Tuesday, October 27, 2009

BLOG TOUR: The Call of Zulina by Kay Marshall Strom

The Call of Zulina is the first in what promises to be an exhilarating series which unearths some of the darker parts of human history.

Drawing on an extensive and wide-reaching range of writing experience, Strom spins the story of Grace Winslow: a woman trapped between two worlds.

Grace’s lineage is a hybrid of royalty and slavery: her father a noted English sea-captain, her mother an African princess. Notes in the book inform us that this marriage is based on factual events.

From the beginning, Strom’s passion for the subject matter and erudite grasp of the culture, vernacular and atmosphere of Winslow’s time and circumstance flash across the page. Indeed, Strom’s work on the life of John Newton and her companion book for the famed William Wilberforce biopic “Amazing Grace” have allowed her the freedom to play with an established era in a satisfying fictional way.

I enjoyed Grace’s strength , courage and strong set of unwavering ideals in a time and place where black and white were often muddled into unsavoury, and unethical grey areas.

From the point when Grace’s beloved gazelle is murdered to impress a portly guest, Grace’s innocence is lost. In its stead rises a strong woman vehemently opposed to injustice.

This was a fresh and satisfying read with a healthy dose of verisimilitude. I felt quite engaged with all of the characters and enmeshed in the historical canvas painted for us.

I am happy to include an erudite interview Kay Marshall Strom participated in for this blog tour:

1. How did you come up with the storyline of The Call of Zulina?
While in West Africa working on another project, I toured an old slave fortress and was struck dumb by a set of baby manacles bolted to the wall. The characters of Lingongo and Joseph Winslow, Grace's parents, are modeled after real people who ran a slave business in Africa in the 1700s. I "met" them when I was researching Once Blind: The Life of John Newton, a biography of the slaver turned preacher and abolitionists, author of Amazing Grace. The more I thought about them, the more I wondered, "If they'd had a daughter, who would she be? Where would her loyalties lie?"

2. What inspired you to write a book so entrenched with uncomfortable issues?
I used to think that non-fiction was the meat and potatoes of writing and fiction was the chocolate mousse dessert... fun, but not of much value. But I've come to understand that truths can be revealed through fiction just as powerfully as through non-fiction. Sometimes, more so! The fact is, for so long we have tried to look away and pretend that this horrible chapter in history never happened. But it did, and we still feel the effects today. Moreover, the roots of slavery--hunger for power and money, fear and diminishment of people unlike ourselves, and humanity's endless ability to rationalize evil actions--abound today. The time seemed right.

3. How have your travels around the world equipped you for writing such a historical novel?
People ask me where my passion for issues such as modern day slavery come from. To a large degree it is from the things I have seen and heard on my numerous trips to India, African countries, Cambodia, Nepal, Indonesia, and other places around the world.

4. Tell us a personal story regarding modern day slavery.
A most pervasive type of slavery is what is known as bonded servitude, where entire poor families are bound into virtual slavery--sometimes for generations--because of a small debt. This is especially common in India. I visited a village in central India where the women had been freed from bondage and set up with a micro loan that allowed them to raise a small herd of dairy cows. They worked so hard and saved every rupee. When they had enough saved, they persuaded a young teacher to come and start a school for their children. Then they used further profits to make low interest loans to others in the area so they could start their own businesses, too--a little bank. I sat in a circle with the five women who made up the "board of directors." Only one could read and write. I asked, "How will the next generation be different because of what you have done?" They said, "No more will be like us. When people look us, they see nothing. But when they look at our children, they see real human beings with value."
From invisible slaves to human beings... all in one generation!

5. Grace, the lead character in The Call of Zulina, forsakes all to escape the slavery of her parents and an arranged marriage.How common is this scenerio today in other countries?
Horrifyingly common. Slavery today takes many forms. According to UNICEF's more conservative count, there are about 12 million people living as slaves today--three times as many as in the days of the African slave trade. As for child arranged marriages, I have talked to girls "enslaved" to husbands in many countries. Examples include a girl in Nepal married at 9 to a middle-aged man, one in India married at 11, a 13-year-old in Egypt married to a man older than her father. I've seen it in Africa, Eastern Europe... so many places!

6. What about in America, are there slavery and trafficking issues here?
Unfortunately, there are. The U.S. State Department estimates between 14,500 and 17,500 people are trafficked into the Untied States each year, although it concedes that the real number is actually far higher. And it's not just states like New York and California that are affected, either. According to the U.S. Justice Department's head of the new human trafficking unit, there is now at least one case of trafficking in every state.

7. You've had 36 books published, and more written and contracted for future release. How has this one impacted your own life?
Some books report, some tell stories. This book has torn my heart.

8. Briefly tell us about the next two books in this Grace in Africa trilogy.
In Book 2, Grace watches her reconstructed life smashed by slavers and revenge, and she is forcibly taken to London. There she faces a new kind of tyranny and another fight for freedom... and for her husband, who is enslaved in America.

Book 3 is set in the new United States of America, in the heart of the slavery. It is a story of slavery at it's worst and redemption at its best.

What Can Concerned Citizens Do to Raise Awareness?

Find out all you can about Modern Day Slavery: then watch for chances to pass on what you have learned.
Write to your elected officials: Petition them to place a high priority on enforcing anti-slavery laws and to put pressure on countries that tolerate forced labor or human trafficking.
Buy Fair Trade products: Fair trade provides a sustainable model of international trade based on economic justice. To find out more, see http://www.fairtrade.net/ .
Support organizations that are in a position to make a difference. When you find an one that is doing a good job on the front lines, contribute to their cause so they can continue on.
Be willing to step into the gap. If you suspect someone is being held against his or her will, call the Department of Justice hotline: 1-888-428-7581. Or you can call 911.

My thanks to KCW Communications for the opportunity to participate in this worthy tour and discover a fantastic new author.

