Friday, October 31, 2014

Interview: Sebastian Gregory

As a Halloween treat, we are pleased to bring you an interview with dark fable writer, Sebastian Gregory:

A Portrait of the Author and Friend.

Seb, thank you so much for joining us on our blog today.  I'd like to start by telling you how much I enjoyed both The Asylum For Fairy-Tale Creatures and The Boy in the Cemetery.    They were wonderfully creepy tales.   What is it about fairy tales and fables that inspires you?

Thank you for having me and taking the time to read my stories.  I think the thing I like about fairy tales as inspiration is how they can lend themselves to different situations and stories.  They can be re told a thousand times over and still be fresh, or they can be changed completely while retaining certain themes that make them instantly recognisable.

Your books certainly do have violence, but they aren't overly graphic.  What's your opinion on some of the more graphic, spatter horror that's out there?

I think violence can be a necessary part of a story, however personally I prefer something to be sinister than gory, I think it makes a more interesting experience.  

On a serious note, with the exception of horror's golden period in the 1980's and 1990's, horror has always been sort of considered the bastard child of the publishing industry.  It's harder and harder to find bookstores with horror sections.  Dean Koontz, a past president of the Horror Writer's Association (HWA), decided that he didn't want to be known as a horror writer and many mainstream publishers simply stopped publishing it.  But you seem to revel in the genre.  Why take on what may be an uphill battle?

I wouldn’t consider myself a horror writer as such.   I just happen to write dark themes, strangely though I would say they are a playful type of darkness, yes I have a zombie boy in my story, but he’s very childlike and real.  I think the scenes grounded in reality are more horrid than the supernatural ones.   However  when I was younger I did emulate the classic horror writers, Stephen King, Clive Barker,  Dean Koontz, Shaun Houston.  I think that kind of horror still exists today but in other forms, it’s become more sophisticated and psychological, this most evident in movies than anything.

What do you see as the future of the genre?  More zombies?  Realistic horror?  New Monsters?

I can see the generic monsters always being relevant because the way the stories are told.  Just as a creature becomes tiresome, someone will make it interesting again.  The walking dead is the best example of this.  On paper its just zombies again, however it is so much more than that on many levels.   Then of course they will be new creatures waiting in the shadows to drag us in.

And on a lighter note, have you had any real experiences with 'things that go bump in the night' that you can share with our readers?

Everyone has a bump in the night story or something they cannot explain.   I am not sure if this makes it supernatural or not, however life would be dull if the supernatural did not exists in one form or other.   I do share my experiences however, they are in my books!

If our some of our readers haven't had the chance to experience your books yet, where should they start and why?

I would start with The Boy in the Cemetery as this the most accessible and the one more personal to me. From then on Alice or Asylum are very similar in scope and style. All my books would be good for anyone who likes fairytales with a touch of the macabre.

Finally, what's in the future for Sebastian Gregory?  What can our readers look forward to next?

In December Carinauk will be publishing “A Christmas Horror Story.” It’s about three children left alone on Christmas Eve, when Das Kinderfresser ( a German folk tale monster)  comes to visit.   I am not sure what 2015 holds yet, but I have a few ideas.

Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us today.  We look forward to your next creepy tale!

About Sebastian:

Sebastian Gregory (Pronounced Gre-gory) writes from a cabin in the middle of a haunted wood. His inspiration comes from the strange and sorrowful whispers amongst the ghastly- looking trees. From the shadowy candle light of the cabin Sebastian is only permitted to leave once a story is complete, where it is unleashed upon the world of the living. Sebastian writes for the younger readers as they are easier to terrify than adults whose imaginations died long ago. When not writing in a cabin in the middle of a haunted wood, Sebastian lives in Manchester with his family and various animals. You can email Sebastian on, he would love your feedback. You can follow him on Twitter @wordsbyseb

THE BOY IN THE CEMETERY is only .99 for a limited time on Amazon, Apple and other retailers.
THE ASYLUM OF FAIRY TALE CREATURES is free for a limited time on Amazon, Apple and other retailers.
THE GRUESOME ADVENTURES OF ALICE IN UNDEADLAND is .99 for a limited time on Amazon, Apple and other retailers.

Look out for A CHRISTMAS HORROR STORY, coming in December.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

By the Roots - A Review of Plucked: A History of Hair Removal

bookcover of PLUCKED: A HISTORY OF HAIR REMOVAL by Rebecca Herzig

 by TakingaDayOff

Expecting a history of how the ancients removed their hair (you never see the Ancient Romans or Greeks with beards, do you?), I found that Plucked: A History of Hair Removal deals with that topic pretty neatly in the first few chapters. Historian Rebecca Herzig then moves on from the mundane of how body hair was removed until modern times (waxing, tweezing, burning), to how and why it has been removed for the past hundred years or so.

The ancients have nothing on us moderns for hair removal methods. Herzig describes early 20th century x-ray treatments for removing hair from the face, a painful and largely unregulated procedure. Radiation turned out to be a less than optimal solution to body hair, but as the century and science progressed, hormone therapy became the next craze in exfoliation. As fashions in clothing and hairlessness changed, laser treatment (also painful and sometimes unsafe) emerged. As the 21st century dawned, Brazilian waxing became as common as tattoos and another painful beauty routine was introduced.

Herzig discusses attitudes, science, advertising, the money angle (doctors found that specializing in laser procedure was more lucrative and easier than family practice, for instance). She doesn't ignore men -- although they have only recently begun tending to body hair other than facial in recent years, it's become almost a given that men will do some "manscaping."

Plucked is an academic look at hair removal, but it's entirely readable and fascinating for a general reader. Plenty to ponder as you tweeze your brows or undergo the agony of a bikini wax.

(Thanks to NetGalley for a digital review copy.)

