Monday, June 29, 2015

The Library At Mount Char

When this book popped up on my radar, I knew I had to get my hands on a copy ASAP!

Scott Hawkins has included so many of my favorite elements in this enthralling tale: THE best and most complete library in all of time and space (and the librarians to go with it!); a fresh take on deities; a mystery; zombies; action, action, action; and a new god on the block. (I trust you can read the synopsis below for the details!)

Hawkins' writing style is very accessible. I always find it interesting when male authors adeptly write a strong female protagonist as Hawkins has done so brilliantly. Some parts of the book contain strong torture/violence, which may not be for the squeamish or faint of heart. (The scenes are not superfluous; they really are, in my opinion, integral to the story line.)

Once I got started, I couldn't put it down! In the beginning I had to know what had happened to Father and who was keeping the librarians out of their domain. Then, as the truth began to dawn like the horrific new sun over Hawkins' Earth, I was compelled to find out what sort of reign this new god would have and whether there would be any redemption/salvation for her. I love that about this story! It grabs you and won't let you go until the end.

I haven't read a lot of fantasy. It's not my "go-to" genre. But The Library At Mount Char certainly makes me rethink that!

From the Publisher . . .

A missing God.
A library with the secrets to the universe.
A woman too busy to notice her heart slipping away.

Carolyn’s not so different from the other people around her. She likes guacamole and cigarettes and steak. She knows how to use a phone. Clothes are a bit tricky, but everyone says nice things about her outfit with the Christmas sweater over the gold bicycle shorts.

After all, she was a normal American herself once.

That was a long time ago, of course. Before her parents died. Before she and the others were taken in by the man they called Father.

In the years since then, Carolyn hasn’t had a chance to get out much. Instead, she and her adopted siblings have been raised according to Father’s ancient customs. They’ve studied the books in his Library and learned some of the secrets of his power. And sometimes, they’ve wondered if their cruel tutor might secretly be God.

Now, Father is missing—perhaps even dead—and the Library that holds his secrets stands unguarded. And with it, control over all of creation.

As Carolyn gathers the tools she needs for the battle to come, fierce competitors for this prize align against her, all of them with powers that far exceed her own.

But Carolyn has accounted for this.

And Carolyn has a plan.

The only trouble is that in the war to make a new God, she’s forgotten to protect the things that make her human.

Populated by an unforgettable cast of characters and propelled by a plot that will shock you again and again, The Library at Mount Char is at once horrifying and hilarious, mind-blowingly alien and heartbreakingly human, sweepingly visionary and nail-bitingly thrilling—and signals the arrival of a major new voice in fantasy.

About the Author . . .

SCOTT HAWKINS lives in Atlanta with his wife and a large pack of foster dogs. When not writing he enjoys woodwork, cooking long and impractical recipes, and playing fetch with his dogs. He works as a computer programmer. The Library at Mount Char is his first novel.

Monday, June 22, 2015

J'adore The Little Paris Bookshop

Monsieur Perdu is a bookseller, a very special bookseller who recognizes, that "it was a common misconception that booksellers looked after books. They look after people." His little barge, affectionately christened "Lulu" and publicly known as the "Literary Apothecary," floated along the Seine in Paris as Perdu's life mostly unwound itself with little real involvement from him for the past 20 years. But a new tenant has come to 27 Rue Montagnard, and for the first time in decades, Jean Perdu senses something astir within.

So begins Perdu's adventure and journey to rediscover life and his own essence. Nina George has presented readers with a wonderful volume "dedicated to the therapy of private life. It addresses--mainly in homeopathic doses--the minor and major ailments of existence and helps with the 'treatment of the average inner life.'"

Devastated when he discovers the letter his lover left on his table 20 years ago when she last graced his rooms with her presence, Perdu unties his boat and sets sail through the navigable rivers and canals of France for the place where she went to die those many years ago. Along the way he gathers a couple of travel companions (in addition to his literary cats!) to share thoughts, experiences, and philosophies with.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Little Paris Bookshop! George's writing is full of sensual details that left this reader feeling as though I was immersed in the French countryside along with Perdu and his companions.

I love the respect and honor given to reading and writing and the role that books play in our lives! (Subsequently I was thrilled to discover, at the back of the tome, "Jean Perdu's Emergency Literary Pharmacy" in which all the books mentioned throughout the text are listed with brief descriptions included. What a treasure! One could make a wonderful reading list from this delightful addition!)

It's also great fun that several recipes are included for the dishes mentioned which are cooked and/or enjoyed along the journey's route.

