lot of time working with immigrant communities and in countries in the Muslim world - Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tunisia and Turkey. Every time I mention my interest in Afghanistan, people unfailingly bring up Khaled Hosseni's "The Kite Runner." I read that book ten years ago and enjoyed it but I always want to tell people that there's so much more out there to read!

I've already mentioned Jason Eliot's An Unexpected Light this week during Armchair BEA but I can't recommend it enough. It's an old-fashioned epic travel adventure in Afghanistan during the 1980s Soviet occupation and during the 1990s during the era of the Taliban and features some really beautiful writing.

If you'd like to know more about the women of Afghanistan, Christina Lamb is an amazing journalist who has written The Sewing Circles of Herat. I have a soft spot for The Minaret of Djam - originally published in the 1960s by Freya Stark at the end of her long, epic career of travel in the Middle East. Finally, Asne Seirestad's The Bookseller of Kabul is as emotionally powerful as any novel.

If you are interested in knowing more about Arab-American life - the novel Crescent and memoir The Language of Baklava (both by Diana Abu-Jabar) are great places to start. Abu-Jabar understands the importance of food and cooking and uses it as a gateway to explore bigger issues.

I interviewed American Dervish author Ayad Akhtar a couple years ago and appreciated his Pakistani-American take on the classic coming of age story.

I haven't been to Saudi Arabia but Zoe Ferraris' amazing trilogy of crime novels featuring a female lead character who works at a police station in Jedda made me want to learn more about that country. Start with Finding Nouf, then go on to City of Veils and Kingdom of Strangers. I loved that this book helped me understand a completely foreign state of mind while still keeping me entertained with a good mystery!

I hope I've helped at least one reader start out on a new book journey!

Armchair BEA: Day 3 Short Stories/Novellas

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Now it is time to give a little love to those little stories in your life. Share your love for your favorite shorts of any form. What is a short story or novella that doesn’t get the attention that it deserves? Recommend to readers what shorts you would recommend they start with. How about listing some short story anthologies based upon genres or authors?

This is a fascinating topic for me because I have such a hard time getting in to short stories. Looking back over years and years of reading and well over a thousand books read, I can see that only a handful are short story collections and I read most of those during college. I even took a class on short stories and loved it but have not been able to return to the form as an adult.

I think it has something to do with the experience I'm looking to have as a reader. I like to feel total immersion in a world, in a character, in the author's voice and a 20-page (or less) story simply goes too fast for those things to happen in my reading experience.

That said, here are some of the short story collections I've read and enjoyed:

Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri  - I think I like Lahiri's short stories because they feel more like novels. She covers whole lifetimes in stories and avoids that overly self-aware language that a lot of short stories seem to have.

Lost in the City by Edward Jones - I actually read this collection of stories about life in Washington, DC years before I moved here. I still go back to this collection and read about now-familiar streets and neighborhoods with great interest.

Selected Stories by Andre Dubus - Who can argue with the master? I like the spiritual undertones to his stories and his sense of compassion and empathy. I think a lot of short stories turn me away because of their relentless hopelessness.

(And one that is kind of a cheat):

The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman - This is a more of a novel in short stories and its about journalists at a failing news organization in Italy so I couldn't help being drawn in.

I would love to hear from other readers who have a similar hang-up about short stories. Did you overcome it? How did you make that mental leap to start enjoying short stories? Any tips?

Armchair BEA: Day 2 Author Interactions

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Let’s talk interacting with authors IRL (in real life) or online. This is your opportunity to talk about your favorite author readings that you have attended. Or, you can feature your favorite author fan moment (i.e., an author sent you a tweet or commented on your blog). Maybe you even want to share how your interactions have changed since becoming a blogger or share your own tips that you have learned along the way when interacting with authors as a blogger.

I think the internet is amazing for almost all things - I couldn't do my job as a journalist without it. I've been able to research and discover and meet a community of people (other historical fiction and book bloggers) who would not be part of my world without this incredible invention.

But - I do miss the 90s when I was in my early teens (or even younger) and would write to famous authors using good old-fashioned pen and paper and send it to them with a stamp and in an envelope in care of their publisher.

Don't get me wrong - I love interacting with authors online. It's a thrill to immediately let someone know that their book - the book they spent years working at and worrying about - has moved you and somehow made your world seem a little bigger.

