Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Four Books I Recommend: Mini Reviews

THE PASSAGE by Justin Cronin
This is being buzzed as the Big Book of the Year, and with reason: it was bought for a colossal sum at auction by Ballantine Books; film rights sold to Ridley Scott, director of Alien and Gladiator within days, and it's drawn comparisons to the best of Stephen King. Being a fan of King's earlier novels (The Shining is one of my all-time favorites) I was intrigued by Cronin's apocalyptic tale of a scientific experiment gone awry and a world overcome by virological vampires, aptly dubbed "virals." At the center of this huge story spanning over 700 pages is an enigmatic girl named Amy, whose abandonment by her mother propels her into the horrific events leading up to the end of civilization as we know it, and the creation of a much-altered and frightening post-collapse society, where clusters of surviving mortals hide behind enclosed homesteads and banks of battery-powered lights which are slowly but inexorably losing power. The cast is immense, as befitting an epic, though at times this proves challenging both in remembering who everyone is and investing in any single person, particularly as you never know when said person will fall prey to the marauding, tree-leaping, blood-thirsty virals who've quite literally "eaten the world." These virals, however, are more than toothy creatures; and it's their secret, as well as Amy's role in it, that drives the story to its long-winded but ultimately creepy conclusion. THE PASSAGE requires immersion and patience; but for the intrepid reader there are rewards to be had, including the first 250 pages, which are a pitch-perfect icy soak into the terrors of science taken to extreme, and later on, a particularly nasty confrontation with hordes of virals in devastated Las Vegas. Mr Cronin is working on the next book in a proposed trilogy.

THE ILLUMINATOR by Brenda Rickman Vantrese
This is another book that generated serious buzz when it sold to St Martin's Press years ago and I bought a first edition because, frankly, the cover looked like a gold-laminated Faberge egg. Unfortunately, I didn't get around to reading it until recently, though I've faithfully bought the next two books by Ms Vantrese based on reviews. And let me just say for the record: Why did I wait so long?! THE ILLUMINATOR is a magnificent, thought-provoking and defiantly anti-anachronistic plunge into the turmoil and tragedy of 14th century England. The story, on the surface, appears deceptively simple: a widow, Lady Kathyrn - portrayed refreshingly in middle age, rather than the dewy glamour of youth- is fighting to save her estate as inheritance for her sons from the rapacity of the Church and ill-intentioned suitors. Enter a mysterious illuminator named Finn and his evanescent daughter; after a mishap on the road involving a pig and a dwarf, Finn is conscripted into plying his trade as an illuminator of manuscripts for the local bishop and comes to live in Lady Kathyrn's manor, where his presence sets off a chain of life-shattering events. Vantrese's true strengths lie in her superb grasp of the era and understanding of the complex importance of spirituality to people striving to overcome every-day suffering. This is not a romanticized historical recreation; THE ILLUMINATOR transports you into a time both fascinating and repellent in its contradictions. Ms Vantrese is also the author of The Mercy Seller and The Heretic's Wife, which loosely connect with her first book and are now at the top of my TBR list.

Let me say it upfront: I'm a devoted fan of Ms Allende. From her House of the Spirits to Zorro, I have reveled in her quixotic, sensual, unabashedly sprawling explorations of family ties, the toll and joys of love in all its diverse forms, and the independent spirit of the immigrant. DAUGHTER OF FORTUNE was the book selected by Oprah for her book club and of course it garnered enormous acclaim; while I bought it, it was another that sat on my shelf unread, for some inexplicable reason. Nevertheless, the wait was worth it. Infused with Ms Allende's trademark turns of phrase ("fate lashed its tail and changed her life forever") and cast of eccentric characters driven by private obsessions, this novel takes place in the 1800s, starting in Chile with the discovery of a baby in a soap crate, left on the threshold of the very proper but secret-riddled English family of the Sommers. The child, named Eliza, is raised by the delightful wasp-waisted Ms Rose Sommers, indoctrinated in the limited methods a girl can employ to survive in their rarefied society; but when Eliza falls passionately and unexpectedly in love with a common clerk, she flees the safe emptiness of her cloistered existence for feral California, embarking on an adventure that awakens her to life's vast potential and cracks the fragile veneer in which the Sommers themselves have dwelled. Ms Allende's deft pen conjures to vivid, humane life both the hypocrisy of Victorian mores in South America as well as the savage abandon of the Gold Rush; her cast is wide and diverse, ranging from the mourning Chinese physician who accompanies Eliza to a caravan of prostitutes led by a transgender humanitarian. Very few writers today can claim the mastery of color and depth of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's work; I humbly suggest that Ms Allende is definitely one of them.

