Monday, 29 February 2016

Into the Dim

Author: Janet B Taylor
Genre: Young Adult, Historical Fiction, Time Travel
Type: e-book
Series: #1 in the Into the Dim series
Source: NetGalley
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
First Published: March 1, 2016
First Line: "Everyone in town knew the coffin was empty."

Book Description from GoodReads: When fragile, sixteen-year-old Hope Walton loses her mom to an earthquake overseas, her secluded world crumbles. Agreeing to spend the summer in Scotland, Hope discovers that her mother was more than a brilliant academic, but also a member of a secret society of time travelers. Trapped in the twelfth century in the age of Eleanor of Aquitaine, Hope has seventy-two hours to rescue her mother and get back to their own time. Along the way, her path collides with that of a mysterious boy who could be vital to her mission . . . or the key to Hope’s undoing.   Addictive, romantic, and rich with historical detail, Into the Dim is an Outlander for teens.

My Review: When I read the book description which likened Into the Dim to 'Outlander for teens' I was intrigued ... and a little wary.  Those are some big literary shoes to fill.  After reading the book I'm not so sure I'd agree with that comparison since the only things that are similar to Outlander are the Scottish setting and time travel.  But I will say that I enjoyed it very, very much based on its own merit.

Into the Dim had a bit of everything -- interesting and diverse characters, many intense action scenes, secret societies, great settings - past and present, an interesting premise and twists upon twists!  Taylor's vision of time travel, which plays an integral part of the story line, had its own unique spin and promises many different options for future story lines.

Taylor also included many historical details and some of her own invented historical connections.  I liked the idea of Tesla's inventions being a major part of the ability to time travel as well as the addition of historical figures such as Eleanor of Aquitaine, a fierce queen to be sure.  There are also vivid images of life in the 12th century with its ghastly lack of hygiene, views of women, treatment of Jews and even the foods they ate.  It was evident that Taylor did her homework in researching the era.

The characters were varied and each added quite a bit to the plot.  Hope came off as a believable teen who is awkward, unsure of herself and just wanting to fit in and be accepted especially after the death of her mother.  She's wicked smart (her eidetic memory is pretty cool) and strong when she needs to be even though sometimes her phobias are quite paralyzing.

I loved that the female characters are quite central to the plot.  Taylor includes many strong women including Eleanor of Aquitaine, a wonderfully wicked villain, a feisty kick-butt friend in Phoebe and a strong Jewish girl who holds her own in a very dangerous time.  The menfolk aren't forgotten and play an integral role and there's even a wee inkling of a love triangle but I'm glad it wasn't addressed in this book.

I can't say enough about this book.  I read it in two days and had a hard time putting it down. There was action right up until the very end where some great secrets are revealed.  The ending left me feeling like I wanted to read more but not so much of a cliff hanger that I was frustrated which I appreciated since now I'll have to wait quite awhile for the next book. 

Highly recommended.

My Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Disclaimer: My sincere thanks to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and NetGalley for providing me with a complimentary e-book copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Wednesday, 24 February 2016

13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl

Author: Mona Awad
Genre: Contemporary Fiction, Women's Fiction, Canadian
Type: Paperback
Pages: 224
Source: Penguin Canada
Publisher: Penguin Canada
First Published: February 23, 2016
First Line: "We went against the universe at the McDonald's at the corner of Wolfedale and Mavis."


Book Description from GoodReads: Growing up in the suburban hell of Misery Saga (a.k.a. Mississauga), Lizzie has never liked the way she looks—even though her best friend Mel says she’s the pretty one. She starts dating guys online, but she’s afraid to send pictures, even when her skinny friend China does her makeup: she knows no one would want her if they could really see her. So she starts to lose. With punishing drive, she counts almonds consumed, miles logged, pounds dropped. She fights her way into coveted dresses. She grows up and gets thin, navigating double-edged validation from her mother, her friends, her husband, her reflection in the mirror. But no matter how much she loses, will she ever see herself as anything other than a fat girl?

In her brilliant, hilarious, and at times shocking debut, Mona Awad simultaneously skewers the body image-obsessed culture that tells women they have no value outside their physical appearance, and delivers a tender and moving depiction of a lovably difficult young woman whose life is hijacked by her struggle to conform. As caustically funny as it is heartbreaking, 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl introduces a vital new voice in fiction.



My Review: From the reviews and accolades that I've read about this book I was expecting a light hearted 'Bridget Jones-type' read with funny bits, a quirky protagonist and a good overall message about weight and learning to love oneself despite not being a size zero.

Others described the book as 'hilarious' and 'sparkles with wit' but I had a very different experience with Lizzie's journey. I actually found Lizzie to be quite sad and depressing.  There were some rather funny descriptions thrown in throughout the book but overall this was a sad read for me because Beth/Lizzie/Elizabeth (or whatever moniker she's using) comes off as an unlikeable, sad and lost character that I couldn't relate to.  By the end of the book I still didn't feel like I knew Lizzie and that was disheartening.

