Book Lust // Spring new book releases to watch for!

Hi guys! Today I have a Book Lust wish list post of all the new books I’ve been hearing about recently—new books in 2017 that I cannot wait to read. I love to keep an eye on new book releases coming out the same way I like to keep an eye on fashion trends. 😉 It’s always exciting to find new books and then I get to share them here! So these are the new book releases I can’t wait to get my hands on in spring 2017.

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Book rec // The Velvet Hours by Alyson Richman

When I first heard about The Velvet Hours, a new book by Alyson Richman, I have to admit I was like, “Great, another book about World War II. Another book about Paris. Cliche AF.” But seeing the dozens of four- and five-star reviews on Goodreads, I decided to take a chance. And this book truly impressed me. If you’re interested in excellent storytelling, historical fiction, Paris during the Belle Epoque, or just getting lost in a great book, check out The Velvet Hours by Alyson Richman.

the velvet hoursThe Velvet Hours is set in two tumultuous and iconic periods of Parisian history: the Belle Epoque and World War II. The main character, a young woman named Solange, discovers that her father is adopted, and that her real grandmother is a rich, elegant woman named Marthe de Florian. Solange’s father encourages Solange to spend time with Marthe to distract his daughter from the passing of her mother, and because Solange wants to be a writer, and her father knows that Marthe has had an interesting life. Over the course of a year and a half, Solange gets to know her new grandmother, and Marthe de Florian regales her granddaughter with stories of her life, set against the sumptuous background of the Belle Epoque.

The narrative flips between Solange’s first-person narrative in 1939-1940 and Marthe de Florian’s third-person reminiscences. She tells Solange about her humble beginnings as a seamstress in Montmartre, her adolescent days performing onstage, and eventually becoming a woman of the demimonde–that half world occupied by courtesans, mistresses, and the like. Marthe meets and engages in a decades-long affair with a rich man named Charles, discovers her love for art and beauty, and becomes an elegant, accomplished woman who turns her life into a work of art.

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Book Lust // Historical & World War II fiction

Y’all know I love a good historical fiction novel more than almost anything else. I’ve got a list of books a mile long I want to buy and/or read, and here are three of them that have been recommended to me. Hopefully I can get my hands on these soon!

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A massive, fictionalized history of London!

Way back last year, I bought a bunch of Edward Rutherfurd novels that take place in a specific city/country and span centuries. These books, of which he’s written like ten, function as both amazing historical fiction and an ode to their respective places. Last August I read Paris and could not stop gushing over it. This year, I read London.

92160I know you’re probably sick of me talking about London, but hear me out.

I started this book in December, weeks before my trip to London over New Year’s, but since it was Christmas and I was really busy, I didn’t finish it until I returned from my trip in January, and reading this book ended up being the perfect bookend (pun intended) to a wonderful return to the city. This book made me get to know the city’s history, even as I wandered its ancient streets.

It begins in pre-Roman, Celtic Britain, and ends in 1997. Between those 1100+ pages, six families come to life over 2,000 years. In these pages, we get to know Londinium, the Roman city, with its amphitheatre, gladiators, and rampant money counterfeiting. We see William the Conqueror invade the city in 1066, and build the impressive fortress, the Tower of London, on the banks of the Thames. We see the plague rip through the towns, the Great Fire absolutely demolish the wooden houses, and Mayfair rise up from its ashes a century or so later. The same families appear in each chapter, and the author is tongue in cheek, knowing that the readers know so much more about each family’s history and ancestry than even they know.

I have always felt that historical fiction, provided it’s as accurate as humanly possible, is the best way to learn history. I don’t think history can really be learned from history books (if you’re anything short of a historian) and Edward Rutherfurd is not only a very detailed history writer; he’s also a masterful storyteller. Each chapter is rife with vivid characters, heightened tension, excellent plot development, and the perfect set-up for future characters—and future settings. It’s like two dozen novellas in one, or as if someone had dictated their family’s history to a talented ghostwriter.

“Each year, each age, leaves something. It gets compressed, of course, it disappears under the surface, but just a little of all that human life remains. A Roman tile, a coin, a clay pipe from Shakespeare’s time. All left in place. When we dig down, we find it and we may put it on show. But don’t think of it just as an object. Because that coin, that pipe belonged to someone: a person who lived, and loved, and looked out at the river and the sky each day just like you and me.”

