The Queen’s Vow by C.W. Gortner

The Queen’s Vow by C.W. Gortner, published June 12, is another historical fiction powerhouse about a strong, young royal who cares for her family and her country more than herself.  Isabella of Castile is the daughter of the ailing Juan II and his second wife Isabel of Portugal, and she has a younger brother Alfonso, on whom she dotes.  Her relationship with her half-brother Enrique IV is tenuous at best, and when he is poised to takeover the crown when their father dies, her mother believes it is best to flee to Arevalo.

“I slowly reached up to take my mother’s hand.  I had never dared touch her before without leave.  To me, she’d always been a beautiful but distant figure in glittering gowns, laughter spilling from her lips, surrounded by fawning admirers — a mother to be loved from afar.”  (Page VIII)

Like most royal families, children rarely spend intimate time with their parents, though often they will spend more time with their mothers if they are girls.  Isabella spends little informal time with her mother until they are removed to Arevalo, and she has virtually no relationship with her father, Juan II.

“I was not yet four years old.  My father had been ill for weeks with a terrible fever, shut behind the closed doors of his apartments in the alcazar of Valladolid.  I did not know him well, this forty-nine-year-old king whom his subjects had dubbed El Inutil, the Useless, for the manner in which he’d ruled.  To this day, all I remember is a tall, lean man with sad eyes and a watery smile, who once summoned me to his private rooms and gave me a jeweled comb, enameled in the Moorish style.  A short, swarthy lord stood behind my father’s throne the entire time I was there, his stubby-fingered hand resting possessively on its back as he watched me with keen eyes.”  (page III)

Isabella knows that of all her siblings she is the last in line and as a female heir to the throne of Castile, she will likely be sold off into marriage for political or monetary reasons.  But as a young girl sent with her mother outside the company of the crown, she has the freedom to just enjoy her family.  Her and Alfonso have a great relationship, and she has a great relationship with Beatriz, her lady in waiting, but her respite from court intrigue does not last long.  Unfortunately, there are many times throughout the book that Isabella finds herself moving from place to place, fleeing those that would do her harm even her brother Enrique, whom she remains loyal to even though he is easily swayed by others.

Readers will experience the sorrow Isabella feels about her relationship with Enrique and how finally she must break that familial bond, if she plans to survive and marry the man she loves, Fernando of Aragon.  She is often tugged in more than one direction either between her family bonds and destiny or her duty as heir to the Castile throne and the pull of her heart. In a nation pulled this way and that by different powers and political interests attempting to usurp royal power outright or through the shadows, Isabella has many demands on her time and heart, and she’s pushed to the brink more than once. She’s a stronger woman than she realizes, and with Fernando at her side, they are a force to contend with.

The Queen’s Vow by C.W. Gortner is about a promise of a better tomorrow not only for Isabella and her loved ones, but also for the country she’s seen toil with her own eyes and hands. It is a novel of perseverance, following one’s heart and instincts, and justice, but it also is a novel of family and how it can be not only nurturing but also devastating if animosities and jealously are allowed to fester. Gortner is a master at historical details, weaving them throughout a narrative that is highly emotional, tense with drama, and at times poetic in its description of the Spanish landscape. Another winning novel from this author.

About the Author:

C.W. Gortner is the author of The Last Queen, The Confessions of Catherine de Medici and The Tudor Secret. He holds an MFA in Writing with an emphasis in Renaissance Studies from the New College of California.

In his extensive travels to research his books, he has danced a galliard in a Tudor great hall and experienced life in a Spanish castle. His novels have garnered international praise and been translated into thirteen languages to date. He is also a dedicated advocate for animal rights and environmental issues.

He’s currently at work on his fourth novel for Ballantine Books, about the early years of Lucrezia Borgia, as well as the third novel in his Tudor series,The Elizabeth I Spymaster Chronicles (US) or Elizabeth’s Spymaster (UK).

Half-Spanish by birth, C.W. lives in Northern California.

Revenge (6:1 Series, Volume 2) by Janel Gradowski

Revenge (6:1 Series, Volume 2) by Janel Gradowski is even more well crafted than the first volume of short stories and flash fiction, beginning and ending with a wallop.  Once again there are six stories in this collection: “Persistent Foe,” “Kaboom,” “Check Out,” “Inconvenience,” “Anniversary,” and “Addendum.”  Some are longer than others, but each is well paced, with only one typical revenge story — “Kaboom.”

Agnes from “Persistent Foe” is the neighbor you wish you could be when you have loud, inconsiderate neighbors of your own.  While she does not complain too much outright and doesn’t call the cops, she exacts her revenge little by little each day envisioning a big payoff in the end.  And the ending of this one is inspired and unique. Gradowski does a great job of foreshadowing in this short story as well: “She plucked the invasive vine out the basket and dropped it into the tangle of weeds flourishing on the other side.  ‘Time to join your ancestors.'”  Readers will be sitting alongside Agnes as she watches the show unfold in her neighbors backyard one late evening.