I adopted Perdu's advice that a book is not to be rushed through, but rather savored, pondered, and adored page by page (and at times word by word). Because it is the story of mourning loss, resolving grief, and learning to live and love again, the story deserves a slow and thoughtful reading.

J'adore The Little Paris Bookshop. I believe you will too!

Thanks to Blogging For Books for the Reader's Copy I received in exchange for this review.

From the Publisher . . .

“There are books that are suitable for a million people, others for only a hundred. There are even remedies—I mean books—that were written for one person only…A book is both medic and medicine at once. It makes a diagnosis as well as offering therapy. Putting the right novels to the appropriate ailments: that’s how I sell books.”

Monsieur Perdu calls himself a literary apothecary. From his floating bookstore in a barge on the Seine, he prescribes novels for the hardships of life. Using his intuitive feel for the exact book a reader needs, Perdu mends broken hearts and souls. The only person he can’t seem to heal through literature is himself; he’s still haunted by heartbreak after his great love disappeared. She left him with only a letter, which he has never opened.

After Perdu is finally tempted to read the letter, he hauls anchor and departs on a mission to the south of France, hoping to make peace with his loss and discover the end of the story. Joined by a bestselling but blocked author and a lovelorn Italian chef, Perdu travels along the country’s rivers, dispensing his wisdom and his books, showing that the literary world can take the human soul on a journey to heal itself.

Internationally bestselling and filled with warmth and adventure, The Little Paris Bookshop is a love letter to books, meant for anyone who believes in the power of stories to shape people’s lives.

About the Author . . .

NINA GEORGE works as a journalist, writer, and storytelling teacher. She is the award winning author of 26 books, and also writes feature articles, short stories, and columns. The Little Paris Bookshop spent over a year on bestseller lists in Germany, and was a bestseller in Italy, Poland, and the Netherlands. George is married to the writer Jens J. Kramer and lives in Hamburg and in Brittany, France.
@nina_george • @jean_perdu

Sunday, June 14, 2015

After A While

Do you secretly watch reality television shows about hoarders or people with bizarre eating habits so that you can feel better about your own living space or eating habits? Have you ever attended a support group and thought to yourself, "Well, I may have this problem, but at least I'm not as bad as THAT person!"? If so, Gwendolyn Knapp's memoir, After a While You Just Get Used To It is the book for you!

Less Cousin Eddy (from the Vacation series of films) and more the feeling of TMI (too much information), I didn't find Knapp's memoir as "hilarious" and "side-splitting" as many other readers seem to have found it. It left me feeling a bit squeamish at times for being witness to a little too much "family clutter".

Knapp's writing style is crisp; her vocabulary is earthy and raw. It will punch you in the gut in a few places. But it does grab you and take you along for the ride. I did find myself smiling in a few places even though, in the end, much of the intended humor fell flat for me.

Thanks to Shelf Awareness for the free copy I received in exchange for this review.

From the Publisher . . .

A dive bar palm reader who calls herself the Disco Queen Taiwan; a slumlord with a penis-of-the-day LISTSERV; and Betty, the middle-aged Tales of the Cocktail volunteer who soils her pants on a party bus and is dealt with in the worst possible way. These are just a few of the unforgettable characters who populate Gwendolyn Knapp’s hilarious and heartbreaking—yet ultimately uplifting—memoir debut, After a While You Just Get Used to It.

Growing up in a dying breed of eccentric Florida crackers, Knapp thought she had it rough—what with her pack rat mother, Margie; her aunt Susie, who has fewer teeth than prison stays; and Margie’s bipolar boyfriend, John. But not long after Knapp moves to New Orleans, Margie packs up her House of Hoarders and follows along. As if Knapp weren’t struggling enough to keep herself afloat, working odd jobs and trying to find love while suffering from irritable bowel syndrome, the thirty-year-old realizes that she’s never going to escape her family’s unendingly dysfunctional drama.

Knapp honed her writing chops and distinctive Southern Gothic–humor style writing short pieces and participating in the renowned reading series Literary Death Match. Now, like bestselling authors Jenny Lawson, Laurie Notaro, and Julie Klausner before her, Knapp bares her sad and twisted life for readers everywhere to enjoy.

About the Author . . .

