You are viewing fashion_piranha

[sticky post] Fashionista Piranha Book Blog

Welcome to Fashionista Piranha Book Blog, where a good book is always your best accessory!  Life is too short to waste reading bad literature, especially when there's so many good books out there. If I can keep you from reading one atrocious novel, I've done my job. But if I help you find something you'll enjoy, even better. I've achieved my goal.

I have been reading, writing and reviewing since 2008, so there's a lot to see here.  To read the latest reviews, simply scroll down; in the sidebar to the left I also have the reviews grouped chronologically.  If there's a specific title or series you have in mind, I also have the reviews indexed by the author:

Book Reviews by Author, A-H
Book Reviews by Author, I-P
Book Reviews by Author, Q-Z

Sometimes I will wander off-topic and talk about theater productions I've seen.  Usually - but not always - it'll be Shakespeare-related (most commonly the plays from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival) or a stage adaptation of a classic book.  But if I see a show and I'm super-excited about it, odds are that it'll show up on Fashionista Piranha.  Less frequently, movie adaptations of books will make a similar appearance.

I always enjoy hearing from visitors to the blog, so please feel free to leave comments or email me at fashion_piranha @  This includes you, publishers and authors!  I am always happy to discuss your projects with you; feel free to check out my review policies here and drop me a line.
Thanks for stopping by!
Suzi the Fashion Piranha
Subscribe to Shelf Awareness and enter to win a free book!

Review: City of Jasmine by Deanna Raybourn

new romantic.
City of Jasmine
by Deanna Raybourn

Five years after the sudden death of her husband Gabriel, Evangeline Stark – Evie to her friends – must earn her own way in the world. She’s reinvented herself as an aviatrix, and flies her beloved plane around the world, her adventures promoted by newspapers and funded by sponsors. As Evie flies her latest route with her eccentric aunt and an aged parrot for companions, she receives a photograph of her husband that indicates that he’s alive and well somewhere near Damascus. Evie immediately travels to the famed City of Jasmine to track down her missing spouse, but the moment her plane lands she is sucked into a miasma of disguise, deception, and danger revolving around a priceless relic. She is also reunited with Gabriel, and struggles to reconcile her still-burning passion for him with her fury over being abandoned.

As a romp through the desert on an archaeological quest for missing treasure, Evie and Gabriel can rival Indiana Jones for excitement and unexpected twists. Fast-paced, with multiple gun fights, daring kidnappings and rescues by rival Bedouin tribes, and treks through endless seas of sand, the story is filled with endless action.

There’s also the epic romance between Evie and Gabriel, and for me it fell a bit flat. Both characters are argumentative, and bicker constantly – not in that cute-couple way that nauseates viewers, but rather in the awkward way that makes the reader wish she could escape to another room while they’re going at it. Evie is furious that her husband faked his death and hid out in the desert for five years, naturally, and even after he reveals his reasons for doing so (which were quite predictable, actually) he still comes off as kind of a dick. Evie, meanwhile, just seems a bit shallow in characterization. Evie pities a middle-aged female archaeologist who has dedicated her life to her career as “sad” even though she has more or less committed herself to the same route. I’m not sure if Evie considers herelf “better” because she loved and lost, or if she simply lacks the introspection to realize her similarity to this woman, but either way it doesn’t paint her in a positive light. At least she’s brave to the point of recklessness, because sometimes only the most audacious scheme will save the day.

Some of the side characters are much more entertaining. Evie’s aunt Dove is quite delightful, a lively character that brightens the scenes she appears in. I wish we could have spent more time exploring the older woman’s history and less time wandering about in the desert.

Still, this book is lively and fast-paced. It’s an easy-to-read, solid beach read that would also translate well to the big screen. Fans of the Indiana Jones and The Mummy franchises would definitely get a kick out of City of Jasmine.

3 out of 5 stars

To read more about City of Jasmine, buy it or add it to your wishlist click here.

Peeking into the in:
2013: The Silver Falcon by Katia Fox
2012: The Kingmaker’s Daughter (Cousins’ War #4) by Philippa Gregory
2011: Graveminder by Melissa Marr
2010: News: Press “Pause” on the Piranha
2009: The White Queen (Cousins’ War #1) by Philippa Gregory
2008: The Front Porch Prophet by Raymond L. Atkins

Review: Javatrekker by Dean Cycon

pearly whites.
Javatrekker: Dispatches From the World of Fair Trade Coffee
by Dean Cycon

Founder of Dean’s Beans Organic Coffee, Dean Cycon makes it a priority to visit the farmers who grow his beans. In a collection of essays that are part-memoir, part anthropological study, and part-exploration of the impact of globalization on some of the most impoverished peoples in the world, Dean Cycon introduces the world to the men, women and children who produce their coffee. With equal parts humor (often at his own expense) and compassion, Dean highlights the backbreaking labor and often poor returns suffered by the farmers who tend to the coffee plants of Africa, the Americas, and the islands of the Pacific.

Dean chronicles his own attempts to improve the lives of the villages where his workers live. As he explains it, his company is committed to small, meaningful projects that benefit the local population by providing them with things they need. He works directly with the villagers, not a foreign aid agency or the local government, to ensure that the funds are used productively. In Ethiopia, this means building wells designed by the local people so that they can carry out repairs on their own. In Peru, the funds are dedicated to restoring the local forests, as these sacred lands have been severely degraded by illegal logging.