Plucked: A history of Hair Removal
by Rebecca Herzig
NYU Press  
publication date: January 9, 2015 

Want Some Chills?

bookcover of THE BOY IN THE CEMETERY by Sebastian Gregory

Author: Sebastian Gregory
Published: October 29th, 2014 by Carina

Carrie Anne and her family are on the run. Hiding dark secrets and an even darker shame, they move to a new town where she's told by her parents - act normal. But nothing is normal in her live.  She looks for comfort in the cemetery behind her house.  But secrets don't hide in the shadows for long.  Something else is in that cemetery…and it's been waiting for someone like her.


With The Boy in the Cemetery, Sebastian Gregory proves that he isn't just a one trick pony.  This book is creepy, macabre, and heartbreaking.

Like his very successful The Asylum for Fairy-Tale Creatures, The Boy in the Cemetery has a very fable like quality to it.  But the issues the story deals with are anything but fairy tales.  The sub-plot is disturbing, heartrending, and all too real.  And Gregory proves he has the chops to deal with it.

The story is violent and gruesome, but stops short of being terribly graphic  - a good thing as the atmosphere is eerie enough as it is.

And though it's a short work, the characterization is spot on.  Your heart bleeds for Carrie Anne, even as you are horrified by what happens.

This is a macabrely beautiful work and well worth the read.  

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Fish Slapping: Goodreads, Cover Art, and Upvoting

I’m guessing that most readers, myself included, think about books in terms related to the writing: story or plot, character, setting, themes and the like.  But what about the physical book, the package you see in the store or when looking online – which draws you to one book over another?  Title, author, and cover art come to mind, not necessarily in that order.

In an age of internet sales driving the book business, cover art has become all the more important and obvious.  Outside of an author’s name being attached to a book, attractive covers have the ability to draw in readers and sell them content they may not otherwise even notice.  One look at reviews on Goodreads in particular is all the proof needed.  A search also shows how Cover Love is alive and well:

That’s a lot of lists just focusing on book cover art.  Depending on how you phrase the query, you can get even more results or less depending on the specificity of your search.  Still, 200+ focusing on something that’s often easily detached or even forgotten about once a book is opened is worth taking a closer look at.

Consider these two screenshots of reviews from Goodreads for two books that could be classified as Young Adult and Fantasy or Science Fiction.  First, a sample of reviews from the last of a NYT bestselling YA series:

Now a sample of reviews for a newly released YA trilogy starter:

In terms of helpfulness, the majority of the above reviews tell you little to nothing of the contents of the book relating to story (which would be the author’s territory) but they do tell you all about how incredible the book looks (the cover artist/design team’s territory).  As nice as this is, there are a few issues that arise from such “reviews.”

1.    Upvoting – if you’re a publisher or author or anyone involved with the book, you’re hoping the numbers are good because people are more likely to buy something that other people like.  Seeing a lot of 5 star reviews can generate extra sales, but a closer look may show that the upvotes are actually related to the cover, not the writing.  While I have nothing against the practice of reviewing a book by its cover (we all do this every time we pick one book over another either online or in store when just browsing as opposed to when we are looking for a specific book), rating a book by its cover is a different story. 

Rating 5 stars and saying “Squee, best cover ever!” is obnoxious and unhelpful for someone looking for an honest review of book content.  “Totes unique and original” is only mildly more helpful, but sometimes still questionable as to whether it refers to cover or content when the date of the review is before the date of book publication or even after pub date.  I often agree that a cover is “squee” worthy when I’m looking at certain genres (Young Adult reviews are often plagued by these reviews), but I’m not reading reviews to know what people think of the cover that I know looks amazing.  I want to know why a 5 star rating was deserved for the author’s work or why someone else thought it was worthy of a 1 or anywhere in between.  I have never ever seen a 3 star review that says “This cover was okay, but lacked that certain je ne sais quoi to make it worthy of an extra star or two.”  That’s the type of review you get for the writing, not the art.  Hence, the cover “reviews” with ratings actually upvote the content and do not reflect an accurately helpful rating of the product.

2.    Increased Pre-release Fan girl/boy activity: This is something you actually want if you’re an author trying to sell a book, especially if you’re getting your first book published or your first in a specific genre or your first in a long time.  A solid cover that catches the eye can help drive sales instead of people just saying they’ll wait until they can get it from the library.  I don’t have numbers, but from experience talking to people and my own purchasing habits, people are more likely to buy attractively packaged products more than those that look shabby or not worth purchasing.  This also helps explain why certain series get re releases with new covers from time to time.  I have to admit that I seriously considered purchasing the Harry Potter hardcover set featuring Kazu Kibuishi’s cover art because it looked cool, I love the artist, and I only have a measly paperback set, but I didn’t need another set so I’ve held off.

But what the cover art does in the case of a lot of high profile series is stir up the fan boy and fan girl rather than the public.  I’m guessing that my Harry Potter example is something that some people are rolling their eyes at.  It’s not for everyone.  In actuality, the first of the screen caps shows this, a high profile series with great art to the fan of the series causes the upvoting phenomenon on an even bigger scale.  Since they are already a fan, the assumption is that the book is going to be “OMG, Amazing!” regardless of the content.  That’s not true, but you’ll have to dig to find the fans who hated the book(s) and give us wheat reviews because of all the chaff reviews that amount to “So PRETTY!  I NEEDZ, HAZ 2 HAZ.”

3.    Material Misrepresentation: I call this the cover that has details that are not in the book or the cover that has little to no real connection to the writing.  While authors may ask the publisher to include something in the cover art or have the artist represent a particular scene or sequence, the truth is that most cover art is created separately from the author’s work and intent.  Most authors will tell you that they get little if any say in what the cover of their book looks like.   Graphic novels and picture books are often the exception but that’s due to the artist being directly tied to book content.  Even so, the content of the book and the content of the cover do not always match up and can cause confusion and even anger amongst fans.