I've talked to Eva Stachniak (author of The Winter Palace and Empress of the Night) over Twitter and welcomed her to Washington, DC at cherry blossom time. I've told Ann Weisgarber (author of The Personal History of Rachel DuPree and The Promise) that I love how her books tell the stories of American pioneers. I've recommended books to Jennie Fields (the author of The Age of Desire). I've read Emma Darwin (author of The Mathematics of Love and A Secret Alchemy) and loved her books so much I went online to learn more about her and discovered that she has an amazing writing blog - This Itch of Writing - and within a few months, I was working with her directly in a one-on-one historical fiction writing class.

I'm lucky enough to live in DC - a short walk away from Politics and Prose, one of the best independent bookstores in the United States. I've met John Boyne there and told him that my favorite memory of my first trip to Paris was buying his book The House of Special Purpose at the now-defunct Village Voice bookshop and devouring the book on the long plane ride home.

I've also put my hometown knowledge to good use. When Susan Elia MacNeal (author of the Maggie Hope WWII mysteries) did a reading at my neighborhood library and afterwards asked me if there was a good place to eat nearby, I ended up directing her to my favorite Mexican restaurant and having dinner with her!

But nothing beats the thrill I got as a teenager to open up the mail and find a handwritten note from the authors who were quite honestly my heroes - Alison Weir - who hand-wrote a three page letter on bright pink paper. Antonia Fraser who typed out a letter on fancy letterhead (and as a girl growing up in Vermont did I love seeing her Kensington, London address!) and Sharon Kay Penman who wrote pages and pages and recommended other books and told me to never stop writing!

Twitter and Facebook and Goodreads are all amazing - but I'm so glad I have those letters! 

Armchair BEA: Day One Introductions

Monday, May 26, 2014


Once again, it's Armchair BEA time! You can find the event page here and here are the answers to Day One questions: 
  1. Please tell us a little bit about yourself: Who are you? How long have you been blogging? Why did you get into blogging? Where in the world are you blogging from? I'm Katherine, a journalist living in Washington, DC. I've been blogging as Historical Fiction Notebook since 2010. I loved historical fiction as a teenager but drifted away to other genres during college and grad school. I started the blog to keep track of my thoughts as I returned to historical fiction as an adult. The title is a bit misleading because I also review history, literary fiction and a mix of a million other things: thrillers, cookbooks, biographies and current events. Since I live in DC, I also blog about author events and new museum exhibits that come to town as well as my travels to historic places. My "helpful" intern also makes occasional appearances on the blog
  2. What was your favorite book read last year? What’s your favorite book so far this year? This is so hard to answer - I loved Life After Life by Kate Atkinson and Eighty Days by Matthew Goodman. Technically I also read I Always Loved You by Robin Oliveira last year in galley form but it was published this year - so I will count that as one of my favorites for 2014. I'm really excited about Jacqueline Winspear's The Care and Management of Lies - a novel about life in England during the Great War - that I read in galley form this winter and that will be released in July.
  3. Spread the love by naming your favorite blogs/bloggers (doesn’t necessarily have to be book blogs/bloggers) I'll use this space to shout out to two bloggers I discovered during past Armchair BEAs - Unabridged Chick who has the most brilliant review format ever - I wish I had thought of it! - and The Relentless Reader who I envy for the wide and interesting variety of books she reads. For a solely historical fiction-focused blog, no one is better than Sarah Johnson at Reading the Past.
  4. If you were stranded on a deserted island, what 3 books would you bring? Why? There was a fun NPR Books Twitter hashtag months ago that asked readers to pick the three books that best describe them. I prefer that formulation to the impossible desert island books. I chose: An Unexpected Light by Jason Eliot (a work of travel journalism about Afghanistan. It was the first book I read about Afghans and the book I took with me when I traveled to Kabul three years ago). Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott (a funny and moving book about writing and being a writer that I read as a teenager and constantly re-read) and Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (classic literature, Russia, the 19th century - it combines so many of my favorite things and is an incredible novel).
  5.  What book would you love to see as a movie?I would love to see any of Sharon Kay Penman's historical novels turned into movies but I think The Sunne in Splendor about Richard III or Falls the Shadow about Simon de Montfort would make for the best movies! Penman has a very cinematic writing style and memorable characters that would translate well to film.