The book is also a travelogue. Many of the men and women Dean works with are indigenous people, and their customs are quite foreign to the American writer. He describes some of the ceremonies he witnesses so vividly it’s like you’re standing right next to him; at other times, he describes his attempts to communicate in the local languages and joins the natives in laughing at how badly he fails.

Finally, the book exposes many of the ways that coffee has hurt the people who grow it. In the early 2000s, prices plummeted globally, and many farmers went into debt as they sold their beans for less than it cost to produce them. Many of these farmers don’t understand why the price dropped so dramatically, because their understanding of the global market is nonexistent – they sell their beans on to a middleman and never even see what the final product looks like. In other countries, the policies of the U.N. and local governments make it impossible for anyone but the rich to get wealthier as corruption and poor recordkeeping destroys Dean’s attempts to track beans from the fields to his warehouses.

I have to confess that I never gave much thought to where my coffee was coming from. I mean, I knew that they had to come from somewhere tropical, but that’s as far as my consideration went. I found Dean’s stories to be very eye-opening and, at times, heartbreaking. Ever since that expose that showed holes in Greg Mortenson’s claims of do-gooding in Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools, I’ve been wary of books that proudly toot the horn of their author’s good deeds. Dean seem sincere, and my attempts to Google any criticisms of his work did not turn up anything dramatic.

The one failing the book had was it didn’t always explain terminology very well. In the opening and closing paragraphs, Dean brags about being a “Javatrekker” – but he never explains what exactly he means by this term. Is a Javatrekker someone who physically travels to see where his beans come from? Is it just someone who knows the men and women who picked and roasted his beans? Can you be an armchair Javatrekker? I have no idea. Likewise, I’m not quite sure what “Fair Trade” means. I understand that it’s a desirable label, and one that has been abused by other [corporate] coffee companies, but what the precise requirement is to be Fair Trade in Dean’s book eludes me.

Still, it’s a fascinating read, encompassing many of my favorite things: coffee, travel, ethnographic reports, and white guys trying (and failing) to go native. I’d really recommend Javatrekker to anyone who is still enjoying a nice hot cup of coffee every morning. If I have to wash away that feeling of guilt as I indulge myself, I want to at least know that other people are troubled, too.

4 out of 5 stars

To read more about Javatrekker, buy it or add it to your wishlist click here.

Peeking into the in:
2013: Salt Sugar Fat by Michael Moss
2012: Discussion Question: Bookish Websites – Where do you go?
2011: Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen
2010: News: Press “Pause” on the Piranha
2009: Random Ranting: Magazine Subscriptions
2008: Discussion Question: Do you read every book in a series?

Review: Sakuran: Blossoms Wild by Moyoco Anno

crazy eyes.
Sakuran: Blossoms Wild
by Moyoco Anno

In the pleasure quarter Yoshiwara, during the Edo period, a child is sold into a brothel by a pimp and forced to work as a maid. The girl is clever and spirited, and she is apprenticed to one of the courtesans of the house, beginning her rise toward becoming an oiran, a top-ranking courtesan. Strong-willed but emotionally broken, Kiyoha is forced to endure one trial after another as she dreams of one day leaving Yoshiwara behind.

Originally projected as a two-part series, Sakuran ended up as only a single volume. Thus, it feels rather truncated – the book opens with a chapter in which Kiyoha’s house loses its top courtesan, and the business owners beg Kiyoha to step up and become their new star. Suddenly, jarringly, the story jumps back in time to Kiyoha’s childhood, and from their proceeds from her early years until the last chapter more or less catches up to the opening story. I assume that the abandoned second volume would have looked Kiyoha’s life as the highest-ranking courtesan in Yoshiwara, a story I am sorry we won’t get to see.

The story that we have here is chaotic, at times confusing. The main character’s name changes several times throughout her life, and her fellow courtesans are not always clearly distinguishable. The chapters are very episodic, and sometimes sizable chunks of time slip by between them, and it can be difficult to reorient yourself in Kiyoha’s world.

The artwork is either beautiful or terrible, depending on your opinion of Anno’s work. Personally, I love her fashion figure-inspired women, who wear their beautifully patterned kimono equally well in elegant dignity or sloppy disarray. Her attention to detail makes the elaborate hairstyles appear almost architectural in construction. But I know many manga fans who find her egg-eyed, anorexic characters too off-putting and strange to be enjoyed.

One thing I really appreciated about this book is that the characters speak in blunt, modern day language. It emphasizes both the unsavory aspects of their jobs (they’re whores, after all!) and makes them much easier to understand than the faux-Shakespearean dialogue created for other historical Edo era manga.

3 out of 5 stars

To read more about Sakuran: Blossoms Wild, buy it or add it to your wishlist click here.

Peeking into the in:
2013: The Girl Below by Bianca Zander
2012: Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend by Matthew Dicks
2011: Photos: 20 Celebrites with Stunning Home Libraries
2010: News: Press “Pause” on the Piranha
2009: Giveaway #9: Three Chinese Stories WINNER!
2008: Women of the Bible: Abigail's Story by Ann Burton

This is a re-post of an entry I originally wrote in 2012.  It's been a couple of years and the topic seemed ripe for revisiting.