It was hard to like Lizzie.  Even when she does lose weight she still lets the weight issue control her view of others as well as herself as she continues on her path of self destruction.  Whether she's fat or thin Lizzie doesn't like herself.  She will always be, in her own mind, the fat girl no matter what she calls herself or how much weight she loses which is an interesting look at self-esteem/weight loss but not an easy one to read.

I also wasn't fond of the short story/vignette format (which isn't alluded to in the book description). It took me a bit to figure out that the author was using this brief snap shot format instead of a more linear story line and that definitely affected my feelings for the book. I also found it hard to determine the time frame for some of the 13 stories that illustrate Lizzie's struggles. In one provocative sexual scene I initially thought Lizzie was a tween (thankfully she turned out to be older) but I didn't get that understanding until much later in that vignette.  Unfortunately this short story, choppier method of storytelling didn't help me feel grounded in the plot and gave the book a disjointed feel that I didn't enjoy.

Readers get glimpses into Lizzie's life but, like I just mentioned, there are some rather odd and uncomfortable sexual situations thrown into various stories which, I feel, took away from the overall message. I think the message that obsessing to fit into society's view of what a 'perfect body' isn't the road to happiness is a good one but these provocative sexual scenes happened with more frequency than I was comfortable with.

This book follows the life of a young woman with severe self-image issues.  What I'll take away from this book is the idea that a happy life and self-esteem aren’t a guarantee once you fit into a pair of size 4 jeans.  You have to be happy with who you are - weight be damned.  Unfortunately I didn't find reading about Lizzy's continued journey of self-loathing an enjoyable read. Other people may get more out of this book but for me this was a miss.

My Rating: 2/5 stars


Disclaimer: My sincere thanks to Penguin Canada for providing me with a complimentary paperback copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.



Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Daughter of Destiny

Author: Nicole Evelina
Genre: Historical Fiction, Supernatural
Type: e-book
Series: #1 in the Guinevere's Tale trilogy
Source: Historical Fiction Virtual Blog Tour
Publisher: Lawson Gartner
First Published: January 1, 2016
First Line: "I am Guinevere."

Book Description from GoodReadsBefore queenship and Camelot, Guinevere was a priestess of Avalon. She loved another before Arthur, a warrior who would one day betray her. 

In the war-torn world of late fifth century Britain, young Guinevere faces a choice: stay with her family to defend her home at Northgallis from the Irish, or go to Avalon to seek help for the horrific visions that haunt her. The Sight calls her to Avalon, where she meets Morgan, a woman of questionable parentage who is destined to become her rival. As Guinevere matures to womanhood, she gains the powers of a priestess, and falls in love with a man who will be both her deepest love and her greatest mistake.

Just when Guinevere is able to envision a future in Avalon, tragedy forces her back home, into a world she barely recognizes, one in which her pagan faith, outspokenness, and proficiency in the magical and military arts are liabilities. When a chance reunion with her lover leads to disaster, she is cast out of Northgallis and into an uncertain future. As a new High King comes to power, Guinevere must navigate a world of political intrigue where unmarried women are valuable commodities and seemingly innocent actions can have life-altering consequences.

You may think you know the story of Guinevere, but you’ve never heard it like this: in her own words. Listen and you will hear the true story of Camelot and its queen.

Fans of Arthurian legend and The Mists of Avalon will love Daughter of Destiny, the first book in a historical fantasy trilogy that gives Guinevere back her voice and traces her life from an uncertain eleven year old girl to a wise queen in her fifth decade of life.

This book has been short-listed for the 2015 Chaucer Award for Historical Fiction.
 


My Review: We've all heard of Avalon, King Arthur, Guinevere and the legend that surrounds them.  It's an old story that has been told and retold so I was curious to see what Nicole Evelina would bring to the story.

Fifteen years of research have paid off for Evelina.  This was a wonderful book that had me riveted throughout, only lasted me two days and had me asking my literary contact for the chance to review the next book in this trilogy.  Ya, I liked it a lot.


"I am Guinevere.  I was once a queen, a lover, a wife, a mother, a priestess, 
and a friend. But all those roles are lost to me now; to history, I am simply 
a seductress, a misbegotten woman set astray by the evils of lust."

Going into this book I admit that I knew very little about Guinevere and Camelot.  I had read The Mists of Avalon years and years ago and remember that I struggled to finish it.  From that book, and various movies, I knew about Arthur, Merlin, Guinevere, the sword in the stone etc but only the gist of the legend and most of what I remembered didn't have much to do with Guinevere herself.  


Daughter of Destiny takes the reader back to the beginning when young, eleven year old Guinevere moves to Avalon and learns about what it will take to become one of its Priestesses.  There's some good rivalry between Guinevere and her nemesis, Morgan as they try out outwit each other and prove who is the better priestess. The pacing during this part of the book was a tad slower that the rest of the book but once Guinevere leaves the safety of Avalon things start to pick up as she tries to figure out where she belongs in her father's world of politics, his religion and currying favour among British nobles.

Evelina has brought a lot of heart to her characters and I found it quite easy to sympathize with Guinevere.  She's a sweet girl who has an inner strength that blossoms as various situations are forced upon her. She begins to use the strength and her powers that she learned on Avalon to stand up for herself, especially as it pertains to her faith which her mother and then Avalon instilled in her.  She's an intelligent young woman who has compassion for others and just wants to find a place to fit in and be loved and accepted. 

