Archive for June, 2010

ARC Review: Infinite Days

Infinite Days

Rebecca Maizel  
Paperback, 336 pages
St. Martin’s Press
August 03, 2010

 

I was lucky enough to win an ARC of Rebecca Maizel’s debut novel Infinite Days, the first in her Vampire Queen series, from St. Martin’s Press and once I started reading it was difficult to put down.  It tells the story of Lenah Beaudonte, a 500-year-old vampire with an insatiable appetite for death and destruction.  She’s ruthless, uncontrollably violent, and lacking any sense of compassion or humanity.  She’s the queen of the coven she’s created to provide her with eternal protection and companionship and her rules are followed without question. 

But even though she’s surrounded by opulence and every luxury that money can buy, her only desire is to become human again, to escape the constant pain and misery from which only blood can provide temporary relief.  Her maker, Rhode, learns of a ritual that will give Lenah her wish but only at the cost of his life.  When it’s done, Lenah has awoken to a new life where she can truly live as she’d been meant to in the 15th century before Rhode set his sights on her and turned her into a monster.

Her new life is that of a sixteen year old student attending a prestigious boarding school on the East coast of the United States.  Though at first she has some trouble adjusting to her new, mortal state, she soon gains the friendship of an art student named Tony who helps her adjust to life in the 21st century.  With her soul back, she no longer finds comfort in violent thoughts and begins to at last find peace and happiness in her new home.  Things start to get complicated when Lenah catches the eye of the popular and gorgeous Justin Enos, whose girlfriend Tracy won’t give up without a fight.  Still mourning the loss of Rhode, Lenah is hesitant at first but finds that she is inexplicably drawn to Justin despite the problems their relationship could cause. 

But her social life is the least of her problems and Lenah knows that soon her coven, expecting her to rise from her one hundred year hibernation on Halloween night, will begin to search for her.  The magic that binds them together will ensure that they will stop at nothing to find her and bring her back to their home in England.  But unbeknownst to them, their queen is human again and Lenah fears for her mortal life and the lives of those she’s come to love at her school.  She knows what her beloved coven will do to them once they’re found, because only a short while ago she would have done the same things herself and taken great pleasure in it.

Infinite Days is a thrilling, touching, and enthralling book, and quite unique in its take on vampires (just when you thought the subject had been exhausted, right?).  Maizel’s vampires are animated by the oldest of black magics.  Immortality and great power are small and insignificant benefits compared to the endless suffering and pain they experience night after night.  Bringing death and destruction to others is the only short relief they can find.  And though their senses are heightened, they cannot truly feel anything they touch except for the smallest hint of texture or temperature.  All they can smell is blood, heat, and fear.  They are numb to everything else and can’t even experience the release of weeping.  Small wonder they’re evil by nature. 

Another unique component to the story that I was fascinated by was Lenah’s love of herbs and flowers and their various magical properties and uses.  There’s a scene that I loved that takes place in the greenhouse on campus where she’s explaining some of these properties to Justin.  When she comes to a particular edible flower he leans in and opens his mouth so she can place it on his tongue for him to swallow.  Fabulous.

For someone who’s relatively new to the YA genre (and can’t take too much of it at once), I was relieved to find a welcome respite from all the teenage schoolyard drama during all the chapters from Lenah’s vampire past that are woven into the story.  We get to learn a little about the men that she chose to join her in the ranks of the undead and serve her in the coven, and it leads nicely into her search for redemption after centuries of causing pain and bringing death to countless innocents.  Plus it was nice to have a main character who’s a vampire for a change (are there really no more Lestats out there?  Say it isn’t so…).

I was very excited to read this book and I loved each and every page.  I was very attached to the characters and actually a little torn about how I wanted everything to turn out in the end.  I highly recommend it to fans of vampire fiction (especially of the YA variety) and I’ll be waiting impatiently for the next Vampire Queen book.

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The Twentieth Wife

The Twentieth Wife

Indu Sundaresan  
Paperback, 416 pages
Simon & Schuster
February 18, 2003
 
 
From the back cover:
An enchanting historical epic of grand passion and adventure, this debut novel tells the captivating story of one of India’s most controversial empresses – a woman whose brilliance and determination trumped myriad obstacles, and whose love shaped the course of the Mughal Empire.  Skillfully blending the textures of historical reality with the rich and sensual imaginings of a timeless fairy tale, The Twentieth Wife sweeps readers up in Mehrunnisa’s embattled love with Prince Salim, and in the bedazzling destiny of a woman – a legend in her own time – who was all but lost to history until now.

I confess I’ve never been all that interested in the history of India and I couldn’t even really tell you why.  I guess I’m just more of an ancient Egypt or Rome kind of girl.  But after reading The Twentieth Wife I’m happy to say that I’ve officially been won over.  Indu Sundaresan paints  a beautiful portrait of the Mughal Empire in vibrant colors, tantalising scents, and the rich culture of the multi-faith population under Muslim rule. 