Discussion Question: Bookish Websites - Where do you go?
As I was looking over my browsing history last night, I couldn’t help but notice how many of the websites I visit on a daily basis are book-related. (Big surprise, right?) It’s weird to think that I spend so much time reading about reading, rather than staying offline with my nose in an actual, physical book. Here are some of the websites I frequent – I’m curious if any of you guys use them as well, and what other book-related webspaces you visit regularly?
I’ve been using BookCrossing the longest of the various websites I’ll mention today – since April 2005, according to my user profile. BookCrossing is a tracking website, akin sites like Where’s George?. Basically, users register a copy of a book, write the ID number somewhere inside the book (usually on the inner front cover or title page), and ‘release’ it so that future users can read it and add journal entries to the book. Over time, this can create a dialogue between new readers and the original owners that can just be enlightening and fun – plus, it’s really neat to see where books travel! I’ve had books ‘disappear’ anonymously (I’ll leave them on a bookshelf or trade them with another reader) and they turn up years later in other states and other countries!

Most people only register books that they plan to get rid of through trading, giving away, or selling. I personally register my entire book collection, because I don’t mind writing or bookplates – but I know that some people would be driven absolutely batty by such book ‘defacement’. Some people think that if a book has a label in it, you have to give it away for free since a lot of the site’s language is geared towards the idea of ‘wild releasing’ – leaving the book in a public place so it can serendipitously find its next reader. But that’s not true. Your books are still your own – so do whatever you want to do with them. I’ve found that some of the most interesting journal entries have come from old textbooks I’ve sold back to the school bookstore or to buyers.

It’s the perfect website for answering the question, “What happens to a book when it leaves my hands?” Strangely enough, knowing that the book survives in a digital format on my Bookcrossing bookshelf has actually made it easier for me to ‘release’ the physical copy to a new reader. Funny how that works…
Although has an active forum, most of my bookish talking takes place on The website is a social book cataloging website similar to Goodreads, which it predates by about a year. In fact, I’ve had a lot of people ask why I don’t use a Goodreads account, and the simple answer is that I was already established on Librarything when Goodreads launched, and maintaining two accounts on websites that served similar purposes seems silly. Although it’s older, Librarything is the smaller of the two websites, and it is less geared towards the social networking so critical to Goodreads success. Most books will have fewer reviews than you’d find on Goodreads, but in my experience the reviews generally tend to be of a higher quality. But that could be my personal bias. The discussion forums on Librarything are a lot of fun – groups exist for just about any topic you can imagine, and compared to other forums I’ve been a member of the discussions remain largely drama free.

Librarything can be quite fun for a book nerd. In addition to cataloging and forum discussions, they have a variety of statistics-based memes to explore. What’s your ratio of male vs. female authors? If you stacked all your books in a single pile, would it be taller than the Sphinx? (My stack rises to a height somewhere between the Taj Mahal and Big Ben.) You can compare your books to ‘legacy libraries’ and see how your collection compares to President Jefferson, Mark Twain or Tupac Shakur. Sure, it’s silly, but it doesn’t make it any less cool.

The one drawback of Librarything is that you can only list 200 books for free; after that, you have to pay a one-time membership to add more books. Officially, this costs $25, but they offer a pay-what-you-can plan so that if $25 is too much, you can make a smaller payment. Honestly, though - $25 isn’t even that much. I’ve been using the site for six years now, so that would break down to less than $5 annually. The site isn’t as intuitive as it could be, I’m told; honestly, I’ve been using it for so long that I can’t judge this fairly anymore, but I know it isn’t the easiest site to navigate.
When you have books to get rid of and the local used bookstore won’t take them, what do you do? Toss ‘em up on Paperbackswap! This book-trading website (one of several out there) allows you to mail out your old books to a new reader, earning a point for your troubles. This point can then be used to ‘buy’ a book from one of the millions currently posted into the system. The site has some basic standards that each user should meet: no mildew, no water damage, no torn pages, no highlighting or writing unless the recipient agrees to accept it, and if you like you can add further stipulations like no books that have been in a smoking environment or only hardcovers with dust jackets. You’re guaranteed to get a book in reasonable condition – although keep in mind they are used books, and if you order a book published in 1973 it is unlikely to be brand-new.

The biggest pro and con of the website is that books are first in, first out. This applies both to sending books out and adding books to wishlists. So if you’re posting a book that already has five hundred copies in the system (think something that was a popular seller several years back, like The Da Vinci Code or Twilight) then no one can request your copy until the first five hundred copies have been taken. Depending on how popular the book is, this might not take very long…but it can be a drag if you want points to spend right away. Likewise, when you add a book currently unavailable in the system to your wishlist, you join a queue, and if it’s a popular new book there can be hundreds of people in line before you. Sometimes the lines move pretty fast…but sometimes you’re just in for a long, long wait. But then again, there are thousands of other titles to choose from, so you needn’t be without a book for long.