Anne Perry departs from her bestselling Victorian mysteries for this epic, yet at times uneven, tale of 13th century Byzantium featuring a female physician who disguises herself as a eunuch to uncover the truth about her twin's involvement in the assassination of a politician. Still reeling from a Venetian-led assault that devastated its populace and exiled its imperial family, Byzantium is a city of crumbling secrets, besieged noble families, and labyrinthine intrigues; into this dangerous yet seductive crossroads between East and West enters Anna, a.k.a. Anastasius, determined to prove her brother's innocence. While Anna's story is compelling in and of itself, it is her patroness Zoe, an aging but still beautiful noblewoman intent on revenge, who steals the plot — seductive, lethal, and uncompromising, Zoe has never forgotten the debt that Venice has incurred for destroying the city, even as her own past is haunted by tragedy and violence. Woven throughout the novel's ambitious narrative are various supporting characters, including a conflicted Roman priest whose contact with Byzantium throws his own faith into question; a Venetian sailor seeking his hidden past; and a spiritually pliant bishop of the Orthodox faith determined to prevent ecclesiastical union with Rome. Perry excels in her characterizations and in creating an ambiance that shifts easily between the gilded corridors of Byzantium’s sea-scented palaces to the corrupt intrigues of the Vatican to the arid expanse of the Sinai desert; however, at times her pacing can be challenging both because of the wide cast of characters and the novel's meditations on the meaning of religion in a world overcome by upheaval.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Does the Prize make the Genre?

Hilary Mantel's recent win of The Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction is a definite boon for a genre that has suffered more than its fair share of critics. In the days leading up to the award of this prestigious UK-based prize, both author Sarah Dunant – a nominee - and academic Jerome de Groot wrote pieces in the Times and The Scotsman, respectively, which attest to, and attempt to explain, the current popularity of the historical novel. Both pieces offer valid points and rejoice in our genre's resurrection; and no one who has read my blog can deny my own admiration for Dunant’s work, in particular.

However, for me, both pieces exude a slight whiff of troubling elitism prevalent within the genre. It's almost as if historical novelists must justify the reason for their work while being  divided into categories: the literary; the commercially popular; and, well, the rest. While we cannot deny a class status within the genre, as in all forms of writing, I believe there are more deserving novelists working in the arena of historical fiction than just the ubiquitous nominees. There seems to be a general reluctance to acknowledge this fact, as if in doing so we might risk opening the floodgates to a tidal wave of undesirables who will inundate our shelves; as if by paring the list to a few well-heeled and universally acclaimed names, we can restrain  the growth of this rather checkered genre and keep it in its proper place, so to speak.

Surely the time has come to cease casting aspersions based on a tarnished past? Jean Plaidy, Anya Seton, Georgette Heyer, et al are our grand dames, who deserve respect, if nothing else, for popularizing a genre mired in 19th century convention. While few today would deem their books as serious literary endeavors, they remain compulsively readable. Even more important, these hard-working, prolific novelists helped make the genre accessible to thousands of readers who otherwise might never have picked up, much less read, an historical novel.

The archaic confusion between romance novels with historical settings—where the romantic interaction always assumes precedence over history— and the current vogue in novels featuring real historical figures appears to be a partial culprit in our current elitist stance. No one, it seems, wants to be caught dead being dubbed the descendant of a bodice ripper. Nor do some literary-aspiring novelists want to be caught dead doing the “marquee name” while others, conversely, shun stories about ordinary people living in the past, with nary a guttering beeswax candle or flicker of velvet in sight.

But in truth, these divisions are blurring. While it can be said we’re experiencing an overemphasis on queens, which in turn risks exposing the genre to all the historic criticisms leveled against it, such as lack of veracity, distortion of facts, etc., the genre is also more popular than ever— and that in and of itself is a remarkable feat, a testament to the fact that readers love what we write and there is room for variations on a theme.