“Kaboom” was the most predictable of the stories, but what made this one heart-pumping was the descriptions Gradowski uses as she tells the revenge yarn from the point of view of the perpetrator as she’s performing the act of revenge on her ex.  Meanwhile, Josie’s revenge is only possible because of Erik’s pride in “Check Out.”  Working as a grocery store check out clerk can be incredibly mundane and tiring, but there are moments in life when even that kind of job can be satisfying, especially when you exact revenge on a boy who ditches you across town.  “Inconvenience” brings to the surface many of the emotions that swirled about following the financial crisis and the persistent unemployment born by much of the U.S. population in recent years.  With bills to pay, should the “breadwinner” in the family swallow his pride and take any paying job to support the family, or should he hold out for a better position?  The short story tackles this question and more, but the revenge exacted in this story will leave readers agape.

“Anniversary” is not the happy occasion you expect, but it twists the idea of a celebration into a revenge scenario that celebrates the ability to break free.  Gary has some serious concerns about his wife and his boss, but being an accountant, he takes stock of the situation — its pros and cons — and comes up with the best solution for everyone.  Bartender Amelia doesn’t have a clue how her luck is about to change when Gary walks into her bar.  “Addendum” is one of the longer short stories in the collection, and Karen is a bit of an enigma given her risk averse mentality when it comes to guys and her reaction to her boyfriend Don’s cheating ways.  In an apartment that has eyes and ears in the form of Mrs. Conway, its hard to keep secrets.  “She was either a gossip super hero or had bugged everybody’s apartments with microphones and hidden cameras.”  Living under a microscope must have added undue pressure on Karen.  There is a great deal at work in this short story, and could be a precursor to something longer from Gradowski.

Revenge (6:1 Series, Volume 2) by Janel Gradowski is an even more well rounded collection of short stories and flash fiction pieces with characters that are dynamic and crafty.  The characters she creates in this collection will have readers snickering and smirking as they are reminded of the revenge plots they’ve created when wronged by lovers, neighbors, and friends.  Deliciously devilish, a joy to read.

About the Author:

Janel Gradowski grew up, and still lives, in the mitten of Michigan. She is a wife and mother whose writing companion is a crazy Golden Retriever named Cooper. In the past she has worked many jobs. Renting apartments, scorekeeping for a stock car racetrack and selling newspaper classified advertisements are some of the experiences that continue to provide inspiration for her stories. Now she writes short fiction and is also a beadwork designer and teacher.

Her work has appeared in many publications, both online and in print. The 6:1 Series features themed collections of her stories. Each volume will have six stories, a mix of flash and short fiction, that are based on the title’s theme.  Visit her blog, Janel’s Jumble.

***And yes, for those keeping track, this is the third item I’ve read on my Kindle.

Haunted (6:1 Series, Volume 1) by Janel Gradowski

Haunted (6:1 Series, Volume 1) by Janel Gradowski is part of her six stories with one theme series and was the first she published as an ebook after much success in publishing her flash fiction in literary journals.  This collection is a quick read and can be read in about a day.  There is a surprising breadth of characters and situations representing the theme from a woman haunted by her jilted lover to a ghost unaware of his present state.

There are six stories in the collection: “Sequestered,” “New Friends,” “Retirement,” “Grandma’s Treasures,” “Uncleansed,” and “Strangers.”  Each cast of characters is haunted in one way or another whether by the past, the supernatural, or their deeds.  Among some favorites in the collection are “Sequestered,” “Strangers,” “Grandma’s Treasures,” and “Uncleansed” that have very dynamic characters in normal situations that turn a bit abnormal.  However, “New Friends” reminded me of other stories involving ghost children causing mischief in houses and mothers who don’t believe their children at first and think that their kids are exhibiting signs of trauma.  Readers may want a new twist in this kind of story, but the characters of Wendy and her daughter Mia are playful and have a charming relationship that makes them endearing.

In “Sequestered,” Stacie is jilted by her fiance and escapes to the woods to forget.  Haunted by a unrequited love and a future that can never be, she gets more than she bargains for.  The ending will knock the socks off readers, and there are some great descriptions in this short story.

“Naked trees contorted like tortured skeletons in the frigid, autumn wind.”

“Wisps of fog rose from the lake’s glassy water, materializing like an army of ghosts.”

Even in “Retirement,” Gradowski has a way of painting the scene so that readers are captured by the moment and emotionally charged.  “Autumn thunderstorms are always more vicious than their summer counterparts, like they are enraged by the cold air.”  She generates the heartache of Cecily as a palpable being that reaches beyond the page, haunting not only the character created, but also the reader.

Readers can identify with the oddities of family members from the crazy grandmother to the strange behavior of parents after a tragic event and the rituals they rely upon to keep their sanity.  “Grandma’s Treasures” and “Uncleansed” explore these relationships and their odd rituals in a unique way and each story uncovers family secrets that the protagonists Lindsey and Eva, respectively, never expected.

Haunted (6:1 Series, Volume 1) by Janel Gradowski is an excellent debut from a talented flash fiction and short story writer.  Short story is a difficult form to generate connections between readers and characters, but Gradowski achieves this easily through her word choices and narrative flow.  Haunting prose, unique characters, and surprising twists will keep readers coming back for more.