I cannot wait for book two!

->visit Kay Marshall Strom here

-> purchase your own copy of The Call of Zulina

-> read my previous entry about William Wilberforce

Monday, October 26, 2009

A Victorian Christmas by Catherine Palmer

publisher: Tyndale

It's a little early, yes, but when Tyndale sent me this copy for review, I was eager to get started. You see, I am quite excited about Christmas: ALL YEAR ROUND! I love the music, the ambience and the glittery feeling you get. Pair my favourite holiday with my favourite period of history and you have a winning combination.

Here, noted Christian novelist and Christy-award winning Catherine Palmer has provided her readership with a glimpse into the lives of very different women who experience Christmas in decidedly different ways. Palmer delves into issues of social class and the restrictions placed upon women victim to a conservative structure, to spin a tale of determined women who find hope, love and often independence at Christmas time.

I most appreciated the first two stories. The first Angel in the Attic spotlights a winning and spunky heroine who is just as comfortable with her rifle as she is planning the annual Christmas tea for the local orphans. When a mysterious stranger shows up, Fara raises her guard but secrets will be revealed and her truest strength will get a chance to shine.

Fara is my kind of woman and certainly an oddity in the usual mix of Christian heroines who subscribe to the "angel of the hearth ideal" ( as befits the Victorian Era, ironically).

The second story is a love story not constricted by social bounds, Star is an endearingly vulnerable newcomer to the taut English Society of a high-brow manor. Promised to marry as a pawn to secure a symbiotic business deal in the best interest of her father and his English counterpart, Star doesn't count on falling in love with her intended's brother.

I read most of the stories during some train travel over the past few weeks and I was utterly delighted!

Consider these stories as the perfect stocking stuffer! Or treat yourself---coupled with a steaming cup of candy cane hot chocolate, you will relish the transport into a simpler time.

Kudos to Palmer for embroidering a perfectly Victorian atmosphere and peppering her snow-globe world with bright, resourceful heroines and dashing suitors at turn in top hats and cowboy boots.

Don't just take my word for it, here is another review

Dreaming Anastasia or I Dreamed This Anastasia would be a lot better than it was

Dreaming Anastasia was given a great marketing campaign from SourceBooks in the form of a rampant blog tour which infiltrated my google reader for the course of a few days.

Courtney and I did one of our book swaps at Word on the Street, I was pleased to steal off with this one. I was in the mood for some Romanovs and I always hanker after enchanting stories about the lost Duchess.

Unfortunately, my appetite was not whet. At all.

Now, you all know my favourite thing to do is gush about books. I love finding books that I can talk non-stop about for days. Advertise. Coddle. Adore.

Every once in awhile, a book comes along that frustrates me. This one did.

I wasn’t in the mood for slipshod writing, convoluted perspectives, wooden dialogue and a heroine who was not so much endearingly vulnerable as not-so-bright.

The book just doesn’t work. I applaud Preble for her renaissance of a subject a lot of YA readers would easily jump on a bandwagon for: the Anastasia legend is embedded in intrigue, mysticism and romance and, with that platform, competent and imaginative writers can spin many a lustrous web.

Unfortunately, this web was tangled. Too tangled.

Anne is a lithe ballerina and typical high school girl who is still grieving the loss of her brother while trying to come to terms with a new and eerie presence at school ( the brooding Ethan: trying so hard to be Edward Cullen it made my eye twitch), midterms, ballet class and dreams about a Russian duchess.

That’s right: the lost Duchess is alive and well and infiltrating Anne’s dreams.

Intermixed with this oft confusing and bordering on sheer ridiculous tale we have infusions of Anastasia’s letters. Now this is not at all the author’s fault, but, in ephemera-gone-bad, Anastasia’s “cursive” is nearly illegible in print and I had to squint ( with reading glasses on) to decipher this code.

Far be it for me to stomp on a first novelist. I know, I KNOW how difficult writing intriguing and different YA can be --- especially when infused with history and I applaud Joy Preble ( a high school teacher, at that) for her creativity.

It just doesn’t work. Perhaps if all of the different patterns had been sewn in a different quilt….

The problem is I read a lot ( hundreds ) of YA books a year and I like finding those that fit into my handful of “DROP EVERYTHING AND READ!”

I ended up looking up from the last page while reading on the subway this morning thinking: “I just don’t have time for this.”

In trying to be original and at the same time appealing to the Twilight-audience, Preble has set out to unravel a gorgeous and illustrious facet of history and, ironically, fashioned herself a cliché.

This doesn't mean I won't try Joy Preble out again in the future: she HAS potential.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Piece de Resistance by Sandra Byrd

I have been traveling quite a bit for work these past few weeks and I am currently writing this review on a train home from Montreal: a city closely linked to Lexi Stuart of Sandra Byrd's series about a dedicated pastry chef torn between fulfilling her dream; coming into her own and choosing the right path---and man--- for her all while growing closer to God and re-discovering powerful friendships in a church context.

The Montreal strand: Lexi studied French in Montreal and all things French--specifically Parisienne ---infuse Byrd's tasty confections of novels.

In fact, I am surprised I didn't gain weight just reading about all of the gourmet delights Lexi concocts at a new Seattle bakery where she is at the helm: creating pitch perfect recipes for weddings and corporate events.

Following her stint in Paris in Bon Appetit, Lexi is State-side once more and with the new addition of handsome Philippe and his daughter, Lexi is caught between her developing feelings for the Frenchman and her long-standing relationship with Dan ( the lawyer who wears suspenders, as my friend Jessica and I refer to him).

I love the suspenders. I love the lawyer. But, Byrd keeps us guessing ( as she has throughout the entire trilogy) who Lexi will end up with in the end. I was very excited to see the outcome as I was strung along in the story and the pages kept flying in my anticipation!