The reason why I love historical fiction is because I get to learn a bit about history while enjoying a great story and the author's view of certain historical characters.  Evelina introduces her readers to famous characters such as King Arthur, Morgan and Viviane from Avalon as well as Isolde, the feisty heir to the Irish throne who had her own influence on Guinevere.  I'm glad that Evelina always kept Guinevere in the spotlight especially after King Arthur is introduced.  He is relegated to a smaller story line giving Guinevere the chance to shine and the reader an opportunity to see her side of things.

Guinevere is a strong-willed girl who will become a strong, intelligent woman.  Since I cannot remember how things end in this legend I'm more than eager to pick up the second book in the series, Camelot's Queen which is set to be released April 12, 2016.  

It is evident that Evelina did a lot of research on this era as well as the druid faith and culture, politics of the time and British history.  Her writing is solid, it was nicely paced and kept my interest throughout.  Recommended.

My Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Disclaimer:  My sincere thanks to author Nicole Evelina and the Historical Fiction Virtual Blog Tour for providing me with a complimentary e-book copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.





Monday, 22 February 2016

She's Not There

Author: Joy Fielding
Genre: Suspense, Mystery
Type: Hardcover
Pages: 368
Source: Publisher
Publisher: Random House Publishing - Ballantyne Books
First Published: February 23, 2016
First Line: "It was barely eight A.M. and the phone was already ringing."


Book Description from GoodReads: A novel of psychological suspense about a woman whose life takes a shocking turn when a young girl contacts her, claiming to be her daughter, kidnapped in Mexico years earlier, from the New York Times bestselling author of Someone is Watching.

A lifetime ago, every year Caroline Shipley looked forward to her wedding anniversary. But then a celebratory trip to Mexico for the occasion with her husband and friends ended in the unsolved kidnapping of her infant daughter, Samantha. Now, fifteen years after that horrific time, divorced and isolated, Caroline is forced to relive the kidnapping by reporters who call every year on the anniversary of Samantha’s disappearance. However, this year when the phone rings, Caroline hears the sweet voice of a girl claiming to be her long-lost daughter. Plunged back into the world of heartbreak, suspicion and questions that led the case to run cold so many years ago, Caroline doesn’t know what or who to believe. But when she starts to figure it out, she finds the answers dangerously close to home.
  



My Review: This was a great, hard-to-put-down mystery with some surprising twists and a lot of emotion. I read this book in a day.  The writing is solid, the use of two time frames (present and 15 years ago at the time of the abduction) was handled smoothly and the mystery of what happened to Samantha is riveting.  The red herrings were numerous and had me suspecting many of the characters but then slowly changing my mind because someone else started to seem like a better culprit.  But it's the emotional aftermath of the child abduction that kept me reading.


The book focuses on Caroline, the mother of the abducted toddler, and how she deals with the loss.  She was sent into a tailspin after the abduction. She's emotionally bereft and then comes home to find that she's been vilified in the media which greatly affects her life for years to come.  You can't help but feel for this woman who has lost so much but continues to be viewed suspiciously by people in her daily life whose only knowledge of her stems from what they've read/seen in the media.


What struck me about this book is the emotion as the reader is taken inside the personal torment of the family members, especially her mother Caroline and her sister, Michelle.  It's Michelle and Caroline's tumultuous and often volatile relationship that gave the book its emotional depth.  Both of these women continue to hurt over the loss of Samantha and strike out at each other as they try to live through their grief and the effects of losing a family member.  As a mother myself I didn't agree with some of Caroline's choices but I could also kind of understand why her pain made her the way she was.  Many of their exchanges are raw, hurtful and sometimes hard to read due to the emotions behind it all but I always felt like the emotion was realistically portrayed.


Other relationships are brought into the fray including Carole's relationship with her ex-husband and, of course, her tumultuous and strained relationship with her overly domineering mother.  She's a peach (if a little one-dimensional)!  Wow! This is an extended family in turmoil.  Their relationships are broken or, at best, strained and all of their issues stem from that fatal night of the abduction. 


I'm giving this book a 4.5 stars and took off the half of a star because, while the culprit was surprising, I didn't feel that it was overly realistic.  Otherwise, this was a quick and riveting mystery that deals with one of parents' worst nightmares.  I look forward to reading many more from Joy Fielding in the future.


My Rating: 4.5/5 stars


Disclaimer: My sincere thanks to Random House Publishing - Ballantyne Books for providing me with a complimentary hardcover copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.


Friday, 19 February 2016

Haunted

Author: Kelley Armstrong
Genre: Supernatural, Canadian
Type: Trade Paperback
Source: Own
Pages: 448
Series: #5 in the Women of the Underworld series
Publisher: Vintage Canada
First Published: 2005
First Line: "France, 1666 - Marie-Madeline lit the flame under the bowl."