About the Author:

Janel Gradowski grew up, and still lives, in the mitten of Michigan. She is a wife and mother whose writing companion is a crazy Golden Retriever named Cooper. In the past she has worked many jobs. Renting apartments, scorekeeping for a stock car racetrack and selling newspaper classified advertisements are some of the experiences that continue to provide inspiration for her stories. Now she writes short fiction and is also a beadwork designer and teacher.

Her work has appeared in many publications, both online and in print. The 6:1 Series features themed collections of her stories. Each volume will have six stories, a mix of flash and short fiction, that are based on the title’s theme.  Visit her blog, Janel’s Jumble.

***And yes, for those keeping track, this is the second item I’ve read on my Kindle.

This is my 44th book for the 2012 New Authors Challenge.

The Paper Garden by Molly Peacock

Poet Molly Peacock’s The Paper Garden is not only a collage and biography of a woman, Mary Delany, who began a career as an artist late in life, but it also is partially a memoir of Peacock’s own life and the nuggets of wisdom she’s gained from her obsession with this floral artist and her collages or flower mosaicks.  Delany is a woman who began working with scissors and paper long before she gained recognition for her art, starting as a young girl in school.  While one of her classmates recognized her talent, life got in the way as Delany was plucked from her home and moved to her aunts and back again as English politics became tumultuous and her family backed the Pretender.

“A few of the papers she used — all of the papers in the eighteenth century were handmade — in fact were wallpapers, but mostly she painted large sheets of rag paper with watercolor, let them dry, then cut from them the hundreds of pieces she needed to reproduce — well, to re-evoke might be a better word — the flower she was portraying.  There is no reproduced hue that matches the thrill of color in nature, yet Mrs. D. went after the original kick of natural color, and she did it like a painter.”  (page 7-8 ARC)

Through all of the upheaval, Delany kept to her crafts and her music, once inspired by a meeting with Handel.  Peacock’s prose is intimate and conversational as she speaks of Delany like a beloved friend and peer.  She speaks of her journey to learn about Delany’s life and craft like a careful historian citing her sources and engaging in reverence for her subject.  Through her delicate prose, the beauty of Delany and her work emerge gradually, like the petals of a bud opening slowly as the sun rises.

Peacock does a fantastic job comparing individual mosaicks to events in Delany’s life in England and Ireland even though many of the pieces were created long after the death of her second husband and her younger sister, Anne.  She was an early mixed media artist who used wallpapers, paints, dried leaves, and other materials to create her portraits of flowers, breathing new life into even the most simple flower.

The Paper Garden by Molly Peacock is a quiet read chock full of details about Mary Delany’s craft, her family, and her inspiration, but it also is full of advice, beautiful images of Delany’s work, and tidbits about Peacock’s motivations in her own poetry and life.  Readers will dip into this book, think and wonder about Delany’s craft, but also ruminate on what this journey she embarked upon taught her and ourselves.  In almost a meditative way, the biography pulls the reader in and pushes them out to ensure the depth of the art and its meaning is thought about on a deeper level.

***Some of my favorite quotes from the book that can apply to writing***

“Great technique means that you have to abandon perfectionism.  Perfectionism either stops you cold or slows you down too much.  Yet, paradoxically, it’s proficiency that allows a person to make any art at all; you must have technical skill to accomplish anything, but you also must have passion, which, in an odd way, is technique forgotten.”  (page 28 ARC)

“Not to know is also sometimes the position of the poet, who depends on close observation to magnify a subject, hoping to discover an animating spirit.  There’s romance in that forensic impulse . . .” (page 34 ARC)

About the Author:

Molly Peacock is the award-winning author of five volumes of poetry, including The Second Blush. Her poems have appeared in the New Yorker, the Paris Review, and the Times Literary Supplement. Among her other works are How to Read a Poem . . .  and Start a Poetry Circle and a memoir, Paradise, Piece by Piece. Peacock is currently the poetry editor of the Literary Review of Canada and the general series editor of The Best Canadian Poetry in English. A transplanted New Yorker, she lives in Toronto.

Visit Molly Peacock’s Website.

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This is my 4th book for the 2012 Ireland Reading Challenge.

The Time It Snowed in Puerto Rico by Sarah McCoy

The Time It Snowed in Puerto Rico by Sarah McCoy is a coming of age novel about a young girl, Maria — also known as Verdita — in Puerto Rico during the debate about whether or not the nation should become a member of the United States or remain independent.  Part of Maria Ortiz-Santiago’s family lives in the United States and part lives on the island in a little barrio, and readers get a taste of the differences between the two lives when Omar, her cousin, comes back to visit.  As the two grow older and grow apart, Verdita continues to ramp up her competitive spirit when he’s near to retain her hold on her father.  She’s always had a fear that a boy would usurp her father’s affections, especially after her mother becomes pregnant.

