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2021 Literary Escapes Challenge

- Alabama
- Alaska
- Arizona (1)
- Arkansas
- California (4)
- Colorado (1)
- Connecticut (1)
- Delaware
- Florida
- Georgia
- Hawaii (1)
- Idaho
- Illinois (4)
- Indiana
- Iowa
- Kansas
- Kentucky (1)
- Louisiana (1)
- Maine
- Maryland (1)
- Massachusetts (1)
- Michigan (1)
- Minnesota (1)
- Mississippi
- Missouri
- Montana
- Nebraska (1)
- Nevada (1)
- New Hampshire (1)
- New Jersey (1)
- New Mexico
- New York (3)
- North Carolina (1)
- North Dakota
- Ohio (6)
- Oklahoma
- Oregon
- Pennsylvania (1)
- Rhode Island (1)
- South Carolina (1)
- South Dakota
- Tennessee
- Texas (1)
- Utah (1)
- Vermont (2)
- Virginia (3)
- Washington (2)
- West Virginia
- Wisconsin
- Wyoming (1)
- *Washington, D.C.

Australia (2)
Canada (3)
England (6)
France (1)
Ireland (1)
Switzerland (1)
The Philippines (1)
Wales (1)

My Progress:

28 / 51 states. 55% done!

2021 Fall Into Reading Challenge

My Progress:

0 / 24 books. 0% done!

2021 Children's Historical Fiction Reading Challenge

2021 Children's Historical Fiction Reading Challenge
(Hosted by Yours Truly!)

My Progress:

6 / 25 books. 24% done!

2021 Popsugar Reading Challenge

My Progress:

32 / 50 books. 64% done!

Booklist Queen's 2021 Reading Challenge

My Progress:

35 / 52 books. 67% done!

2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge

2021 Craving for Cozies Reading Challenge

The 52 Club's 2021 Reading Challenge

My Progress:

39 / 52 books. 75% done!
Monday, March 30, 2009

Slumpy, Grumpy Giveaway Winners

I actually drew the names of the 3 winners this morning (well, did), but I'm just now getting around to posting them. Sorry for the delay. Without further ado, here are the 3 winners of Chicken Soup for the Empty Nester's Soul ...

Jessica Leigh


& K

Congratulations, ladies! If you will email me ( your snail mail addresses, I will get your books in the mail ASAP. Thanks to everyone who entered and to Tolly and the Chicken Soup gang for offering books for this giveaway. As always, stay tuned for more reviews, giveaways, author interviews, and much more!

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Sixth V.R. Novel's Got A Whole Lotta Love Going On

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

I know romance writer Robyn Carr issued a caution to all her delusional devoted fans, reminding us that Virgin River does not actually exist. She says the town lives "only in my mind" and that all you have to do to visit is "close your eyes and open your heart." You know what I say to that? Bah! I think she's trying to keep it for herself, attempting to preserve the small town from pushy realtors and Jack fanatics fans. Well, I don't know about you, but I've got my eye on a cozy cabin nestled right next to the gurgling Virgin. I hear ther scenery and wildlife is drool-worthy: fish, deer, bear, sexy ex-Marines ...

Whether or not there's real estate available in Virgin River, California (Just draw me a map, Robyn ... ), I'm always excited to go back and visit. For a quiet little place, there's an awful lot going on these days. Temptation Ridge, the 6th novel in the series, opens when 25-year-old Shelby McIntyre and 38-year-old Luke Riordan meet on a rain-slicked highway leading into town. Having settled the affairs of her recently-deceased mother, Shelby's ready for some R&R before plunging into the next phase of her young life. A few months on her Uncle Walt's ranch should do the trick. Then, she'll be off to get her education and see the world. Luke, a retired Black Hawk pilot for the Army, is also looking for some diversion before making decisions about his future. To that end, he's come to town to check on some investment property he and his brother bought on a whim. The two feel an instant attraction, although neither one really wants to admit it - Luke is obviously too old for Shelby, and Shelby, who has spent the last decade caring for her ailing mother, has seen too little of the world to settle for the first man she sees. But, this is Virgin River - you know, there's just something in the water that makes rangy soldiers fall head over heels. In spite of himself, Luke can't keep his mind off the beautiful Shelby. Guilt-ridden about lusting after a young 'un, fearful of her 3-star general uncle, and terrified of domestication, Luke doesn't know whether to run to or from the stubborn young woman.

There's actually a whole lotta love whirling around town - 2 babies are on the way; a romance continues to blossom among a "mature" couple; and Cameron Michaels (who's not actually a VR native, but is connected to the town) gets himself into a bit of a pickle when he romances a separated-but-not-yet-divorced flight attendant. Of course, trouble's brewing right along with the ooey-gooey stuff - Luke's got a fugitive hiding in one of his cabins; a VR favorite drops dead unexpectedly; and Luke's charming younger brother just might give his brother a run for his money.

While Temptation Ridge lacks some of the action of its predecessor (Second Chance Pass, in which Jack and his friends bravely take on a raging forest fire), it makes up for it in romance. I have to warn you that this volume seems to have more sex than the others, and it's fairly explicit. I know, I know - I always gripe about books with graphic sex scenes, but I do have to say that these are not violent or kinky, just ... detailed. Alright, alright, you caught me - I have no excuses. Robyn Carr books serve as my guilty little pleasures. Ahem. Now I'm blushing.

You may or may not know that Robyn has a legion of fans who gather at the virtual version of Jack's Bar. I always used to laugh at these ladies who talked about Jack, Preacher, Mike, Paul and Co. as if they were actually in the bar. Now, I realize I'm just as bad. Robyn excels so well at making characters come alive - good, honest, hardworking characters - that you want to believe they really exist out there somewhere. These are the type of people you'd give your eyeteeth to associate with, the kind of place you'd move to in a heartbeat. Yeah, Robyn's books tend toward the predictable, but it's the people that matter here. Who cares if they don't really exist? Once you meet them, you're gonna keep coming back for more. You're not going to care that every romance works out; or that they always end in passionate love, strong marriages and healthy babies; you're not going to rant about unrealistically happy endings; you're not going to be complaining at all, because here, in cozy little Virgin River, you're finally going to feel at home and if you're like the rest of us, you're never going to want to leave.

Grade: A

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Dear Ms. Binchy, Where's the Dazzle?

If you've never read Maeve Binchy before, you might not want to start with her newest effort. In fact, you probably shouldn't start with any of her last 3 or 4 novels. Go back to the early books (Circle of Friends, The Glass Lake, Light A Penny Candle), so you can experience Binchy at her finest. Even her less spectacular novels glow with trademark warmth, but certain titles (like the ones listed above) absolutely dazzle. I wanted Heart and Soul to be one of these, but it just doesn't sparkle the way I hoped it would. It's good. Just lacking in dazzle.