Book Description from GoodReadsEve Levine—half-demon, black witch and devoted mother—has been dead for three years. She has a great house, an interesting love life and can’t be killed again — which comes in handy when you’ve made as many enemies as Eve. Yes, the afterlife isn’t too bad — all she needs to do is find a way to communicate with her daughter, Savannah, and she’ll be happy.

But fate—or more exactly, the Fates—have other plans. Eve owes them a favor, and they’ve just called it in. An evil spirit called the Nix has escaped from hell. She feeds on chaos and death, and is very good at persuading people to kill for her. The Fates want Eve to hunt her down before she does any more damage, but the Nix is a dangerous enemy—previous hunters have been driven insane in the process. As if that’s not problem enough, the only way to stop her is with an angel’s sword. And Eve is no angel....


My Review: One of my goals in 2016 is to finish Kelley Armstrong's Women of the Underworld series so I'm re-reading the first 6 books that I originally read years ago.  Going into Haunted, I knew that it was my least favourite book in the series so far but I was re-reading it to A) remember what had transpired in the book so future books would make sense and B) hopefully get a better connection with Eve.  

For the first third of the book I really enjoyed it and found it fast-paced.  I started to wonder why I hadn't loved it the first time around.  But then the pace got really bogged down and for the remainder of the book it was a struggle to finish ... again.

I had two big issues with this book both times I read it.  First, the story hinges on the reader understanding Armstrong's description of the afterlife.  I found her descriptions quite convoluted with various afterlife dimensions including ghost/demon hell and even an island of ghost pirates.  Wha?  There's also the confusing issue of ghosts being able to harm each other in the Afterworld.  How does one land a punch with a ghost if you're also a ghost?  Angels also make an appearance into the melee but the angel that Eve deals with is no avenging angel.  He comes off as kind of a wuss who is constantly making mistakes and leaving Eve and Kristoff to pick up the pieces so it was really hard to like him.

The other issue is that I never felt like I really got to know Eve.  When she was mentioned in previous books she was a hell raiser but in this book she felt like a different person.  Not as tough.  I liked seeing her maternal side but thought she'd bring more energy and sass to the story.

I hate to give a book in this series a low rating but this one missed the target (twice) for me.  That said, I'm really looking forward to moving on in the series with my favourites, Elena and Clay, in Broken.

My Rating: 2.5/5 stars

Thursday, 18 February 2016

Our Basement Renovation: Part Four - Flooring

Now that we have paint on the walls we can install flooring.  Flooring is a big decision and can really influence the feel and style of a room.  There are a lot of choices for flooring out there but Brad and I were adamant that we wanted a hard flooring.  We looked at cork, ceramic that looks like wooden planks and engineered hardwood.  All had pros and cons but none thrilled us for various reasons (price, feel, coldness,  function, price!!).  

Some people were confused as to why we didn't want carpeting.  Well, if you've ever ripped up carpeting you'll know that carpet hides a lot of dirt and while it's warm and squishy on the feet I really didn't relish the idea of vacuuming this big ol' basement regularly or going around the edges to get rid of the dust line that invariably forms on carpet near the baseboards.  To me, Swiffering and mopping are preferable to vacuuming any day.  And just knowing that there's dirt I can't get out of the carpet easily - just hiding there in the fibres - wasn't a bonus for me.

A big factor in flooring choice for our basement stems from a disaster that happened to my parents last spring.  Their basement flooded and created such a horrible mess and months of renovating.  After seeing them deal with ripping out their basement and renovating it back to a livable space we knew we didn't want to worry (as much) about water issues.  My parents opted for a different flooring product for their new basement.  Vinyl planks.

I know, right? VINYL?!?  "What is it the 70's, Mom and Dad?"  I pictured 1970's linoleum tiles in browns, rusts and dark yellows.  Ew. And then we saw the product.  O-M-G!  Beautiful! Brad and I did some research and apparently vinyl flooring is the biggest thing to hit flooring since ... um, flooring - you get the idea.  

Mannington offers so many colour and style options and this stuff is as good as water proof!  They have vinyl in styles such as slate, travertine, marble and lots of different wood options so there's lots of choices for any style. This is gorgeous stuff, people!  

Like my parents we had a professional install our flooring but apparently it's fairly easy to do yourself.  He installed it in two days and we couldn't be happier with it. It's a little cooler on the feet than carpet but it is definitely warmer than the cold concrete.  And I won't lose my mind worrying about people spilling drinks on it (my Type A side always thinks of these situations) because it's so easy to clean.  We even put it in the bathroom because you can mop it and using one flooring throughout gives the basement a nice cohesiveness.

The product we used was in Mannington's 'Adura' line called Country Oak "Rawhide" (get its details here) because of its rustic feel with the knots, graining and rough saw marks that you can feel and give it a great depth. Gah!  We love it!  Rawhiiiide!




Absolutely loving the cracks, knots and rough saw marks.
Even after a few months I still marvel at how nice it is. Honestly, the pictures don't do it justice.

We also decided to do the stairs.  I didn't want tile on the main floor, vinyl planking in the basement and then carpet on the stairs. Too busy.  You have the option to buy the stair kit from Mannington but it will run you ... ready for this? ... over $100 per stair.  Say WHA!?! I thought Flooring Dude was joking when he told me the price even after he warned me of sticker shock.  Nope.  That price is ridiculous, Mannington!!  Instead we opted to use a new stair product/technique that had less waste of flooring tile due to the amount of cutting and had a narrower metal lip on the edge of each stair.  