This is a frothy book perfect for an autumn afternoon wiling away in your favourite coffeeshop, a favourite piece of carrot cake by your elbow. In fact, even though situated as the third (and final ) in the series, I don't think you need to have read the previous two books to capture Lexi's life and dilemmas of career and faith. Byrd does well in relaying any and all vital information from the book's predecessors and this can definitely factor as a standalone novel.

I heartily recommend this delicacy: a perfect piece of escapism as tasty as Lexi's renowned caramel latte cake.

I have two small nitpicks with the novel that I would be remiss not to mention ( for you know my penchant for honesty in reviews). As in the previous two novels, I was bogged down by the ephemera which informs major events in Lexi's life: emails, text messages, invitations, etc., I found these extraneous and detracted from the action at hand.

Next ( and this is a very small nitpick and you can shake your finger at me for my pickiness ), Lexi studied French in Montreal yet the author never once differentiates the fact that Quebecois French and Parisienne French are almost foreign to each other. I am probably only writing this because, as aforementioned, I am just returning from a stint in Montreal and it is fresh in my brain. The insertion of french words here and there did not help to create a valid ambience so much as tamper the flow of Byrd's competent rom-com prose.

But enough nitpicking, I was absolutely delighted to return from a work trip last week and be greeted by a signed copy by the author with a delicious recipe card tucked inside. I felt like Lexi had crept into my apartment!

For this, I would like to thank Sandra Byrd for the copy and invite you to visit her website where you can interact with this best-selling WaterBrook author.

I also enjoy engaging with Sandra on facebook!

I added Sandra Byrd to my roster of must-read Christian chicklits back when I read Let them Eat Cake and I eagerly await where she'll take us next.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Sylvanus Now by Donna Morrissey

Donna Morrissey is a goddess. Just so you all know. She is a CanLit goddess.

I love her.

I thought I loved her when I read Kit's Law and I thought I loved her when I read Downhill Chance but, woe, I was so young and naiive in my love and it took my recent reading of Sylvanus Now for my love to come full circle and for me to fully realize the power of Morrissey's craft.

Oh Rachel-of-yesteryear--- you were so young, you merely appreciated her taut page turners---- her compulsively readable yarns of familial saga;of the scope of Newfoundland: of relationships tested and tossed ( like the waves she speaks so proudly of).

You could not, dear Rachel, have anticipated the gut-wrenching; heart-breaking; mind-numbing-palm-sweaty-and-eyes-watering-and-brain-reeling-sheer-POWER of Sylvanus Now.

I latched onto every sentence for dear life.

Funny, I was looking for a book to take on the plane with me leaving St. John's last weekend. I had read all of the books I had with me because when I travel alone I always bring a book with me for when I eat out. I ploughed through all I had.

In the airport bookstore, I knew I wanted something from Newfoundland and there it was: a compact mass market ready to be read.

I loved Sylvanus Now. Loved every heart-wrenching page. I loved that it made me perspire with anticipation: made me actually taste the bile and salt young Addie encounters in her treacherous work with the "flakes."

In fact, the story of fishermen and fisheries ----specificially one fisherman and his trapped wife---were a representation of the changing way of life. After the Second World War with large international vessels populating and ravaging the waters surrounding Newfoundland, residents of the outports were forced into a world crass and new. Gone were the days of slaving only to the Mother ( the great ocean whose bountiful fruit provided industry and survival in primitive form); gone the oral tales and the language of sea and sky; of living from the land for the land; of appreciating a culture and tradition dating back centuries.

The world sped up and swept Sylvanus, a proud fisherman, and all of the outport men of his ilk with it.

I was thoroughly outraged by what was presented in the novel. Outraged that somehow the sea became free reign for modernization; machination; crude infiltration of factories and technology to rid the water of what Sylvanus and his family had carefully wrought for generations.

The Mother becomes less and less fruitful as Sylvanus' skiff bopped over waves once plentiful of food and promise and the sea foam became a haunting, watery grave for bloated fish carcasses: an emblem of man's extremes.

As a paradox, Sylvanus' proud wife Addie suffers numerous stillbirths: almost as if the glassy water surrounding the port is offering a mirror in which her plight is reflected.

A powerful and gripping story of love and loss.

As turbulent as Sylvanus' relationship with the sea and the new factory-life sprouting around the province, so is his relationship with his beloved Adelaide.

Their courtship is tame and lovely: a young fisherman who has worked endless hours to buy a suit: (who, because of this revered garment, is hired to stand in at weddings and funerals to loan respectability) in order to woo and marry a girl pursues her and attempts to show her the poetry in the region she disdains: beauty and promise and a house of her own in a region she longs to leave for a life as a missionary.

Sylvanus watches the seemingly haughty Addie at a party one night; her lithe frame erect, her nose stuck in the air. Sylvanus spends the entirety of the novel attempting to make good on his promise to provide her everything she needs. Addie accepts and, though the two rift at cross-purposes throughout the novel, there persistence and stamina reminded me of the locals who will not be moved by industry or modernization.

This novel has such a huge scope it is hard to condense and compartmentalize it here for you.

All you need to know is that I recommend it ever so highly. I loved each page and held on for dear life.

I finished it the day I started and, though somewhat emotionally distressed, was better for the profound experience.

Donna Morrissey: I love you! Damn! You can write a book.

The pages flew through my fingertips.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

New Pet Project please

My friends know that without a book "pet" project that I can cultivate and not utter a sentence without recommending, I wither up and die inside.

I am a bookseller: inadvertently in my current job; during my university job; on this here book blog ( and at my Christian book blog ) and every day in most every conversation.

I am a bibliophile and a compulsive bookseller. On facebook, on twitter, I really cannot fathom a world where I am not talking books.

Sometimes I narrow my focus to dedicate time to a particular author or book. I usually have some unwritten qualifiers for my casual "pet projects."