The story revolves around a newly-opened heart clinic in Dublin. Housed in an unused storage depot owned by St. Brigid's Hospital, the clinic comes under the supervision of one Frank Ennis. The cranky administrator had hoped to sell the building for a handsome profit; outvoted by the hospital board, Frank now supervises the very heart clinic he vehemently opposed. He's not impressed with the new director, either - despite her glowing resume, Dr. Clara Casey's a ball-buster who won't take no for an answer. Soon, she's brought on a team of professionals who quickly turn the clinic into an organized, efficient establishment with a growing list of satisfied patients. Still, Frank seems hell-bent on keeping the clinic unsupported and underfunded, which only makes Clara more determined to make the project a success.

Employees, patients and friends of the establishment take turns telling the story of The Little Clinic That Could, while also ruminating on their own lives. This "Everybody Has a Story" technique is vintage Binchy - it's what makes her books so enjoyable. So, we meet Ania, a Polish immigrant who works tirelessly to earn money for the mother she shamed back home; Fiona, a friendly nurse with a mysterious past; Declan, a doctor who pines for Fiona; Clara's two self-absorbed daughters; Bobby, a good-natured heart patient, who's devoted to a woman no one else can stand; and many more colorful, very relatable characters. This motley crew supply myriad subplots to sustain the reader when the main plotline drags (as it often does).

What Heart and Soul lacks in plot it makes up for in rich characterization. Binchy also brings Dublin to life, even bringing back people from previous novels to help establish authenticity. On the flip side, the story drags in some places and lacks cohesion in others. Too many characters (however loveable they are) makes for a great deal of confusion - I kept forgetting who was who. All in all, I liked the book, but didn't love it. I expect more from this venerable author, who charmed me with her magical early novels. She's delivered in the past, so I'm not giving up on Ms. Binchy, but c'mon, Maeve, a girl's gotta have some dazzle. Maybe next time, eh?

Grade: B-

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Despite Lackluster Writing, Orphan Trains Is Powerful, Moving

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

I talk a lot about my oldest daughter on this blog, but I haven't mentioned my 10-year-old son very much. It's not becaause he isn't a reader. He is. He's just not as funny and obsessive about books as his sister (and mother). Perhaps it's a guy thing, but my son rarely reads fiction (with the exception of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books - he's read each volume at least 5 times); even his fiction is barely that. Lucky for him, our county library has a large collection of children's non-fiction, which is conveniently located in the kid's section. I've been taking him there since he was little - together, we've searched for books on every subject under the sun. When we moved last summer, we decided to try feeding his curiosity at the city library closest to our new home. Both of us left disappointed because the city library shelves all its children's non-fiction with its adult non-fiction, making it very difficult for us to find appropriate books on the subjects in which he was interested. We happily drove the extra miles to take advantage of the county library's superior organization.

I know you're starting to wonder what this diatribe has to do with anything. Not a lot, really, except that it explains what I was doing in the children's non-fiction section of the library. Since it's Spring Break, I took the kids to the library (twice, because my daughter read half of her 20 books in 2 days), where my son and I were searching for books about guns (boys, I swear). As we looked, my eye gravited toward the book pictured above - We Rode the Orphan Trains by Andrea Warren. Something about the simple, straightforward title captured my attention. Once I got the book home and started reading, I realized I knew nothing about the orphan trains. I had the vague notion they had something to do with the Holocaust, which turned out to be completely false. In fact, they were an American solution to the problem of finding homes for needy children during difficult economic times. The book uses firsthand accounts to describe this era and the tentative, sometimes troubling beginnings of adoption/foster care in The United States. Through the voices of the children who rode them, we can begin to envision the adventure, terror and excitement that came hand-in-hand with a ride on the orphan trains.

Between 1854 and 1929, administrators at The Children's Aid Society and The New York Foundling Hospital (among other institutions) placed an estimated 200,000 children on trains bound for the west. The idea was to relieve overcrowded East Coast orphanages by giving abandoned, homeless and orphaned children the chance to grow up in a stable, loving family. Thus, kids were packed onto trains, unloaded at various stops and exhibited to potential adoptive families. In the book, adult riders remember the humiliation of being displayed before the public like farm animals. Adults who were looking more for laborers than anything else examined their muscles, teeth, skin, etc., not unlike white farmers once did when buying slaves. Many of the children did find loving homes, although stories of abuse, neglect and abject cruelty were not uncommon. The book lauds the efforts of early child advocates, especially those who acted as "agents" on behalf of the children. Whatever your opinion of the practice, it makes for fascinating reading.

It's the individual experiences, recounted by the children who lived them, that really makes this book impactful. Warren, who has written a handful of books about kids in history, does her subject few favors with her dull, unspectacular prose; thankfully, the material can stand on its own. The voices of train riders (all of whom are now elderly or deceased) speak loudly through this book with stories of pain, suffering, happiness and longing. These are the stories of adult adoptees who remember the fear and thrill of boarding a train for parts unknown; being exhibited, then chosen by people of all stripes; and later, the frustration of searching for their birthparents/siblings with the little information available to them. Unique and moving, the stories will touch your heart and open your eyes to a relatively unknown phenomenon in U.S. history. Plenty can be learned from the riders' experiences about what it means to be a child in need; what foster care/adoption can do for such children; and what really constitutes a family. Despite the lackluster writing, this is a powerfully moving tribute to the brave children whose lives changed forever when their paths led them to board an orphan train.

To learn more, visit the National Orphan Train Complex, Inc.

Grade: B+

Friday, March 20, 2009

The Thief Lord An Enchanting Gem of A Novel

Venice, Italy. A beautiful, glittering city where nothing is quite what it seems. Here, starving children become thieves; a crumbling theater transforms into a hideout; a masked child becomes a feared leader; and a magical artifact will change lives forever. This is the world of The Thief Lord and his band of orphans who steal from the rich to keep themselves alive. This is the world in which brothers Prosper and Bo find themselves after running away from their uncaring aunt and uncle.

The Thief Lord by Cornelia Funke tells their story. When the brothers escape, they head for Venice, the land of their dead mothers fairy tales. By sheer luck, they encounter a masked boy nicknamed The Thief Lord. He thrills them with tales of his derring-do, leads them to his hideout in an abandoned theater, and promises to take care of them. Prosper and Bo refuse to steal, but they enjoy The Thief Lord's protection nonetheless. Their leader, whose real name is Scipio, is generous and kind, as are the others in his merry band. The brothers feel safe in their new home. Still, Prosper fears his relatives will be looking for Bo, whose cherubic face endears him to everyone. Prosper knows his aunt and uncle plan to send him to boarding school, and he refuses to let that happen. Life on the streets is no way to exist, for either of them, but he has no other choice.