Unfortunately our smaller edging along the stair edge is quite hard and does take some getting used to since it kind of digs into your toes as you step down.  



Live and learn. It's not a deal breaker and we opted to see less of the metal edging on the stair and more of the wood plank.  Them's the breaks.  It still looks amazing.

Overall, we are absolutely thrilled with our flooring. It gives the space a nice warmth and goes well with the gray walls.





We think it looks amazing, cleans like a dream and I'm not going to worry about spills or leaks.  Mission accomplished.

Disclaimer: I was in no way compensated by Mannington flooring. All comments and opinions are my own based on my experience with their product.

Coming soon to a blog post near you: 


Furniture Choices - How many people do we want to fit on one couch?

Custom Cabinetry - A place to keep my books, booze and toilet paper. -- 18 feet of bookshelves/entertainment unit plus a wet bar and bathroom vanity

Fireplace - to gas or to plug-in? THAT is the question!

Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Review of In Another Life and Interview with Julie Christine Johnson



Author: Julie Christine Johnson
Genre: Historical Fiction, Fantasy, Supernatural
Type: Trade Paperback
Pages: 344
Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark
First Published: February 2, 2016
First Line: "Eighteen months after her husband's death, Lia Carrer returned to Languedoc like a shadow in search of light."

Book Description from GoodReadsHistorian Lia Carrer has finally returned to southern France, determined to rebuild her life after the death of her husband. But instead of finding solace in the region's quiet hills and medieval ruins, she falls in love with Raoul, a man whose very existence challenges everything she knows about life--and about her husband's death. As Raoul reveals the story of his past to Lia, she becomes entangled in the echoes of an ancient murder, resulting in a haunting and suspenseful journey that reminds Lia that the dead may not be as far from us as we think. 

Steeped in the rich history and romantic landscape of rural France, In Another Life is a story of love that conquers time and the lost loves that haunt us all.


My Review:  Beautifully written and engrossing historical fiction reads are some of my favourite books to snuggle down with on these cold winter days.  But as an avid fan of the genre I will admit that sometimes it starts to feel like I've 'read it all'.  Plots become predictable, characters seem familiar and some settings feel overdone.


Author Julie Christine Johnson brings her own unique take on the genre with In Another Life and adds a special twist.  Not only is this book set firmly in the historical fiction genre but it also has strong paranormal and even fantasy elements involving an ancient murder which helps this book stand out from the crowd.


What struck me from the beginning was the quality of Johnson's writing. With her beautiful prose she engages the reader from page one with descriptions of time, place and characters.  It is evident that a lot of research went into this book but I never felt overloaded with information and details which I appreciated. Johnson could have easily fallen into the information overload faux pas because there's a fair amount of historical detail involved and a lot of different themes are addressed.  From reincarnation, religious persecution, grief, family bonds and transcendence of love there is a lot going on ... but it works and the plot flows well.


One of the reasons why I love the historical fiction genre is that I get to learn something about eras, people and places that I previously knew little about.  This book is set in France, specifically Paris as well as the French region of Languedoc, an area that I was unfamiliar with.  I found the area and its history interesting but it was the Cathar faith and their persecution that intrigued me.  Their beliefs as well as their brutal demise at the hands of the Catholic church was quite compelling and this helped me to quickly become engaged in the characters' stories.


The story follows Lia, a young widow trying to move forward through her grief who gets entangled in a murder involving the persecutions of Cathars in the 13th century.  A major theme throughout the book is the idea of time travel and some other reviewers have stated that they see strong similarities between this book at Diana Gabaldon's megahit, the Outlander series.  I can't quite agree.  Besides the strong writing and the time travel aspect (which is dealt with in very different ways) the feel, style of writing and plot aren't similar.  Instead I see a very strong similarity to one of my favourite Canadian authors, Susanna Kearsley (specifically her book 'The Winter Sea') because of their haunting, romantic tales that weave together the past and present.


The only wee issue that I had with the book is that I occasionally struggled to stay with the regularly changing time lines and characters especially since a few of the characters appear in both eras. But it didn't take me long to get back on track.  A bit more detail about the Cathar faith within the story would have been great too.  For those of us wanting more information on the Cathars, the author gives some great reference material at the back of the book.


This is a haunting tale of love and loss set in a beautiful area with a truly unique story line.  With its stunning cover and focus on romance, lies, suspense and a gruesome murder in the early 13th century, this is a book that will intrigue and captivate readers.


My Rating: 4/5 stars


Disclaimer: My sincere thanks to Sourcebooks Landmark for providing me with a complimentary paperback copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.  I'd also like to thank author Julie Christine Johnson for taking the time to answer my questions for the following interview.