An alternative to Paperbackswap is Bookmooch, a website that has greater flexibility on what you can post (Advance Reader Copies of books are considered OK, for example) as long as you fill out ‘condition notes’ so that anyone who requests a book from you knows what he/she is getting. Bookmooch also disposes with the first-in, first out rule: when you get a book is added to the system, it’s a free for all and whoever happens to be online snags it. Bookmooch is also one of the few trading websites that allows you to exchange books overseas; I’ve sent to and received books from Italy, Ireland, Japan, Australia, Israel, and many other countries. But in my experience, the book selection at Bookmooch is much smaller, and in the past year activity at the site seems to have dropped considerably, so I haven’t been using it nearly as much lately.

What are your experiences with these and other bookish sites?

2014 Update: Since this post was written, I have created a Goodreads account - and never really touched it.  A lot of my friends on Facebook were actively using it, so I felt obliged to sign up, but like I said, Librarything continues to fulfill that need so I haven't posted much.  It is nice to have to see what my friends are reading, though, and it often inspires me to pick up something I might not have otherwise found.

Compared to previous years, my swapping on Paperbackswap and especially on Bookmooch has slowed considerably.  I'm not sure whether this is due to the fact that fewer books are being posted (although I'm sure that's a contributing factor as more and more people move to e-Books) or if I've simply managed to acquire the "easy" titles with plenty of copies available.

Peeking into the in:
2013: Thieves of Book Row by Travis McDade
2012: Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend by Matthew Dicks
2011: Photos: 20 Celebrities with Stunning Home Libraries
2010: News: Press “Pause” on the Piranha
2009: Three Chinese Stories Giveaway WINNER!

The Frangipani Hotel
by Violet Kupersmith

In The Frangipani Hotel, ghosts haunt the living, the generations of Vietnamese and Vietnamese-Americans who live in the shadow of the Vietnam War. In one tale, a Vietnamese girl is sent back to the old country to visit her grandmother and is seduced by the sandwiches made by a street vendor; in another, a young hotel clerk finds a beautiful woman soaking in a bath tub fully dressed, but they have no guests registered to that room. Many stories trace their roots back to traditional Vietnamese folklore as Kupersmith reinvents the ghost stories she heard from her grandmother for a new generation.

Like any short story anthology, a few stories rise above the rest. The story that lingers strongest in my mind is a metamorphosis tale called “Turning Back”. A girl working at a supermarket finds a naked old man digging through the dumpster one morning, and she helps him find some clothing. In return, he shares a horrifying story: every once in a while, he finds himself transformed into a large python, and though his memories of his time in snakeskin are fuzzy, he knows that he kills and eats other animals and even small children. Lately, the spells have lasted longer and longer, and he worries that soon the change will become permanent. Granted, I’m afraid of snakes so any story has them will give me the willies, but the old man’s tired resignation to his fate, hopeful that he’ll be caught and placed in a zoo but aware that he’s far more likely to be shot on sight – makes the tale poignant.

The title story, “The Frangipani Hotel”, is the other story that really felt like a proper ghost story. The hotel is a family-owned affair, rundown and somewhat seedy. The desk clerk narrates the story, about his discovery of the strange woman in room 205, her beauty and unquenchable thirst, and her seduction of a wealthy American who considers the hotel’s crumbling rooms the mark of “authentic, real experiences of the people”. The twist at the end of the story isn’t exactly a surprise, but it is executed so neatly that it is still pleasing.

Other stories aren’t so great. The brief “Descending Dragon”, which closes the book, is so short and abrupt that it feels less like a full story and more like a plot outline that accidentally got slipped into the manuscript. “The Red Veil”, a tale-within-a-tale of twin sisters who run wild after their mother’s death and witness a veiled medium communicating with the dead, has some beautiful imagery and a few genuinely creepy moments, but the framing story that interrupts the narrative hinders its ability to scare the reader.

Still, overall the collection is pretty strong. I now feel inspired to look up more about traditional Vietnamese ghost stories so that I can better appreciate Kupersmith’s retellings.

4 out of 5 stars

To read more about The Frangipani Hotel, buy it or add it to your wishlist click here.

Peeking into the in:
2013: The House of Impossible Loves by Cristina Lopez Barrio
2012: A Hundred Flowers by Gail Tsukiyama
2011: Exit the Actress by Priya Parmar
2010: News: Press “Pause” on the Piranha
2009: The Rapture by Liz Jensen
2008: My Husband’s Sweethearts by Bridget Asher

An Evening with Lev Grossman
at Kepler's Books

On August 5th, the final book in Lev Grossman’s Magicians trilogy, The Magician’s Land, hit bookstore shelves. One week later, it was at the top of the New York Times Bestsellers List. The author, naturally, was thrilled.

“I was in Los Angeles,” he explained to a good-sized crowd of us last Friday night at Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park, Calif., “and when I saw the incoming call on my cell, I told myself that I was going to be very Zen about this. It didn’t really matter where I landed on that list. So I didn’t answer. I waited and finally listened to the voicemail, and I was like YES! Life IS like high school and right now I’m the PROM QUEEN!”**

** I didn’t record the talk so this is a paraphrase, but I assure you it’s accurate.

Grossman was in Southern California to attend auditions for an upcoming Magicians TV show, and before leaving the state he came up north to discuss his work. He began the evening just talking about the decade-long journey from the first day he sat down to write The Magicians (June 19th, 2004), which was published in 2009, to his current book tour. He then read an excerpt from the new book and answered questions from the audience.

