Taking What I Like by Linda Bamber

Source: TLC Book Tours and Linda Bamber
Paperback, 256 pages
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Taking What I Like by Linda Bamber is a collection of eight short stories that give new life to Shakespeare’s plays, Jane Eyre, and American artist Thomas Eakins.  Whether Desdemona is chair of the English Department and in charge of diversity or a professor sees herself as Jane Eyre, Bamber has created stories that are unique but not beholden to their original texts and plot lines.  Bamber clearly has an academic background and offers readers enough of the original background to provide them with guidance on where her story comes from and where it could go.

“Jane lies faint, sinks in deep waters, feels no standing.  As far as I can make out, Jane has an orgasm of grief.  Can I tell them that? Maybe.  It depends on the atmosphere.” (page 77)

The strongest of the short stories is “Playing Henry,” in which a stage actress Clare has to come to terms with not the leading role in the season’s fare but a more subordinate and less desirable role as Henry — from Shakespeare’s Richard II, Henry IV Part One and Henry IV Part Two, and Henry V.  Clare comes across as a real actress who is finally tested by a role she is given, and this is a test that she could fail.  It’s a struggle of her desire to remain an actress versus the subconscious doubt she’s carried since she was a young adult and her father tried to push her into something aimed at changing the world.

Some stories are likely to resonate more with readers than others, which is generally the nature of short story collections, but none of these stories will leave readers stranded or wondering where the inspiration came from, and none would be considered mere re-imaginings.  However, there are some stories where there seems to be too much explanation or backstory, like the author is making sure the reader is still where they should be and forces stories that should evolve more organically.

Taking What I Like by Linda Bamber is refreshing, imaginative, and fun, but it is also serious and reflective.  Bamber clearly flexes her academic muscles in these stories, but she’s also gifted at creating situations and characters that challenge readers’ preconceived notions about the source material.

About the Author:

Linda Bamber is a fiction writer, poet, and essayist and a Professor of English at Tufts University. Her recent fiction collection, Taking What I Like (David R. Godine), includes re-inventions of six Shakespeare plays, a riff on Jane Eyre, and a fictional look at the work of Thomas Eakins. She is the author of Metropolitan Tang: Poems (David R. Godine) and the widely reprinted Comic Women, Tragic Men: Gender and Genre in Shakespeare (Stanford University Press). She has published extensively in literary journals such as The Harvard Review, The Kenyon Review, Ploughshares, and Raritan, as well as traditional media such as The New York Times, The Nation, Tricycle, and Tikkun.  Visit her Website.

4th book for 2014 New Author Challenge

Poems for the Writing: Prompts for Poets by Valerie Fox and Lynn Levin

Source: Valerie Fox, one of the authors
Paperback, 150 pages
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Poems for the Writing: Prompts for Poets by Valerie Fox and Lynn Levin is a short book that guides readers through a series of poetry forms from writing fake translations to writing poems from mathematical sequences.  The guide offers step-by-step instructions on how to write these kinds of poems and offers practical advice on how to avoid over-thinking each attempt.  Rather than over analyzing how to write a fake translation, the authors suggest that poets take a poem in a language they do not know at all and look for patterns in syntax or line breaks or to take a poem in a foreign language they have some familiarity with but don’t know well enough to translate it word-for-word.

“Teachers and workshop leaders can use the get-to-know-you cinquain, a lighter form of the cameo cinquain, as an introductory exercise on the first meeting of a poetry writing class.  Put the class members in pairs, and then tell them to interview and observe one another for material to put in the cinquain.”  (page 17)

While each of the poem styles is explained and the poems included are designated by style in the latter part of the book, readers may have found it more helpful if the poems followed the guidelines and explanations of each style, rather than be in a separate section after all of the styles are explained.  However, other writers might prefer this organization as it provides them with the simple guidance they need to begin their own work without relying upon concrete examples that could rein in their creativity.