One day, Prosper's worst fears are realized when he spies a strange man following him. Riccio, one of the boys' friends, recognizes the man as a Venetian detective named Victor Getz. The children know they must throw the Signor off their scent, but that proves more difficult than they imagined. Turns out, the detective has some startling information for the children, information that will shake their faith in their much-admired leader. Still, the kids must band together to pull off a heist for a wealthy client. Even if they don't understand why they must steal a large wooden wing, they understand what a successful outcome means - 5 million lira in their pockets. When the children discover just what it is they are stealing, they're drawn into a fairy tale which concerns an enchanted merry-go-round, a haunted island, and a secret so incredible it could change all their lives - forever.

While I love Funke's Inkspell books, I like The Thief Lord even better. It's a lush, magical tale that charms with every sentence. From the unique characters, to the exotic setting, to the exciting twists and turns, it's just a gem of a novel. I thoroughly enjoyed it, so much so that I can't even think of any criticisms (I think I can actually hear your jaws dropping!) except that it ended long before I was ready to part with Scipio and his merry band of loveable misfits. What else can I say? The Thief Lord is, hands-down, my favorite read of the year. I adored it.

Grade: A

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Bleak Crow Lake Comes to Disappointing End

(Image from Random House)
Tiny Crow Lake seems to be a what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of place, but behind closed doors, anything can - and does - happen. The small farming community protects its own, but also keeps to its own. So, when trouble brews at the Pye Family's farm, nobody takes much notice. The Pyes have always had their problems. For 7-year-old Kate Morrison, the Pyes' troubles seem a million miles away (though, in truth, the Pyes are her nearest neighbors); her world consists of studying at the one-room schoolhouse, watching her little sister and exploring the ponds on her family's property with the older brother she idolizes. Although her parents are fairly austere (The Morrisons' 11th Commandment, according to Kate, is "Thou Shalt Not Emote"), her home life is stable and happy. When a freak car accident kills her parents, however, her safe little world shatters.
Although several relatives offer to take the younger children, 19-year-old Luke Morrison can't stand the thought of separating what remains of his family. Although he was poised to become the first in his family to go to college, his plans move to the back burner. Working at the Pye farm, he barely manages to scrape up enough money to keep the house running. Matt, Kate's brilliant 17-year-old brother, faces his own dilemma - stay at school or quit in order to work more hours? With money dwindling, tension between the brothers, and a grief-stricken toddler to deal with, things are unraveling at an alarming rate. When a crisis at the Pye farm engulfs The Morrisons as well, everything crumbles. How much tragedy can one family take before it breaks completely? Will any of them come through unscathed?
Crow Lake by Mary Lawson explores tragedy, hardship, and the myriad ways grief can split people apart or bind them together. The tone of the novel echoes the bleakness of its setting (Crow Lake is a fictional town situated in the midst of northern Ontario's untamed wilderness). The story is narrated by Kate, now a 27-year-old professor, whose memories are jarred by an invitation to attend a party in her hometown. She's turned into a cold, emotionless woman who is so scarred by her past she has trouble connecting with people - from her past or present. The trip home, accompanied by an inquisitive boyfriend, will make her face her traumatic childhood once and for all.
Although it seems depressing, this novel isn't quite as dark as it sounds. It's bleak, to be sure, but ultimately hopeful. The characters are strong, the plot moves right along, and the suspense builds nicely. After the build-up, however, The Big Reveal seems anticlimatic, even predictable. I wasn't thrilled with the ending either. By the conclusion, I had had about enough of Kate. I empathized with her to a point, but after awhile I just wanted to slap her out of her selfish, judgmental haze. I would have given the novel an A because of believable characters, a suspenseful plot and solid writing, if only it hadn't been for the crap ending. All in all, I liked Crow Lake, I just wanted a more satisfying conclusion.
Grade: B-
Wednesday, March 18, 2009

A Slumpy, Grumpy Giveaway

I don't experience book slumps very often. I always want to read, and I have more than enough books laying around to fuel my obsession hobby. But sometimes, like this week, nothing seems to strike my fancy. I pick up a book, read a few lines, then pick up another one, read a few lines and ... nyeh. Nothing grabs me. After stopping and starting a dozen different books (and changing my "Currently Reading" status abou a million times), I finally settled on Crow Lake by Mary Lawson. It's bleak, but really engrossing. I should finish it today - look for a review tonight or tomorrow.

In the meantime, since I've been feeling a little "slumpy" and grumpy (since I got a ticket yesterday for making a "wide, improper left turn" - grrrr ... I should have realized the police would be out en force for St. Paddy's), I'm going to do another giveaway. Yes, I'm just that generous. Actually, no I'm not - you have Tolly Moseley, a publicist with Phenix & Phenix to thank. So, here's what's up for grabs:

I have 3 copies of Chicken Soup for the Empty Nesters Soul. You're probably all familiar with the Chicken Soup books by Jack Canfield & Co., which offer poems/stories/inspirational thoughts about every subject under the sun. This one deals with - you guessed it - empty nesters. This volume contains 101 short (1-2 page) vignettes and poems that range from sentimental ("Taking Flight," "Coming Home") to hilarious ("The Whiz Kid," "Help! The Mothers Are Coming"). It makes for quick, light reading that's perfect for anyone who finds themselves facing (or about to face) an empty nest. Even if you're not at this stage, the book would make a great gift. So, what do you have to do to get your hands on a copy? Just answer a simple question: What's the first thing you're going to do (or the first thing you did do) when your children all fly the coop? Use your imaginations - I can't wait to hear the answers! I will draw the names of 3 winners on March 30. The giveaway is open to readers anywhere in the world. Good luck!

(Book Image from Barnes & Noble)

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Very Valentine: It Ain't Big Stone Gap, But It'll Do in A Pinch

If you, too, mourned the end of Adriana Trigiani's Big Stone Gap series, then listen up! She just released the first book - Very Valentine - in a projected trilogy. The novel contains everything we love about Trigiani -memorable characters; settings so vivid they pop right off the page; lots of humor; and plenty of heart. Don't get me wrong - it's not Big Stone Gap, but this series shows a lot of promise. In the absence of Ava Marie Mulligan and her crowd, it'll do. Quite nicely, in fact.

The story begins with a big, noisy Italian wedding where we meet the colorful Angelini/Roncalli Family. Our narrator is 33-year-old Valentine Roncalli, who offers her status in the book's first paragraph - "I'm not the pretty sister. I'm not the smart sister either. I am the funny one" (1). Although she may not realize it, Valentine is more than the comic relief - she's also a talented designer, who may be the only person capable of saving her family's 100-year-old shoe business.

Since 1903, the Angelini Shoe Company has been a Greenwich Village landmark. Founded by Valentine's Italian grandfather, the shop specializes in crafting wedding shoes from the finest materials the Old World has to offer. Thanks to the finicky fashion world and some financial mismanagement, the family business now totters on the brink of bankruptcy. Selling seems to be the only answer. But Valentine the comedian is deadly serious about one thing: She desperately wants to save the Angelini Shoe Company.