“For my eleventh birthday, Papi made piraguas.  He left balloons of water in the freezer until they were solid, then peeled the plastic off like bright banana skins.  On the veranda, he used his machete to shave the globes into ice chips.  Hard bits of cold spit out where the ball and blade met, landing on my arms and legs, cheeks and nose.  Papi said it was a Puerto Rican snowfall, and laughed long and deep.”  (page 1)

Verdita is a willful girl and very curious about everything around her, including the independence debate, the cock fights at the local bar, and the United States.  Readers will find that she’s obsessed with the United States and how different it is from her home in the barrio.  She wants to be blond, listen to Elvis, and learn English.  She wants to remain close with her father, but push her mother away.  All this mixed up emotion and desire in one girl is so vibrant on the page, female readers especially will remember what it was like to become a senorita and leave girlhood behind and all of the mixed and high emotions that brought with it.

“I ate until my stomach pushed into the table ledge.  I didn’t even really like the hamburger, but I liked that it came from America — that I was eating like an American.  It made me feel bigger than my finca on the mountain, bigger than the whole island.  I’d seen the States, even if I hadn’t seen President Kennedy.  My stomach was full of America.”  (page 59)

Even as she sees the goodness in her roots and her family, she still longs for the foreignness of the United States.  She becomes accustom to sharing her life with a sibling, but still longs to break break free.  She’s struggling between the desire to grow beyond her roots, deeply earthed in Puerto Rico, but barely realizing that she can grow taller and broader by taking the leap without having to sever her ties to home.

McCoy’s choice of first person point of view is spot on for a coming of age story, and while filtered through Verdita’s eyes rather than the other characters, readers will not feel as though they have missed anything.  She’s observant, opinionated, curious, and eager to explore.  The Time It Snowed in Puerto Rico is not only about growing up, but about taking chances and spreading wings to find out who we are, who we want to be, and how we can make the best of everything we are given in terms of familial support and available opportunities.

This was a book I just had to pick up at the Gaithersburg Book Festival when Sarah McCoy was in town.  She’s a lovely writer and woman, and it was great to see her again and get another autograph.  I cannot wait to read her next novel.

About the Author:

SARAH McCOY is author of the novel, The Time It Snowed in Puerto Rico. She has taught English writing at Old Dominion University and at the University of Texas at El Paso. The daughter of an Army officer, her family was stationed in Germany during her childhood. She calls Virginia home but presently lives with her husband and dog, Gilbert, in El Paso, Texas. The Baker’s Daughter is her second novel. She is currently working on her next.

Archie’s War: My Scrapbook of the First World War 1914-1918 by Marcia Williams

Archie’s War: My Scrapbook of the First World War 1914-1918 by Marcia Williams is the story of ten-year-old Archie Albright, who receives a scrapbook from his uncle Colin.  Archie is a boy living in East London, England, who’s in love with drawing and comics, and he’s a got a best friend named Tom and a dog named Georgie.  In the book he explains a little bit about his family, particularly his 16-year-old sister’s interest in voting.  Once talk about Austria declaring war on Serbia begins, Archie’s house becomes divided with his grandmother and father in favor of Britain entering the war, and his sister against the war and eager for peace to remain.  Once Germany invades Britain’s ally Belgium, Britain has little choice but to enter the war.  Archie’s scrapbook includes a nice break down of which countries were allied with Germany and which were allied with Britain, and it includes copies of news articles reminiscent of the time period.  Plus, there is a running body count, which is something that young boys would likely keep track of.

Unlike other scrapbooks that merely use memorabilia and newspaper articles, etc. to depict the time period and the events in the story, Williams has incorporated comics as a young boy would draw them, complete with images of his family in hilarious poses, slapping and biting of siblings, and other typical family events of the time period.  Even in spite of Archie’s jokes and comics, it is clear that the war has him rattled as adults talk about German residents as if they could be spies.  He even pees out the window of his room rather than go to the outside bathroom to avoid a German attack, though when his grandmother finds out about his antics, he’s scolded and yet resolved to continue peeing out the window rather than go outside.

There are other more serious moments, like when Archie’s father goes off to war with his Uncle Derek and his mother and older brother begin working outside the home.  Nurse Edith Cavell‘s story is depicted in comic form as well, with Archie saluting her bravery.

Archie’s War: My Scrapbook of the First World War 1914-1918 by Marcia Williams is a fun way to introduce WWI to kids and provides parents an interactive tool to teach history to children in a way that will not bore them.  The colorful drawings are things that children can easily relate to, and the newspaper clippings provide the book a nuanced historical accuracy.  Williams does well including letters and mementos as well as stories that accurately depict the times of rationing, women heading to work outside the home, soldiers dying or returning shell shocked, and more.  Archie’s world changes before his eyes, and he can do little else but roll with the punches and record his family’s history.

About the Author and Illustrator:

Marcia Williams is famous for her retellings of classic stories. From Shakespeare and Dickens to the Canterbury Tales and Greek Myths, her humorous comic-strip illustration is hugely popular all over the globe. She lives in London.  Visit her fun Website.

This is my 11th book for the WWI Reading Challenge.




This is my 43rd book for the 2012 New Authors Challenge.