Poems for the Writing: Prompts for Poets by Valerie Fox and Lynn Levin is a new kind of guide that strays from the traditional forms of poetry, like sonnet, and demonstrates the variety of poems that can be created that still involve structure.  From advice column prose poems to the I-hate poem and the one based on phrases that catch a researcher’s eye, the book offers exercises that will expand any poet’s scope.

About the Authors:

Valerie Fox’s most recent book is Bundles of Letters, Including A, V and Epsilon (Texture Press), written with Arlene Ang. Previous books of poems are The Rorschach Factory (Straw Gate Books) and Amnesia, or, Ideas for Movies (Texture Press). Her work has appeared in many magazines, including Hanging Loose, The World, Feminist Studies, Siren, Phoebe, Watershed, sonaweb, and West Branch.

Poet, writer, and translator Lynn Levin is the author of four collections of poems: Miss Plastique (Ragged Sky Press, 2013); Fair Creatures of an Hour (Loonfeather Press, 2009), a Next Generation Indie Book Awards finalist in poetry; Imaginarium (Loonfeather Press, 2005), a finalist for ForeWord Magazine’s Book of the Year Award; and A Few Questions about Paradise (Loonfeather Press, 2000). She is co-author of a craft-of-poetry textbook, Poems for the Writing: Prompts for Poets (Texture Press, 2013). Birds on the Kiswar Tree, her translation of a collection of poems by the Peruvian Andean poet Odi Gonzales, will be published by 2Leaf Press in 2014.

Book 3 for the Dive Into Poetry Reading Challenge 2014.

When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka

Source: Library Sale
Paperback, 144 pages
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When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka is set in the United States during World War II shedding light on the Topaz internment of Japanese-Americans and how it impacted them and their families.  Following an unnamed family Julie Otsuka gives readers a false sense of security, providing a false sense of distance between the reader and the family.  A powerfully short novel that raises questions about how we react out of fear or fold in on ourselves to avoid confrontation as well as fear.

“She took The Gleaners out of its frame and looked at the picture one last time.  She wondered why she had let it hang in the kitchen for so long.  It bothered her, the way those peasants were forever bent over above that endless field of wheat.  ‘Look up!’ she wanted to say to them.  ‘Look up, look up!’ The Gleaners, she decided, would have to go.  She set the picture outside with the garbage.”  (page 8)

Otsuka’s prose is simply beautiful, but filled with symbolic imagery and heartfelt emotion.  Shifting from the mother’s point of view, to the daughter’s, the son’s, and the father’s, readers are immersed in the memories and emotions of these characters so that they become real, even though they are nameless.  The daughter clearly sits between being an adolescent and a young girl, striving to remain strong for her mother and brother.  In the father’s absence, the son struggles to remember what his father looked like and how they interacted, but he’s distracted by the changes in his life from the internment camp to his sister’s behavior and his mother’s despondence.

Each family member deals with the crisis in their own way, from withdrawal and despondency to anger.  Although the last chapter is a tad long, the passionate confession from the father is well placed and sheds light on his experiences while he was away from the family.  When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka explores life in the internment camp without the overwrought violence and horror of other novels, instead focusing on the emotional roller coaster this family experiences.

About the Author:

Julie Otsuka was born and raised in California. After studying art as an undergraduate at Yale University she pursued a career as a painter for several years before turning to fiction writing at age 30. She received her MFA from Columbia. She is a recipient of the PEN/Faulkner Award, the Asian American Literary Award, the American Library Association Alex Award, France’s Prix Femina Étranger, an Arts and Letters Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and was a finalist for the National Book Award, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and The International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. Check out her Website and Facebook page.

2nd book (WWII) for the 2014 War Challenge With a Twist.




3rd book for the 2014 New Authors Reading Challenge.