A character says that to another on the very last page, two archaeologists walking through the Museum of London (which I was lucky to visit when I was first there, and it’s a must-see). I love that quote.

Some people will have trouble getting into this one; it is a slow starter. But it’s absolutely worth the effort.

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Libba Bray’s excellent sequel to ‘The Diviners’

The book Lair of Dreams, the sequel to The Diviners by Libba Bray, was a long time coming. But since I’ve been reading Libba Bray since I was 12 all the way back in 2003, I knew her penchant for pushing back deadlines and making fans really earn the next installment in a series/trilogy. But this one, like her others, was worth the wait.

16060716Libba Bray is the author of a book series that changed my life when I was a young teenager: A Great and Terrible Beauty and its two sequels, books set in Victorian England and featuring a female character with connections to a supernatural world of power that she can control. Bray’s new series follows along the same lines.

Set in 1920s New York, a world of flappers and speakeasies, the Harlem Renaissance and Ziegfeld girls, The Diviners is about a group of teenagers who have psychic or supernatural abilities. The second installment follows eight different main characters, each with a rich backstory, strong characterizations, a different “ability,” and distinct voices.

There’s Evie O’Neill, the quintessential flapper and an object reader. She loves the high life, and she loves being the famous Sweetheart Seer, her radio personality. There’s Theta Knight, a sultry Ziegfeld girl with a dark past. Henry DuBois, a dreamwalker looking for his lost love, a boy named Louis he left behind in New Orleans. Memphis Campbell, a poet from Harlem who can heal with one touch. Ling Chan, a resident of Chinatown and a victim of polio who finds solace in her dream world, where she can do anything she likes.

And more…each unique, each interesting. It’s truly a feat to have such a varied cast, all of them main characters, all of them with a different voice, all of them as interesting as the last. As episodic as the book is, it never feels fragmented, and I never was annoyed to turn the page and find that this or that character was now the focus. I liked them all.

Oh, and these books are also literally the scariest books I’ve ever read. They’re horror stories at heart, so in the last one there was a ghostly murderer killing people and stealing body parts so he could build himself a body. I didn’t sleep for the entire time I read it.

This installment is slightly less horrifying, but just as gruesome. When the earliest (shut down) subway station in New York is accidentally discovered by a trio of workmen deep in the bowels of New York, a ghost is awakened who enters the dreams of its victims, showing them their deepest desires and then using that dream to sap their life force. The “sleeping sickness,” as the terrified New Yorkers call it, causes its victims to enter into an unending sleep while they burn from the inside out. Scorch marks appear on their bodies as they dream and dream—until they die.

Oh, and the ghost is also snatching people and turning them into monsters with razor-like teeth, horrifying howls and screams, and jaws that unhinge to attack their victims. Imagine Gollum but ten times scarier.

Despite its horror, this book is still very much character driven. Evie especially is a character who goes through many “growth spurts,” and each character has to face an inner demon as important as the physical ones that threaten to kill them and everyone they love. Memphis struggles to be a poet and has to deal with racism in 1920s New York. Ling Chan lives in Chinatown during the height of the Chinese Exclusion Act, and also faces racism. Theta deals with her murky and violent past, Henry copes with hiding and also accepting his homosexuality, and so on. The book is so rich, steeped in history and social issues, and the characterization is never sacrificed for the sensational.

I’m seriously impressed with the writing, as well. Since 2003, Libba Bray has become a truly talented wordsmith, even more so than she was.

“Every city is a ghost.
New buildings rise upon the bones of the old so that each shiny steel beam, each tower of brick carries within it the memories of what has gone before, an architectural haunting. Sometimes you can catch a glimpse of these former incarnations in the awkward angle of a street or filigreed gate, an old oak door peeking out from a new facade, the plaque commemorating the spot that was once a battleground, which became a saloon and is now a park.”

At the heart of this book is New York, a rich tapestry that becomes a character in and of itself. New York fiction is perhaps my favorite “genre.”

I really don’t have much criticism of this YA novel. I think it’s a must read, for all ages. It’s epic, important, full of truth and beauty, and just as striking as the first book I read by Bray, about 12 years ago.

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Fantasy, myth, history and New York: a book with everything

I’ve never read a book quite like this one.