Scrutiny is a big thing when it comes to cover art.  The bigger the series or the author, the more likely the cover is going to be looked at with the finest tooth comb.  Sometimes something is included or hinted at on the cover that actually has nothing to do with the book or lead fans to believe one thing only to discover the writing tells a very different story.  A well-known example of the cover not matching the story is the U.S. cover of Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief.   The cover features a finger knocking over some dominoes and does not reflect the fact the book is about a young girl's life in Nazi Germany as observed and narrated by Death.   While covers not matching stories is less a problem than it used to be when the writing and packaging of a book were completely separate, it still happens from time to time with the result that someone, somewhere, is vastly disappointed to the point that a product is unfairly dissed.

4.    Incorrect Source Attribution: Let’s give the proper person credit where credit is due.  If you’re talking about the cover, please (x3) mention the artist or design team responsible.  Saying the cover is the author’s own work (unless it obviously is) is a vastly incorrect source attribution.  We all like to have our good work noted.  The cover artists deserve as much credit as they can get for a job well done, especially if it’s going to drive sales for a product.  Most jacket covers give artists and designers credit on the back flap, so saying that they’re not listed or easy to find simply isn’t true these days.  Most good ones can even be found online with a minimal amount of searching.

If you’re still with me, this has all been a long winded attempt to explain why good book cover art matters and why acknowledging the artists is important.  As reviewers, we need to give the artists their dues for the beauty they bring to books.  We need to acknowledge that their artwork can create a frenzy and generate sales.  It’s okay to recognize the art as much as the writing, but also to recognize that they are not reflective of each other.  A book with beautiful art may not be as beautifully written.  The reverse can be equally true and that's okay.

I’m all for giving a shout out for beautiful covers.  What I’m *not* for is the upvoting and reviews from the fan girl/boy that focus solely on how a book looks.  A book is more than art.  A book, the physical variety anyway, is a package deal.  It is the harmony of font, typesetting, binding, jacket cover and art with the characters, setting, and plot present in the writing.  It’s not just the author or the cover artists that sell good books.  It’s the design teams at the publishing houses that give us covers to drool over, titles to obsess about, and books we want to share with everyone.

Go ahead and drool, you know you want to.  Just attribute correctly, or I’m gonna have to resort to some fish slapping a la Monty Python.

Oh My God! I read Christian Fiction...And I liked it!

bookcover of LAST FAMILY STANDING by Jennifer Allee

Title:  Last Family Standing
Author:  Jennifer Allee
  • *Book Received through Amazon Vine Program for review.

It's rare that you'll see me reviewing Christian fiction, mainly because I tend to find that heavy-handed messaging overshadows the plot of the stories.

This is an exception. I really enjoyed this book.

The messaging is more in the way that people treat each other. There's a lot of growth, respect, and some really great people who learn how to accept, forgive, and love - and all without the author hitting you over the head with it.

Now, I do need to be honest, the reason I selected this book (aside from an interest in the basic plot) was that I love reality shows like Survivor. And if, like me, you enjoy those shows, you'll love this. The author obviously watches the shows and it comes through how much she enjoys them.

But for those of you who don't love reality shows, the story itself will get you through. It's hopeful, sad, joyful, and just a great story about love and the true meaning of family.

Is it Christian? Yes. Some of the characters mention their faith more than once, but these are the kinds of Christians who represent the best out there. They are tolerant, humorous, kind, they make mistakes and may not always do the right thing, but they are, at heart, good people.

Yet, I can't give it five stars.

There's a very sweet romance in the novel that was very rushed in the end. I felt a little cheated when the author basically told us what happened with that, rather than showing us. And there's a little too much fairy tale in how everything works out. I needed a little more reality in their family situations and a little less 'neatly tied up in a pretty package'.

But I would read the author again in a heartbeat - Christian fiction or not. She simply tells a good story!

Four Stars.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Review: CAN'T GIVE THIS WAR AWAY: Three Iraqi Summers of Change and Conflict

bookcover of CAN'T GIVE THIS WAR AWAY: Three Iraqi Summers of Change and Conflict by Nathan Webster To this date, there are 474 books about the Iraq War. I have read many of them, starting with Nathaniel Fick 's 'ONE BULLET AWAY, The Making Of A Marine Officer'. I heard him speak, and then continued to read more books during and after we left Iraq. It seems appropriate now, as we await the final days of our presence in Afghanistan, to look back at our presence in Iraq. Did we make a grave mistake in leaving no US presence in Iraq, did we open the door for a more horrific terrorist group, ISIL? You can make that judgement, but it is always best to have some facts and some knowledge behind your decision making.

The author, Nathan Webster, a photo journalist, and a US Army Veteran, from the 2003, Desert Storm, Operation Iraqi Freedom, has provided us with his day to day presence during three summers in Iraq, from 2007-2009. In 2009, he embedded with the same Charlie Company from 2007, and shares their experiences during the winding down of the war. I found his particular experience, talking and living with the troops as the days wore them down, a much more personal story. He provides photos within the stories, and they add to the scope and feel of his experience.

In 2007, Charlie Company, was assigned to smaller posts within the Iraqi cities. No longer behind large compounds, where Iraqi citizens had no contact with them, Charlie Company now worked side by side with Iraqis. Their job to convince the Iraqis to side with the US against the Al Qaeda. They patrol with Iraqi security or cops in 125 degree heat. The heat is overwhelming and 4 liter bottles of water a day keeps dehydration at bay. The company all wear their armor, and the pounds add up, just another inconvenience in this day to day existence. They meet with Iraqi tribes which was another strategy of that year. Charlie Company has become cynical, it is the Iraqis turn to fight the Al Qaeda, and for Charlie to go home. The failing war has taken it's toll.