Chasing Utopia: A Hybrid by Nikki Giovanni

Source: William Morrow at HarperCollins
Hardcover, 143 pages
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Chasing Utopia: A Hybrid by Nikki Giovanni is a combination of essays, fantastical stories, and poems, but each is steeped in family memory, foodie love, and careful observations about the modern world.  She shares not only her passion for food and cooking with her grandmother and mother, but also the power of that food to bring people together.  Food also becomes a source of power in the book as she tells stories and engages in poetic dialogue with the reader about how fear mixed with hatred can be just as dangerous as cutting pure cocaine with other foul substances.  By the same token, a little fear can be motivational and should be sprinkled in like the spices in our food.

“We are foodies, my family and I.  My grandmother was an extraordinary cook.  Her miniature Parker House rolls have been known to float the roof off a flooded house in hurricane season.”  (page 1)

Through hyperbole, passion, and personal anecdotes, Giovanni coaxes the reader into thinking about larger issues that affect family life, from the political agenda to the curbs on human rights and war.  She urges the reader — gently and forcefully — to chase utopia (whether that’s a beer or an ideal) with all of our passion and drive because if we do not chase it, we become complacent and bored.  Her essays, stories, and poems piggyback off of one another from the discussion of mutual assistance in the Mayflower Compact to the priceless value of loving relationships.

Poets (page 74)

Poets shouldn't commit
That would leave the world
To those without imaginations
Or hearts

That would bequeath
To the world
A mangled syntax
And no love
Of champagne

Poets must live
In misery and ecstasy
To sing a song
With the katydids

Poets should be ashamed
To die
Before they kiss
The sun

Chasing Utopia: A Hybrid by Nikki Giovanni is a mixture — a hybrid — of the personal and the universal, of poetry and story, and of relationships and society that will force readers to think about their own lives, their great passions, and the world around them.  Giovanni may not be overtly striking the match to spur societal change, but she’s planting the seed and asking us to nurture its growth — even if it is just within us — to germinate our own utopia.

About the Author:

Poet Nikki Giovanni was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, on June 7, 1943. Although she grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio, she and her sister returned to Knoxville each summer to visit their grandparents. Nikki graduated with honors in history from her grandfather’s alma mater, Fisk University. Since 1987, she has been on the faculty at Virginia Tech, where she is a University Distinguished Professor.

Visit her Website.

Book 2 for the Dive Into Poetry Reading Challenge 2014.

Definitely Not Mr. Darcy by Karen Doornebos

Source: Purchased at Novel Places (which unfortunately had a ripped page and a ton missing) and borrowed from Anna
Paperback, 384 pages
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Definitely Not Mr. Darcy by Karen Doornebos demonstrates just how hard it would be for a modern woman to give up not only email and cellphones, but also the behavioral freedoms we take for granted in our everyday actions.  Chloe Parker’s business is nearing insolvency, and with a daughter to care for and an ex-husband with a high-powered job ready to swoop in and take over at any moment, she has little choice but to jump at the best chance she has for getting a large sum of cash quickly.  Auditioning for an Austen-inspired documentary, Chloe thinks that she’s found the perfect solution, until they call her to England to take part in not a documentary, but a reality tv show, much like The Bachelor.  The twist is that she cannot have any contact with the outside world, has to give up all modern conveniences, and live by the mores and social constructs of 1812.

“She gave up pink drinks and took up tea long ago.

Chloe Parker, even after her divorce, still dreamed of a more romantic era.  An age when a lady, in her gown and gloves, would, for sheer amusement, banter with a gentleman in his tight breeches and riding boots, smoldering in a corner of the drawing room.”  (page 1)

She finds herself in the English countryside enjoying her additional free time to draw and take up crafts she never had time for when she was caring for her daughter and running her business.  While she does worry about how her daughter is faring with her ex-husband looming in the background with his new fiancee and living with her parents, Chloe finds that she’s enjoying the step back in time.  Men were more charming and courteous, bowing and only talking to women they were introduced to, and they even catered to the women’s every comfort, even if it was mostly out of duty.  What she finds she doesn’t care for is the constraints on female behavior — the inability to apologize to men directly, to talk to men you are not formally introduced to, and to tell rivals exactly what you think of their behavior.