When he began writing The Magicians, Grossman explained, he was in a dark place. His career felt stagnated in the midst of a midlife depression, and he found himself remembering children’s fantasy favorites like The Chronicles of Narnia and the Harry Potter series and thinking that while the books teach readers a lot, they don’t do much to address many adult problems. Taxes, for one. The Magicians became something of a dialogue, a way of interacting and playing with those ideas that formed such a core of his childhood imagination. In fact, Grossman admitted later in the Q&A session, his characters originally traveled to Narnia and met Aslan, but after some consideration of intellectual property laws Fillory was created instead – a decision that all agree was for the best.

Magic in Magicians isn’t much like that at Hogwarts, where the power to cast spells is the result of winning the genetic lottery: a child is born with wizarding blood that determines his magical abilities. It’s an aptitude for learning and a determination to practice, practice, practice that makes a witch or wizard successful. Grossman compared it to learning to play a musical instrument, and said that his own experience of trying to play the cello after many years had influenced how he described magic at Brakebills, the magical college that his hero Quentin and his friends attend in the first book. He explained that he hadn’t liked that “English, aristocratic” approach to magic, and indeed, a Puritan work ethic does seem more suitable to an Americanized form of magic.

A member of the audience asked Grossman about a continuity error regarding Quentin’s magical abilities, the power level of which differs dramatically between The Magicians and the trilogy’s middle book, The Magician King, he replied that the first book had been conceived as a standalone, and when he realized that he had more to say about Quentin’s adventures he had to bring his hero back to a level more appropriate to the story – a move that didn’t work quite as well as he’d hoped.

When asked what his advice would be to aspiring writers, Grossman was encouraging. He recalled that when he was in school, there were other students “marked for greatness” who were thought to be truly gifted with words, but they never published and as far as he knows they aren’t writers today. He was not one of those kids, but thanks to persistence, persistence and persistence he found success first as a journalist and now as a novelist.

Peeking into the in:
2013: The Glass Swallow by Julia Golding
2012: Hetalia Vol. 2 by Hidekaz Himaruya
2011: Stones into Schools by Greg Mortenson
2010: News: Press “Pause” on Fashionista Piranha
2009: Ashland 2009: Henry VIII by William Shakespeare
2008: Tan Lines by J. J. Salem
new romantic.
A Wedding in Provence
by Ellen Sussman

Hoping for a quiet, intimate wedding surrounded by their closest friends and family, mid-life sweethearts Olivia and Brody are enchanted with the beauty of Provence. But soon after their arrival, trouble brews when the owner of their inn – Olivia’s best friend Emily – learns that her husband cheated on her with another woman. This calamity is followed by the revelation that Olivia’s eldest daughter Nell has brought an unannounced companion with her, the man who sat next to her on the airplane to France, a stranger whose only connection to Nell is a strong sexual attraction. Younger daughter Carly is the next to arrive, sans beau, when her Silicon Valley boyfriend couldn’t get time off work to make the trip to France. As her guests stew over their unsuccessful romances, Olivia’s fretting over her own impending nuptials kicks into high gear.

I picked up a copy of this book, knowing that it was not my usual fare, because it was my store’s Book Club title for August. It really wasn’t for me.

The plot is a soap opera. Every guest at this wedding is having some sort of issue in the romance department. The best friend’s husband cheated, one daughter’s too promiscuous while the other is stuck in a dead relationship with a workaholic. One woman’s husband left her. The best man is a lifelong bachelor who can’t commit to any one woman. Sounds like a mess, right? It is. It seems like no one is at the wedding to celebrate the love between Olivia and Brody – no, everyone is just trying to escape their own problems in magical Provence.

Yet, despite this miasma of negativity, the power of Love and last-minute revelations ensures that all stories find suitably happy endings, with all loose ends neatly tied up, by the final page. It’s tidy, it’s clean, and goodness is it predictable.

This is a book in which not much happens. The majority of the action takes place at a rustic Provencal inn, and while a few characters go out on a kayaking excursion and a few others explore an attractive little French town, most of the story revolves around eating, sleeping, and having sex, intermingled with arguments between family members. Perhaps in the hands of a different writer, these scenes could have been made more interesting, but Sussman’s prosaic style did nothing to elevate the dull moments that are always eliminated from the Facebook version of a dream vacation.

I will say this for A Wedding in Provence - it reads very quickly and smoothly. It may have bored me nearly to tears, but I know a lot of older women (my mother, for one) who love stories like this. The romance and the happy ending, driven by character conflict, are just what they want in a summer beach read.

2 out of 5 stars

To read more about A Wedding in Provence, buy it or add it to your wishlist click here.

Peeking into the in:
2013: The Vast Unknown by Broughton Coburn
2012: Giveaway: The Second Empress by Michelle Moran
2011: The Last Days of the Incas by Kim McQuarrie
2010: News: Press “Pause” on the Piranha
2009: Ashland 2009: All's Well That Ends Well by William Shakespeare
2008: Update on Neil Gaiman contest + author interview

Review: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

rotting doll.
Burial Rites
by Hannah Kent

Charged with the murder of her employer Natan and sentenced to death, Agnes Magnúsdóttir is placed in the custody of District Officer Jón and his family. The officer’s wife Margrét and two daughters are horrified when informed they must house a murderess until her execution is carried out and fear for their safety. But the pitiful, filthy woman dropped unceremoniously at their doorstep seems hardly capable of such violence. The criminal is visited regularly by the Reverend Tóti, a young priest charged with redeeming her soul, and with his patient encouragement the story of Agnes’ sad life slowly trickles out.