Mehrunnisa is a rich and warm character, with a cunning intellect and just a touch of guile, and it was hard not to fall in love with her.  She had me spellbound from the start, and I delighted in seeing her catch the prince’s attention in the zenana when she was a child, and I shared her devastation when she fails to become pregnant during the first years of her marriage only to miscarry twice – denying her the only form of solace she can conceive of in her loveless marriage to Ali Quli. 

In the Afterword, Sundaresan describes how she set out to fill in the gaps in the incomplete historical record – provided mostly by travelers’ narratives and bazaar gossip – and bring the stories of these women who ruled “behind the veil” to life.  I’m definitely looking forward to learning more about Mehrunnisa’s life in The Feast of Roses as well as the other empresses Sundaresan has chronicled. 

Her writing style is beautiful and almost lyrical, and the pages are filled with emotion.  And best of all, she transports you to an exotic past surrounded by emperors, palaces, and harems (not to mention wild elephants and tigers) in a way that you don’t even realize how foreign it is.  I felt perfectly at ease waiting on the empress in the zenana or strolling through the marketplace with Mehrunnisa, and even watching court proceedings behind a screen or veil.  In fact, I got so immersed in her world I was almost startled when I had to put the book down and get jolted back to reality.

I have to mention that I had the pleasure of hearing Indu speak on a historical fiction panel at the LA Times Festival of Books in April as well as meeting her at the book signing that took place afterward, and she was incredibly well-spoken and personable.  It was wonderful listening to her describe her writing and the ups and downs of her genre (e.g. that no matter how meticulous your research, someone will always find a mistake and email you about it).  It was such a thrill to meet her and I know without a doubt that if I enjoy her other books as much as this one, I’ll be investing my time and money in all her future releases.

Daughters of the Witching Hill

Daughters of the Witching Hill

Mary Sharratt  
Hardcover, 352 pages
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Trade & Reference Publis
April 07, 2010
*I received a complimentary ARC from the publisher via NetGalley.

From the publisher:

Daughters of the Witching Hill brings history to life in a vivid and wrenching account of a family sustained by love as they try to survive the hysteria of a witch-hunt. Bess Southerns, an impoverished widow living in Pendle Forest, is haunted by visions and gains a reputation as a cunning woman. Drawing on the Catholic folk magic of her youth, Bess heals the sick and foretells the future. As she ages, she instructs her granddaughter, Alizon, in her craft, as well as her best friend, who ultimately turns to dark magic. When a peddler suffers a stroke after exchanging harsh words with Alizon, a local magistrate, eager to make his name as a witch finder, plays neighbors and family members against one another until suspicion and paranoia reach frenzied heights. Sharratt interweaves well-researched historical details of the 1612 Pendle witch-hunt with a beautifully imagined story of strong women, family, and betrayal. Daughters of the Witching Hill is a powerful novel of intrigue and revelation.

When I first read the description of this galley I was immediately interested in reading it.  I’ve always been morbidly fascinated by witch trials, and after reading The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane recently I was reminded of my interest in the subject.  Most of my knowledge stems from the trials in Salem, Massachusetts so it was a nice change of pace to learn about one of the most famous witch hunts in the Old World in Daughters of the Witching Hill.

I have to say it was an absolute pleasure reading this book and learning about the women of Pendle Forest that spanned three generations.  Their strength and independence, along with Bess’ reputation as a powerful cunning woman with the ability to heal the sick, gave them the tools to survive in a harsh reality of poverty and hunger and eventually led to their downfall. 

From the first few pages I was drawn into the world that Sharratt recreated so masterfully through what I’m sure was thorough and painstakingly detailed research.  It was beautifully written and what really stands out in my mind after finishing the book is how authentic and three-dimensional the characters seemed to be.  From their speech patterns and interactions even down to their unspoken thoughts, it was readily apparent that these people were genuinely from the 17th century and would stick out like sore thumbs if they were somehow transported to the present.

The magic that Bess, Liza and the other cunning women use was unique in that it was actually just folk magic left over from the forbidden Catholic religion.  It mostly consisted of chanting latin prayers and the use of herbal remedies, but without the help of their familiar spirit the spells would lack the power to work properly.  I thought it was a unique take on the magic employed by witches, which is typically associated with abra cadabra, broomsticks, and deals with the devil. 

Overall, Witching Hill is a great read.  One that’s filled with intensity, love, triumphs, heartbreak, and betrayal.  The harrowing ordeals that these women had to go through were the stuff from nightmares and the fear they lived with leaked right out of the pages into me, making me feel that I was the one accused of sorcery and condemned to hang.  I would definitely recommend it to fans of historical novels, especially if they’re looking for a different perspective on the 17th century witch trials in England.

2010 LA Times Festival of Books

 

In April I attended the LA Times Festival of Books for the first time and it was such an amazing experience I thought I’d share the highlights with you.  My cousin (who is co-authoring the fantasy novel I’m currently working on) flew down from Northern California for the event and when we arrived on Saturday morning my first impression was the sheer size of it!  As we made our way across the gorgeous UCLA campus we crossed a sea of booths and passed through throngs of fellow book lovers.  I’ve never seen so many people gathered to talk about reading and writing, and the buzzing atmosphere was contagious.