In the summer of 2008, Nathan embeds with the 25th Infantry soldiers, who worked with the Iraqi tribal leaders. Riding in an 8 wheeled personnel carrier, called The Stryker, he rides with other soldiers to their destinations. They get out quickly, once security says it is clear. The Stryker could be a prime target for insurgents. Personal communication with the Iraqi soldiers is done in broken English that the Iraqis know. Few soldiers know Arabic except for key phrases they pick up. 'Shaku-maku' in Arabic means 'what's up', a favorite phrase some of the soldiers learn. That and 'shuckan- thanks', means you care, and that kind of interaction gets a better response from the Iraqis. Sons of Iraq, local Iraqi soldiers who provide security for their area, are paid $300 a month. The money is US, but it is the local SOI council who pay the soldiers. Most of the soldiers think this is payment so that the Iraqi soldiers work with the US and don't play with the other side.

In 2009, Webster rejoins Charlie Company at Combat OutPost Cahill. Many of the company remember him. They tell him of their newer, bigger quarters with two chefs, even though they are subpar. Everyone has their own computers,so the camaraderie is less apparent. Life is better on this tour. They are teaching the Iraqi soldiers to shoot at target practice. They work with the Iraqis, telling them, the US will be leaving soon, and you need to own up and lead. "This is the last slog. Mission Accomplished". The security is split 50:50, US: Iraqis. No longer can the Iraqis defer to the US. The Iraqis have a huge test coming. Several times, training would be scheduled and the Iraqis would not show up. The soldiers reflected their previous difficult experiences in 2007, and their experiences this time in 2009. The Iraq War as summed up by Nathan Webster, " Iraq since 1991, 2003 and forward, shining through all the enthusiastic cynicism and gleeful bitterness, biting fears and star crossed hopes."

Nathan Webster shares his experiences with the men, and some women, he talked with and photographed during these three years in Iraq. Their stories and their day to day existence is what makes this book so telling. I liked the discussions with the officers. Reading about their interactions with their troops and the Iraqis gives us an insight to their leadership style. Most were well liked and respected by their companies. We already know the big picture of Iraq, the missing WMD, the war that failed, and we left the Iraqis to cope on their own. Now, I have a better understanding of the last surge, the primary thinking of the soldiers who were put to the test to try and salvage the Iraq mess. The frustrations of teaching and training Iraqi soldiers to carry on to defeat the Al Qaeda with no US support. What were we thinking? We sent these men and women home from the horrors of this war to find their own way. Most make it, some don't. What have we learned, and what do we have now with our broken policies? These men and women can tell us, and it is important that we listen.

Nathan Webster hopes to write another book, catch up with the soldiers he met from 2007-2009, see where they are and how they are doing. They are the real story.

Three Iraqi Summers of Change and Conflict
by Nathan Webster
Pub: April 10, 2012

Some Luck: - A Novel

bookcover of SOME LUCK by Jane Smiley'Some Luck', may be the best book of the year, it is in my opinion. Jane Smiley has that undefinable knack in a writer that draws you in, and you sink deeper and deeper into the quick sand. You don't want to get out because you like the characters so much, and you want to know what happens next.

Walter and Rosanna Langdon, the parents, and their six children, Frank, Joe, Mary Elizabeth, Lillian, Henry, and Claire. Each person has a definite personality, and we begin with the marriage of Walter and Rosanna. As they tell their stories of life on a farm in Iowa, we learn what a very difficult life a farmer leads. And, the wives, never stop with their work, from morning to night. However, Rosanna rarely complains, but we are privy to her thoughts and her actions. She of the beautiful face and long blonde hair. Walter, the father, conservative, hard worker, counts his meager pennies, loves his beautiful wife, and his children.

This is the beginning of the family. Life revolves around the family, grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins. Sunday dinners, holidays, birthdays, the food, the 7 layer birthday cakes. No mixers, only hands and maybe an egg beater. We hear about the meals, and see the roasts and vegetables and mashed potatoes in our mind. The house, small, thin enough wood that the wind rustles through the slats in winter, and the heat in summer causes sweat, no relief, no fan, only open windows.

Then, the children, Rosanna loves them so, some more than others. In them she sees each distinct personality, knows how to care for them and when to leave them alone. She wants the best for them, argues the importance of education, so her very intelligent children go to high school, college. We understand the children, we see and hear their lives as they grow from babies to people with personalities. Through the good years, the tough years, the Depression, the War, will they stay or will they leave.

Each chapter is a year in the life of these people, starting in 1920 and ending in this novel, in 1953. This is the first of a trilogy written by Jane Smiley. She tells us the three novels will go to the year 2020. This first one is magnificent. The Langdons are people I care about, you will too.

Meet Me Halfway, Barnes & Noble

Photo courtesy of

by TakingaDayOff

I bought an ebook from Barnes & Noble the other day – no, not I actually went into the store and walked out with a digital book. For me this was the best of both worlds. I shopped in a bricks and mortar store, browsed through dead tree books, had a coffee and listened to some new music, then bought a book in the format I like best, while supporting my favorite bookstore.

Our family bought a membership at Barnes & Noble earlier this year. Although we prefer the convenience (and adjustable font size) of ebooks, we enjoy browsing through the bookstore a couple times a week and would miss it if it went out of business. So we buy hardcover and paperback books a few times a month, hoping that there are enough customers like us to keep B&N solvent.

Even with the coupons B&N keeps sending as a perk of the membership, buying physical books is more expensive than buying ebooks. One of the coupons they sent recently was for an ebook for $6.99, a change from the usual 20% off coupons good on physical items only. I was pretty sure that we'd get to the cashier with our coupon and there would be some exception I'd missed and we'd discover the coupon was only good for our choice from a short list of last year's best sellers. But there was no problem -- we told the clerk what book we wanted (American Pulp: How PaperbacksBrought Modernism to Main Street), she found it in the database, verified our email address, and rang up the books. For good measure, we also bought a paperback (Cutting Room: Dark Reflections of theSilver Screen).