In fact, I was not always cognizant that these were my pet projects but now I deduce standard criteria based on a string of past experience.

First, the author or book in question must be Canadian ( or past Canadian or almost Canadian). I discovered a new word today, canaphile, and I mean to put it to good use. I love my country. So should you.

Secondly, the author or the book can be recognizable but not necessary popular. I have an odd relationship with popular things or things that are two easily noticeable, I like to feel with "pet projects" that I have a bit of a handprint; that I have the ability to recommend something others may never have stumbled across.

Thirdly ( and this is very important as I distinguish my roster of favourite authors and books), the author's personality must complete the work. Books that have no spark of an author's personality are a waste of time and not nearly as fun to read.

(I interrupt this blog post from my hotel in St. John's to inform you that RH Thomson is in a really terrible television movie and I love RH Thomson and need to point him out)

For meeting all of the aforementioned guidelines, pet projects have included Maureen Jennings ( most often her Detective Murdoch series); Arthur Slade ( for Megiddo's Shadow and Dust but mostly in recent years for JOLTED!!!!) and CC Humphreys ( only for Jack Absolute although I did once sell five copies of the French Executioner in an hour) and Lynn Austin ( a Christian writer who I try to infiltrate into the secular market--- a tricky balance, indeed)

Problem is, I need a new pet project. I am actively searching. You now know my qualifiers. Anyone have any hints? I sell. I SELL a lot: in stores I don't work at ( I no longer work in book retail although the way I talk about it you might think I do); to friends; on my blog; on facebook.... just all the time. Every day.

I have a long track record here and LOVE to recommend books. LOVE!

please forward suggestions.

Who are your pet book projects? I might end up discovering some book I might never have rubbed shoulders with otherwise.

NOTE: the book I handsold the most of was definitely "Deafening" by Frances Itani; but it was really popular and a Canada Reads selection so not one of my select few.

Jess and Rachel Talk Books: the Classics Edition

Hey kids, hello from BLUSTERY windy and rainy St. John's Newfoundland where I am at a conference for work and surrounded by dozens of delicious books.

I also found a fantastic used bookstore here: complete with a Michael Crummey display. Yes, Newfoundland is proud of Mr. Crummey, as well they should be.

note ( on a very superficial level which rescinds any dwindling respectability I might have had): I think Michael Crummey is Canada's cutest author. The end.

Remember when Jess and I talked Horatio Lyle and how much fun that was?

Well everyone's favourite Coloradonian ( is that even a word) and yours truly are going to talk CLASSICS! Look for me in italics and Jess in bold ( for she is boldly beautiful )....

Jess, what is your favourite “Classic” book? ( from any era, just one widely-regarded as “classic”)

I’m going to give you two. I’m a cheater like that.

As a kid, one of my favorite books was Matilda by Roald Dahl. I can’t even begin to tell you how many times I read that book. It’s been a while since I re-visited it, but I look forward to my chance to sit down with it again someday soon and experience the magic and delight.

Okay, I’m going to cheat even more and give you three, because I also read The Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell about 8 billion times as a girl. What I loved about both of these books was the strong, smart girl protagonists who have to take care of themselves – and do. Matilda is smarter than pretty much everyone everywhere, and manages to defeat the evil adults so that she can live with her beloved teacher, Miss Honey. Also, she’s telekinetic. Which is just awesome. Karana lives on the island all by herself for years, finding food, hiding from hunters. Her story is sad and lonely, but she finds peace and contentment in her life, and isn’t so much rescued as much as she chooses to leave.

I now feel the overwhelming need to re-read both of these.

My “grown-up” favorite classic novel is Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. I read this for the first time in high school, and it’s the book that truly sparked my love for literature. Because if Rebecca was this awesome, how good must most of the other previously-considered-boring classic novels be? Rebecca is a gothic mystery that’s as close as one can come to a ghost story without actually having any ghosts. The narrator never tells us her first name, and no one ever uses it. She is simply Mrs. de Winter, living always in shadow of the previous Mrs. de Winter, the beautiful, beloved Rebecca. Rebecca haunts the narrator, making her miserable, as she knows she can never measure up. But then she starts to discover the truth about Rebecca, and with it, the truth about herself. It’s creepy and atmospheric, and it’s been far too long since I read it. October’s a good month for gothic, isn’t it?

Like you, I love “autumny” books which make me think of sitting in my cozy living room in orillia, staring out at the street: the tarmac all slick and sparkly under the streetlamps from a chilled fall rain, the leaves rustling and everything shadows. I LOVE THE FALL.

It’s funny that your connection with Rebecca prompted you to seek further classics because that is the story I associate with Les Miserables: the book that propelled my love of literature. I threw down my copy of whatever generic Fear Street book I was reading deciding that I already knew how it was going to end, asked my dad to take me to our Coles store and picked up Les Miserables. I was 13. I loved it! Every moment. It’s a gargantuan book but it is made up of so many different infinitesimal worlds. You can almost go through and just pick a strand of story: a sort of choose-your-own-adventure.

(Brief interruption: Fear Street books! Ha! I think I read three of those and then gave up. Ah, memories. Also, I have never read Les Miserables because I am the saddest excuse for an English major there is.)

I cannot say I ever enjoyed Roald Dahl because I found him rather creepy and depressing. I read Island of the Blue Dolphins, though, and I concur: it has strong female protagonists. And, when you think about the state of YA and teen fiction published ‘round O’Dell’s time and the limitations of genre, it is rather remarkable that that book was so daring and unique. There is far more published now for the demographic and I hope that classics like that don’t get squandered by PARANORMAL URBAN FANTASY!

I love Rebecca. I think it has one of the most haunting opening lines I have ever heard. I also really liked the Hitchcock film. Rebecca is so much more than your typical gothic romance. It really speaks to a woman usurped by her husband’s status, who is nothing more than wife, who is victim to narrate a story that is another woman’s and not quite her own. Mrs. DeWinter. The females prey to Max’s charm subsequently are reduced to no more than a name stemming from his identity.