15819028The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker is almost everything I look for in a book: historical fiction, magic, excellent storytelling, a touch of the mystical, and of course, New York.

I love New York fiction, especially historical fiction, so this book was basically calling my name. It’s about two mythical figures in folklore: a jinni and a golem. A golem is a creature made of clay and animated by Kabbalistic magic to serve a master for the entirety of its existence. A jinni is a creature of fire born in the Syrian desert, and can be known to antagonize or even harm humans, sort of like a fire demon. What happens when these two beings meet in 1899 New York? Wanna find out?

Chava is the golem, a clay woman whose master dies on their sea voyage to New York. She’s cautious, timid, and eager to serve humans because that’s her nature, and her reason for existence. It’s also really dangerous, because another part of a golem’s nature is its innate and latent penchant for violence. When a golem becomes violent it can’t be controlled anymore, and has to be destroyed.

Ahmad is the jinni, who is released from a flask by a tinsmith in Little Syria. He becomes an apprentice to the tinsmith, but is forever trapped in human form by an iron cuff on his wrist, and bound to be a slave to an unknown master a long time ago. He doesn’t really remember how he became trapped, but it was at least a thousand years ago in the Syrian desert.

The one thing I want to note about this book is its beauty. Wecker is a talented writer, and the way she weaves historical settings and makes two mythical creatures appear natural to the tapestry of New York history is seriously impressive.

Madison Square Park sat before them, a dark grove of leafless trees. They crossed into it, and meandered along the empty paths. Even the homeless had left to search out warm doorways and stairwells. Only the Golem and the Jinni were there to take in the quiet. 

I think the most interesting part of this book was reading about the two creatures themselves, and what humanity means to two beings who are not human. Chava is the most problematic character; because she was made and not born, and because her nature is to be enslaved, quite happily, to a human, her characterization and personality are extremely complex.

Chava is built to automatically follow the commands of her master, to anticipate his desires, and to fulfill them entirely. That is her purpose. She has also been built to be cautious and meek, as well as intelligent and curious. Her master specifically imbued her with these qualities. Does that mean she’s a robot? Without a master, Chava’s decisions and personality take on new meaning. If she’s made to be a slave, if she’s meant to have certain characteristics, is anything she does or says true to her? Does she have any say in who she is, what she does, and how she feels? The book touches upon these big-boy questions, often when the golem is in conversation with the jinni, who is her extreme opposite.

“I have no idea, [the jinni] said, “how long I was that man’s servant. His slave. I don’t know what he made me do. I might have done terrible things. Perhaps I killed for him. I might have killed my own kind.” There was a tight edge in his voice, painful to hear. “But even worse would be if I did it all gladly. If he robbed me of my will, and turned me against myself. Given the choice, I’d sooner extinguish myself in the ocean.”

Chava is earth, but the jinni Ahmad is a creature of fire, and thus has many of the qualities you’d associate with the element: impulsiveness, a quick temper, arrogance, self-absorption, recklessness, and selfishness. But he’s also capable of change and love. Of the two of them, the jinni is less complex, and seems more human. He’s also slightly less interesting. But it’s the way these two characters interact with each other, their surroundings, and the ensemble cast of vivid characters that propel the story along.

As for the story, this is a plot-heavy book with a reasonably fast pace. I also didn’t know until I had about a hundred pages left that this is only the first book in a trilogy, something that kind of disappointed me. The setup for the sequel made the last hundred pages or so less focused on the characters and more on a huge climax and a cliffhanger, and I tend to like character-driven books more, because they end with some kind of satisfaction. Instead, the intense action took away from the characters’ stories, and it felt a little contrived. Also, the second book doesn’t come out until 2018, which is endlessly frustrating! I’ve always been annoyed with trilogies and series!

So, there’s definite good and bad, and as one notable Goodreads review pointed out, there are no passages in this book that hit that emotional nerve, that a-ha quote that points at some universal truth, that makes you ache and cry and laugh with the characters. As beautifully written as it is, it also feels less passionate than it could have been, like a technically perfect dance without any heart or soul. I find that I like books better even if they have poorer plots or writing, if they manage to tug on those heartstrings. Don’t we all?

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A novel history of New York

6257535I am very excited to begin my second Edward Rutherfurd historical fiction novel based on the great, great city of New York. I’ve read Paris and utterly loved it, and now I’m going to sink my teeth into New York and see where this novel takes me.