The Wonder of It All by Elizabeth P. Glixman

The Wonder of It All by Elizabeth P. Glixman is a very small volume of poetry, but has a large sense of humor that will at times have readers giggling to themselves about the absurdity of it all.  Many of the poems are very much in the here and now of the moment.  The collection can fit in your pocket and can be taken out on the subway ride in between stops.

One of the best in the collection is “The Man from TSA — Unrequited Love Did Not Stop Glenn Close,” in which the narrator opts not for the scanning machine, but the gloved hand of a TSA agent and falls in love — or is it obsession?  Pop culture references infuse these poems, grounding readers in their own lives to draw parallels, but oftentimes the situations are too surreal for readers to connect with.  In a way, this may be the point that Glixman is trying to get to — that life is a series of absurd moments that we categorize to make sense of them and their meaning.

Other poems, like “Avalanche Worry,” have a tongue-in-cheek humor to them, telling readers to always have a cell phone, a year’s supply of groceries on hand, and other supplies so they are prepared.  But many of these poems are narrations of moments, offering vignettes, but little else.  While these characters and stories are fun and humorous, they lack the poetic nuance many readers are looking for in terms of images and larger connections to the human condition.  However, there are gems in this collection that poke fun at pop culture and its pervasiveness, including “The Wonder of It All” in which Minnie Mouse is transformed into a flirtatious girl, like Brittany Spears.

The Wonder of It All by Elizabeth P. Glixman is a mixed bag of poems, but entertaining in fits and starts.  There are some poems that could have ended sooner and more powerfully, but there are others that are deftly crafted.

This is the 17th book for my 2012 Fearless Poetry Exploration Reading Challenge.




This is my 42nd book for the 2012 New Authors Challenge.

Stolen Air by Osip Mandelstam, translated by Christian Wiman

Stolen Air by Osip Mandelstam, translated by Christian Wiman is a selection of poems from Mandelstam’s entire career translated from his non-native Russian into English.  The introduction is rather long, but with good reason as it strives to capture a poet that was always evolving and striving to breath new life into the Russian language and to provide a voice to those seen as outsiders of the government.  Living through WWI and a Russian revolution, Mandelstam — a Poland born Jew who moved to Russia with his parents — became an exile and later died in a Siberian transit camp in 1938 after being arrested.

“From the inarticulate comes the new harmony.  The lyric poet wakes up the language:  the speech is revealed to us in a new unexpected syntax, in music, in ways of organizing the silences in the mouth.”  (Page XIX)

Mandelstam and Wiman approach poetry in much the same way, according to the introduction — not through word-for-word translation, but through the silences and the music of the lines.  The collection is broken into three sections beginning with his early poems between 1910 and 1925 and ending with the poems written between 1934 and 1937.  Mandelstam’s work is very musical and generally uses a great deal of rhyme and alliteration, but the ways in which these poems are translated, they are neither cutesy nor predictable.

Interrogation (page 21)

Official paper, officious jowls, unswallowable smells
Of vomit, vodka, cells, bowels,
And all these red-tape tapeworms gorging on reports.

Choir, stars, your highest, your holiest silences...
But first, sign here on the dotted line
That they may grant you permission to shine.

The poems are song-like, but ripe with derision for Stalin’s totalitarianism and the control over freedom, which provided many with the guise of free expression that was received at a high price. Mandelstam speaks of a life choreographed by others and punishments that are deeply harsh when spontaneity strikes. His words are like hammers on the chains attached to boulders in prisons of old, making sure the lack of freedom is felt most acutely. From the “legislated” freedoms to the starvation and lack of heat, it is all present in Mandelstam’s roving poetry. He moved from city to city, presumably fleeing the government, and this movement is in poems like “Night Piece” and “Prayer” but it also is in the other poems through their quick imagistic movements from one moment to the next — the narrator always in motion.

Stolen Air by Osip Mandelstam, translated by Christian Wiman is not only about the absence of freedom, but finding that freedom within that totalitarian regime — grabbing onto it, stealing the air to breathe creatively. The narrator has learned to grab onto that stolen air and run with it, traipsing through beauty and finding the music everywhere, even in the darkness.  The translation does not read as such with very few moments where the verse stumbles, and this is the best tribute to a poet — a translator who hears the same music even across time.  Well done and highly recommended.

About the Poet (from Poets.org):

Born in January, 1891, in Warsaw, Poland, Osip Emilievich Mandelstam was raised in the imperial capital of St. Petersburg, Russia. His father was a prominent leather merchant and his mother a teacher of music. Mandelstam attended the renowned Tenishev School and later studied at the Sorbonne, the University of Heidelberg, and the University of St. Petersburg, though he left off his studies to pursue writing. He published his first collection, Kamen, or Stone (1913), when Russian Symbolism was the dominant persuasion.

The Bolsheviks had begun to exert an ever increasing amount of control over Russian artists, and Mandelstam, though he had initially supported the Revolution, was absolutely unwilling to yield to the political doctrine of a regime that had executed Gumilev in 1921. The poet published three more books in 1928—Poems, a collection of criticism entitled On Poetry, and The Egyptian Stamp, a book of prose—as the state closed in on him. Mandelstam spent his later years in exile, serving sentences for counter-revolutionary activities in various work camps, until his death on December 27, 1938, in the Gulag Archipelago.