Agnes reveals her memories in a dreamlike narrative rich with poetic descriptions. Blizzards “howl like the widows of fishermen”, hearts grow “hard and sharp until it is a nest of rocks with only an empty egg in it,” and memories “shift like snow in a wind”. Her evocative words paint a picture of the rural wildness of early 19th century Iceland without directly describing the landscape before her. It’s very effective and lovely. Agnes’ life, however, is anything but lovely. Abandoned by her mother when she was six, kicked out of her foster home after her foster mother dies in childbirth, Agnes moves from one farm to the next, working the lowliest servant jobs. Eventually, she meets Natan Ketilsson, a man rumored to be a sorcerer who invites her to become the mistress of his farm. But Natan’s changeable nature and false dealings with Agnes and his other female servant cause endless friction, leading up to the disaster that destroys them all.

Agnes’ relationship with Margrét is the strongest in the novel. While Margrét initially distrusts Agnes, she eventually warms to her as she impressed by the prisoner’s hard work and quiet obedience, and saddened by the pathetic tale she hears whispered to the priest. As the mistress of an impoverished farm, living in a croft that’s slowly crumbling, Margrét understands hardship, and as her own poor health fails she feels a great bond with the woman who waits each day to hear when she will die. Her daughters form their own relationships with Agnes, too; the older sister Steina follows Agnes around like a devoted puppy while the younger daughter Lauga heaps scorn upon her.

A somber yet thoughtful story, Burial Rites is an evocative meditation on carrying on when the shadow of death constantly hangs over one’s shoulder. The gritty realism of day-to-day life on a farm contrasts beautifully with the poetic language used by Agnes in her narrations, making the reader wonder what she would have been capable of had she been born into better circumstances.

3.5 out of 5 stars

To read more about Burial Rites, buy it or add it to your wishlist click here.

Peeking into the in:
2013: Passion and Poison by Janice M. Del Negro
2012: Giveaway: The Second Empress by Michelle Moran
2011: The Last Days of the Incas by Kim MacQuarrie
2010: News: Press “Pause” on Fashionista Piranha
2009: Ashland 2009: All’s Well That Ends Well by William Shakespeare
2008: When We Were Romans by Matthew Kneale

Book Store Stories: Watch Your Placement

crazy eyes.
When arranging a book display at the front of the store, you want it to be eye-catching for all the right reasons. Are the book titles exciting? Do the cover colors look good next to each other?

Personally, my favorite way to arrange books is by theme. Create one display featuring revamped fairy tales one week and fill it with biographies of popular musicians the next. But the important thing is to keep this table fresh and exciting.

Oh, and while you're at it, make sure that your table will not inadvertently offend your customers, like this book arrangement would have done if a customer saw it:

Thankfully, we caught this little politically incorrect pairing before anyone came into the store.  My coworker and I were unpacking a large shipment and hastily moving books to the appropriate department, and without realizing it one of us put All my friends are dead. on the front table without noticing the book to its right.

Peeking into the in:
2013: Tides by Betsy Cornwell
2012: Fashionista Piranha is on a break until August 14th...
2011: Tales of the Tudors Book Giveaway
2010: News: Press “Pause” on Fashionista Piranha
2009: Ashland 2009: Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra
2008: Discussion Question: Explain Your Screen Name!
rotting doll.
Seeing a Large Cat
by Elizabeth Peters

Book Nine in the Amelia Peabody series. Click here to read reviews of earlier books in the series. This review may contain spoilers for previous books in the series.

It is 1903, and the Emerson family is once again back in Egypt, preparing for a season of excavation. Amelia, her husband, and their ward Nefret are excited to be reunited with her son Ramses, who has spent the previous six months living in Egypt with his best friend David under the supervision of Sheikh Mohammed. The reunion is a happy one, but tranquility doesn’t last long. As the team begins their work, they uncover a female mummy dressed in modern clothing. As Amelia works to solve the mystery of the murdered woman, her children start their own secret investigation, and it’s a race to see if the Emersons can find the killer before he strikes again.

One of the nice things about long book series is the author can bring back characters from previous novels, and a perk of Seeing a Large Cat is the return of Donald and Enid Fraser, the two lovebirds Amelia encouraged in The Lion in the Valley. Their romance has faded with the years, and their marriage is now strained near to the point of breaking. Donald, never an intellectual man, has become obsessed with a long-dead Egyptian princess whom he communicates with through the charlatan medium Katherine Jones. Amelia becomes determined to fix the broken relationship, but the breakdown of their marriage is a solemn reminder that happily ever after doesn’t last for all that long.

Another welcome change to the story is the introduction of a “Manuscript H” to supplement Amelia’s narrative. These anonymous documents focus on the adventures of Ramses, David and Nefret, and they provide the reader with an account that contrasts sharply with Amelia’s. It’s written in the style of a Haggard adventure novel, and the editor suggests that the author may have been Ramses himself, fictionalizing events in emulation of his mother. Certainly, the text reveals a quirkier side of Ramses’ personality. I found it hilarious to read that the sixteen-year-old is still quite terrified of his mother, and believes her to be practically all-knowing, because in Amelia’s version of events he comes across as cool, stoic and fiercely independent. Throw in some drama from an infatuated Southern belle who chases Ramses all over Egypt, and Manuscript H is a funny balance to Amelia’s story.