Like Paris, this book will center on several characters from several different families and will chronicle the stories of these characters across the centuries. New York is the main character here, and I hope it’s as chock full of history as Paris was.

I’ve lived a half hour away from the city my whole life, so New York is a beloved friend. I hope this novel does it justice. The first line is, “So this is freedom.” I think I’m going to like this book.

This one is longer than Paris, clocking in at 880 pages. Follow along to hear more when I finish this epic tome!

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A glowing review of Edward Rutherfurd’s ‘Paris’

Rarely do I get so excited about a book. Rarely do I see all of my wildest expectations come true. I really, really loved Paris. And I’m just as excited to read every single other book by Edward Rutherfurd.

18730321Paris is built on a simple concept first established by author James Michener. The author creates several families and then tells their stories, and the stories of their ancestors and descendants over a certain period of time. Intertwined in the narrative are major historical events and people that make the reader feel like they’ve actually experienced all of this firsthand.

From the minute I opened Paris on a plane back to New York from San Francisco earlier this month, I was hooked. Despite the dozens of characters, often with the same names, and the jumps between centuries (the first hundred or so pages go from the late 1800s to the early 1300s), this book is so very easy to read. It’s so easy to get lost in, to get wrapped up in the narrative, because Rutherfurd is one thing: a master storyteller.

Each anecdote, if you can call them that, features such lively and well-developed characters. I couldn’t believe how much I got wrapped up in one 80-page story and how much I grew devoted to the characters. I loved each “flashback” so much that I was so sad to see that episode end, but with each chapter, my attention was back. I never, ever felt bored reading this book and at almost 800 pages, I can’t even express how rare that is.

I explored the building of the Eiffel Tower and I walked around Monet’s lily pond, and I felt like I had lived through the horror of the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. I’m on the point of gushing here, folks.

People who love stories, read this book. People who love character development, read this book. People who love history, definitely read this book. It descends into gimmicky often, but you become so enthralled that you don’t even care. Read this book if you’re planning a trip to Paris or if you’ve always wanted to. It’ll make you get to know the City of Light on an intimate, personal level.

Five Freaking Stars. signoff

Book Lust | New York, Paris & London Historical Fiction

The danger of a bookstore is that everything you could ever want to read is yours for the taking. I love online shopping when it comes to shoes and clothes, but I hate online shopping for books. I love the feeling of entering this inner sanctum of stories and having the freedom to sift through them, pick them up, and take some home with you. It’s a little bit like magic. Tonight I went to Barnes & Noble and wove through the stacks with a wobbling pile of books on my arm and a gift card in my wallet. I chose books well over the limit enforced by my $100 gift card so I had to make cuts. Unfortunately, the cuts I made were three books from Edward Rutherfurd oeuvre: Paris, New York and London. Has anyone read these books and would like to share what they think? Cause I’m dying to read these.

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I’m a lover of cities as if they’re friends or lovers. When I visited London, I left a huge piece of my heart there and think of it as a home. Paris was similar; even though I spent so little time there, there was something about the city which embraces you. Paris changes you. And of course, I live on the outskirts of the greatest city in the world, and constantly find myself entranced by New York as long as I’ve lived in its shadow. Rutherfurd has taken three living, breathing cities with gargantuan histories and turned them into characters. His stories promise odes to the three major cities of the world, containing not only thousands of years of history, but fictional and fictionalized characters to populate these disparate worlds. I imagine it’s so easy to lose yourself in these books and be carried away to different times, each set against the backdrop of New York, London or Paris.

But since I couldn’t leave the bookstore without all three, and since I ran out of B&N gift card credit, I’ll have to wait to score these. Breathe, Lisa. Breathe.

960 pages of Cleopatra

I picked up The Memoirs of Cleopatra when I was a ripe twelve years old. When I was younger I was addicted to that gold-edged “Royal Diaries” series of children’s books, and had developed a taste for historical fiction. I don’t know why I thought I could read a nearly one thousand-page book, but read it I did (I think it took me about a month, which I think is pretty impressive. I probably couldn’t repeat the feat today!). When I slid this book off my shelf to review it, I had a moment of muscle memory, almost, remembering how I used to carry it around with me wherever I went.