About the Translator:

Christian Wiman was born and raised in West Texas. He is the editor of Poetry and the author of three collections of poems, Every Riven Thing, Hard Night, and The Long Home, and one collection of prose, Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet.

This is the 16th book for my 2012 Fearless Poetry Exploration Reading Challenge.




This is my 41st book for the 2012 New Authors Challenge.




This is my 10th book for the WWI Reading Challenge.

The Cottage at Glass Beach by Heather Barbieri

The Cottage at Glass Beach by Heather Barbieri is about mothers and daughters and sisters and their tension and love filled relationships.  Nora Cunningham returns to Burke’s Island to get away from her scandalous political life in Boston with Malcolm and clear her head in upper Maine. Irish-American immigrant ancestors infuse her memories, memories she barely remembers from her younger childhood of her mother, Maeve, and their life together on the island before her mother’s disappearance. Nora reconnects with her aunt Maire as she begins to find her self — the person she is without Malcolm and the person she’s been deep inside.

“Her mother laughs.  Her voice is as sparkling as light on water.  The folds of her skirt cling to her legs.  She’d dived in fully clothed.  She isn’t like the other mothers with their rules and careful ways.”  (Page 1 ARC)

Nora’s daughters, Annie and Ella — ages seven and twelve — are like Maire and her sister Maeve used to be — one always cautious and one who lives in the moment.  Barbieri’s weaves in Irish folklore about selkies, seals that shed their skin to become humans on land.  These seals play a protective role in the story as they are always just off shore, watching carefully.  Soon, a man, Owen Kavanagh, washes up on shore near Nora’s cottage in the middle of a rainstorm.  But he’s not the only mysterious male on the island; there’s also a young boy named Ronan who befriends Annie.

“Indeed, a shiny head bobbed in the eddies that curled toward the shore, indigo depths between.  The creature met Nora’s gaze directly, its dark eyes wide and oddly human, before the children’s laughter drew its attention once more.”  (Page 18 ARC)

In many ways Ella and Annie act older than they are, but readers will see the toll that potential divorce can have on kids as their father makes a surprise visit to the island.  The island’s oasis atmosphere can be easily disturbed by outsiders, even if the inhabitants are eager to remain in between the past and the future like Nora.  However, how the characters react to those disturbances is a sign of strength and the support of their ancestors.  Barbieri blurs the lines between folklore and reality well here, and readers will be swept up in a cadence of storytelling that is reminiscent of Irish stories.

The Cottage at Glass Beach by Heather Barbieri is an oasis and a safe harbor in which Nora comes to reassess her life and decide how to move on after being deeply hurt by the one man she thought she could trust.  But she also must take into account the feelings and needs of her daughters, which is tough when harboring so much anguish.  A perfect summer read about mother-daughter bonds, bonds between sisters, and redemption.

Check out my review of The Lace Makers of Glenmara.

About the Author:

The author of two previous novels, The Lace Makers of Glenmara, and Snow in July, Heather Barbieri has won international prizes for her short fiction. She lives in Seattle with her family.  Please visit here on her Website and Facebook.



This is my 3rd book for the 2012 Ireland Reading Challenge.




Nadia Knows Best by Jill Mansell

In Nadia Knows Best by Jill Mansell, the Kinsella family is far from conventional with a mother, Leonie who skips out on her husband and two daughters, Nadia and Clare, and drops another daughter, Tilly, off with her former husband James years later.  Living with their high-brow grandmother, Miriam, Nadia and Clare are mostly well-adjusted young women sorting out their own lives, while their youngest sister, Tilly, is just 13 and still looking for her place in the family.

With Mansell readers know their will be misunderstandings, false-starts, romance, and comedy, but as with the last few books, there are moments of seriousness as well.  Nadia and Laurie have known each other for years and become a couple just as his career as a model begins to take off, prompting Laurie to sever ties and branch out to America and leave Nadia devastated.  Her chance meeting with Jay Tiernan, a hot man in the real-estate biz, a year ago still gets her heart beating fast, but it’s unlikely that they will meet again . . . until they do.  If that weren’t enough fodder for romance and mishap, Mansell introduces Clare and her shockingly narcissistic boy toy Piers, plus James, their father, finds himself popping into the same newsstand not just to pick up Tilly after work but to see Annie every day without saying a word.

“‘D’you have a brush in there?’ Piers nodded at the beaded clutch bag on her lap.

‘Yes, do you want to borrow it?’

‘I meant for you.’  He sounded amused.  ‘I prefer your hair down.'” (page 121 ARC)

Unlike Nadia who is honest and cognizant of how everyone feels, Clare is clearly unashamed to ask for what she wants, especially when it comes to selling her paintings.  Even as her relationship with Piers goes rocky, she’s still got her eyes open for the next big catch and on the next rich person to sell her paintings too.  She’s very shameless.  Nadia being the good sister tries to tamp down her sister’s enthusiasm, but at the same time, she’s also the peacekeeper in the family when Leonie resurfaces and wants Tilly to move home with her and her latest man, who has a daughter about the same age.