Review Roundup, Part 2

Saturday, May 24, 2014

A vivid and compelling story of love, war and secrets, set against the backdrop of WWI France. 'In the beginning, it was the summers I remembered - long warm days under the palest blue skies, the cornflowers and forget-me-nots lining the road through the Lys forest, the buzz of insects going about their work, Violet telling me lies.' Iris is getting old. A widow, her days are spent living quietly and worrying about her granddaughter, Grace, a headstrong young doctor. It's a small sort of life. But one day an invitation comes for Iris through the post to a reunion in France, where she served in a hospital during WWI. Determined to go, Iris is overcome by the memories of the past, when as a shy, naive young woman she followed her fifteen-year-old brother, Tom, to France in 1914 intending to bring him home. On her way to find Tom, Iris comes across the charismatic Miss Ivens, who is setting up a field hospital in the old abbey of Royaumont, north of Paris. Putting her fears aside, Iris decides to stay at Royaumont, and it is there that she truly comes of age, finding her capability and her strength, discovering her passion for medicine, making friends with the vivacious Violet and falling in love. But war is a brutal thing, and when the ultimate tragedy happens, there is a terrible price that Iris has to pay, a price that will echo down the generations. (from Goodreads)

Another great library sale cart find! Snow is worthy to be included in the company of Kate Morton and Katherine Webb historical novels that span past and present narratives and include big secrets. I was so pleasantly surprised to read a dual-time period novel that uses the revelation of secrets as a driving force of the plot but doesn't completely rely on those secrets as the only purpose for its existence. The characters feel real and true to their time and there's a richness of historical detail here that is unusual in this type of novel. I feel as though I got a real sense of what it was like to be a nurse in WWI France. There were some lovely descriptive passages and the secondary characters were quite vividly drawn. I sped through this book but stopped to mark many passages to come back to again and again. A highly recommended read!

On a chilly November night in 1407, Louis of Orleans was murdered by a band of masked men. The crime stunned and paralyzed France since Louis had often ruled in place of his brother King Charles, who had gone mad. As panic seized Paris, an investigation began. In charge was the Provost of Paris, Guillaume de Tignonville, the city's chief law enforcement officer--and one of history's first detectives. As de Tignonville began to investigate, he realized that his hunt for the truth was much more dangerous than he ever could have imagined. A rich portrait of a distant world, BLOOD ROYAL is a gripping story of conspiracy, crime and an increasingly desperate hunt for the truth. And in Guillaume de Tignonville, we have an unforgettable detective for the ages, a classic gumshoe for a cobblestoned era (from Goodreads)

I wanted to like this a lot more than I actually did. Jager has set himself up with a great premise and his opening chapter is written so vividly I could see a movie of Medieval Paris playing in my head. Unfortunately, the rest of the book feels thin and padded with unnecessary, repetitive detail to make a full-length book (and even then it just comes in at 300 pages). I also think the jacket copy does not do the book any favors - I came into it expecting more detail on Guillaume de Tignonville and why this was the first mystery to be "solved" by a detective. I don't want to reveal spoilers but this really doesn't describe how the case was actually solved. I would also love to have learned more about the "case file" that was discovered centuries later - the jacket copy made it sound as though this was an undiscovered crime but it was actually quite familiar to me and I have only a passing acquaintance with French history. These are definitely quibbles and I'm sure many people will be able to pass these over and enjoy the book as a fun, light read. 

In this wise and revealing work of biography, reporting, and memoir, Rebecca Mead leads us into the life that the book made for her, as well as the many lives the novel has led since it was written. Employing a structure that deftly mirrors that of the novel, My Life in Middlemarchtakes the themes of Eliot's masterpiece--the complexity of love, the meaning of marriage, the foundations of morality, and the drama of aspiration and failure--and brings them into our world. Offering both a fascinating reading of Eliot's biography and an exploration of the way aspects of Mead's life uncannily echo that of Eliot herself, My Life in Middlemarch is for every ardent lover of literature who cares about why we read books, and how they read us. (from Goodreads)

Selling this book to me is a bit like preaching to the choir - a sensitive, bookish young woman grows up hoping to get out of her small town and experience the wider world. Along the way, she has a treasured classic of English literature to help guide her through life, love and everything in between? Sign me up! 

I've never actually read Middlemarch. I've never even read any of George Eliot's works. But this premise alone and the alluring mix of biography, memoir and literary criticism was enough to pull me in. Along the way, I learned enormous amounts about women's rights, mid-19th century literature, England, the art of close reading, marriage, childbirth and middle age. This lovely, thoughtful book somehow managed to convince me that I need to devote a significant part of my life to actually reading Middlemarch while also leaving me with the feeling that I already have read it and have discussed it with a knowledgeable, witty friend. Who could ask for more? 

I will say that my lack of knowledge about Middlemarch made the organization of the chapters a bit confusing - Mead jumps around in the chronology of the novel to make it fit to the chronology of her life. Not knowing the characters or the plot, I felt a little bit lost at times and this meant that I put the book down a couple of times before finally picking it up and finishing it. Readers who are more familiar with Middlemarch may not have this problem. 