Memoirs of Cleopatra reviewI’ve said before how much historical fiction novels influenced my education and interests when I was a young teen, and this one was no different. After I read it, Hellenistic culture held a mystique for me. I grew obsessed with the fantasy of the Library of Alexandria, and entranced with Egyptian culture and its spirituality. Ten years later, I’m still beguiled by Egypt, and fascinated with Cleopatra. Even now, reading bits of the book here and there, I find myself hurtling into the story again, addicted to the atmosphere of Alexandria and to Cleopatra’s magnetic narration. This is her story, fictionalized and rooted in apocryphal anecdote, but vivid and real between these pages. 

The amount of detail in this book blew me away. Ancient Rome and Ptolemaic Egypt appear in all their grandiosity with a vividness that borders on inception (sometimes I felt like I was dreaming all of this. Within a dream. Within a dream 😉 ). Truly, the attention to minute detail lends this novel more than your average measure of accuracy. It’s transporting, addictive. I remember reading it slowly, trying to absorb every sentence (probably when I was supposed to be doing homework). From this novel I gleaned a very rudimentary knowledge of Roman politics and the state of the world in the fifty or so years B.C. It’s just so much easier to learn this stuff from a novel than from stuffy textbooks and teachers.

This novel excels most in the voice. I’ve since read and reviewed other George novels that read like juvenile parodies of historical characters but Cleopatra is sophisticated throughout. Cleopatra as a character develops from a scared twenty-year-old willing to sleep with Caesar to negotiate a political position for Egypt, to a willful, wily woman both strong and proud, sensitive and deceitful.

Memoirs of Cleopatra 

This enchanting tome is a Hellenistic bildungsroman of sorts, and it’s a casual history fan’s dream, because it incorporates apocryphal stories about Cleopatra that have since become legend, like the way she dissolved one of her pearl earrings in vinegar [or wine] and her famous suicide by an asp’s poisonous bite. The inclusion of these legends adds to the aesthetic of the story; whether or not they are accurate is debatable (and many would say doubtful), but historical accuracy takes a backseat in this novel to producing an image of Cleopatra that fits with historical truth and myths as well as with a 21st-century audience. I think the overall effect is successful.

The banquet, with its costly gifts, had been an enormous expense, but as an investment, it was worth it…But it had not cost a million sesterces, as the company believed. Vinegar cannot dissolve pearls. As an apt pupil in Alexandria, that fount of science, I knew that…No, the pearl was safe inside me, and could be recovered easily enough. But for those who were not fortunate enough to have been educated in science in our Museion, well–they had believed it. (460)

This passage is a prime example of how George plays with myths and persona to create a Cleopatra that is believable to a modern audience and yet a product of her own time. She takes the story of the pearl in vinegar–which modern science indeed does know is impossible–and tweaks it for a modern audience, all the while preserving the “authenticity” of the myth (if a myth may be allowed to be authentic). This passage also shows Cleopatra’s penchant toward manipulation and her considerable brainpower. She even fools Antony with relish.

I think the only aspect of this novel that suffers is trying to replicate some of the stranger customs, like the tradition of Ptolemaic princesses marrying their brothers. George writes for the casual history fan and even those who have no prior knowledge, so the effect is often one of explanation. It’s understandable, in order to make the story digestible to those who are ignorant of these practices, and it is in fact how I learned about them. Still, this is not a history book. It’s pure historical fiction, and some flaws are necessary to engage readers.

“When fate offers you no choice you must appear to relish it.”

“Goddesses do not grow old.”

“Things do not happen, we must make them happen.” — Cleopatra

Cleopatra’s voice is what separates this novel from others I have read by George. In this novel, unlike Elizabeth or Helen of Troy, George’s literary style and narrative voice is less pervasive, allowing Cleopatra’s quite strong personality to take charge. This novel is simply more believable as a memoir than either of the two I’ve read, buttressed as it is by exhausting detail and mature, developed themes. At very few times does the narration fall into the sentimentality I’ve come to expect from George. Cleopatra is often ruthless, always manipulative, yet ultimately a well-rounded, sometimes vulnerable, and consistently brave character. If this is the image of Cleopatra that our culture accepts as truth, it’s a fine truth to believe in.

References

George, M. The Memoirs of Cleopatra. (1997) New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press.