Despite the varied characters and numerous story lines, the main focus is Nadia who is caring for others almost through the entire book even after she’s dumped by Laurie.  Although the relationship with Laurie ends in the expected way, there are some loose ends that aren’t as neatly tied up as readers may expect, leaving Laurie in a positive light in Nadia’s eyes despite his less than stellar behavior.  There are fits and starts to many of these relationships, as the family members try to navigate their own lives and the drama with the disappearing-reappearing Leonie and other family drama, but it all works well in a complex roller-coaster ride that will keep readers turning the pages.

Nadia Knows Best by Jill Mansell is about taking a gamble, leaping into the unknown and finding out that sometimes there are good surprises in the deep end of the pool.  Mansell’s characters are charming, witty, and fun, but they’re also dynamic and flawed, which will keep readers coming back for more.

Darkroom by Joshua Graham

Darkroom by Joshua Graham is mind-blowing, fast-paced, secretive, and conspiratorial.  Conspiracy theorists, anti-government advocates, and the generally suspicious of all things military and political must read Graham’s book.  Mixing in elements of reality with those of fiction, Graham aptly captures the disillusionment with the Bush Administration just before the election of President Barack Obama and the fervor behind a movement for change that got our current president elected.

However, in this case, the candidate for change is independent, former Vietnam War military star Richard Colson.  He exudes confidence and decisiveness, even in the face of his wife’s health misfortunes and the continuous emergence of his past that must be addressed.  Cover-ups, suspicious natural and accidental deaths among members of the Vietnam War’s Echo Company, disappearing college students, and other events pepper the narrative, but Graham has written a story that is ultimately about faith in ourselves, our beliefs, and the uncharted.

Peter Carrick, a photojournalist from the war and friend of Colson’s, is a distant father, despite his daughter Xandra’s attempts to win his approval through cello recitals and her career as a photojournalist.  The death of Grace, Xandra’s mother, brings the story full circle as Peter and his daughter fly to Binh Son, Vietnam to scatter her ashes as she’s requested, but what the trip brings forth is ugly, horrifying, and disconcerting.  Soon Xandra is caught up in a case she has no physical connection to, and is guided only by the mysterious visions she sees in the darkroom when she develops her photographs.

“To my surprise, when we pass the wall of trees, the ground is level and clear.  Charred black, the skeletal frames of several farmhouses shudder, as though one strong gust could blow them away like dandelion spores.  The rest are simply dirt pads where other homes once stood.”  (page 16 ARC)

Alternating from the Vietnam War where Peter Carrick meets his wife Grace and falls in love to the present where his daughter is caught in an investigation that turns into a hunt for her as she becomes a fugitive, Graham has created not only a dynamic protagonist in Xandra who must overcome her incessant need to please her father and gain his approval, but he’s created secondary characters like her father, Colson, Agent Kyle Matthews, and others who are just as complex.  Book clubs would have a ton of topics to discuss from faith to whether not telling someone something or a lie by omission is still lying.  Further, readers will likely discuss the variety of conspiracy theories that have persisted throughout politics, including the true perpetrators of the JFK and MLK assassinations.

Darkroom by Joshua Graham is more than compelling, it’s engrossing with its alternating points of view in different chapters enabling the story of the Vietnam War to be filtered through the eyes of characters in the present and the conspiracy to unravel at a far more breakneck pace toward the end.  Graham is not afraid of unhappy endings nor afraid of making the tough choices to kill off integral characters, but have faith because all is not as it seems.

About the Author:

Joshua Graham is the award winning author of the #1 Amazon and Barnes & Noble legal thriller Beyond Justice. His latest book, Darkroom, won a First Prize award in the Forward National Literature award and was an award-winner in the USA Book News “Bests Books 2011” awards. Connect with Josh at his Website, Facebook, and on Twitter.

Also, check out this month’s guest post about the power of photography.

This is my 40th book for the 2012 New Authors Challenge.

Check the other tour stops

City of Thieves by David Benioff

City of Thieves by David Benioff, which was the May book club selection, is set during WWII on the Western front of the war between 1942 and 1945, though mostly during the nearly 900 day siege of Leningrad, which was cut off from supplies of food and more.  Lev and Kolya are thrown together by circumstance when Lev is arrested as a looter when a dead German is found in his neighborhood and he’s discovered taking items off the body and is sent to the Crosses.  Kolya a Red Army deserter is thrown in the Crosses where he meets Lev.  The dynamic between these characters is full of initial paranoia, which morphs into irritation and finally camaraderie.  Kolya loves to chat about anything and everything, but he’s particularly boastful about his sexual exploits and his experience with just about everything related to war.  He’s pompous but in a comical way, and he reminds me of those wise jesters in the king’s court who uses humor to slice to the root of truth, even at times when it could be fatal.  Lev is a young boy who often portrays himself as an older young man or younger as it is convenient to the situation.

