Jun 30, 2012

Sunday Salon: On the Road Again - Toronto

The Sunday Salon.com Welcome to the Sunday

It's been a while since I've been to my second favorite city after Chicago  - Toronto. Not only the wonderful variety of foods, but a chance to catch up with friends and relatives.The Toronto Hakka Conference begins today but since I'll be here only a short while, I've decided to visit with family instead of going to the two-day conference.

The Chiness of Hakka origin (don't ask me what that means right now; it's complicated) are exploring their roots and history and culture. There will be a ten course Chinese banquet to wrap up the conference that I'll attend, however, with dancing to lively calypso, soca, "jump up", reggae, and other Jamaican music (don't ask me right now why this kind of music; that's also complicated.)

I am reading an ARC of Spencer Quinn's new Chet and Bernie mystery, A Fistful of Collars, a mystery that won't be released until Sept. 11, 2012 so I'll hold my comments till then but I do want to say, it's making me chuckle and smile as I read along. Chet is the one with the black head and two pointed ears, and his pal Bernie sits next to him. They make a delightful duo of detectives.

I'm also listening to an audio book while on the road, Flowers for His Funeral: A Mitchell and Markby Mystery,  a 1997 book by Ann Granger, one of my favorite female mystery novelists. Someone is killed at the Chelsea Flower Show in a most unusual and "sneaky" way. Flowers and mystery - just my kind of thing.

That's all for now! It's a beautiful and mostly sunny day in Canada. Hope the weather's good where you are!

Jun 28, 2012

Abdication, a Novel by Juliet Nicolson

Welcome to The Friday 56 hosted by Freda's Voice
Rules:*Grab a book, any book.
*Turn to page 56.
*Find any sentence (or a few) that grabs you.
*Post it.
*Add your (url) post to the Friday 56 Linky. It's that simple.
Abdication: A Novel
Even so, May longed to have the money to pay for the tea. May had arrived in London with twenty pounds that her mother had given her. "I wish I could afford to give you more, my darling," her mother had said.

Title: Abdication by Juliet Nicolson
May 22, 2012; Atria Books Hardcover
Genre: historical novel
Source: publisher

Book description: England, 1936. 
The year began with the death of a beloved king and the ascension of a charismatic young monarch, sympathetic, glamorous and single. By year’s end, the world would be stunned as Edward VIII gives up his throne in the name of love, just as the unrest and violence that would result in a Second World War were becoming impossible to ignore. 

During the tumultuous intervening months, wise-beyond-her-nineteen-years May Thomas will take the first, faltering steps toward creating a new life for herself. She secures a position as secretary and driver to Sir Philip Blunt, a job that will open her eyes to the activities of the uppermost echelons of British society, and her heart to a man seemingly beyond her reach. 

May and others become embroiled in the hidden truths, undeclared loves, unspoken sympathies and covert complicities that define the year chronicled in Abdication. Abdication is a story inspired by a love affair that shook the world at a time when the world was on the brink of war. 

Book Review: Skeleton Women by Mingmei Yip

Skeleton Women by Mingmei Yip
>Title: Skeleton Women by Mingmei Yip
Paperback; May 25, 2012; Kensington Publishing
Source: author, for review
Objective rating: 4.5/5

About the book:In Mingmei Yip's novel set in 1930s Shanghai, Skeleton Women refer to women who are trained spies, beautiful assassins and courtesans who seduce their male victims in order to eventually turn them into skeletons of death.

And yet, the orphan Camilla, who was trained to be such a deceiver by her boss Master Wang, finds it difficult to dispose of Wang's rival Master Lung as she is ordered to do. She must first find out all Lung's financial secrets and where he stores his important papers and bank books. This is gang rivalry after all, and Wang intends to be the top man in Shanghai after defeating and disposing of his main rival, through his master spy, Camilla.

There are two other well known Skeleton Women in the book - a gossip columnist Rainbow Chang and a magician, Shadow. Shadow and Camilla, whose talent is as a singer known as the Heavenly Songstress, compete to be the best known celebrity for talent and beauty and both rely on Rainbow Chang to promote them in her newspaper column.

The novel is about the relationship between these skeleton women and about Camilla's increasing discomfort with her role as a virtual slave to Master Wang to spy and then assassinate, and being in the middle of the tug of war between Wang and Master Lung, who she must keep deceiving while she ferrets out his financial and gangland activities. There are other conflicts, namely her personal love life and growing emotional attachment to another, younger man.

My comments:The author quotes extensively from two Chinese classics by Sun Tzu, written more than 2,000 years ago - The Art of War and the essay The Thirty-Six Stratagems, which is described as "an essay used to illustrate a series of stratagems used in politics, war, as well as in civil interaction, often through unorthodox or deceptive means." Although Sun Tzu probably wrote for men, the author's character Camilla knows these works very well and uses the advice and strategies for her own means.