Alfred, Valentine's golden boy/financial whiz of a brother, recommends selling the building, the company's only asset. But Valentine can't stand the thought of losing the shop that has sheltered her since childhood. The only other option is making 10 times the profits they do now. Considering the crumbling economy and the finicky fashion world, it's an impossible task. Valentine refuses to give up, even though it angers Alfred. She simply can't sell her dream, can't watch her family's history pass on to some greedy investor. To save the business, she comes up with a plan, a plan that will take her to Tuscany, where the roots of her family tree remain firmly planted. There, she hopes to find her way in both her professional and personal lives. But what will nurturing her passion really mean? Will it require losing the man she loves? Or selling the business she may not be able to salvage? And, always, there's her family in all its loud, fractious glory - will the squabble over Angelini Shoe Company be its ruin, too?

Set amid the glitz and glamour of New York, Very Valentine lacks the hometown feel that makes the Big Stone Gap stories so appealing. It's heartwarming, nonetheless, just in a different sort of way. Like its predecessors, Very Valentine charms because of its characters. They're quirky, colorful and so ordinary that the Roncalli Family could be your own. Details about shoe-making add interest, although I got a little irritated with all the description of what I consider to be Trigiani's Holy Trinity - food, fashion and architecture. I also, at times, tired of Valentine's brash personality. Still and all, Very Valentine's a charming debut to what promises to be another luscious family saga by the talented Adriana Trigiani.

Grade: B
Saturday, March 14, 2009

Distracted By Books

I've talked before about what a little bookworm my 7-year-old daughter is. She reads constantly, running through dozens of books each month. She stashes books in the car, the bathrooms, the kitchen - everywhere - just so she will never be without one. Sound familiar?

Anyway, her assignment for today is to get her room cleaned. It's a disaster, and will probably take her hours to get straightened. So, I was surprised when she popped down the stairs a couple of minutes ago. I asked her if her room was clean, to which she heaved a big sigh and said, "I'm TRYING to clean my room, but I keep getting distracted by books!" A few minutes later, her eyes lit up as she hit on the perfect solution: "I'm going to take all of the books out of my room until it's clean. Then, I'll put them back." And off she trotted.

I'm still chuckling. How many times do we bookworms get so distracted by our reading that housework goes undone, kids get ignored, and work falls by the wayside? I think my daughter knows what she's talking about: If we carted all the books out of our houses, we'd have so much time for other things. But, where's the fun in that? Who wants to scrub toilets when adventure awaits inside a book? I'm tempted to let her lounge on her unmade bed and read all day, but that's how she got herself into this (literal) mess in the first place. What's the bookworm mom of a bookworm child to do? I'm sure there's a book on the subject out there somewhere ...

And Now, The Post You've All Been Waiting For ...

First of all, thanks to everyone for making this such a successful giveaway. I received more comments on Michelle Moran's interview post than on any other post I've ever written. Wow. I loved watching all the comments add up. It's so much fun for me to know that you read - and enjoy - my little blog.

Alright, enough of the chit chat. Let's get on to the good stuff! Drumroll, please ...

The winner of Nefertiti is ... Heather Wardell!

The winners of The Heretic Queen are ... Lexie and Booklogged!

Congratulations, ladies! If you will please send me your mailing addresses (, I will pass them on to Michelle, who will be mailing the books. Thanks to her for offering copies of her books for the giveaway, and thanks to all of you for entering!

If you didn't win this time, please do not fret. I have more giveaways coming up. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

African Sci-Fi Novel Leaves Me Cold

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

It's 2070, and things have changed. The continents have shifted following a nuclear fallout, erasing borders between lands and worlds. Advanced technology exists alongside potent magic. In West Africa, where 14-year-old Ejii Ugabe lives with her mother, chaos reigns. The ground shakes, electricity sizzles off and on, and her land's rulers can't keep the peace. It's a tumultuous time for Earth, but Ejii knows great things are happening. And she wants to be a part of it.

Sure, Ejii's only a kid, but she possesses abilities most other 14-year-olds do not. She's a metahuman, one of a small group of people who have magical abilities. As a Shadow Speaker, she can see up to 15 miles in the dark and "day or night, the shadows were alive and drawn to her, often pressing close and trying to speak to her" (25). Her cat-like eyes proclaim her identity, earning her mixed reactions. Some respect Ejii's powers, but most cross the street to avoid her. Her own half-brother mocks her, calling her a curse from hell. Ejii wants desperately to belong, but she also wants to see how far her abilities can take her. The Red Queen, a warrior woman who rules the turbulent land, recognizes Ejii's potential and requests her presence on an important peace-keeping mission. When her mother refuses to let her go, Ejii slips away, determined to help the Red Queen on her quest.

Days behind the warrior woman, Ejii must find her way with only the help of her talking camel. In a world turned strange and dangerous, she must be very careful. The desert teems with characters - human and non - who threaten to end her journey prematurely. With the help of a new friend and the ever present shadows, Ejii will make her way to the queen. Even at her journey's end, she realizes that everything is not as it seems. Can she channel her own power to help bring peace to her land? Or will the world's great shifts leave her abandoned and alone? Can she channel the shadows or will they devour her with their power? Can she, a self-confessed freak of nature, really make a difference?

So goes The Shadow Speaker by English professor Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu. While there were definitely elements I liked about this novel - namely, its exotic locale and the idea of magic emerging in a post-apocalyptic world - I also found it to be bleak and depressing. With the exception of Ejii's loyal camel, I thought the characters came off as cold. Empathetic, but lacking any real warmth. Plotwise, The Shadow Speaker moves quickly, but comes to an anticlamatic and ambigious end. It's also liberally peppered with profanity, which I found jarring and out-of-place. Without a doubt, Okorafor-Mbachu can write, but something about this story just failed to grab or move me. If it didn't have such a strong sense of place, I probably wouldn't have finished the novel, but the Africa angle kept me interested. It just wasn't enough to save the book for me. I do think Okorafor-Mbachu's other book, Zahrah the Windseeker (which I think is a prequel, of sorts) sounds interesting, so maybe I'll give the author another shot. Just probably not anytime soon.

Grade: C

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Bright Blue Miracle A Refreshing Beacon of Light

Take a stroll through the YA section of any bookstore, and it's bound to get depressing. After all, a crowd of creatures you've previously met only in nightmares leers at you from every shelf. Wizards, vampires, werewolves, demons, djinni - welcome to the decade of dark fantasy. Considering this sea of bleakness, is it any wonder Bright Blue Miracle stands out? With its bright, whimsical cover and sunny title, Becca Wilhite's first novel shines like a beacon in murky water. It just screams "Happy Book!" And who doesn't need some happy in a world made even more dreary by so much black-cloaked reading material in the kid's aisle?