Author Julie Christine Johnson is the author of In Another Life (February 2016), The Crows of Beara (to be published September 2017) and she is currently working on her third novel Tui.  She has also written many short stories and essays which have been published in several journals.  She has undergraduate degrees in psychology and French as well as a Masters in International Affairs. As a self-proclaimed lover of hiking, running, yoga and wine (my kind of gal!) and has lived abroad in several different countries.  It was a pleasure to recently interview Julie about her book In Another Life which hits bookstore shelves February 2, 2016.

My Interview with the Author

1) I haven't read many books that are a combination of three different genres.  Do you have a preference when it comes to genre?  Do you find one easier to write than another?
Truly, I had no genre in mind when I began writing In Another Life; I just wanted to tell a good story. Later, when I realized I might have something worth trying to find an audience for, I knew I’d have to articulate who that audience might be. What would I say in my query letter? I went looking for comparable titles and found them all on in the “General Fiction” section of the bookstore. Authors like Deborah Harkness, Mary Doria Russell, and David Mitchell, who take genre conventions and toss them out the window, are my inspiration!


Interesting, and beautifully encouraging, were the reactions from the industry professionals who would become my agent and my first publishing editor. They loved that In Another Life couldn’t be pigeonholed in any category or genre, that it sprawled its limbs across the multitude!


I consider myself a storyteller. Genre doesn’t factor in when I think about my characters or themes. The joy is in challenging myself to do things I didn’t know I had in me, like historical fiction; to play with convention, as I did with the paranormal element of In Another Life; to look for the best stories in my soul.


2). Where do you find inspiration for your plots and characters?  Are you inspired initially by the plot or do the characters come to you first?
I believe that story comes from character. Characters are why we read, why we are changed by what we read. Plot is a means to move them through their lives, to tell their story.


Each of my novels and short stories has a different genesis. In Another Life came from an image of Lia and Raoul that rose in my mind during a stay in Languedoc; researching the history of the region opened the door to their story. 


I wanted to set my second novel, The Crows of Beara (Ashland Creek Press, September 2017), in Ireland, but when I began sketching out characters, that’s all I knew. The characters led me to themes of addiction and the healing power of art. A chance encounter with a book of poetry gave me the exact location in Ireland, and that led me to construct a plot around copper mining and animal conservation, with a thread of magical realism woven through. Last summer I studied with that poet—Leanne O’Sullivan—in the very spot where my novel is set (Beara Peninsula). A dream come true!


Two characters led the way into my third novel, Tui: an American woman dealing with child loss and a little girl in New Zealand who is living on the edge of society. The plot is how those two souls come together.


3) Do you have a particular method or approach to research and writing?  Generally how long does the process take per book? 
There’s usually an idea whispering away at me—an image, snippet of overheard conversation, something I read in the paper, a place I’ve visited. Holding that idea loosely in my mind, I begin to work on character sketches and follow where those lead. Whom am I writing about and how do they relate to the idea I can’t seem to let go of? I’ll research enough to get a sense of the place, issues, and time as it relates to the plot, but research for me is an ongoing process as the story develops. I try not to set things out too far in advance, preferring to layer in details as I discover where the story is taking me.


The amount of time has varied wildly. It took me eighteen months to finish a first draft of In Another Life; ten weeks for The Crows of Beara; nine months for Tui. I revised and edited the first two novels while writing the third!


4) What is the hardest or least favourite part of the writing process for you? 
The hardest part is coming to the end of the first draft. It’s a very emotional experience for me. The characters and story are so raw, so open and beautiful in their natural state. Although I can’t wait to shape and mold the story in subsequent revisions, there is something pure and deeply personal about the first draft that I hate to let go. 


5). Is there a character in In Another Life that you relate to?  Why?
It seems obvious to say Lia, the story’s protagonist, but I adore her. Yet I’m still getting to know her. By the novel’s end she’s just starting to come into her own, to realize her own emotional strength. I’m a few years older than Lia: 46 to her late 30s, but I see in her the same sense of purpose, a reinvigoration of character and self and determination that arrives with turning 40. You look around and say, “Right. This is who I am at this moment. I am beautiful, strong, I have so much yet to give, to discover. Let’s do this. Let’s live.”  Also, she’s acutely claustrophobic, like her author.


6) Do you think Lia's lack of faith for the majority of her life helped her to accept the Cathar beliefs more readily?
Absolutely. I think the act of closing the door on faith cornered Lia’s soul. She left herself vulnerable, without any way to move forward. Faith is a story, a way to explain the world; it is often is the key to hope, a path to empathy and compassion. We all need stories. They’re all we have. Lia finds redemption and hope through the stories of the Cathars—their beliefs become her reality.


7) Is your representation of reincarnation in the book based specifically on Cathar beliefs or is it more of a personal interpretation?
The Cathars’ belief in reincarnation and the transmigration of human soul to non-human form was one of my launching points into the plot, but I took poetic license in weaving together fantasy and alternative history with a loose interpretation of what we know about Cathar beliefs and practices.


8) How do you feel about some people making comparisons between this book and Diana Gabaldon's 'Outlander' series? 
My goal was to write something both beautiful and irresistible, a book that would take the reader out of the real world for a little while. I read the first in the Outlander series many years ago, so my memory of the story is hazy, but I do remember not being able to put it down. The comparison delights me!