So now I'm wondering why we can't buy all of our ebooks from the neighborhood bookstore. Since they are already painfully aware that many people use the stores as showrooms, giving the books a test drive before they end up buying them online from Amazon or Kobo, why not go with it? Put a scan code next to each book and let people buy them and download them on the spot.

Just because I like to read ebooks doesn't mean I don't care about my local bookstore. Meet me halfway, Barnes & Noble!


MUSEday Tuesday: Just My Type … Yours, Too?

(advance review copy courtesy Amazon Vine program)

Whether you are a fan of typography, history or a well-turned phrase, this novel rooted in historical research will grip you tight until you finish, and linger long afterward.

GUTENBERG'S APPRENTICE by Alix Christie 2014 US book jacket
U.S. book jacket
Gutenberg's Apprentice is grand and sprawling in all the right ways. Alix Christie demythologizes the icon we know as Gutenberg and humanizes him with a portrayal of a gifted, driven, high-strung, imperfect, visionary man. Receiving almost equal billing is Peter Schoeffer, a young man who becomes Gutenberg's apprentice.

Characters, setting, dialog, and pacing all are competent and keep a story this vast moving without getting muddled. 

However, where this book excels is Christie's adept descriptions of minute details, such as the crafting of the punches, and the casting of pieces of type. She comes by this knowledge not only academically but with ink under her fingernails. She apprenticed beginning at age 16 with master letterpress printers and as an adult, as she puts it, "kept a hand in the 'darkest art.'" It is fitting that someone with ink in her veins found documentation of the other key figures involved in Gutenberg's mighty achievement, and recognized that this was a story worth researching and telling.
GUTENBERG'S APPRENTICE by Alix Christie 2014 UK book jacket
UK book jacket

Any top-notch historical biographer could have done a serviceable job describing the years of intrigue, perseverance, and privation that went into the development of movable, metal type. It is our good fortune that the person who unearthed the rich additional information surrounding its birth was someone with ink in her blood.

The resulting tale is by turns luminous, sweaty, funny, and bittersweet. Pick it up on a Friday evening and you will be lucky to return to the 21st century before Sunday. And be warned, once you do, you will fire up your computer or mobile device and lose several more hours while you locate additional information about some of the people in the book and additional images from the time. (Saying any more would tread too close to being a spoiler, but be assured there are rich library resources available. If you'd like a hint, drop me a note in the comments.)

And now for the MUSEday Tuesday question:

I was surprised to find that this book has been published with two very different cover designs. The one on the left is the U.S. version; the one on the right is what readers in the UK are seeing. 

Which one is your favorite, and why? 

by Alix Christie
Sept. 23, 2013

(U.S. and UK cover images courtesy author's website)

Michel Faber: From Victorian prostitutes to Christian missionaries in space

(Note: I received a free review copy of this book from Amazon Vine)

I read this book more than a month ago, but I'm posting my review today in honour of its official release date. I'm excited to see what everyone else thinks of the book. I suspect that you'll either love it or hate it, and I'm definitely on the love side. I was very sad to see that, following the death of his wife, Faber plans to stop writing novels.

Book Review: The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber

I really enjoyed Faber's earlier novel The Crimson Petal and the White so I was excited to see that he'd written another one. The premise was also intriguing: a Christian missionary travels to another planet to work with the native population there, while receiving updates from his wife about the increasingly apocalyptic conditions back home on earth. The book interweaves the story of Peter's missionary work among the aliens with the story of his increasingly strained relationship with his wife, which suffers from the vast distance between them and the enormous difference in their circumstances.

There are some themes here that I don't normally find very compelling, namely issues of faith and marital difficulties. But I found myself completely absorbed in Faber's creation, tearing through this hefty volume in a matter of days. The characters all felt very real to me, with vivid personalities and abundant flaws. There were times when I would have liked more detail about certain events, particularly Peter's early days among the natives, but ultimately the book as a whole comes together very well. Various mysteries are satisfactorily resolved. The only aspect of the story that I found somewhat unsatisfying was its open-endedness; there are hints about how everything may turn out, but we don't actually see it all through to the end. I can understand why Faber stopped where he did; important decisions have been made and events have been put in motion, so that it might actually have been anticlimactic to pursue each thread down to its final resolution. I just wasn't quite ready to leave this story yet, which might speak as much to its power as to anything else.

A word of warning: despite the central role of faith, this is definitely not what I would classify as "Christian fiction". It opens with a sex scene and contains plenty of profanity, along with descriptions of bodily functions, masturbation, etc. This is the sort of content that could have come across as gratuitous, but instead it adds an element of gritty realism. The religious message is also not entirely unwavering, which I appreciated as a non-Christian reader.

I'd like to say more about the plot and the various issues that arise in the course of Peter's mission, but I think it's best to approach the story without too much prior information and just allow yourself to get caught up in the flow. There are plenty of surprising elements here whose impact might be diminished by reading about them beforehand. Peter sets off on a journey into the unknown, and I'm very glad that I had an opportunity to travel along with him. I just wish I could do a better job of explaining I liked this book so much; it's a powerful novel whose impact I can't seem to express in words. Reading it was a fully immersive experience.

Monday, October 27, 2014

The Story of a Real Life Secret Santa and How They Changed One Family's World

bookcover of THE 13TH GIFT: A True Story of a Christmas Miracle by Joanne Huist Smith
The 13th Gift: A True Story of a Christmas Miracle by Joanne Huist Smith

Book received through the Amazon Vine program in exchange for an honest review.

Just about everyone has heard of the Secret Santa tradition.  One where we get together. give gifts anonymously, and throw an office party.  But this Secret Santa was something really special and very unique.  They reached out to a family falling apart.  A family that didnt seem like it was going to survive through the Christmas season without some very serious emotional fallout.

When gifts start showing up at their doorstep (along with cute little verses that I lvoed), the mom is initially quite upset.  Upset in a way that I really didn't understand until about half way through the story.  These gifts from strangers brought a holiday to her that she was trying desperately to erase from her life.  A holiday that brought so many bittersweet memories with it.