If you're expecting life between the covers of Bright Blue Miracle to be a bed of roses, think again. Its heroine, 17-year-old Leigh Mason, can attest to that. When the novel opens, her widowed mother is breaking big news - She and her boyfriend are getting married. Not that Leigh doesn't like her mother's fiancee, but he's not her fun, big-hearted dad. Plus, he comes with a perfectly nice, perfectly beautiful teenage daughter. Who will be moving in with Leigh, who is decidedly unperfect.

Leigh tries to make the best of an uncomfortable situation, but the transition isn't particularly smooth. She knows she should like her new stepsister; Betsy's so nice there's no reason not to like her, but their forced friendship bugs just the same. Especially when Betsy starts dating Leigh's best friend Jeremy Bentley. The relationship between Leigh and "Germ" has always been as comfortable as a pair of worn blue jeans, with no romance involved, but suddenly Leigh's wondering what could have been if Little Miss Perfection Personified hadn't shown up. Being the third wheel is no fun, but she doesn't want to lose her best friend. How can she keep him focused on her? And can she do it without destroying her family, in all its blended glory? When a crisis sucker-punches her good and hard, Leigh will find out what it really means to be a friend - and a family.

As you can see, Bright Blue Miracle offers a simple, no-frills plot. At times I wanted more depth from the novel, but I also appreciated the tight focus on Leigh and her relationships with Betsy and Germ. The whole "bizarre love triangle" thing did get a little weird for me, although it was all very innocent and platonic. Besides that, however, I really enjoyed this read. It was quick, funny and upbeat. Pitch perfect, it's Leigh's voice that really carries the novel. She's sarcastic, but not obnoxious, bitter but not mean, likeable but not flawless. She comes off as very real. The book did not wrap up as predictably or cheesily (is that I word?) as I thought it would - so that was a nice surprise. Overall, I found Bright Blue Miracle to be a sweet, clean read with a lot of heart. Just gazing at the cover is a pick-me-up. Refreshing, isn't it?

Grade: B

(Book image from Barnes & Noble)
Monday, March 09, 2009

Shades of Grey Color Me Disappointed

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Best-selling author Jodi Picoult tackles the tough stuff - she's taken on the death penalty, euthanasia, rape, sexual abuse, school shootings and much more. In fact, it's become her M.O. to take a controversial subject; explore it from every angle using real, sympathetic characters; then leave the reader to come to his/her own conclusion about the topic under scrutiny. This is why I love Picoult so much. She makes me think. She makes me question. She forces me to feel for her people even when I find their actions morally repugnant. Even though her books rarely change my mind about an issue, they definitely make me more empathetic.

Her newest, Handle With Care, follows the Picoult pattern. It concerns Charlotte O'Keefe, whose youngest daughter Willow was born with osteogenesis imperfecta (also known as brittle bone disease). Although Charlotte adores her daughter, Willow's condition makes life difficult - because the 6-year-old's bones break so easily, the O'Keefe's are constantly in and out of the hospital. Even with insurance coverage, the medical bills are astronomical. Charlotte works full-time as Willow's caregiver, and her policeman husband takes on extra shifts to help pay for specially-made car seats, wheelchairs, pillows and leg braces. Despite all the pain associated with OI, Willow's a bright spot in the O'Keefe's world, with her patience and sunny outlook. In stark contrast is Amelia, the O'Keefe's older daughter. Although she's fiercely protective of her sister, Amelia's growing resentful, too - after all, the family can't go anywhere or do anything without worrying that Willow's going to trip on a napkin and end up in the E.R.

After a disastrous trip to Disney World, the family ends up in the law offices of Robert Ramirez, determined to sue everyone from the park's director to Mickey Mouse. Ramirez helps them see the futility of their case, but offers another possibility: What if their OB/GYN could have diagnosed Willow's OI sooner? If the O'Keefes can convince a jury they would have aborted their daughter had they known about her condition, they could be awarded millions of dollars in damages. Instantly, they see what the money could mean: a new wheelchair; a minivan from the 21st Century; OI camp; a future for Willow. The flip side's a little murkier - bringing a wrongful birth suit against the OB/GYN will require Charlotte to betray her best friend, perhaps ruin her career. It will also mean admitting on the stand - in front of her husband, daughters and the media - that she wishes her child had never been born. But the money means a brighter future for Willow, and Charlotte's willing to do anything - anything - to provide for her youngest. As the months march on, Charlotte must decide just how much she's willing to risk for the lawsuit. Can she sacrifice her privacy? Her best friend? Her marriage? How about the very child she's trying to protect? How far will she go to get the money that could change her daughter's life forever?

Handle With Care asks some tough questions: Do parents have the right to terminate a pregnancy if they know the baby will be born with disabilities? Should physicians even offer abortion as a possible "solution?" What constitutes a life worth living? How can parents of children with severe disabilities cope financially and emotionally? Are the sacrifices these parents and families have to make worth it? In the book, shades of grey color each of these ideas. For me, though, the issues at hand are very black and white, which is probably why I didn't enjoy this book as much as previous Picoults. I empathized with Charlotte, but I found her motives suspect from the beginning. Thus, I found myself thinking, "This lawsuit is ridiculous. Why is it still going on?" It bugged me through the whole book (since the whole book is about the lawsuit).

Still, I've said this once and I'll say it again, Jodi Picoult on her worst day writes better than many authors on their best. Like all her other books, Handle With Care rivets the reader to the page. Her characters are complex, skillfully-drawn individuals. Her plots are taut and fast-paced. So, despite my misgivings about Charlotte and her lawsuit, I still raced through this book, anxious to know what was going to happen to the O'Keefes. Which brings me to the novel's ending. I've read enough Picoult (like every book she's ever written) to see what was coming, but that doesn't mean I liked it. In fact, I'm still bugged by the ending. Grrr. I hate that. I firmly believe a book should be resolved to my satisfaction before it ends.

So, yeah. I love Jodi Picoult for so many reasons, but I'm a little ambivalent about her newest venture. The whole idea of a mother aborting her baby simply because the fetus shows signs of disability angers me, so much so that I couldn't identify with Charlotte. I felt for her, but I didn't identify with her. I didn't like her either, but that's beside the point; because I couldn't identify with her, I didn't connect with her, and that soured the story for me. Otherwise, it's vintage Picoult - solid characters; compelling topic; fast, well-constructed plot. A page-turner, for sure. I just wish I connected with it a little more. Soooo, I'm not taking Picoult off my "Favorite Authors" list just yet - I'm just hoping for better from this talented novelist.

Grade: B

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Cancel Bedtime - In the Woods Won't Let You Rest

When I hear a thriller described as "raw," "gritty," or "hard-boiled," I generally give it a wide berth. It's not that I don't like mysteries or police procedurals, it's just that I like them ... soft-boiled. I can do without the excessive profanity, sex and gore that usually reigns in this genre.