The mystery itself is of middling interest. The discovery of a modern mummy is certainly intriguing, but having become quite familiar with Peters’ manner of plotting her mysteries it’s obvious early on who the guilty party is, and the reader is simply waiting for the Emersons to catch up. Still, I enjoyed the story immensely, and I’m glad that Ramses (or whoever the author of Manuscript H may be) has stepped up to join in the storytelling, for as Amelia and Emerson grow older (they must be in at least their mid- to late forties by now) it will be up to the next generation to continue their criminal investigations.

4 out of 5 stars

To read more about Seeing a Large Cat, buy it or add it to your wishlist click here.

Peeking into the in:
2013: Rest in Peace Barbara Mertz/Elizabeth Peters/Barbara Michaels
2012: Fashionista Piranha is on a break until August 14th...
2011: Mangaman by Barry Lyga & Colleen Doran
2010: News: Press “Pause” on Fashionista Piranha
2009: News: Oregon Shakespeare Festival
2008: The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson

Review: Twin Spica Vol. 1 by Kou Yaginuma

Twin Spica Vol. 1
by Kou Yaginuma

In the not-so-distant future, a young girl obsessed with the stars applies to join the first class of the Tokyo Space School. After passing the first round of tests, Asumi Kamogawa joins the rest of the applicants in a week-long test of her behavior when left in close quarters with two other girls near her age. Although naturally cheerful and easygoing, the stress of the exam triggers memories of the tragic death of Asumi’s mother, who died from injuries sustained when Japan’s first manned spacecraft crashed into a populated city only seconds after blast-off.

This is a really well-crafted story that finds that perfect balance between tugging on the heartstrings and sucking you in with charming, well-developed characters. Asumi is generally good-natured, but just quirky enough that you want to learn more about her. Early in the story, she is seen talking to a lion-suited figure that looks like a theme park mascot. Is it male or female, real or imaginary? The reader is left guessing.

The horror of the spaceship that crashed into a city, killing thousands, casts a shadow over much of the story while tying the flashbacks in with the main story of Asumi’s trials as she applies for the space program. The tragedy also allows a layer of the supernatural to infuse the story; in one of the flashback stories, a younger Asumi must draw her mother for a school assignment and cannot remember what she looked like, but when she falls into a river and nearly drowns the child wanders the underworld for a time, eventually encountering her mother one last time.

The artwork is simple, almost child-like at times, but infused with a warmth that invites you to keep reading. It is sweet without ever crossing over into saccharine territory, reflecting the comforting heart at the core of Twin Spica.

4 out of 5 stars

To read more about Twin Spica Vol. 1, buy it or add it to your wishlist click here.

Peeking into the in:
2013: Facing the Wave by Gretel Ehrlich
2012: Fashionista Piranha is on a break until August 14th...
2011: Guest Post: James Mace, author of “Soldier of Rome: The Legionary”
2010: The Secret Eleanor by Cecelia Holland
2009: Discussion Question: Sleeping and Reading
2008: Red Letters: Living a Faith That Bleeds by Tom Davisa>

Powell's Indiespensable Book Club
Volume 48: The Great Glass Sea

Since 2008, Powell's Books of Portland, OR has run a book club/subscription service that sends a new hardcover book, in a custom slipcase, and a couple of bookish surprises every six weeks to its subscribers.  Sound cool?  It gets better.  Each book also comes with a booklet containing an interview with the author about the book - not just a couple of quick questions about their favorite book or personal biography, but questions that dig deeply into the novel and provide real insight into the book's creation.

I only recently found out about Indiespensable a few weeks ago, and signed up immediately because nothing beats a surprise package in the mail, right?  (These subscription thingies are an addiction, I swear!)  Powell's reveals the title of the book when you sign up, so I knew that my first book would be The Great Glass Sea, but I had no idea what else would be sent.  Here's what I pulled out of my box when I ripped into it a few minutes after my mail carrier dropped it on my doorstep:


The Great Glass Sea by Josh WeiI: The hardcover book, I believe, is the standard edition that one would buy at any bookstore, but Indiespensable readers get the cool slipcase, which really does make the book seem more special.  Still, it's the inside content that counts, and the plot description makes me want to start reading this immediately:
Yarik and Dima are twin brothers living in an alternate and dystopian version of Russia. Inseparable as children, their adult lives begin to divide along lines of power, ideology, and fortune. Drawing strong influence from Russian folktales, The Great Glass Sea is a gorgeously written, intricately detailed look at how community, individuality, and love evolve in one imagined future.

Indiespensable Booklet: The Great Glass Sea: This companion guidebook contains an interview and Q&A with Josh Weil.  It slides neatly into the slipcase next to the hardcover book, and really adds to the reading experience.

BPA-Free Nalgene Water Bottle: Literature: My dad always carried Nalgene water bottles when he took my brother and me hiking when we were kids, so their water bottles are very nostalgic for me.  I know, it's weird.  But combine my irrational fondness for them with the literature-themed water gauge and this item is a real winner.  But whatever will I fill this with?  Water can get so boring, sometimes...