I would happily follow Mead through the entire canon of English literature and hope that this book is such a success that it inspired numerous copycats in this delightful - and overlooked - sub-genre of books. 

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review. 

Review: The Promise

Saturday, May 17, 2014

1900. Young pianist Catherine Wainwright flees the fashionable town of Dayton, Ohio in the wake of a terrible scandal. Heartbroken and facing destitution, she finds herself striking up correspondence with a childhood admirer, the recently widowed Oscar Williams. In desperation she agrees to marry him, but when Catherine travels to Oscar's farm on Galveston Island, Texas—a thousand miles from home—she finds she is little prepared for the life that awaits her. The island is remote, the weather sweltering, and Oscar's little boy Andre is grieving hard for his lost mother. And though Oscar tries to please his new wife, the secrets of the past sit uncomfortably between them. Meanwhile for Nan Ogden, Oscar’s housekeeper, Catherine’s sudden arrival has come as a great shock. For not only did she promise Oscar’s first wife that she would be the one to take care of little Andre, but she has feelings for Oscar which she is struggling to suppress. And when the worst storm in a generation descends, the women will find themselves tested as never before. (from Amazon)

From the first few sentences of The Promise I knew I was in the hands of a good writer - not someone who is love with the sound of their own voice - but who knows their characters and worlds inside and out and can immerse the reader in another place and time. 

The Promise introduces two strong but very different first-person voices - Catherine, the middle class woman from Ohio and Nan, the poor woman from the back swamps of Galveston. Together they tell their story and the other's story as they see it. Weisgarber handles these shifting perspectives beautifully and has an unerring feel for the subtleties of each woman's voice. 

I don't want to get too much into the details of the plot even though this isn't a twisty novel with lots of narrative turns. It's that rare novel about character and place and how the two interact and I felt as thought I was in Galveston, Texas in 1900 for every minute I read it. Weisgarber has been nominated for the Walter Scott Historical Fiction Prize for this novel and there is no question she deserves to win the award - this is what historical fiction should be. She uses a famous historical event - the devastating Galveston hurricane of 1900 - to recreate what life was like and to allow the reader to care about long-ago lives that aren't all that different from our own. 

My only problems with the book? I read it too quickly. I was sad to leave the world of the novel and wanted to stay and see what happened next. I also wish the novel had a better title and a more arresting cover - it led me to dismiss the book and consign it to the massive review copy pile. 

Thanks to Unabridged Chick's glowing review  - I picked it up and took another look. I worry that other readers might have the same silly first impression that I did and miss this gorgeous novel. It will definitely rank as one of my favorites of 2014. 

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review

Review Roundup

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

A young American discovers he may be heir to the unclaimed estate of an English World War I officer, which launches him on a quest across Europe to uncover the elusive truth. In a breathless race from London archives to Somme battlefields to the Eastfjords of Iceland, Tristan pieces together the story of a forbidden affair set against the tumult of the First World War and the pioneer British expeditions to Mt. Everest. (from Goodreads)

Okay - with all due respect to the author - I thought this book was terrible. It hit every one of my reading pet peeves - from a dull current-day story to an unresolved story in the historical timeline to pretentious writing and a wandering focus. I kept reading and reading thinking that the story had to be going somewhere. There had to be a development or a twist or something other than the plot line that was obvious from the start. I kept on reading hoping for a vivid depiction of WWI battlefields or Everest expeditions in the 1920s - no such luck. Instead, I had to slog through chapters of a present-day story about an aimless young man wandering around Europe. At some points, the book literally gets into the details of booking flights and trains around Europe - seemingly for no other purpose than recreating the "experience" of young people backpacking across Europe. Then - in the ultimate cop-out of a writer who thinks they are being "serious" - one of the major story lines is not resolved. This was a total waste of time.

For far too many otherwise historically savvy people today, the story of the Byzantine civilization is something of a void. Yet for more than a millennium, Byzantium reigned as the glittering seat of Christian civilization. When Europe fell into the Dark Ages, Byzantium held fast against Muslim expansion, keeping Christianity alive. Lost to the West is replete with stories of assassination, mass mutilation and execution, sexual scheming, ruthless grasping for power, and clashing armies that soaked battlefields with the blood of slain warriors numbering in the tens of thousands. (from Goodreads) 

Back in February, I saw an exhibit of Byzantine art at the National Gallery in Washington, DC. I immediately went to the library looking for an overview/introductory book to the Byzantine empire: this book was exactly what I was looking to read. Starting from the time of Constantine the Great, each chapter covers an era or reign in Byzantine history leading up to 1453 when the Ottoman Turks conquered what remained of the empire. Bronsworth does a brilliant job of injecting humor and humanity into these long ago events and keeps all of the names and battles under control so that everything flows together into one compelling narrative. If - like me - you've always been interested in the Byzantine empire but didn't know where to start, take a look at this engaging popular history.