This is why you’re the one with the book blog. You talk about this things so much more eloquently than I. I’m just sitting over here shouting, “Yes! YES!” to everything you’ve said.

That is a very haunting book. Makes me think of Jane Eyre.

Funny, your classic books are 20th Century: two YA books and a mid-20th Century classic whereas mine are Victorian. Because, my developing mind was circumferenced by the 19th Century: there were no classics before or after, or so thought my 15 year old brain. So, classics included Les Miserables, Great Expectations and Villette by Charlotte Bronte. As well as the Sherlock Holmes books. From there, of course, I expanded, starting with the A’s ( for Austen, notably) and moving forward.

Thoroughly Modern Millie. That’s me.

What classic do you loathe?

Wuthering Heights! Urg. I do not understand how Heathcliff and Cathy have become these great romantic characters. They’re awful. I hated them.

Robinson Crusoe and The Last of the Mohicans were both torturously dull. Never again will I read Daniel Defoe or James Fenimore Cooper. Though, I will read Mark Twain making fun of James Fenimore Cooper anytime.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Oh Alatriste! Who cares if every one of your five (so far) novels are exactly the same ?

I love Captain Alatriste! And I loved The Cavalier in the Yellow Doublet

I love Alatriste: I love his low-brimmed hat and his black boots and his long moustache and the fact that he broods and broods and glares at us with steely grey eyes and then broods again.

And I love the fact that every Alatriste novel set in Madrid is exactly the same ( The Sun Over Breda and The King's Gold had some fun battle scenes and ships and pirates and treasure and stuff.... ) except when Inigo almost gets swallowed up by the Spanish Inquisition in Purity of Blood but with that slight hiccup its all the same.

I LOVE these books. In fact, Alatriste ----actually Alatriste's Madrid--- what with its cobblestones and lanterns and taverns and poets and theatre and carriages and equal parts squalour and lavish riches--- have made Spain ( after Vienna, Austria) my most foreseeable future trip.

I gotta hand it to Perez-Reverte for sheer atmosphere. Our guide, Inigo Balboa, page to the elusive Alatriste, is looking back on his life as the famous sword-for-hire's page and like the legend-in-making is as close to the Spanish lore he embroiders with his snippets of verse and poem; of theatre; of Cervantes.

So much Cervantes.

Perez-Reverte crafts an homage to Spain. He makes it grand. Alatriste paints it grand. Inigo gives us the insider scoop on how it is grand.

This is unabashed patriotism here, kids, all over the place, dripping from the rooftop of the Inn of the Turk ( where Alatriste and Inigo take rooms) through the countless barrels of wine to the blood-soaked alleyways bereft of Alatriste's recent swordthrust.

Like all of the novels in the series, The Cavalier in the Yellow Doublet is all swordplay and tawdry romance and epic conspiracy: this time-- with regicide.

I seem to always be reading Alatriste on a plane somewhere: which is magnificent because I have a bit of a fear of heights and like to get wholly engrossed in a yarn before take off so that I don't look up from my book.

My first two Alatristes were consumed on a trip to the Maritimes; The King's Gold en route to New York City and today en route to St John's Newfoundland where I am here for work, my dreary eyes didn't abhor the early morning flight ---instead they were countered with a venti latte ( triple shot, dear god yes!) and another round of Alatriste.

If you haven't read them yet and have a penchant for historical fiction --- or just need some sweeping swashbuckling from a dazzlingly romantic era of trickery and derring-do, then get yourself some Perez-Reverte. But, a caveat, they always take forever to be translated into English and I tap my fingernails forever until the next installment is tossed my way.

Two BIG Rachel Thumbs Up

Friday, October 09, 2009

On Savvy Reading; winning spots in books and killer goats

Happy Thanksgiving bloggosphere!

So, here are a couple of bookish things that are filling my brain this beautiful (rainy) Friday morning.

  • First off, I am mentioned at the Savvy Reader: TWICE (Score. This is like fame to me so let me have my moment) here and here

  • Take this contest where you can create a character to feature in a book. Why do authors do this to themselves? This is certainly not the first time. You can buy a spot for your name or the name of someone you love for a price ( like buying a star), you can create characters ---you can even ( let's all look at Dan Brown with a wiltering eye) purchase an ad spot in a popular best-selling book. As a writer ( and I don't use that term so seriously when in conjunction with my amateurish efforts), I enjoy creating stories and characters that are wholly mine. When I outline and plot and plan and complete the arduous task of spade work ( see LM Montgomery for reference), I know exactly what fits where in my elaborate puzzle. Why then, would I allow the grand order of things to be upset by the inclusion of someone else's thought process? Now, I am sure that our friend Mr. Slade is not going to re-write the entire plot of his subsequent novel; nor will anything earth shattering come about ( lest he is oddly inspired by a contest entry), but for me it feels tainted. Like someone else's thumbprint ( even some random eight year old's) would be in a work of fiction already well-crafted. An oddity in an established fictional world.

(Disclaimer: we all know I love Arthur Slade's books, right? So I am allowed to have this opinion without people going all "tsk, tsk, Rachel. How could you! So mean to nice author.Nice author who connects with reading public. And he's From Saskatchewan, you heartless fiend, for shame! From Saskatchewan!" Ok? As long as we're good).