Mighty Leaf Teabag Sampler: Mighty Leaf was one of the first tea companies to start using "whole leaf pouches", bags that have more room to allow leaves to expand as the tea brews, creating a richer and more intense flavor.  This sampler came with three flavors: Vanilla Bean (black tea and Madagascar vanilla), White Orchard (white tea with peach and melon), and Chocolate Mint Truffle (herbal rooibos).  They all sound amazing, and voila!  I have something to brew in my water bottle!  I wonder if Nalgene bottles can be used to make sun tea...

What a fun box! The Great Glass Sea sounds like just the sort of book I'd pick out if I was shopping for my next read, and I loved the extra items that Powell's selected to go with it.  Between Powell's and Book Riot, I'm pretty well stocked on reading for the rest of my summer - and yet I'm already starting to wonder what will be in the next Indiespensable box...


Powell's Indiespensable subscription costs $39.95 per box.  To learn more and check out books previously selected for subscribers, visit the Indiespensable page at Powell's Books.

Review: A Triple Knot by Emma Campion

the red queen.
A Triple Knot
by Emma Campion

I reviewed Emma Campion’s previous novel, The King’s Mistress, in 2010.

Joan of Kent, niece of King Edward III, is a political pawn of her family. Years ago, her father was executed for treason, so Joan’s every move is watched as her mother and royal kin begin to prepare her for a strategic marriage that will strengthen their ties in France. Still young and innocent at twelve, Joan playfully promises to marry her cousin Ned, the heir to the throne. But Joan is soon sent away, promised to the son of Sire d’Albret. Her future father-in-law frightens Joan, for he’s constantly touching her inappropriately, but her complaints are ignored. Worse still for her future, Joan’s fallen in love with a handsome knight, Thomas Holland – a man twice her age with neither the wealth nor social status to ever be accepted by the king as her husband. But true love conquers all, and when the alliance with d’Albret becomes shaky Joan seizes the chance to marry Thomas. But upon her return to England, Joan is hastily married to yet another nobleman, and her protestations that she already has a husband are ignored. As years pass with Thomas fighting in France and her new husband, Will, barely able to tolerate her, Joan catches the eye of her still-smitten cousin, Ned, who hasn’t forgotten the childish vows they made to each other long ago.

If this sounds like a tangled mess of love, well, it is. Young nobility in 14th century England apparently fell in love quickly and urgently; at eight years old, Ned has decided that Joan will be his future queen while at twelve, she’s found her one true love in Thomas Holland. Even knowing that people got married in their teens at this period in time, I can’t shake the ick factor that comes when Joan consummates her clandestine marriage to Thomas. She’s twelve and Holland is in his mid-twenties! The knight himself condemns one man for pursuing Joan at such a tender age, and here he is doing the exact same thing. It’s a bit hard for a modern reader.

There’s a lot of intrigue in the book, and not just when Joan is running about juggling multiple marriages while flirting with Prince Ned. Whenever the story would veer into some of the political machinations of Edward III, I’d perk right up. But too soon, the story would go back to Joan fretting over one man or another, and my interest would flag. The men in her life were too one note to be anything than flimsy, two-dimensional creations: Thomas too noble and perfect; Will too cruel and weak; Ned too arrogant and royal. Too much bodice-ripping, not enough politics! (Never thought I’d be saying that particular phrase…) I just wanted to get back to the invasion of France and the business of keeping all those kids in the court occupied.

I had really enjoyed Campion’s previous novel, so perhaps my expectations were just too high for this one. A Triple Knot could be seen as a prequel to The King’s Mistress, since it ends a year or two before Alice Perrers, protagonist of the latter, becomes the mistress of Edward III.

2.5 out of 5 stars

To read more about A Triple Knot, buy it or add it to your wishlist click here.

Peeking into the in:
2013: Queen’s Gambit by Elizabeth Fremantle
2012: Fashionista Piranha on break until August 14th
2011: Tales of Woe by John Reed
2010: Guest Post: Cecelia Holland, author of ‘The Secret Eleanor’
2009: News: Elizabeth Woodville, 15th century English queen, on Twitter
2008: One More Year by Sana Krasikov

Bookish news of a personal nature

Great news ya'll!

It’s been an exciting month, and it’s barely just begun.

Last Saturday, I started a new part-time job as a bookseller at Village House of Books in Los Gatos, CA. It’s a cozy little store with a carefully curated selection of books and gift items – and the only book shop in town! The locals have really embraced their bookstore, so the owners Steve and Cheryl are opening a second location closer to the heart of downtown.

That’s where I come in. Gotta have someone to work in the new location, right?

Hopefully, this will mean fun stories of life behind-the-scenes at an independent bookstore and coverage more author events – and as always, more awesome new books to share with ya’ll!

Peeking into the in:
2013: The Tragedy Paper by Elizabeth Laban
2012: Fashionista Piranha on break until August 14th
2011: The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb by Melanie Benjamin
2010: His Last Letter by Jeane Westin
2009: Last Night in Montreal by Emily St. John Mandel
2008: So Long at the Fair by Christina Schwarz

Latest Month

August 2014


RSS Atom


Powered by
Designed by Tiffany Chow