Thankfully, her youngest won't let her throw the gifts away, and even manages to make a game of trying to catch Santa in the act.  Slowly but surely these gifts - one for each of the 12 days before Christmas - begin to draw the family not only into the holiday spirit, but it brings them back together.  For the first time in a long time, they find themselves working on a common project - a who-dun-it (in a good way) type of mystery.

In the end, things are still not normal, but the family has learned to come together to deal with all the things life throws at them.  They have also built some amazing memories together that they continue to share through the years.  This is what a Christmas story should be all about.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Historical Goofs, and Other Stuff that Spoils Historical Novels: Pam Jenoff's "The Winter Guest"

I think I read my first historical novel when I was eight years old; certainly, by the time I was nine, I had graduated to reading adult historical novels, such as those by Jean Plaidy and Georgette Heyer. From these and other great novelists working in this genre, over the decades I have learned what makes a historical novel convincing -- whether it's something as weighty as Wolf Hall or a slight historical romance -- is that its characters and situations must feel authentic and true-to-life and the author must be spot-on accurate in their presentation of the historical facts. 

Occasionally, I run across an egregious example of a book that violates both of these. The winner may be Carolly Erickson's The Favored Queen, a novel about Jane Seymour, Henry VIII's third wife. Erickson likes to write what she refers to as "historical entertainments" (translation: novels with no connection to historical truth whatsoever), so perhaps I shouldn't have been terribly surprised to encounter a scene in which Anne Boleyn is stricken with sweating sickness while shut up in quarantine with Catherine of Aragon, Jane and the other court ladies, at which point, Catherine's chamberlain tries to stuff her body out of the window and into the moat in order to protect the rest of them from contagion. Yes, really. Oh, and Queen Catherine saves her. Yes. The icing on the cake in that little gem? Henry's favorite term of endearment for Anne Boleyn is "puffball". Okaaaay.

bookcover of THE AMBASSADOR'S DAUGHTER by Pam JenoffIt gets tougher when looking at Pam Jenoff's novels, however. She's not offering up historical entertainments, but historical fiction -- and historical fiction set against important events in the recent past (such as the Versailles Treaty negotiations that ended World War I and paved the way to World War II in The Ambassador's Daughter) and the Holocaust, as in the just-published The Winter Guest

The former is a more tedious read, but at least it doesn't distort historical facts and ask you to imagine six impossible things before breakfast. It does involve a willing suspension of credulity -- how could Margot Rosenthal, its heroine, have traveled to England from Germany to sit out WW1 as enemy aliens after the outbreak of that war? -- but its major flaw is simply that Margot is a rather silly young woman. Presumably she's not obtuse, and yet she fails to realize just how bad the bloodshed was on the Western Front. Similarly, although her father is now involved in the peace negotiations, she displays an astonishing lack of judgment and awareness, chattering away about the gossip surrounding the conference at a louche Left Bank cafe among people she has just met (with predictable consequences...) She's a passive character, whose main interest simply seems to be her struggle to reconcile her growing romantic interest in a young German officer who is party of the military delegation to the Versailles talks with her engagement to marry a young man she hasn't seen throughout the war, a family connection whom she realizes she neither knows nor loves.  

bookcover of THE WINTER GUEST by Pam JenoffLove stories -- especially historical romances -- work best when they are about more than just a young woman agonizing about the man she loves and how to be with him. Especially when the backdrop is a time of high drama. That's particularly true of Jenoff's latest book, The Winter Guest, whose heroine, Helena Nowak, is at least a tougher and more resilient young woman. It's Poland, still early in World War II, and a soldier has literally fallen out of the sky near the Nowak family cottage. Helena -- who, along with her twin sister Ruth, is caring for their three younger siblings -- almost literally trips over him. True love follows, quite rapidly.

Here's my big beef with this book. As Sam Rosen, the soldier, makes clear later on, this is the winter of 1940/41. (He refers to war between Hitler and Stalin as still being in the future.) In other words, it is at least a year before America became involved in the war. And yes, it's clear that Sam is an American soldier, serving in the US forces and not in the British army. (Moreover, the Polish resistance keeps talking about the Americans coming to save them.) How can I trust an author who has an American soldier running around occupied Europe a year before American forces would even have been doing any such thing? Spooks, sure, but not soldiers. And Sam isn't a spook, he's a soldier. Moreover, he's a soldier who says he can get Helena's young siblings onto a "kindertransport" train from Czechoslovakia to safety. Trains that stopped running in 1939. What on earth? 

I can accept that Jenoff glosses over the traumatic details of life in occupied Krakow -- Helena seems remarkably emotionally unaffected by the sights she witnesses at a hospital that is the victim of an SS Aktion and in which she is nearly caught up, relative to her emotions for Sam and her sibling rivalry with her resentful twin, Ruth. It's tough, but it's possible. After all, Jenoff's mandate is to write a romance; to tell a captivating story. 

But it should also be a believable one. And to start off with dates that don't match what is historically feasible, and wrap up with a twist that is beyond the bounds of all probability (revealing it would be spoiler-ish, I'm afraid) is just too much. 

And so, sad to say, I have turned the final pages of my last historical novel by Pam Jenoff. There are plenty of other writers out there doing precisely what she is, just as well or better, without twisting the facts or creating implausible situations or heroines. It's the facts that bother me most. Lots of readers won't bother with extensive histories of, say, the Tudors, and that's just fine. But that makes it all the more important that novelists ensure that their readers don't end up thinking that "puffball" was a real Tudor-era term of endearment...

I received an Advance Review Copy of A Winter Guest from the publishers via Amazon Vine, and of The Ambassador's Daughter via NetGalley. Both novels are published by Harlequin.