Gwendolyn Knapp holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of North Carolina. Her fiction has appeared in Crazyhorse and Quarterly West, and her nonfiction has appeared in The Southeast Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, The Best Creative Nonfiction Vol. 2, and She also had a notable essay mention in The Best American Essays 2013. Knapp lives in New Orleans, where her mother also relocated in 2010, along with tons of her junk.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

The Ghost Bride

I found this novel very engaging! I love reading stories set Asia, and the fact that it is historic adds another level of intrigue for me. Now add the element of spirits, ghosts, and afterlife beliefs and I'm all in!

Choo's writing style is evocative yet accessible. She engages her readers and expands our horizons on many levels. I was wrapped up in Li Lan's fate, the choices she made and their implications, and how everything was going to unfold.

If you enjoy ghost stories, romance, historical novels, exploring the beliefs of other cultures, coming of age stories, strong female protagonists, and supernatural beings, you will love The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo. I know I did!

From the Publisher . . .

A wondrous coming-of-age story infused with Chinese folklore, romantic intrigue, adventure, and fascinating, dreamlike twists.

Malaya, 1893 Li Lan, the daughter of a genteel but bankrupt Chinese family, has few prospects. But fate intervenes when she receives a proposal from the wealthy and powerful Lim family. They want her to become a ghost bride for the family's only son, who died under mysterious circumstances. Rarely practiced, ghost marriages are often meant to placate a restless spirit. Such a union would guarantee Li Lan a comfortable home for the rest of her days, but at what cost?

As she reluctantly considers the offer, Li Lan is unwillingly drawn into the shadowy parallel world of the Chinese afterlife, with its ghost cities and vengeful spirits. There Li Lan must uncover the Lim family's darkest secrets—and the truth about her own family—before she is trapped in this ghostly world forever.

About the Author . . .

Yangsze Choo is a fourth-generation Malaysian of Chinese descent. She lives in California with her husband and their two children, and loves to eat and read (often at the same time).

From Barnes & Noble: A Conversation with Yangsze Choo, Author of The Ghost Bride

The Ghost Bride centers on a girl who marries the ghost of a wealthy family's recently deceased son. Can you please explain the concept of a "ghost marriage"? When did you first become intrigued by this practice?

I think I was vaguely aware of this practice as a child. My grandmother lived in a small town in Malaysia opposite an old cinema that often showed scary Chinese movies. We children were not allowed to go and watch them, although from the front window we could see people lining up to go in. I remember the gigantic cinema posters that would cover the billboard in front. In those days, they were all hand painted so that they looked even more lurid - both fascinating and forbidden to us!

The folk tradition of marriages to ghosts, or between ghosts, usually occurred in order to placate spirits or repair familial relations. There are a number of allusions to it in Chinese literature, but its roots seem to lie in ancestor worship. Matches were sometimes made between two deceased persons, with the families on both sides recognizing it as a tie between them. However, there were other cases when a living person was married to the dead. These tended to be the fulfillment of a dying sweetheart's wish, or to give the rank of wife to a concubine who had borne a son. Sometimes, an impoverished girl was taken into a household as a widow in order to perform the ancestral rites for a man who died without a wife or descendants. This is the case for Li Lan, the main character in my book.

More recently, however, one of the things that sparked this novel was a sentence in an old newspaper article. While researching another book I was writing, I happened to go through the archives of our local Malaysian newspaper and found a brief mention of spirit marriages that offhandedly declared them "increasingly rare." At first, I wondered what this referred to, and then I realized that it must be the folk superstition of marriages to the dead. This was so intriguing that I ended up putting aside my first book to write this one instead.

The Ghost Bride delves deeply into the complex world of the afterlife as it's understood in Chinese culture. In what ways does this supernatural element compare to fantasy, and in what ways is it different?

There's a long Chinese literary tradition of tales set in the blurred borderline between spirits and humans, where beautiful women turn out to be foxes, and the afterlife is run like a monstrous parody of Imperial Chinese bureaucracy. When I was a child, I loved reading such stories and was always intensely curious, imagining if these things actually happened. How would you feel if the pretty girl you picked up had no feet, or the palace you visited was actually a beehive?

In this sense, it is fantasy. A very rich and curious Chinese mythology that I'd love to introduce readers to. In fact, when I was growing up, there were lots of old comic books about swordsmen who could fly, had amazing powers, and battled with deities. I don't know where these comics came from - possibly Hong Kong? They were thin, cheaply printed, and had black and white illustrations of old fashioned scholars and heavenly maidens. The ink came off on your hands and had a distinctive smell. I remember struggling to read the more complicated Chinese characters, and even painstakingly looking them up so that I could continue the story. My textbooks at school were never as interesting!