All this considered, I probably shouldn't have enjoyd In the Woods by Tana French as much as I did. Still, I like me a good psychological thriller, and this is a good psychological thriller. It's got some issues (let's just say that the author's favorite word begins with an F and ends with a K), but overall, it's a wholly absorbing, unputdownable thrill ride that will have you salivating for answers. And losing sleep.

The story begins on a sunny day in 1984, when three kids vanish into the woods behind their houses. One, Adam Ryan, is found that night pressed against an oak tree, mute with terror. Although the police question the boy repeatedly, he can't remember what happened. Neither his friends, nor their bodies, make it out of the woods.

Fast forward 20 years. Adam has changed his name to Rob, joined the Dublin police bureau's Murder squad, and done his best to keep his past a secret. Only Cassie Maddox, his partner and best friend, knows his true identity. So, she, and only she, realizes the significance of the case that lands on their desks. A child's body has been discovered in the Knocknaree woods - the same forest from which 2 kids disappeared 20 years ago. The same forest from which only a single child resurfaced - one Adam, a.k.a Rob, Ryan. Although he knows he should recuse himself from the case, but he can't. He has to know if the murder is connected to the disappearance of his childhood friends. Against their better judgments, Rob and Cassie begin investigating the crime.

The victim is 12-year-old Katy Devlin, a pretty girl who dreamt of becoming a ballerina. A young archeaologist finds her body draped over an ancient stone altar, in the middle of what was once Knocknaree woods, but is now his dig site. After interviewing all the archaeologists, plus Katy's family, the detectives are left with no suspect. There's plenty to arouse suspicion - Katy's mother's not quite right; her sisters make Rob's skin crawl; Mr. Devlin and the archaeologists all vehemently oppose a roadway that will be built through the woods, earning them powerful enemies; and a fanatic student admits to camping near the spot where Katy's body was found. To add to the mystery - and take Rob's breath clear away - evidence found near Katy suggests her death may be tied to the disappearances of Rob's friends.

As Rob continues to investigate, he finds his carefully-constructed present crumbling in the face of past terror. Every day, he's reminded that "In ways too dark and crucial to be called metaphorical, I never left that wood" (31). Rob feels the ghosts of his friends hovering, but he can't reach them, can't force himself to remember. The stress of it all eats him away, stealing his appetite, his clear head - even Cassie can't seem to keep him grounded. As Rob feels his self-control slipping away, the case comes together in ways he never imagined. With everything on the line - his career, his best friend, his very sanity - Rob will do whatever it takes solve the mystery of three children whose lives changed forever when they stepped into the woods. Even if it means succombing to the terror that had him clinging to a tree so fiercely his nails broke off in its trunk.

Now, you might think In the Woods is just a heart-pounding thriller a la James Patterson, but it's not. Character plays a huge role in this book. The relationship between Rob and Cassie beats with life, adding a whole new level to the story. It's impossible not to connect, not to root for the detectives. French also weaves a story that twists and turns enough to keep things interesting. If you're a Law & Order/CSI junkie, you won't be too surprised by the Big Reveal, but this novel's really all about the journey. Like I said, it's (very) liberally sprinkled with profanity, but there's little sex and less gore than you would imagine. My biggest beef is that French leaves a lot of questions unanswered. I detest canned, neatly-wrapped endings, but in this case, I wanted more answers. Still, this remains a taut, well-written mystery that will have you tearing through the pages just to find out what's going to happen. Cancel bedtime. You won't rest - or breathe - until you've turned the last page.

Grade: B

(Book image from Barnes & Noble)
Wednesday, March 04, 2009

A Couple Clarifications and a Request

A few things I wanted to mention:

1.) On the giveaway: You don't have to comment twice (although I love all the comments) - one entry is fine. Unless otherwise noted, I will assume that you are putting your name in the hat for both books. Sorry for the confusion!

2.) I e-mailed Michelle, and she says she's willing to mail books to anywhere in the world. Yay - that should make my international readers very happy :)

3.) My friend asked me to recommend a good book light - one that clips onto a book so you can read at night. Weirdly, I've never used one, so I don't know what to recommend to him. Any suggestions??

4.) Something weird happened on my personal blog. Suddenly, all the text is teensy tiny. I have absolutely no idea how this happened or how to fix it. Anyone had this happen on Blogger?

5.) I've got several reviews I need to work on, but I'm a little distracted by the fact that I have new books by Jodi Picoult, Adriana Trigiani, Robyn Carr, and Jonathan Stroud sitting on my desk. Hopefully, I can get caught up this week. So, stay tuned for those, another fun giveaway and lots, lots more.
Sunday, March 01, 2009

Egyptian Epic Lets You Go Only After You've Laughed, Cried and Just About Wet Your Pants in Suspense

I'll be honest: I tend to make snap decisions. Especially when it comes to books. By the

end of a novel's first chapter, I pretty much know whether I'm going to love it or hate it. Sure, books sometimes surprise me, but for the most part, the leading chapter tells me all I need to know. Occasionally, though, I don't need a whole chapter. Sometimes, all I need is a paragraph; sometimes, only a line. I know this is a little cliche, but I've been dying to say it: Nefertiti, you had me at hello. Michelle Moran's debut novel has everything I love in a book - solid writing, engaging characters, and a swift, interesting plot. Have I mentioned that I love this book?

Although the novel's spotlight shines on its title character, it is the narrator who steals the show. Mutnodjmet, Nefertiti's younger half-sister, tells the story with the quiet dignity that becomes her trademark. Through Mutny, we come to know her sister, one of the most infamous and iconic queens in history.

Though close, the sisters could not be more different - where Nefertiti is small and graceful, Mutny is tall and awkward; Nefertiti lives for the glamour and glitz of palace life, Mutny prefers the solitude of her gardens; Nefertiti is impulsive and passionate, Mutny is reserved and level-headed. Because of her calm demeanor, Mutny is the perfect foil for Nefertiti, who is poised to become the next queen of Egypt. As their father, Vizier Ay, plots to put Nefertiti on the throne, Mutny scrambles to save her peaceful life in the country. Eventually, she succumbs to the inevitable and becomes her sister's companion at court. When Nefertiti weds Amunhotep, an ambitious prince who's rumored to have murdered his brother to capture the crown, Ay begs Mutny to act as Nefertiti's conscience. For the good of the family, Mutny accepts her fate, even if it means forsaking her garden. Soon, she realizes her lofty position makes her little more than a spy for and servant to her demanding sister.