I’m all for excellence in our craft; indeed, I strive for it. I just feel there is more of it around us than the rest of the world wants to admit and we must celebrate our diversity, rather than merely exalt our loftiest achievements.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Blog Tour Week 4

This is the final week of my tour for The Confessions of Catherine de Medici. I've had a lot of fun visiting the blogs and meeting readers; for me, the time just flew by. I also want to thank all the bloggers who took the time to review the book and host me during this tour; I owe each of them a huge debt of gratitude!

I'll be visiting the following blogs:
June 21 - Cafe of Dreams
June 21 -Bags, Books and Bon Jovi
June 21 - Teresa's Reading Corner
June 22 - Bookgirl's Nightstand
June 22 - One More Paragraph
June 22 - Celtic Lady Reviews
June 22- Medieval Bookworm
June 23 - A Room Without Books Is So Empty
June 23 - So Many Precious Books, So Little Time
June 24 - Epic Rat
June 24 - Review from Here
June 25 - My Friend Amy
June 25 - The Eclectic Reader
June 25 - Tribute Books Reviews

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Week 3 of the Confessions tour

This week, I'll be at the following blogs on the third week of The Confessions of Catherine de Medici virtual tour. Please, stop by if you can!

June 14 - Wonders and Marvels. Enter to win one of 3 copies of the book!
June 14-  The Bluestocking Society
June 15- Savvy Verse and Wit
June 15- The Book Faery Reviews
June 16- The Review Stew
June 16 - Literary Lolita
June 17-  Acting Balanced
June 17- Life in Review
June 18 - Review from Here
June 18 - The Introverted Reader

Friday, June 11, 2010


The Catherine cake
On Thursday, June 10, we held a book party to celebrate the publication of The Confessions of Catherine de Medici. The event was held at my favorite San Francisco independent, Bookshop West Portal, which has been incredibly supportive of me and my work. Most authors know that bookstores these days are under a lot of pressure due to the state of the market in general and online discounting in specific; however, bookstores remain integral to our business, for these are comprised of actual human beings who recommend, hand-sell, and promote books to in-store customers. Without them, we'd be wholly dependent on the impartial automation of the online world, where titles sit among thousands of other thumbnails.
The party was great, well attended, and lots of fun. My partner and I served a cake with the book cover in frosting (raspberry and chocolate; it was divine), wine, and cheese; we held a Catherine de Medici medallion giveaway and of course the store sold books. I want to thank everyone who came and the bookshop personnel for their incredible generosity. I'm posting some photos here of the event; if you'd like a personalized copy of the book, please do contact the store. I'll make sure to go and personalize the book for you. Otherwise, there are currently signed copies available and they can be sent to you. Thanks to all of who came and to all of you who were there with me in spirit!

Monday, June 7, 2010

CONFESSIONS Blog Tour Week 2

This week, I'll be visiting the following blogs as part of my month-long virtual blog tour for The Confessions of Catherine de Medici. Hope to see you there! If you're in the San Francisco Bay Area, please come to my book launch party at Bookshop West Portal, too. We'll be serving wine, cake and offering a Catherine de Medici medallion giveaway. Should be fun :)

June 8
June 9
June 10
June 11

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Win A Silver Phoenix Pin, courtsey of MJ Rose at The Burton Review

By now, most of you know how much I love MJ Rose's Reincarnationist series. These are intriguing, layered and fascinating thrillers that are right up there with the best in the genre. MJ's latest, The Hypnotist, is my favorite so far, combining reincarnation, art, and the high-stakes black market world into a complex, unputdownable story. You can read my review here.

Now, MJ is offering readers a limited edition silver Phoenix pin, courtsey of The Burton Review. Fans of the series will recognize the pin's significance; others can simply enjoy its beauty. To enter, head over to The Burton Review where Marie Burton is also offering a great post on MJ's books, including the book trailer. Good luck!

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Blog Tour Starts Today

Starting today, I'm officially on a virtual blog tour for The Confessions of Catherine de Medici. Blog tours are always fun events that include reviews, interviews and giveaway opportunities. If you'd like to follow along with me while I tour, here's this week's schedule:

June 1
June 1
June 2
June 2
June 3
June 3
June 4
June 7

And speaking of giveaways, here's one together with a very nice review from A Musing Review!
Hope you can join me on tour. I look forward to seeing you.