Definitely Not Mr. Darcy by Karen Doornebos is a novel about how we romanticize the past and put blinders on when it comes to what we think will bring us the most happiness.  It’s about seeing what is right in front of us and learning to grab onto it and hold it tight.  Chloe needs to take a chance, step outside her comfort zone, and learn to reach for the stars, even if the risk of failure is great and the adventure itself is a scary one.

About the Author:

Once an award-winning copywriter for brands such as Diet Coke and Johnnie Walker, I switched to tea with my debut novel, Definitely Not Mr. Darcy, now published in three countries. Undressing Mr. Darcy, my second novel, has garnered four stars from RT Book Reviews. I graduated with honors in English Literature from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and lived and worked in London. That inspired my books, but the reality of life in a Chicago suburb with my husband, my son, daughter, and various pets provided the opportunity to write it.  Check out her Facebook page, GoodReads page and follow her on Twitter.

The Descent by Alma Katsu

Source: Gallery Books, Simon & Schuster
Paperback, 352 pages
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The Descent by Alma Katsu is the third and final installment in The Taker series (there could be spoilers), and it will blow readers away with its creativity, nuance, and multilayered story.  Book series tend to taper off for readers in terms of depth of story and the ability to surprise, but Katsu’s Taker series has transcended levels with each installment.  Exploring the darker side of humanity, tackling the idea of redemption, and exploring what it means to love and commit to something or someone who is a virtual mystery.

“Frightening things lurked in basements, and the fortress was no exception.  My knees went a little weak as I set off, but before long I managed to find a staircase.  Removing a candle from one of the sconces, I descended the stairs as quietly as possible, only too aware that any noise I made would rattle and rumble down the cavernous stairwell and let anyone within earshot know I was coming.  A slight draft wafted up from the bottom, which was lost in darkness.  The breeze carried a bitter tang of rot and decay.” (page 210)

Despite her fears and frightful beginnings with Adair, Lanore has been fighting her connection to him, but when nightmares surface about her childhood love, Jonathan, being tortured, she has little choice but to seek out the man she fears and desires.  Adair and Lanore have a relationship that is a force unlike any other, and while their relationship can be deeply satisfying, it can be frightening.  While her own walls have kept her from trusting and falling completely for him, Adair’s had time to do his own work to make himself worthy of her.  Tip-toeing around their feelings, Lanore and Adair also must confront the outside forces working against them, conspiring to not only keep them apart but also seeking revenge on Adair for his past transgressions.

Lanore McIlvrae has said herself that her immortality has made her immune to the emotional response many feel at the point of death, and even as she descends into the underworld, her fears are muted.  Confronting demons and her own past transgressions give her pause on her journey to save Jonathan, but she only begins to fear the worst when she comes face-to-face with the deadliest of nightmares — a god scorned.

Beyond the intricate relationships and the dark and unexpected past of Adair, Katsu has taken the time to weave in elemental powers, myths and legends, and witchcraft and magic so seamlessly that the world becomes real.  Her characters are dynamic and flawed, but at the same time redeemable — but only if they make unselfish choices even at the risk of losing their own lives and souls.  Shifting from Adair’s past in 1200s Italy and other time periods, Katsu provides a clearer picture of one of the most enigmatic and enthralling characters in this mind-bending novel.  She has crafted a novel that peers behind the veil between the human and spiritual world and demonstrates that even gods can make mistakes.  A stunning end to a brilliant trilogy.

About the Author:

Alma Katsu’s debut, The Taker, has been compared to the early work of Anne Rice, Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian and Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander for combining the historical, supernatural and fantasy in one story. The novel was named a Top Ten Debut Novel of 2011 by the American Library Association and rights have sold been in 16 languages. The Reckoning, the second book in the trilogy, was published in June 2012, and the third and final book, The Descent, will be published in January 2014. The Taker Trilogy is published by Gallery Books/Simon and Schuster and Century/Random House UK.  Katsu lives outside of Washington, DC with her husband, musician Bruce Katsu.  Visit her Website, Facebook page, and Twitter.