As much as Mutny resents her duties, she knows she must protect her family's power. Potential usurpers lurk around every corner. Nefertiti's goddess-like beauty dazzles princes and peasants alike, but Amunhotep's other wives, especially the lovely Kiya, see it only as a threat. If only Nefertiti could produce a male heir, the throne would be safe, but her womb seems doomed to release only princesses. As her paranoia grows, Nefertiti employs a full arsenal of schemes, plots and deadly acacia to cut down her rivals. Clearly, she will stop at nothing - no matter how vicious - to keep her gilded crown. When Mutny finally realizes just how far her sister and brother-in-law will go to preserve their rule, she flees in fear, vowing never to return to the palace.

Meanwhile, trouble is brewing outside the palace walls, where the people have finally grown weary of Amunhotep's fanaticism. Testaments to his vanity appear on every wall, where images of himself and his queen have replaced those of the Gods. He's commanded almost every soldier to build his city, leaving Egypt's borders open to intruders. Within his court, things are no less turbulent. Enemies abound even within Amunhotep's inner circle, making the Pharaoh mad with threats both real and imagined. While Ay begs Nefertiti to reign in her husband, the situation becomes desperate. Although she's determined not to become a slave to her family's ambition, Mutny finds herself back in the palace, frantic to protect her sister. It's a fight for life, power and a place in the history books. It's a battle that will be won - and lost.

Although Nefertiti contains all the elements of a satisfying novel - action, romance, humor, depth - it's the characters that make it most appealing. Each is a finely-crafted masterpiece, from the fearsome Amunhotep to his power-hungry viziers to his magnificent wife and her humble sister. We see their failings, their triumphs, their desperation; Moran makes the ancients human, sympathetic, real. Just as the Egyptians once were, we cannot help but be entranced by these figures and their turbulent histories. As Nefertiti's people did, we can only watch in open-mouthed amazement as the story unfolds and hold our breath until it comes to its heart-pounding conclusion. This is one of those books that swallows you whole, spitting you out only after you've laughed, cried and just about wet your pants in suspense. Loved, loved, loved it. That's all I can say.

Grade: A

(Although I didn't label Nefertiti a clean read, it has no profanity and no real sex scenes. References to sex are many, but vague and undetailed - intercourse is discussed mostly in relation to producing heirs. In my opinion, Nefertiti is suitable for church and other book clubs, that prefer G and PG-rated books.)

Author Chat: An Interview with Michelle Moran (With A Giveaway!)

Okay, so now you know how much I enjoyed Michelle Moran's first novel, Nefertiti. I can't wait to read its sequel, The Heretic Queen. In addition to being a fabulous writer, Michelle's also a fascinating person. Don't believe me? Read on ...

Me: Hi Michelle! Welcome to Bloggin' 'bout Books. Have you always had an interest in history and her famous heroines? If so, what sparked your interest? If not, when did this interest develop?

MM: I would say that my journey into the world of history actually began with the PBS television program Reading Rainbow. I was eight years old when the program featured a children’s book about dinosaurs. On the screen, a group of school children were huddled around a dinosaur bone, dressed in khakis and safari hats. They were squatting over a gigantic femur and tenderly cleaning off the dirt with their brushes. “That’s what I want to do,” I announced, and when my mother signed me up for a children’s course in paleontology at the Natural History Museum, I knew I wanted to join a dig someday.

Twelve years later I found myself sitting in Anthropology 101, and when the professor mentioned that she was looking for volunteers who would like to join a dig in Israel, I practically trampled the other students in my haste. Visions of artifacts danced in my head. After all, it was Israel, and who knew what we might find? For the three weeks before the orientation meeting, I agonized over what I should bring. Shorts, of course, and heavy boots. But what about brushes? Were there special brushes that archaeologists used, or would the ones from Home Depot be okay? I finally settled on brushes from Home Depot, and when it came time for packing, I lovingly placed them in protective wrap and imagined all the priceless artifacts they’d soon be dusting.

When I landed in Israel, I unpacked my brushes and laced up my boots. I didn’t own a fedora, but I already felt like Josh Bernstein and I was ready to Dig Up Some Truth. As we arrived at the dig site, our team leader walked to the back of his van. I watched enthusiastically as he unloaded twenty pickaxes. When he began passing them out to the volunteers, however, I became concerned. They’ve mistaken me for someone else, I panicked, someone who’s signed up to dig ditches instead of brushing delicate femurs. “What is this?” I asked when it was my turn for a pickax. “One of your tools,” our team leader replied. “There’s a shovel as well. You’ll be digging six feet by ten.” When he saw the shock on my face, he frowned. “You knew that, didn’t you?”

For weeks we dug ditches, shoveling dirt into wheelbarrows and hauling the barrels of dirt down a hill. Over that summer I think I lost ten pounds, and I know that I gained some serious muscle. Plus, I never did get to use my brushes. Only seasoned archaeologists were allowed to do the delicate work. But when our team discovered an Egyptian scarab that proved the ancient Israelites had once traded with Egyptians, I began to wonder who had owned that scarab, and what had possessed them to undertake the long journey north from their homeland to the fledgling country of Israel.

On my flight back to America I stopped in Berlin, and with a newfound appreciation for Egyptology, I visited the museum where Nefertiti’s limestone bust was being housed. The graceful curve of Nefertiti’s neck, her arched brows, and the faintest hint of a smile were captivating to me. Who was this woman with her self-possessed gaze and stunning features? I wanted to know more about Nefertiti’s story, but when I began the research into her life, it proved incredibly difficult. She’d been a woman who’d inspired powerful emotions when she lived over three thousand years ago, and those who had despised her had attempted to erase her name from history. Yet even in the face of such ancient vengeance, some clues remained.

As a young girl Nefertiti had married a Pharaoh who was determined to erase the gods of Egypt and replace them with a sun-god he called Aten. It seemed that Nefertiti’s family allowed her to marry this impetuous king in the hopes that she would tame his wild ambitions. What happened instead, however, was that Nefertiti joined him in building his own capital of Amarna where they ruled together as god and goddess. But the alluring Nefertiti had a sister who seemed to keep her grounded, and in an image of her found in Amarna, the sister is standing off to one side, her arms down while everyone else is enthusiastically praising the royal couple. From this image, and a wealth of other evidence, I tried to recreate the epic life of an Egyptian queen whose husband was to become known as the Heretic King.

Writing the novel took years of research. I wanted to be sure that when I wrote Nefertiti I was extremely accurate, down to the color of the palace tiles and shape of the women’s beads. At the same time, however, I wanted to be careful not to weigh the story down in too much detail. There needed to be the same sense of urgency, danger, and passion as filled Nefertiti’s world.

Me: I know that you travel a lot. Do you pick up ideas for stories from every place you visit or are some (like Egypt) just more inspiring to you?

MM: I pick up ideas in every place I visit. Most of those ideas will never be used, but every country has its own wealth of history which is inspiring.

Me: What's your best (funniest, most interesting, scariest, etc.) travel story?