Great Expectations and Killer Goats

My name is Philip Pirrip but everyone calls me Pip. Here are my parent’s conjoined burial sites. Hi Dad! Hi Mum! ( Also Georgiana, Wife of the Above). I was on the marshes today and it is chilly. I better be getting home to the forge before my sister, the blacksmith’s wife, beats me.
Wait! Ugly, snively man is grabbing me.
“I am a convict,” he snarled, “bring me wittles.”
I shuddered and scurried home.
My brother-in-law, the kind blacksmith, stroked his flaxen curls while sitting with his great leg up to the fire pondering things.
“What larks, Pip ol’ Chap!”
“Joe! I ran into a convict! He told me to come back at midnight and bring him wittles!”
“They’re like vittles, methinks,” said Joe, looking perplexed and child-like. I looked up to him in my heart.
Mrs. Joe came home then on the rampage with a worn cane called tickler brandished in her right hand. She shook it at me and I cowered.
“Where have you been? You useless mangy orphan! Honour those who brought you up by hand.”
Joe and I had our tea and bread and butter in silence. I think he wondered if I was going to go on my wittle mission. I slid the heel of the loaf of bread down my trouser leg and when the house was quiet, I stole into the pantry and replaced the brandy jar with tar water and packed the brandy for the convict.
I stepped into the blustery cold; my breath dotting the sleek, black dark; the wind creaking and moaning against the forge door and over the barren marsh.
I felt a hand on my shoulder.
“Joe!” I exclaimed.
“C’mon, Pip ol’ Chap!” he grabbed the packet with the food and brandy from me and we drudged across the soggy mass.
The convict was filing away at his chains under a leafless tree.
He looked up at us: his eyes listless pools just catching a sliver of moonlight.
“Beware!” he sniffed. “Beware the killer goats!”
Joe and I exchanged a look and I felt Joe’s hand close tightly on my shoulder with unexpected warmth. Joe and I turned away from the convict: heard him grunt and slurp and demolish his food behind us. The wind howled and I neared into Joe. Suddenly, from the great beyond a large shadow appeared in our path. Silhouetted against the darkish grass was the outline of a black body with pointy horns.
“A killer goat!” yelped Joe, throwing his large frame in front of me and steadying me behind him with a calloused hand.
“Just hold on, ol’ chap!”
I shivered in my boots. The goat bleated: a terrifyingly haunted bleat.
“Baaaaaaaaah!” said the goat, like the bellows of the forge just when spark meets flint.
Fortunately, Joe and I escaped. The next night, bringing the poor convict vittles under the vapid tree, Joe and I encountered the killer goat again. This time as its shape rose affront us, Joe grabbed his long poker; still heated from the gulping fires of the forge and stabbed the beast as it towered over me. We hauled the killer goat’s carcass back to town and an eccentric old lady with crazy hair and a stained and yellowing wedding dress named Miss Havisham and her man-eating ward gave us a reward.

It also turned out I had Great Expectations! Money kept pouring in as I was set up as a gentleman in London. I thought for sure it must be Miss Havisham. My roommate Herbert Pocket who called me Handel thought so too!

But we were wrong.

Later I found out it was the convict who was giving me money after moving to Australia and tending sheep and the man-eating ward was just a ruthless witch and so was her guardian.

Joe married my tutor and I lived happily ever after.

(Though I became a bit of a snob.)

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

These falls didn't so much stand still as sweep me away.....

The Day the Falls Stood Still by Cathy Marie Buchanan is one of my favourite reads this year and by far my favourite Canadian historical since Frances Itani’s Deafening. In fact, The Day the Falls Stood Still reminded me a lot of Deafening. They share similar traits: a rural Ontario setting; a glimpse at the horrors of the warfront and the equally tumultuous climate on the Canadian home front and a love story that defies convention, space and any bounds.

It is this courtship, between renegade river man Tom and well-bred Bess as reflected in the unpredictable falls that drags the reader in, holds, and won’t let go. For this bittersweet story of love divided by societal restrictions and the Great War, the Falls, the whirlpool and the river become a stand-in for intensity, changing human emotion, beauty and even death.

Thoughtful ephemera (newspaper clippings of Tom’s legendary grandfather Fergus Cole and pictures of Niagara Falls during the first quarter of the 20th Century) add to the welcome historical atmosphere. Buchanan does not “cut and paste” her historical facts snipped from books and transplanted into the tale, rather she threads them seamlessly into Tom and Bess’ story so the reader is transported back to a place and time they inadvertently have nostalgia for. A nostalgia that rendered today’s Niagara Falls, all gaudy and Vegas incarnate, seem like a betrayal to Tom and his ilk.

Poetic prose, a narrative boasting enough reckless danger and love to loan itself to the description “rollicking yarn” and a dialogue born of the day prove this a carefully plotted tale. I wrote a friend mid-way through the first half exclaiming “LM Montgomery would love this book!” –she having been a reader easily transported; who hankered after being swept into waters at times safe and dangerous-- through character, romance, tragedy.

I especially enjoyed the exposition of faith: found and lost through God, through Nature, through Love. Buchanan doesn’t box in one conceptualization of religion rather, and here I note Montgomery again, explores its manifestation in numerous ways, feelings, thoughts.

I closed the book proud to add Buchanan to a rich Canadian tradition, scenes still embedded in my brain, the cavernous falls ringing in my ears.

My thanks to Harper Collins for a book I cannot utter a sentence this week without recommending.

note: visit the Savvy Reader for an audio discussion with Cathy Marie Buchanan

Monday, October 05, 2009

Jane Austen Ruined My Life by Beth Pattillo

rating: ***

publisher: Guideposts

Single? Thwarted in love? Start holding Jane Austen responsible. Beth Pattillo’s formidable foray into the Austen spin-off genre, Jane Austen Ruined My Life, is a clever, erudite and unexpected addition to the throngs of Austenesque fiction post Bridget Jones and Colin Firth in wet-shirt scene.

Emma Grant has been forced out of her tenured position as a leading professor/Jane Austen scholar in shame. The icing on the cake, she caught her professor husband in a compromising manner with his TA and they weren’t just reading Northrop Frye.