9) What things do you think make a successful historical fiction novel?  
I need to be transported to a place and time on a wave—just tossed right into the sea of the story. Great historical fiction dances that fine line between world-building, exposition, and simply getting on with the story. The details are layered in, but not belabored over. It needs to feel natural, as if you’ve just opened the door and sat down in Roman Britain, or a WWI bunker, or feudal Japan.


10) Have other historical fiction writers influenced your work?  If so, who and how? 
I’m not a writer of historical fiction per se, so my influences cross a broad spectrum of styles. Many of my favorite historical novels are written by authors whose work spans categories and genres. Hilary Mantel blows my mind. In Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, set in 16th century England, she does just what I mention above—she opens up her world, sets a tone, and gets on with it. The “historical fiction” aspect of her work never dominates the characters and their stories. David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars showed me how creating a sense of place can be poetic, and how to connect readers viscerally with an era through the emotional power of character. Mary Doria Russell. Shoot. There’s nothing she can’t do. Ditto Margaret Atwood!


11)  What did you do to get in the mindset of your characters?
Oh wow. It truly just happens as I write. In revisions, I may to learn more about a character, get deeper into their wants and hurts, but because I build a story from the characters up, I enter the writing process with all those voices clamoring in my head. In writing, I’m able to give them some space.


12) How rigorously do you adhere to historical accuracy?  Do you overlook some historical aspects in order to make your plot work?
Writing a work of fantasy allowed me poetic license with the plot, but I wanted to honor the historical details of daily life. My goal was to create as seamless a transition as possible between past and present, while retaining a sense of almost dream-like wonder between the two worlds. It’s a feeling I carry with me when I’m in France, where the past lives and breathes in concert with the present. The towns, streets, hills, vineyards, and many of the edifices within In Another Life are ones I’ve explored, wandered through, dreamed of.


In Another Life is a fantasy built on the scaffolding of history. One of my greatest delights was to etch the theme of history vs. the past into the narrative: history is what we know to be true—facts gleaned from primary sources and artifacts. The past is what we make a reasonable guess at.  I hope to open the door of readers’ mind with history, but then extend a hand as they make a leap of imagination with me into the past.


13) You've lived in several different countries. What drew you specifically to France to be the backdrop for your first book?
I attended my first writers’ conference in June 2012. I’d been writing short stories for a couple of years at that point, but what I wanted was to write a novel. I just had no idea where or how to begin. I could not see past opening my laptop to a blank page. With the cursor blinking at me, what would I do? How does anyone write the first words?


Three ideas nattered away at me, as distinct from each other as snowflakes on glass, and nearly as fleeting, for they were just feathery notions of stories. One was more of a flickering image than an idea: a woman, deep in thought, standing on a cliff overlooking the Corbières valley in the southern French region of Languedoc-Roussillon. From the ruins of a Cathar citadel, a man steps out and joins her. I was aching to find out who they were, but I was certain she was from the present and he, from the past.


Early in the conference, I attended a session on storyboarding and it all clicked. I could see the narrative unfolding as a time slip between medieval and contemporary Languedoc. It seemed like it would be such fun to write. Romance. Adventure. Mystery. Reincarnation. Castle ruins. Knights Templar. Wine. The notion that I would be running headfirst into the high, brick wall of historical research never really occurred me. But I broke through that wall, word by word!


14) There's a lot of back and forth between the two eras as well as very detailed characters.  Did you find it hard to keep track of everything as you wrote?

I don’t know how I could have made writing a first novel any harder on myself. I had a beginning, a handful of characters, but I had no middle or end. I wrote scenes out of order (I may have been inspired by that storyboard class, but I didn’t put the advice in to practice. Yikes).  At some point, about two-thirds into a first draft, I had 140,000 words and no sense of where I was going or how it would ever end. I stopped in my tracks, started from the beginning, cleaning up as I went along, putting things in order. I never had a problem keeping eras or characters straight, but I wrote an especially plotty book in which one change here meant tracking back to the source there and making certain the details lined up, or reengineering completely to make a better story.


I’m still a pantser at heart; I don’t start with an outline, I don’t edit as I draft, I let it all pour out. But now, once I’ve got a solid first draft in hand, I use Michael Hague’s brilliant Six Stage Plot structure to discover and refine my character arcs. And I keep a process notebook for each novel, working out plot holes, asking myself questions, tracking key details. I draft in Scrivener, but I have to work things out longhand.


15)  Which authors inspire you?
Hilary Mantel, Kate Mosse, Colm Toibin, Anne Enright, Mary Doria Russell, Elizabeth Gilbert, Lily King, Dani Shapiro, Tim Winton, Cormac McCarthy, Jane Austen, William Shakespeare, Thomas Hardy, Jess Walter, Lidia Yuknavitch, I tend to binge on authors. Last year it was Elena Ferrante and Francesca Marciano. This year I’ve joined an online group reading a Virginia Woolf work each month.


Laurie, thank you so much for hosting me on your wonderful blog. And thanks to your followers for supporting so many wonderful writers. It’s been an honor and a joy!