At the same time, my book is also concerned with how these supernatural beliefs are part of the everyday life of the characters. The Chinese concept of the afterlife, with its elements of Buddhism and Taoism mixed with folk religion, is taken quite seriously and still practiced today. For example, the burning of paper effigies as offerings to the dead, and the idea that the afterlife still requires pocket money, cars, and even modern day offerings such as paper iPhones and Gameboys. On a recent trip to Singapore, I noticed that there were even paper replica chickens sold in sets of three and realistically rendered so that you could tell what flavors they were (plain boiled, soy sauce, and roast).

How is The Ghost Bride similar and/or different from the stories you were told when you were young?

Most of the classic Chinese literary stories about ghosts are actually about young men, usually scholars, to whom all these strange things happened. The archetype would be "Once, there was a poor scholar, who was studying alone at night when there was a knock on the door..." Of course, he opens it to find a beautiful girl who turns out to be either a ghost, a fox, or a flower spirit. All sorts of trials ensue, usually with the not-so-subtle warning that you shouldn't be tempted away from your studies!

In my case, I wanted to tell a story from the point of view of a girl. Respectable women, even in late 1890s colonial Malaya, still had fairly restrictive lives. I was captivated with the idea of parallel worlds. You see it in the world of the living vs. the elaborate Chinese afterlife, where there are ghostly mansions made of burned paper offerings, and also in the way that the main character Li Lan develops as she moves from being alive to being partially dead herself. Despite the misery of the second situation, I think it's interesting that she's far freer wandering around in the spirit world than she ever is in the real world.

How do you feel your lead character, Li Lan, conforms to and breaks some of the expectations of her in her time?

That's a great question, because it sometimes bothers me when historical characters have completely modern sensibilities. I think it's natural that Li Lan should be concerned with the conventions and aspirations of her time. She understands very well that it's important for her to get married and not only that, but to make the best match possible. It reminds me of Jane Austen, where all the women are deeply concerned about marriage. There's no suggestion that Elizabeth Bennett desires, for example, the right to vote. She (and her mother and sisters) are focused on marrying well because it has immediate ramifications for their lives.

At the same time, Li Lan is a girl who wants to travel. She wants to visit other countries and see new sights, but she's hampered by social and financial restraints. I thought about those incredibly detailed 19th-century armchair traveler's books like Swiss Family Robinson and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, which were written for people who had no chance to go on such voyages. There was probably a real hunger for such experiences that couldn't be satisfied even fifty, let alone a hundred years ago. In Li Lan's case, she gets her wish but her travels turn out to be to the shadowy Chinese afterworld, in the grey border between spirits and humans. It's a terrifying place, yet full of strange beauty.

You have an amazing blog where you talk about your writing process, being a mom and wife, and all about your life as a foodie. Did research for The Ghost Bride introduce you to any new favorite foods?

Oh dear, I was forced to write large sections of the book late at night, because it was the only time that my kids weren't charging around the house. Unfortunately, it was also when I would start feeling terribly hungry. There were sections of the book that we had to remove during editing because they were just descriptions of food. Glossy fried rice. Succulent cockles dipped in chili sauce and lime juice. Ikan pari (skate) grilled in banana leaves over a smoky charcoal fire.

Since I was writing about colonial Malaya in the 1890s, I spent a lot of time thinking about the sort of food that I'd eaten during my childhood. Women in those days spent most of their time in the kitchen, probably because they led these constrained lives. I remember flipping through my mum's old cookbooks and finding a recipe for duck that involved deboning it, stuffing it and doing all sorts of complicated things. When I got to the bit that said "the next day, take the duck..." I gave up.

That's not to say that I don't want to eat that sort of time-consuming cuisine. I do! Just as much as I want to eat noodles that have been flash-fried in a cast-iron wok, preferably over a roaring gas inferno. But since I couldn't get hold of any of this at 11 p.m. at night, I ate a lot of dark chocolate and Manchego cheese instead.

You've mentioned in other interviews that you were researching another book when you became inspired to write this one. Are you back to work on a second novel and if so, does it also delve into Chinese culture?

I'm currently at work on a second novel about sacred tigers, although I'm a bit stumped right now. That's the problem with writing by the seat of your pants. It's either very good going, or it's horrible. This book is also set in colonial Malaya, but in the 1920s instead. I think I still have a lot of Chinese and Southeast Asian stories to tell, as this part of the world is very dear to me and I feel that I can write authentically about it.

Who have you discovered lately?