With no clue what to do, Emma leaves for England and finds romance and intrigue in the guise of a strange old bird (pun intended) Mrs. Parrot and her link to the some three hundred-odd missing Austen letters believed to have been destroyed by Cassandra (Jane’s sister) after the scribe’s death.

I loved this book. In fact, since the brilliantly light Austenland by Shannon Hale, it is the best of the sub-genre.

A literary maze and treasure hunt, I was reconnected with numerous Austen facts I had let slip since my days in University. Moreover, like my recent read (read review here ) the Secret Diaries of Charlotte Bronte, it drew me back to an author I have distanced myself from for awhile.

The romantic leads are, of course, dashing: from the Knightley-Darcy hybrid ( the infinitely patient Adam ) to Barry ( the Wickham esque enigma who shows up at the most inopportune times).

But unlike the formulaic points A--->C chicklit, Emma’s journey and connection with Austen does more for her severing herself with a tainted identity and reclaiming her individuality, sans Jane Austen idealism, than tying a happy knot with a prospective suitor.

A favourite scene had Emma pawning her wedding and engagement rings to buy a beautiful Chanel with which to dazzle her date at a production of Brinsley Sheridan’s the Rivals: during the performance, while wedged between two rather eligible men who have strained her emotional attachment, the play’s subject becomes deliciously ironic and somewhat foreshadowing. Well-played Pattillo!

A brainy, original and fully unique Austen-lit, I loved it: A breath of fresh air.

Previously, my acquaintance with Beth Pattillo had been in the Christian sphere (the equally snarky and peppy adventures of a female minister in Betsy Blessing and her foray into knitlit: The Sweetgum Society). Here, God stands in the background, guiding and present yet not mentioned or over-bearing. Emma’s father ( like Jane’s ) is a minister.

In fact, were a reader to be new to Pattillo and not initiated with her background, the subtle Christian ( erm, rather moral) lacings of the book would possibly remain undetected.

Two major thumbs up.

FYI: Pattillo is writing another in the same vein called Mr Darcy Broke My Heart.

Special Guest: on Why We Love CANADIAN AUTHORS

I was teased on twitter ( good alliteration, Rachel ) for being a nationalist last week when I was making people vote for Canadian YA for the Cybils! And I got to thinking about it and I AM A NATIONALIST! I love my country. I love our literary history and if I were born anywhere else in the world ( besides Victorian England) I would probably come and track Canada down because we suit each other.

Know who shares my love for fair Canada: True North Strong and Free? Court. Yep.

So, she is guest-posting here today all about CANADIAN AUTHORS WE LOVE!

[Rachel Edit: This Will Ferguson cover is TAKING UP YOUR SCREEN! ]

Rachel asked me to write a guest post on Canadian authors that we both share a passionate and undying love for. And there are many, but here I will focus on our three biggest - Lucy Maud Montgomery (author of the Anne of Green Gables and Emily of New Moon series, The Blue Castle, and many other awesome books), Will Ferguson (author of HappinessTM, Why I Hate Canadians and co-author of How To Be A Canadian) and Maureen Jennings (author of the Detective Murdoch series).

[Rachel Edit: I was a reader for the Stephen Leacock Humour Award a couple of years back and met Mr. Ferguson at the big gala dinner. There, I got a napkin signed for Court. Huzzah!]

Our first shared love was the ever-brilliant Lucy Maud Montgomery. She is part of what brought Rachel and I together, and it is VERY rare that she is not brought up when we start talking about fictional male characters that we love - whether we are speaking of the top fictional males we will always love, debating which male leads are better (in the Emily books, she is for Dean, while I highly prefer Teddy), or are explaining how awesome other male leads are in comparison with other male leads. (For example, if Rachel were to say that someone was just like Barney Snaith, then I would know that he is a brilliantly charming black sheep.)

Then there was the brilliantly hilarious Will Ferguson, humourist and novelist. We may both have huge writer crushes on him, with perfectly good reason. First: he is Canadian and writing about a country that we both love. Second: he has that signature Canadian wit, even in his novels that don't take place in Canada (though Rachel has still as of yet not read Spanish Fly, no matter my attempts at coercion).

[Rachel Edit: I will read Spanish Fly when Courtney reads The Blooding of Jack Absolute which was not written by a Canadian but has enough Canadian stuff in it to make it Canadian]

Lastly, there is Maureen Jennings. Rachel has been a Jennings fan for a long time - she even goes so far as to actually know the author in real life! Sadly, though, Jennings is a newer discovery for me; I only started reading her Murdoch books a couple of years ago. One of the best things about this series is that it takes place in Victorian Toronto - a place we know in a time period that we both are rather fond of. (I also hear that Rachel love Jennings' other series, which takes place up in her home town, but I haven't read those yet - so looking forward to it though!)

So what is it about these awesome Canadian authors that make us love them so much? I've been thinking about this for a few days, and I think there are two reasons. They write with passion about Canada. The books may not speak specifically about the country, but it's evident they way they describe the places their books are set in that they love their country. And Canada's geography is all so vastly different! Just by reading Jennings' books, you can feel like you've been to Toronto at the turn of the twentieth century. By picking up one of Montgomery's books, you can visit either PEI or Northern Ontario - and you can SMELL the sea coming out of the pages from Montgomery's books that take place in PEI. And Ferguson, oh, Will Ferguson! Specifically his Beauty Tips from Moose Jaw - this book takes you on a cross-country tour that is chock-full of history, so what is not to like about it? Then there is the fact that they write in a way that is so obviously Canadian. Canadians have a distinctive voice - you can see it a lot in the tv comedy shows we produce. It's a lot more like the British humour than it is like our southern neighbours, the Americans. It's drier, less in-your-face, and more polite.

We also like to make fun of ourselves quite a bit. This humour is most evident in Ferguson's works, but there are hints (hint the size of a two by four being smacked along the backside of the head in some instances) of it in Montgomery's and Jennings' works as well. Even without the humour there is something distinctly Canadian about these authors' books, though it is hard to put a finger on exactly what it is.