Monday, 15 February 2016

What Lies Between Us

Author: Nayomi Munaweera
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Type: e-book
Source: NetGalley
Printed Page Count:
Publisher: St Martin's Press
First Published: February 16, 2016
First Line: "A child is nourished upon her mother's blood."

Book Description from GoodReadsIn the idyllic hill country of Sri Lanka, a young girl grows up with her loving family; but even in the midst of this paradise, terror lurks in the shadows. When tragedy strikes, she and her mother must seek safety by immigrating to America. There the girl must reinvent herself as an American teenager to survive, with the help of her cousin. Both love and loss fill her life, but even as she assimilates and thrives, the secrets and scars of her past follow her into adulthood. In this new country of freedom, everything she has built begins to crumble around her, and her hold on reality becomes more and more tenuous. When the past and the present collide, she sees no other choice than to commit her unforgivable final act. This is her confession. 

My Review: This was a different kind of read than I was expecting and I really struggled to decide on a rating.  Going into it I thought it would be a book about cultural differences set within a suspenseful story line. What I got was a well-written, albeit slower paced, story about a girl's struggles to deal with her past which was ultimately an extremely sad tale.  

From the beginning of the book the reader knows the outcome of the protagonist's life and that she has committed a horrendous act.  The author helps to give her readers the answer to the question "Why on earth would a person do such a thing?" as she takes us into the world of this girl, her dreams, her nightmares and her struggles until the devastating incident that has lead to her current situation.  The author brings her readers into the woman's psyche to understand why she did what she did. 

The protagonist carries a lot of emotional baggage from her youth in Sri Lanka to her new home in America and the reader sees the turmoil her past has on her present and future.
There are a couple of twists in the book (which I predicted) with some disturbing psychological issues and I applaud Munaweera for not shying away from the tough issues.  That said, I struggled with sections of this book.  I enjoyed the beginning of the book but felt that the middle dragged quite a bit.  The ending is shocking and even though I knew the outcome I was surprised at how much I was hoping that there would somehow be a different outcome.  

Note: You may notice that I haven't named the main character in this review.  That's because the reader isn't privy to her name until right at the end of the book.  An interesting choice by the author.

This was a well-written book but not the page turner I was hoping for. I found it to be an interesting and very sad read that brings together many topics including women's issues, cultural differences, PTSD, motherhood and the power of women.



My Rating: 3/5 stars

Disclaimer:  My sincere thanks to St Martin's Press and NetGalley for providing me with a complimentary e-book copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.



Friday, 12 February 2016

The Immortal Rules

Author: Julie Kagawa
Genre: Supernatual, Dystopian
Type: e-book
Times Read: 2
Series: #1 in the Blood of Eden series
Source: Own
Publisher: Harlequin Teen
First Published: April 24, 2012
First Line: "They hung the Unregistered in the old warehouse district; it was a public execution, so everyone went to see."

Book Description from GoodReadsTo survive in a ruined world, she must embrace the darkness…

Allison Sekemoto survives in the Fringe, the outermost circle of a walled-in city. By day, she and her crew scavenge for food. By night, any one of them could be eaten. Some days, all that drives Allie is her hatred of them - the vampires who keep humans as blood cattle. Until the night Allie herself dies and becomes one of the monsters.

Forced to flee her city, Allie must pass for human as she joins a ragged group of pilgrims seeking a legend - a place that might have a cure for the disease that killed off most of civilization and created the rabids, the bloodthirsty creatures who threaten human and vampire alike. And soon Allie will have to decide what and who is worth dying for…again.

Enter Julie Kagawa's dark and twisted world as an unforgettable journey begins
.

My Review:  I rarely re-read books.  Too many books, too little time but I'm also a little hesitant to re-read a book that I loved because I'm afraid that it won't have the same impact on me.  Or, the fear that I won't have the same love for the book or characters that I had the first time around.

I read The Immortal Rules for the first time almost 4 years ago and since then I've suggested it to countless friends (who have loved it!) and customers at the library where I work.  When I first describe it as 'a dystopian read about vampires' some people shut down the idea right away.  Perhaps they're tired of vampires in general but this series is different from other vamp tripe out there.  It's a smartly written story with great characters and a non-stop pace.  I'm not a big fan of Kagawa's other series (Iron Fey or Talon) but this The Blood of Eden series is amazing.

Just like my first read through, Kagawa took me into her world and didn't let go until the last sentence.  I read this book in a couple of days and even though I still remembered how things would pan out for Allie I was riveted.  I love the idea of this young girl suddenly having to embrace something that she's feared her whole life as she struggles with the monster within her.  She's a strong, self-sufficient girl who readers can relate to right from the beginning.  She makes mistakes but she's fiercely loyal and just trying to figure out how to deal with her new lot in 'life'.

After re-reading this book I'm more than eager to re-read the second book in the series, The Eternity Cure (which was also amazing!!!), followed by The Forever Song, the third book in the trilogy which I have yet to read but has been on my Kindle for years.  Shameful, I know.

Fast-paced with a new look at the popular vampire theme this book will have you on the edge of your seat with its twists as the reader follows Allie's journey to be more than the monster within her.

My Rating: 4.5/5 stars


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