“There was something oddly comforting in Kolya’s consistency, his willingness to make the same jokes — if you could call them jokes — over and over again.  He was like a cheerful senile grandfather who sat at the dinner table with beet soup splattered on his collar, telling once more the story of his encounter with the emperor, though everyone in his family could recite it now from memory.” (page 161)

The beginning almost sets it up as a framed story in which the author or someone with the same name as the author hears the story from his grandfather, the knife fighter.  It’s not a far stretch to imagine the beginning chapter sets the story up to read similar to a memoir of David’s grandfather, Lev Beniov.  However, the frame is never closed literally by the end of the story, which is good in this case because it provides the story with a greater emotional impact.

“Wick lamps lit the small apartment and out long shadows crept across the walls, across the frayed rugs on the floor, the brass samovar in the corner, and a white sheet hanging on the far side of the room — partitioning off the sleeping area, I assumed.  When the giant closed the door, the sheet billowed like a woman’s dress in the wind.  In the moment before it settled down I saw what lay behind it — not a bed, no furniture at all, just slabs of white meat hanging from hooks, suspended from a heating pipe by heavy chains, with a canvas drop cloth on the floor to collect the drippings.”  (page 59)

Lev and Kolya embark on a journey to find eggs — yes, that is a chicken in the far snowy distance on the cover — to save their own hides, a deal offered by a powerful Soviet colonel.  They mean cannibals, partisans, and of course Germans bent on killing them.  While there is darkness, mystery, and suspense, there also is a quaint feeling to the setting and the interactions between Lev and his new friend.  The absurdity of their situation is never lost on them, and it attempts to mirror the absurdity of war.  Despite the danger they find themselves in, they often joke and rag on one another as if they are playing baseball in the streets of Leningrad.

City of Thieves is a well written coming-of-age story at a time when the world was at war, but in spite of the danger, Lev and Kolya form an unbreakable bond.  It’s easy to see their tentative interactions blossom into true friendship, a bond that keeps them alive and watching each other’s backs throughout the novel.  While in the midst of German attacks, in the rural farmhouses appropriated by Germans as whorehouses, and even in a remote hunting cabin, the journey they are on is not only one in search of eggs, but in search of the faith and strength they need to survive.  Another for the best of list.

Here’s what Book Club thought (Caution may contain spoilers):

We actually had a rather long discussion about this book from the prologue and the interjection of the author in the prologue as the grandson of one of the main characters to what the eggs symbolized.  One of the members thought that the eggs symbolized the absurdity of war, while another thought it was the fragility of human life.  As for the prologue, most said that they had forgotten about it, while two others (including myself) thought it was the author’s ego leading him to place himself in the story.  Although it’s an interesting device, it also seems to make the story appear true when it is not — given that in interviews the author has said he was never able to ask his grandparents about their time in Germany during WWII before they died.  And the prologue is not the only instance of the author interjecting his family subtly into the novel — i.e. Lev Beniov is one of the main characters, a close last name to David Benioff.

There also was quite a lot of discussion about the “Courtyard of the Hound,” which was talked about as a great work of Russian literature by Kolya and whether it was a great work of literature, could be a great work of literature, or was merely a boring story about a shut in who finally leaves his apartment because of a dead dog.

Other elements we discussed is the lack of care with human life by the generals on both sides of the war — whether the Russian colonel sending Kolya and Lev on an absurd journey to find eggs when all Russians are starving or the callous way in which the Germans used Russian women as sexual play things.  One member also highlighted the seeming lack of outrage regarding the cannibals compared to the outrage displayed against the women who were being used as whores by the Germans and acquiesced so that they could survive — why was one form of survival better than another or at least more acceptable.  Another interesting point was made about the cinematic feel of the latter half of the book where there were dramatic scenes lumped together one after another from the dogs used to carry bombs under tanks to the German whorehouse and the showdown with the German elite assassins.  It seemed to be very packed in and gave the reader little time to breath or be deeply impacted by the events at hand, which I did notice that this half of the book read more like a screenplay (haphazard of the author’s screenwriting occupation perhaps?).

Also, please read Diary of an Eccentric‘s review.

About the Author:

David Benioff worked as a nightclub bouncer in San Francisco, a radio DJ in Wyoming and an English teacher/wrestling coach in Brooklyn before selling his first novel, The 25th Hour, in 2000.

He later wrote the screenplay for Spike Lee’s adaptation of Hour starring Edward Norton and Phillip Seymour Hoffman. In 2005, Viking Press published Benioff’s collection of short stories, When the Nines Roll Over.

Benioff’s screenwriting credits include Troy (2004), directed by Wolfgang Petersen, and Stay (2005), directed by Marc Forster, and The Kite Runner (2007). Jim Sheridan produced Benioff’s screenplay Brothers, and Hugh Jackman reprised his role as the clawed mutant in Benioff’s Wolverine. Viking published his most recent novel, City of Thieves, in May 2008.

Benioff is married to actress Amanda Peet; the couple has one daughter, Frances Pen. Also check out his interviews.  And another interview.

This is my 39th book for the 2012 New Authors Challenge.