Over 400 authors were in attendance to do readings, speak at panels, and sign books.  The first panel we went to was called Science & Humanity: From the Past to the Future and it featured Brian Fagan, Michael Shermer, and Richard Wrangham, who discussed their books about human evolution, pre-history, and sociology.  Brian Fagan was my first archaeology professor at UC Santa Barbara and it was largely due to him that I decided to major in anthropology.  All three authors had fascinating things to say and after the panel I bought Fagan’s new book, Cro-Magnon, and we chatted about his days at the university as he signed it.

 

Then we hit the YA Stage to catch the tail end of Blood, Fangs, and Temptation: Everything Vampire with Heather Brewer, Rachel Caine, Melissa de la Cruz, and Richelle Mead.  I’ve read Vampire Academy and Glass Houses is in my TBR pile so it was interesting to see the authors in the flesh and hear them discuss their books and writing in general.  I’ve been obsessed with vampires since I was a kid so it’s delightful to see that they’ve made a comeback into popular culture. 

We couldn’t stick around to get any of their books signed because we had to book it to our next panel: History Through Fiction’s Lens, with Gabrielle Burton, Thaisa Frank, and Indu Sundaresan.  This was another riveting panel about historical fiction, one of my favorite genres.  The authors were so different, but each brought their own unique perspective to the discussion and it was obvious that they were all equally passionate about their research.  As someone who aspires to write in this genre someday it was assuring to hear Indu say that when writing historical fiction, mistakes are inevitable – you just have to focus on creating a realistic setting to bring your characters, and their stories, to life.  I bought copies of Gabrielle’s Impatient with Desire, about Tamsen Donner of the ill-fated Donner party, and Indu’s The Twentieth Wife, about the Moghul Empire in India.  It was a pleasure meeting them both.

The author I was most excited to meet was Christopher Rice and I almost missed my opportunity, but by a small twist of luck I managed to not only meet him and get a copy of his new book signed, but he was nice enough to take his picture with us.  We’d missed the panel he was on so we ran over to the area where he was signing only to find it empty.  I was extremely disappointed but I talked to a volunteer and she confirmed that we’d missed the signing, but then someone else asked which author I was looking for and he happened to walk by the tent just then.  The volunteer called him over and he happily offered to sign my program.  When I said that I’d meant to buy his new book for the signing he said he and the other authors on the panel were just about to go buy each other’s books and suggested that we come with them.  I was so grateful and thrilled to meet him because I’ve been a fan since his debut novel A Density of Souls.  He was such a sweetheart!

With Christopher Rice

The rest of the day we wandered up and down the aisles of booths, meeting debut authors and picking up literature on writing associations.  We’d been too busy to eat lunch or drink any water so needless to say, we were exhausted as the day wrapped up and we headed home.

We got there earlier on Sunday to attend our first scheduled panel of the day – Publishing: The Editors Speak Out, with Sarah Crichton, Eli Horowitz, and Jack Shoemaker.  It was wonderful to hear about the publishing industry from these insiders’ perspectives and they each gave great advice and provided some insight into the ups and downs of the business.  The next panel we went to was also about publishing and we picked up some more tips that will surely come in handy when we start shopping our manuscript. 

Dionne loaded down with bookish goodies.

We hit some more booths next and remembered to eat lunch this time, copping a squat on the grass next to the Cooking Stage to watch Anne Byrn, the Cake Mix Doctor, whip up some tasty looking desserts. 

 Then it was back to the YA Stage to see Michael Reisman, Margaret Stohl, Tracy Trivas, and Heather Tomlinson at Making the Magic Happen: Writing Young Adult Fantasy.  This was a particularly interesting panel since it was all about our genre, although our novel is decidedly NOT for young adults.  Each author read a short passage from one of their books and answered questions from the audience.   

After reading Empress Orchid last year I was excited to see Anchee Min’s name on the list of authors attending the festival.  I bought a copy of her new release, Pearl of China, and waited in line for a chance to meet her.  Unfortunately the experience was quite a let down.  Unlike all the other authors we’d met so far, who greeted us with smiles and chatted personably, she didn’t say a word and barely cracked a smile.  Also unlike the other authors who personalized their autographs by including our names and a short message, Min just signed her name.  All this is fine, you never know if she was just having a bad day or if she gets nervous at events like that or who knows what, but it was kind of a turn off.  Hopefully the book will make up for it. 

Soaking up the glorious atmosphere.

Overall, the festival was absolutely thrilling and inspirational and we vowed to make it an annual tradition.  I can’t believe I’ve lived in Los Angeles for the better part of a decade and had never even heard of it before this year!  It was wonderful to see so many fantastic authors up close and personal and get to meet some of them.  I hope to be able to attend the festival as an author as well as a reader sometime in the future.

What bookish events have you been to?