2nd book for 2014 European Reading Challenge; this is set in Italy.



2nd book for 2014 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge

Somewhere in France by Jennifer Robson

Source: William Morrow and TLC Book Tours
Paperback, 400 pages
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Somewhere in France by Jennifer Robson is a historical fiction romance set during WWI.  Lady Elizabeth “Lilly” Neville-Ashford has lived a cloistered life in high society, but she’s always dreamed of doing more — going to university or helping with the war effort.  She buries her head in books to avoid conflicts with her mother, who believes that as a lady of society Lilly should be seeking a suitable husband.  After pushing for a new governess when she was a teenager to expand her education, she’s hit a roadblock in her twenties where her mother and father are concerned.  Her brother Edward, on the other hand, seems to have the easy life and he rolls with the punches, making jokes and letting the unpleasantness just pass by.  In many ways, she is jealous of his ability to smooth out the wrinkles of their aristocratic lives and to do what he wants — like join the soldiers at the front.  Lilly is above it all, looking down in judgment on her brother and her parents, but she rarely examines her own actions in the same way.

“He, and all his friends, seemed to regard the war as a great lark.  To them it was a blessed chance to do, to act, to be forged by the crucible of war into better men.  An improbable notion, Lilly was sure, though she could understand its appeal.  What had any of them actually done with their lives thus far, despite the riches and privileges heaped upon them?” (page 21)

In a final effort, Lilly is pushed to the brink, secretly learning to drive while away from her parents, and by then, she’s passed the point of no return.  She has to take her life in her own hands and mold it into what she wants.  Finding a job isn’t easy for a young woman of her stature, with no money and no skills, but her former governess Charlotte becomes an angel in her life.  Readers will find Lilly’s attitude toward others disconcerting at first because she’s at times affable and friendly, while at others secretive and softly judgmental.  However, once she gets a taste of what it means to be a common girl, with little money and her dreams just out of reach, she becomes even more determined to get what she wants.

“Before emptying the tub, she checked the water and was relieved to find no evidence of lice.  A month earlier, she’d been horrified to discover nits when combing her hair before bed.  Persian insect powder, mixed into a paste with petroleum jelly, had killed the lice in her hair, but then she’d inspected her clothes and found them infested with body lice, likely picked up from one of the walking wounded … ” (page 193)

Robson does an excellent job of placing the reader in the field hospitals, with Robbie — Edward’s university friend who becomes a surgeon — and with Lilly once she makes it to France as a driver.  While the romance is a bit overblown, the hardships of the nurses and surgeons is palpable, leaving readers shocked at the blood and split-second choices that have to be made when the wounded come pouring in.  Somewhere in France by Jennifer Robson provides a detailed look at the life of those on the front lines of WWI who do not shoot the guns or drop the bombs — those tasked with cleaning up the mess of war.

About the Author:

Jennifer Robson first learned about the Great War from her father, acclaimed historian Stuart Robson, and later served as an official guide at the Canadian National War Memorial at Vimy Ridge, France. A former copy editor, she holds a doctorate in British economic and social history from the University of Oxford. She lives in Toronto, Canada, with her husband and young children. This is her first novel. Connect with her on Facebook.

1st WWI book for the 2014 War Challenge With a Twist




1st book for 2014 European Reading Challenge; this is set in France.




2nd book for 2014 New Author Challenge





1st book for 2014 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge

Dog Songs by Mary Oliver

Source: Purchased at Novel Books
Hardcover, 144 pages
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Dog Songs by Mary Oliver is a collection of poems about her dogs and her relationship with those dogs, but it also is about the human condition and what our relationships with these animals means to us and to them.  Oliver is known as a dog lover, but she’s also known as a poet that takes the most average moments and things in life and enlarges their scope and their meaning through her poems.  While in this collection that are moments of this extrapolation — such as when Percy gazes up into her face as if she were a full moon in “The Sweetness of Dogs” or when Sammy consistently breaks free of his ropes to roam through town in “Ropes” — many more of these poems are simply homages to the dogs she has known and loved.