Space Zombies? Really?

bookcover of BLACK REDNECK vs SPACE ZOMBIES! by Steven Roy

For a little pre-Halloween fun, I decided to revisit an old favorite:  Black Redneck vs. Space Zombies!

Jefferson Balladeer has spent his life running from his redneck roots, feeling out of place as a black redneck in a world full of whites.  However, when he returns home to deal with his brother's estate, his little town is in danger from a horrific invasion - and only his redneck roots can save Jefferson and his town from the...Space Zombies!

When the author of Black Redneck vs. Space Zombies contacted me, offering a copy of his book in exchange for a review, I'll be honest - I hesitated.  I's called Black Redneck vs. Space Zombies.  How good could it be?  But I looked at the cover, which was darned good.  It reminded me of the old Pulp SF novels back in the day.  I downloaded the sample and saw that it seemed to be well written.  So I took the chance.

Well, I've now found myself telling everyone I can about this little book.  Steven Roy has an obvious love for horror and science fiction and presents us with a story worthy of those pulp fiction greats.  The book is funny, clever, gruesome and even has heart.  If I had to put it in movie terms, I'd say it's a little mix of Robert Rodriguez and The Blob.

One of the things I feared was that the book might be stereotypical when it came to the rednecks in the story.  I needn't have worried.  Roy presents us with a group of people who are down to earth, full of fire, and who love family - no matter the color of their skin.  Ssh...don't tell, but Chapter 44 actually brought tears to my eyes.

As for the Space Zombies - they work.  They are gruesome yet so much fun!  Roy didn't hold back on his aliens, but rather than feel old fashioned or hackneyed, they felt just right for the tale.

I'll be looking for books by Steven Roy in the future.  He brought back the fun to the genre and I'm so happy I had a chance to read this!

Saturday, October 25, 2014

I really hated "Beautiful You" by Chuck Palahniuk

bookcover of BEAUTIFUL YOU by Chuck Palahniuk
I haven't read any of the author's other books so I really didn't know what to expect from this book.  I thought it might be a humorous social satire -- when I told my co-workers the basic story line, they all laughed -- so I decided to take a chance on it. This could have been a scathingly funny book in the hands of a writer who really understands and likes women and can poke fun at our foibles without getting ugly, but this is not that book and apparently not that writer. I just don't find any humor in a man using sex to control and manipulate the female population and the overall feel of the book to me was misogynistic, not humorous.  Reading it made me want to burn it in my driveway to help exorcise it from my mind.

This book has a LOT of sex so don't read it if you aren't comfortable with that.  But all that sex is very unsexy and instead ranged from clinical to gross (dead mother's finger used as a sexual aid????).  The first three pages of this book were my first clue that this was going to be an unpleasant reading experience.  The main female character is raped in a public courtroom and no one comes to her aid.  The circumstances are explained much later in the book but that passage made me very uncomfortable.

For social satire to be effective, it has to paint an accurate (even if exaggerated) picture of the follies of society it is intending to skewer. The main female character fails in that aspect.  She is supposed to be a young lawyer at a NY firm and the author has her fetching coffee and looking for chairs for a meeting.  Young lawyers do a lot of grunt work but it is all billable legal grunt work. And the notion that nearly all women would buy the Beautiful You products and then abandon their jobs, families and every other aspect of their lives reflect such a poor understanding of what women are like that it makes the book fail for me.

I don't throw around the term misogyny lightly, but this book felt anti-woman from beginning to end.  I really can't recommend that any women read this book.  I suspect that there will be a number of readers who think this book is brilliant and hilarious -- and I suspect that they will be overwhelmingly male.

I received this book free from the Amazon Vine in exchange for a review.  Obviously getting it free didn't make me predisposed to like it. 

Romeo and Juliet and Companions

bookcover of  CLOSER TO HOME (The Herald Spy, #1) by Mercedes Lackey

Two families, both alike in dignity, in fair Valdemar where we lay our scene.

Lackey takes on The Bard's most famous tale in the first book of her new Herald Spy trilogy. Mags is in Whites, finally, and ready to take on the full responsibilities of a Herald and King's Spy, as if he hadn't been doing that in the five book series covering his time as a trainee. Incidentally, if you have not read The Collegium Chronicles, do. This book picks up right after book five of that series ends, and you will need the backstory.

It is love at first sight for young Violetta, when she spies the handsome stranger at the ball, a love so strong that she is shattered to learn that stranger is the son of her father's worst enemy, born into a family with whom her family has a generations long bitter feud.

But when he sneaks into her father's party masked and dances with her, declaring his undying love, she is certain their love can conquer anything. We are treated to a balcony scene with dialog that is somehow poetic without being corny, and to a desperate attempt at a wedding against the wishes of both families. It's worth it for the balcony scene alone. We even get the flighty nurse.

We don't get to see Bear or Lena in this, which is a little disappointing, but we do get a delightful new group of characters. Amily comes into herself in a host of different ways.

It's hard not to compare any Herald to Vanyel, arguably her most popular character, and while Mags isn't nearly as serious, and the series had a substantially lighter tone, he is every bit as compelling. My only complaint is that it is way too short and I'm impatient for the next one.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Best Food Writing 2014 - A Literary Smorgasbord

bookcover of THE BEST FOOD WRITING 2014

This anthology series, The Best Food Writing, is not part of those other anthology series you see every fall. It's all on its own, with the same editor, Holly Hughes, since 2000. Although I didn't discover Best Food Writing until 2003, once I found it I had to go back and read the volumes I'd missed up to that point. I discovered new writers and publications -- what a treasure.

Then, about ten years into the series I stopped enjoying the annual food writing collections. They'd become "Pollan-ized" -- the articles were more and more about sustainable food and locavore eating, a la Michael Pollan and others. Not all the articles were so solemn -- some were downright snooty, about self-important celebrity chefs and exclusive four star restaurants. No thanks.