Of course, there are many other awesome Canadian authors that we both love - Arthur Slade, Maggie Woods and Gordon Korman (mainly his older stuff, mind!) - but these three share the most fangirlish love that we have for authors. And I have to say that it IS a passionate fangirlish love that we are both proud to have and spread (sort of like a bad bout of the flu, only much more enjoyable!).

[Rachel Edit: Arthur Slade= JOLTED! ]

Friday, October 02, 2009

Jess and Rachel Talk Books: Horatio Lyle by Catherine Webb

First off, kids, I wanted to publish this last night but blogger was down.

Thanks to the lovely Aarti, I was able to do a Rosie's Riveters post at her fabulous Booklust site: so go there to hear my gush about Irene Adler from the Sherlock Holmes stories.

Secondly, I am starting a bit of a series wherein Jess and I are going to chat about books and you, fair reader, just by staring at this screen and using ye olde comments box can interact.

So, for our first topic, I emailed Jess about one of our favourite things: The Horatio Lyle series by Catherine Webb.

Look for Jess' erudite commentary in bold and mine in italics. Also, Jess spells things like humour without a 'u' because she's American ( I, of course, forgive her for this )

I asked Jess why she thought we loved Horatio Lyle so much. Here's the chat:

Horatio Lyle appeals to us for many reasons. Which I will now list because I like lists.

1) The Setting. The books are set in Victorian London, which for anglophiles and history nerds like us is pretty much the ideal setting. And they’re not just set there – London itself is almost as important a character as Horatio, Tess, and Thomas. The descriptions are gorgeous, and the author’s love for her city comes through every word on the page.

Rachel: I especially love anything set by the Thames which, to Lyle, is the beating heart and life-blood of the city. Webb uses the Thames often as a focal point in her story. Also, there’s lightning. At St. Paul’s. St Paul’s struck by lightning.

I think my favorite thing about Webb’s portrayal of London – which she also does in her Matthew Swift books as Kate Griffin – is that yes, the London love is shining bright, but it’s not shying away from the dirty side of London. The smell of the Thames, the muck in the streets, the sewers, the urchins, the beggars. In fact, the books almost seem to revel in this sordid underbelly, to extoll its virtues as the real London. And I just love that.

2) The Stories. They’re historical fantasy mysteries. A detective and his sidekicks running about Victorian London solving mysteries and fighting monsters – with science! It’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer in a corset at the science fair. Sherlock Holmes meets Doctor Who, minus the time travel. Dickens and Gaiman collide.

It doesn’t really matter that there is hardly anything believable about them. They’re glorious. And Steampunk ( to use a now waay over-used word). They’re equal parts scary and wonderful and gritty and there are things that go bump in the night. Green-eyed things.

3) The Characters. How can you not love Lyle, Tess, and Thomas? Lyle, the brilliant scientist/detective with a strong sense of justice and a vulnerable side. Tess, the incorrigible, somewhat-reformed pickpocket. Thomas, the naïve, awkward young nobleman with a fierce love for science. When you put them together, they’re absolutely irresistible.

And when Lyle meets Faraday, his hero: he totally goes all fan on him and squeals. The characters are why we read this story. Even Feng Darin. Lin ( of course ---the chemistry between Lin and Horatio is to die for) and the horrible Lord Lincoln. The cold-hearted stone-creatures; those who reluctantly create a genocidal steampunk machine….. the hybrid of good n’evil and NO ONE IS WHO THEY SEEM TO BE….. and they all have British accents.

4) The Humor. The dialogue snaps with wit, Tess is hilarious more or less constantly, Thomas’s bumbling stabs at adulthood make you giggle, and Lyle’s frequent forays into confusion, embarassment, and panic make it impossible not to smile. I know one of your favorite scenes, Rachel, is when Lyle gets himself thrown in jail by pretending to be a cattle rustler, involving a marvelous speech about how much he loves cows.

There are few books that make me laugh as hard as these books. I think this is partly because her dialogue, and in turn dialect, leap off the page. You can hear the characters: the bouncy Tess; the prim and reticent Thomas; the skeptical and bemused Lyle in your head. Tess’ cockney dialect is one of the strongest parts of the story. Also, she shifts perspectives and sometimes ….sometimes…. even Tate ( the faithful hound) gets a moment in the spotlight.

5) The Heart. The above might draw you to the series, might guarantee you enjoy yourself immensely while reading them, but what will sink into your warm, gooey center is the heart of these books. And it’s a big heart. The love between these three characters is the source for more touching scenes than I can count: Lyle’s glowing pride at Thomas’s achievements, the depth of Tess’s affection for Lyle surprising even herself, how the only time Lyle gets angry is when someone threatens the children, the post-danger reunion hugs that make my heart melt like ice in Phoenix. These characters would do anything for each other, which just exponentially increases my love for them.

The post-danger reunion hugs ( for hereafter that is what they shall ever be called ) make my knees go to jelly and my fingertips tingle. Can one be unhappy when one is reading a Catherine Webb post-reunion hug? Seriously? Can there be anything wrong in the world. Like all the stuff we like, Jess: Firefly, BSG, Buffy, me and my Master and Commander obsession, it involves decidedly different types of people from all spectrums of life who are thrown together to battle circumstances and end up forging a bit of a connection: with Lyle, Tess and Thomas, that is the most solid thing in each of their lives. If you take one component out of the mix, everything would fall apart: like a key ingredient in Scientific-Lyle’s experiments.

You make a brilliant point about people from all spectrums of life. I hadn’t thought about that, really, but you’re absolutely right.

And that, my dear, is why we love Horatio Lyle. What’d I forget?

The fact that he runs around London with things that explode in his pockets.

And he makes a mean breakfast.