While this collection is not as deep as some of her other collections may be, there are moments of pure joy, deep sadness at the dog’s passing, and hilarity when dogs are being just that — dogs.  People who love dogs, and even just love animals, will enjoy these poems, nodding their heads about the truthful honesty in Oliver’s lines.  We and our dogs lean on and learn from one another, and these poems clearly illustrate those moments shared with our canine friends.  Although it is not the same many readers will expect from Oliver, readers will find some of the same universality that is found in her other poems.  In many ways, these poems are even more of the heart, more about the poet and her life, opening her up to the emotions she may not express publicly as much.

Dog Songs by Mary Oliver becomes a large ode to the symbiotic relationship we have with our dogs, a relationship that tries us and rewards us based upon how willing we are to accept it for what it is.  Beyond the freedom these dogs have to be as they are and to succumb to their own wildness, there is still that deep loyalty to their person — do not dare say owner.  There’s also a little bit of Oliver’s own opinion here, in that dogs off leashes are preferable to those constrained by them because dogs loyal to their owners merely because of the leash could be considered mere property.

About the Poet:

A private person by nature, Mary Oliver has given very few interviews over the years. Instead, she prefers to let her work speak for itself. And speak it has, for the past five decades, to countless readers. The New York Times recently acknowledged Mary Oliver as “far and away, this country’s best-selling poet.” Born in a small town in Ohio, Oliver published her first book of poetry in 1963 at the age of 28; No Voyage and Other Poems, originally printed in the UK by Dent Press, was reissued in the United States in 1965 by Houghton Mifflin. Oliver has since published many works of poetry and prose.  Visit her Website.

Book 1 for the Dive Into Poetry Reading Challenge 2014.

Brady Needs a Nightlight by Brian Barlics

Source: TLC Book Tours and Black Rose Writing
Paperback, 32 pages
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Brady Needs a Nightlight by Brian Barlics, illustrated by Gregor B. Jones, is a children’s book for ages three and up.  The cartoon-like illustrations by Gregory B. Jones are cute and the colors are vivid and bright.  They allow readers to get a complete picture of Brady’s world and what he dreams most about.  Barlics gets it right with the rhyming and the use of poetic stanzas as a way to capture young readers’ attentions.  The author clearly thinks with a youngster’s mind as they fear the unknown or things they don’t understand.  Things that make noise and shadows in the night can be frightening for children at any young age, which is why many request night lights and other comforts in bed.  Barlics has crafted a story to help kids understand that there’s nothing to fear and that it’s okay to go to sleep at night.

The story is creative and ironic at the same time, since the bat is clearly a creature that thrives in the night and he improvises by finding something that can light up his evening.  My daughter is just starting to be afraid of the dark as she gets closer to age three, but she has her star-light turtle and her glow worm to make her night better too.  Young kids can easily follow along in the story and even relate to Brady’s trials and fears.  Brady Needs a Nightlight by Brian Barlics is a cute story with a good message that can help parents appease the fears of their young readers in a fun and creative way.

About the Author:

Brian was born and raised in New Jersey and currently lives in Northern California. He is a Pediatrician with a strong love for children and is dedicated to their health and well-being. He believes not only in the physical health of children but also in the enrichment of their minds and building of their character. He is a strong advocate of the well-supported idea that reading to your child encourages a strong parent-child bond, promotes literacy, and helps them tap into their seemingly endless imaginations. He has recently started a new venture as an author of children’s books. His award-winning book “Brady Needs a Nightlight” is now available and might become your child’s favorite bedtime story!

Connect with Brian on Facebook.

Brady Needs a Nightlight is a Mom’s Choice Awards Silver Honoree!

If you want to win a copy of Brady Needs a Nightlight by Brian Barlics, please leave a comment below by Jan. 13, 2014, at 11:59 p.m.  U.S. and Canadian residential addresses only.

1st book for the 2014 New Authors Challenge.