For anyone who has ever loved a Jane Austen novel, a warm and witty look at the passionate, thriving world of Austen fandom. They walk among us in their bonnets and Empire-waist gowns, clutching their souvenir tote bags and battered paperbacks: the Janeites, Jane Austen’s legion of devoted fans. Who are these obsessed admirers, whose passion has transformed Austen from classic novelist to pop-culture phenomenon? Deborah Yaffe, journalist and Janeite, sets out to answer this question, exploring the remarkable endurance of Austen’s stories, the unusual zeal that their author inspires, and the striking cross-section of lives she has touched (from Goodreads)

I would approach this book as a collection of fun profiles of Jane Austen afficiandos rather than a comprehensive or perceptive overview of the phenomenon. The storyline tying the whole thing together focuses on the author's first attempt to design and wear a Regency-era gown. This is cute at first but gets a little tiresome and is clearly there to help stretch out this 200-page book. Still, I appreciated her compassion for her interview subjects and her ability to see Jane Austen fandom as an opportunity for people to express themselves in a world that often does reward deep-rooted passions.

Review: Astonish Me

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Astonish Me is the irresistible story of Joan, a ballerina whose life has been shaped by her relationship with the world-famous dancer Arslan Ruskov, whom she helps defect from the Soviet Union to the United States. While Arslan's career takes off in New York, Joan's slowly declines, ending when she becomes pregnant and decides to marry her longtime admirer, a PhD student named Jacob. As the years pass, Joan settles into her new life in California, teaching dance and watching her son, Harry, become a ballet prodigy himself. But when Harry's success brings him into close contact with Arslan, explosive secrets are revealed that shatter the delicate balance Joan has struck between her past and present. In graceful, inimitable prose, Shipstead draws us into an extraordinary world, and the lives of her vivid and tempestuous characters. Filled with intrigue, brilliant satire, and emotional nuance, Astonish Me is a superlative follow-up to Shipstead's superb debut (from Goodreads)

Forget your preconceptions about literary fiction - Maggie Shipstead's "Astonish Me" is a consuming read that dares to ask difficult questions about art, family and love. Shipstead - who was the celebrated author of "Seating Arrangements"  - mostly succeeds at crafting a narrative and characters that explore these big questions. The real triumph of this novel is the fractured, shifting narrative that starts in the 1970s New York City ballet world and then moves to Paris, California and back to New York over the span of thirty to forty years. I adored this structure and was devastated by the final chapter in a way that would not have been possible had Shipstead followed a conventional narrative line.

I happen to love the ballet and eat up any books that give an inside look at the physical demands and emotional costs of dedicating your life to an ephemeral art. From the opening scene, Shipstead gives the reader the sense of the darkened off-stage areas where ballerinas snip at and support each other, where the good dancers watch the truly great dancers. "Astonish Me" digs into the emotion of dance and so you really don't need to know your en point from your port de bras.

The characters also come across as intensely alive and terribly selfish- just real people living their lives but Shipstead has compassion for all of them and their dedication to art. It's been a long time since I can recall reading a book that takes such a multi-faceted look at people who are devoted to a calling and who desire to create something beautiful but struggle with incorporating that beauty into their lives. I read this book almost a month ago and I can still see Joan and Elaine and Mr. K in my head.

So why only four stars?  Unfortunately, Shipstead balances the entire book on one narrative revelation that is absolutely completely obvious from the very beginning and you can feel the book tighten and constrain whenever it comes near that secret. I wish Shipstead had trusted herself and her readers and just allowed the secret out into the open of the characters points of view. Then she really could have explored their motivations and hurts fully and the book would have much wiser and open emotionally.

The revelation of this secret also means that the last third of the book is consumed with plot over character development and we lose sight of our main character Joan. Her beautifully wrought emotional development is lost in the final pages and I found myself wanting to go back to her.

Every great novel has its flaws, it reaches too far and tries for something different. "Astonish Me" does all of these things and I would highly recommend it to all readers.

Disclaimer: I received an advance copy for review from the publisher.