MM: Oh gosh. This would have to go in the scariest category. Last summer when my husband and I were in Switzerland, we were navigating via GPS and came to a fork in the highway. The GPS instructed us to go left, and since there were no signs indicating we should do otherwise, we traveled left. Unfortunately, this was a freeway off-ramp we were traveling up, and as a large garbage truck came barreling down on our tiny two-person Smart Car, we swerved and avoided becoming road kill by a terrifying few seconds. You read those stories in the paper and think, "Now who would be fool enough to blindly follow instructions from a navigator?" But I can tell you, there are times when things come together - and not for the best. Between the lack of signage, the GPS, and our unfamiliarity with the roads, we very nearly snuffed it. Score 1 for my husband's quick reflexes. Score 0 for listening to electronic devices.

Me: One thing that impresses me about your books is the rich detail. How much research do you do before (or while) you write a book?

MM: I begin by purchasing what feels like every book ever written on the subject I'm interested in. Sometimes that means our mail carrier will be delivering sixty books to my house in one week. It takes me several months to go through them, and when I feel like I have a pretty strong outline of my subject's life, I make a storyboard and begin to look for holes. Whatever holes I find, I try to patch with an event that wouldn't seem too far-fetched. If I run into trouble with a setting or a scene, I have friends in the archaeological world who can advise me on whether or not something I want to include is realistic.

Which means that all of the major events and characters in NEFERTITI are based on fact. Even the description of Nefertiti’s palace and the images she had painted beneath her throne are historically accurate. Archaeologists today are extremely lucky that so much of Nefertiti’s life is well preserved. But it wasn’t always this way. After Nefertiti’s reign, her enemies tried to destroy her memory by demolishing her city. The historical character of Horemheb, in particular, wanted to be sure that nothing of hers remained, so he broke her images down piece by piece and used them to fill the columns of his own buildings. Fast forward three thousand years, however, and as Horemheb’s columns began to deteriorate, all that was left were the perfectly preserved (although broken) images of Nefertiti and her life. The irony!

But although most of this novel is based in fact, some liberties were taken with personalities, names and minor historical events. For instance, no one can be certain how Mutnodjmet felt about her sister’s vision of an Egypt without the Amun Priests, but in an image of her found in Amarna she is standing off to one side, her arms down while everyone else is enthusiastically embracing the new god Aten. In a period where art attempted to portray reality for the first time, I found this significant. And while Nefertiti did have six daughters with Akhenaten, she never, so far as we know, produced twins.

Me: You write about famous women. If you could ask one question of each of your heroines - Nefertiti, Nefertari, Mutny, and Cleopatra - what would those questions be?

MM: Oh gosh.... To Nefertiti, I'd ask what inspired her to demolish Egypt's ancient religion for one of her own. To Nefertari, I would ask how she managed to become Ramesses's most beloved wife (she had tough competition!). For for Cleopatra, I'd want to know whether it was suicide by choice, or enforced suicide because Augustus was going to kill her anyway (to me, the latter is much more likely).

Me: Your new book about Cleopatra will be available in September. What about her captured your interest?

MM: The inspiration to write Cleopatra’s Daughter came during my first visit to Augustus’s villa. For two thousand years, the Roman Emperor’s home lay atop the Palatine Hill, its frescoed halls and tiled walls slowly deteriorating. At one time, its vibrantly painted dining room had hosted magnificent feasts, one of which would have been the celebration of the emperor’s triumph over Marc Antony and Cleopatra in Egypt. As the heir to Caesar, Augustus was determined to rule the western world without interference. Once known as Octavian, he changed his name to Augustus, and with the help of his general Agrippa and his architect Vitruvius, he turned a city of clay into a city of marble.

I had known all of this on that day in March when the villa was opened for the first time in more than a century. What I hadn’t known, however, was just how unbelievable that trip into the world of ancient Rome would be. After three million dollars in restoration, Italian archaeologists had been able to recreate not just the intimate library and studies Augustus had used, but the mosaiced floors he had walked on and the vividly painted ceilings he had walked beneath with Ovid, Seneca, Cicero, Horace, and even Julius Caesar himself. As we were quickly escorted through the frescoed rooms, we stopped in the ancient triclinium – the dining room which had once seen so many famous faces smiling, laughing, crying for mercy. With a little imagination, it was easy to see the tables and couches which had once adorned the chamber, and there was the undeniable feeling of standing in the presence of the ancients. It was the kind of feeling you only got in Grecian temples or Egyptian tombs.

Immediately, I wanted to know more. Exactly who had eaten in that room, staring at the yellow and ochre walls? Which women had entertained the emperor with their stories of what had been happening in Rome while he was gone? I went to my books, and what I found sent me back to the villa the next day. I told my husband to get a good look at the triclinium again, and this time, to imagine Cleopatra’s children sitting to the right of Augustus. I could almost see eleven year old Selene with her twin brother Alexander, the pair fearful as they wondered what would become of them with their parents gone and Egypt overtaken. I could imagine their reactions when they were told they would be raised in Octavia’s villa, the woman their father (Marc Antony) had left for their mother (Cleopatra). As I surveyed the dining room one last time, I knew I had to tell young Selene’s story. From her childhood in Alexandria to her queenship in Mauretania, it was a story no other historical fiction author had ever told. I would pick up where Colleen McCullough had left off in Antony and Cleopatra, and where Margaret George had left off in Memoirs of Cleopatra. Now, of all of the books I have written, it is by far my favorite, replete with one of the greatest (and shockingly true) love stories of all time.

Me: What are you working on now?

MM: Actually, I'm still editing Cleopatra's Daughter. The process ends about six months before a novel's debut, so I have about a month more of tweaking...

Me: I ask this of every author I interview, because I find the answers so fascinating: What is your writing process? Do you have a daily writing routine or do you write only when inspiration strikes? Do you outline your books or just let the ideas flow? Is there anything you HAVE to have by your side when you write?

MM: I wake up, check email for half an hour, attend to my blog for twenty minutes, spend another half hour surfing other people’s blogs, and then at about 10am I get down to business. I open a diet coke (my mother says that when I’m fifty and have no teeth I’ll know why), check my outline for the day, and begin to write. Writing sessions are punctuated by visits to my hotmail account more frequently than I’d like to admit. But I don’t stop until I get my 2000 words, even if that’s at nine o’clock at night.

Me: Thanks so much, Michelle!


Michelle is generously offering 1 copy of Nefertiti and 2 hardcover copies of The Heretic Queen. All you have to do is answer one little question: Who do you think is the most fascinating woman in history? Leave your comment on this post along with a valid email address (if you don't have a blog). If you blog about this giveaway, I'll even give you an extra entry. How's that for an awesome giveaway? Contest ends March 14. You may enter once to win Nefertiti and once to win The Heretic Queen.


Book and author images are from Michelle's official website.
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