But this year, Hughes has returned with a collection reminiscent of the old days -- essays about quirky food memories and found recipes and the unexpected, such as $4 hipster toast. It's not just fluff either -- there are some gritty and pointed articles about prison food, eating on an ever-shrinking food stamp allotment, and the myth of the condemned prisoners' last meals.

Over fifty writers have contributed to this 400-page buffet of essays, articles, and recipes from newspapers, magazines, and food blogs. Chow down!

(Thanks to NetGalley and Perseus Books for a digital review copy.)


Arctic Summer: E.M. Forster's High Noon of Creativity

When this novel by South African writer Damon Galgut opens, we meet the still-young E.M. "Morgan" Forster, on board a steamship and en route to India for his first visit to the country and to his friend Masood, whom he had coached for his admission to Oxford years ago, and who has since begun to establish himself as a barrister in a small Indian community. From the beginning, the reader understands that this is two narratives packed into a single book: the tale of how what is possibly Forster's most famous novel, A Passage to India, came to be, and the story of Forster's own slow and painful acceptance of his identity as a homosexual man in an era where even for someone less painfully shy and self-conscious, this was anything but good news.
bookcover of ARTIC SUMMER by Damon Galgut
Neither turned out to be easy; both required years. While Masood had begun urging his friend Morgan to write an "Indian novel" long before Forster ever set sail for the subcontinent, the first voyage only planted a few seeds -- the idea of the caves; a mysterious encounter there; a legal process. (It also made clear to Forster that any romantic dreams her cherished of Masood were doomed.) His attention was distracted by writing Maurice, and by the First World War, and by his need to care for his mother. Only later would he return to India, and to the novel -- and to the triumphant culmination of both his writing career and, to a lesser extent, his personal struggle. Breaking free of some of his past torments, Galgut crafts a poignant scene in which Forster comments in passing to Leonard and Virginia Woolf that he doesn't think he's really a novelist and she answers bluntly that no, she thinks that he probably isn't... Sure enough, Forster stopped writing novels at that point, and instead turned to scholarly pursuits. 

Galgut has accomplished something impressive in this very biographical novel, chronicling as he does the parallel 'thawing' of a creative process and the construction of a sexual identity. Neither would, perhaps be fully realized: just as Forster never wrote another novel, so he remained deeply private and deeply closeted for the rest of his life. This is a poignant and moving portrayal of a lonely man struggling with that most human need: to be known for who he is, and to be loved. But equally, it's a fascinating portrayal of the creative process, and anyone remotely interested in Forster or the literary environment in which he moved (there are some hilarious scenes featuring DH Lawrence, and some intriguing ones set in World War One Alexandria with CV Cavafy, a favorite poet of mine) will find a lot to relish here.

In many ways, this was reminiscent of Colm Toibin's The Master. I'm not sure I'd say it's of the same caliber, but it's still a moving and fascinating chronicle of the years and experiences that culminated in A Passage to India. Above all, it made me want to run out and read the novel (which is fortunate, since I'll be reading it for my book circle's next meeting in early December...)  

OAT-RAGEOUS OATMEALS: Delicious & Surprising Plant-Based Dishes From This Humble, Heart-Healthy Grain

bookcover of OAT-RAGEOUS OATMEALS: Delicious & Surprising Plant-Based Dishes From This Humble, Heart-Healthy Grain by Kathy Hester
Who Knew Oatmeal Was So Versatile!

I love this book.  Kathy Hester takes a very practical approach and for every recipe she provides the reader with alternatives. If it calls for Pastry Flour, for example, you are given the alternative of a gluten free mix. And if you don't have a squash, she suggests looking in your pantry for that can of pumpkin you've got hanging around.

The first recipe that caught my eye was the one for making your own instant oatmeal. Ahhh. I'm so happy. My kids love instant oatmeal. Probably because it's so sweet. But here was a recipe I can totally get behind. One where I can use organic oats and only natural ingredients. Better yet, this recipe is so easy that my teen daughter makes it. Pulling together what she wants. I mean, Oats, Sugar, Stevia and a dash of salt. How easy.

The recipes are organized in a way that works for me. The first section is for DIY staples like the instant oatmeal I mentioned. What amazed me was how many ways oatmeal could be used that I hadn't considered; like biscuits, roti, gravy and even pepperoni crumbles that you can use on pizza. I thought these recipes were very clever.

The next set of recipes build on ones you might be familiar with. Pancakes, waffles, scones, and variations of breakfast and snack oatmeal like Lemon Raspberry 'Cheesecake' Oatmeal.

These warm weather oatmeals are followed by cool weather recipes, like smoothies and shakes.

The next section covers granolas and bars, the one after that soups and savory stews. After that you'll find recipes that cover lunch and dinner and even desserts and beverages. Who knew? There's Bourbon Oated Shortbread for example. Yum.

The final section delighted my daughter. She loves to make her own makeup and scrubs and this book had a number of recipes which she is trying.

And I should note finally that there is even one recipe for Fido and one for kitty: Peppermint Puppy Cookies and Catnip Kitty Treats.

sample page from OAT-RAGEOUS OATMEALS: Delicious & Surprising Plant-Based Dishes From This Humble, Heart-Healthy Grain by Kathy Hester

There are things I look for in cookbooks. The first has to do with appearance. Because I'm old I need a font that is easy to read, and I also really like photos. OATRAGEOUS delivers. The pages are well laid out and nearly every recipe has a drool worthy color photo.

The other things I like are recipes that are versatile. Kathy Hester delivers there too. The basic idea behind these recipes are to use natural vegan ingredients, but she is constantly pointing out alternatives you can use. Enough so that I feel pretty confident in making my own switches.

Most of the ingredients in these recipes are ones you are probably not going to have a problem getting at the grocery store. The one item I know we don't have locally are Meyer Lemons. In fact, I've never heard of this variety. But in general we are talking regular spices and items like non-dairy milk, coconut oil, stevia, agave nectar and the like.