I just finished a book by Yoko Ogawa, called Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales. They are beautifully creepy short stories, in which the protagonist in one tale becomes a bystander in another so that all the stories are linked in the end. It's the kind of book that makes you want to rush out and write your own take on, for example, carrots that look like human hands.

Another book that I love is Viktor Pelevin's The Sacred Book of the Werewolf, which (contrary to appearances) is not a zombie thriller. Instead, it's a bitingly funny satire about the Russian oligarchy and the oil industry. I keep telling people it's brilliant, combining elements of Russian folktales with Wong Kar Wai's movies, but the words "satire" and "oligarchy" seem to put them off for some reason!

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

The Book of Joan

The Book of Joan: Tales of Mirth, Mischief and Manipulation by Melissa Rivers was a delight to read! I imagine that writing the book after her mother's death was a cathartic experience for Rivers which has given us, Joan's fans, the chance to celebrate and appreciate an inside view of the woman who had such an impact on comedy, television, fashion and the "pre-game" world of red carpet celebrity interviewing.

The book is an amalgam of memories from Melissa's life with her mom. She states at the outset, "In our family we always laughed our way through pain, so I decided to write a book that would have made her laugh." The stories Rivers shares about life with her famous mother vary widely from home and family to career and everything in-between. Each of them made me at least smile, if not laugh aloud so that my husband kept asking, "What now?" (He is getting handed my copy of the book as soon as this review is done. Somewhere about 20 pages in I finally began answering his question not with a recap, but instead with "You're just going to have to read it yourself!")

I must add that I really enjoyed the memorabilia and photos that are included in the book. Bambi, Trixie, Roxie, Bubbles, Kitten and Bang-Bang--you ladies look maaaaah-velous! I want to go on record as saying that I think Joan was beautiful as a baby, girl, and young woman. The footnotes along the way are a hoot as well!

I am now armed with very practical words of wisdom for heading into my next job interview, the next flight I take, sitting through sporting events I don't understand, etc. Easy, conversational, full of moments that leave the impression you've just spent time with Joan herself. I loved it!

Thanks to Blogging For Books for the free copy I received in exchange for this review!

From the Publisher . . .

Joan Rivers was known all over the world—from the Palace Theater to Buckingham Palace, from the bright lights of Las Vegas to the footlights of Broadway, from the days of talkies to hosting talk shows. But there was only one person who knew Joan intimately, one person who the authorities would call when she got a little out of hand. Her daughter and best friend, Melissa.

Joan and Melissa Rivers had one of the most celebrated mother-daughter relationships of all time. If you think Joan said some outrageous things to her audiences as a comedian, you won’t believe what she said and did in private. Her love for her daughter knew no bounds—or boundaries, apparently. (“Melissa, I acknowledge that you have boundaries. I just choose to not respect them.”) In The Book of Joan: Tales of Mirth, Mischief and Manipulation, Melissa shares stories (like when she was nine months old and her parents delivered her to Johnny Carson as a birthday gift), bon mots (“Missy, is there anything better than seeing a really good looking couple pushing a baby that looks like a Sasquatch who got caught in a house fire?”), and life lessons from growing up in the Rosenberg-Rivers household (“I can do tips and discounts and figure out the number of gay men in an audience to make it a good show. That’s all the math you’ll ever need.”). These were just the tip of the iceberg when it came to life in the family that Melissa describes as more Addams than Cleaver. And at the center of it all was a tiny blond force of nature.

In The Book of Joan: Tales of Mirth, Mischief and Manipulation, Melissa Rivers relates funny, poignant and irreverent observations, thoughts, and tales about the woman who raised her and is the reason she considers valium one of the four basic food groups.

About the Author . . .

MELISSA RIVERS was born in New York City and grew up in Los Angeles. She graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in European history. Melissa’s extensive television background includes working as a features reporter for CBS This Morning; being a regular contributor to MTV’s Hanging with MTV; serving as a television host and producer for the E! network and as a host for TV Guide Channel’s event programming; and, most recently, as a contestant on The Celebrity Apprentice. She lives in Los Angeles with her son, Cooper.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Book Giveaway!

The generous folks at Gotham Books have offered up a copy of Susan Herrmann Loomis' new book, In A French Kitchen!

For your chance to win the book here's what to do:

1) Follow my blog.

2) Leave a comment on this post and let us know either what your favorite French food is -OR- what French food you would most like to try!

You have between now and 9 pm Central Daylight Time on Monday, June 8 to sign up! One entry per person. Winner will be chosen by a random number generator and the winner will be announced here on the blog next Tuesday, June 9!

Bon chance!