The novel is peppered throughout with Chinese sayings or aphorisms that reflect Camilla's own dilemmas, her observation of people or situations, and her plan of action.

Some of the sayings:
"If you pay enough, you can make a dead man turn a millstone." 
"When the rabbits are caught, the hounds are cooked." 
"...tiehan rouqing, an iron man with tender sentiments."
What also made this book enjoyable to read was the author's frequent inclusion of famous Chinese poetry and songs, words that mirror or reflect her feelings or situation. I wish I could include some of them here, but there are too many.

One question that I do have about the plot: If Camilla is known as a skeleton woman, why is she kept and trusted by her patron Master Lung, whom she has vowed to destroy? Even though he has his bodyguard search her every time she enters his bedroom, still he must have been taking a big chance!
I also liked that Camilla gradually changes from being callous and unfeeling to developing genuine love and feelings of human friendship as her life story goes on. How she deals with the twin rocks of disaster between which she is caught is the tension that also kept my interest in the novel.

A book I highly recommend for those interested in women's fiction, historical fiction, romance, and the poetry, and some of the classics of Chinese literature.

Learn more about the author at her websiteMingmei Yip and on her blog.

Jun 27, 2012

Author Interview: Kathleen Jabs, Black Wings

Title: Black Wings by Kathleen Jabs
Paperback; Fuze Publishing, LLC (December 15, 2011)
Genre: mystery

LT Bridget Donovan suspects the worst when her former Naval Academy roommate, Audrey Richards, perishes in a botched take-off from an aircraft carrier. The Navy says it's an accident, but facts don't add up. Could it be suicide, or murder? Donovan's unofficial investigation into what really happened, both during their past Academy days and in Richards' final hours, forces her to examine the concepts of honor, justice and the role of loyalty in pursuit of those ideals.

Kathleen Toomey Jabs is a 1988 graduate of the United States Naval Academy and is currently a Captain in the Navy Reserve. She holds an MA from the University of New Hampshire and an MFA in Creative Writing from George Mason University. Her stories have been published in a number of literary journals and received several prizes, including selection in the National Public Radio Selected Shorts program. She lives with her family in Virginia.

Based on your personal experience in the Navy, why write a mystery?
Kathleen: "I certainly didn’t start out to write a mystery! For that matter, I didn’t start out to write about the Navy at all.

In 1999, I enrolled in the MA program at the University of New Hampshire. I had two small children, a Navy spouse, and a fierce desire to write. I snatched every free minute and began to write short stories.

My first characters were: a Japanese woman living with her in-laws in a strict marriage, a teenage boy visiting the Paris catacombs with his mom and new stepdad, and a 17th century noblewomen leaving the “new world” to return to Spain. I had been stationed in Japan, visited France, and accompanied my military spouse to Panama so the choices weren’t as far-fetched and random as they might’ve seemed, but in many respects the stories were about places not people. The characters never really came alive. None of the stories were even close to submission ready. I wasn’t sure I’d ever be thesis-ready.

One day, my creative writing professor challenged me: “Why don’t you ever write about the military?” I had no quick, glib response. My own military background was something I tended to hide or downplay. As a 1988 Naval Academy graduate, my experiences of school and the military, in general, were complicated. How was I going to dissect that or peel back the careful veneer of spit and polish without revealing something raw or embarrassing? Exposing some part of myself? Yet I couldn’t face the idea of getting another round of lackluster comments in workshop. I took the challenge.

For the next 18 months I wrote about women in the military, and as I did, I faced down old ghosts—the constant scrutiny, the sweat, the discomfort with self, body, choices, the loneliness and longing. Along the way, I found characters that were human, likeable, charting their way through a strange and hostile land. I kept writing. Once I started writing fiction in a military setting, I found I wanted to understand the women and tell their stories.

Bridget Donovan, the main character in Black Wings, grew from one of my early story drafts. I watched her emerge from self-conscious plebe to assured midshipman. I’d been writing a series of stories around her and various roommates when one day the sentence, “Audrey Richards wanted to fly” popped into my head. I was hooked.

At one point in my Navy career, I’d considered switching to aviation. The whole aviation world was cool and mysterious, but it was also competitive and fraught with danger. My imagination wandered. Could the intensity of competition drive someone to consider murdering a rival or maybe arranging an accident? What if rivalry and bad blood between two pilots went all the way back to the Naval Academy? What leads to obsessiveness? To murder?

These kinds of questions began to haunt me. Once I knew Audrey Richards crashed I found I had a mystery. I needed people to understand Audrey, but I also needed a cast of characters around her who might have a motive. That led me to thinking about honor scandals and what honor means. At the US Naval Academy, there is a very prescribed honor code. While it seems black and white, I saw firsthand during my time at the Academy that the issues are often complicated, the choices are really hard. Why not put Bridget and Audrey in that situation and let them explore the choices and their consequences?

The story grew on its own in many ways, becoming more of a “mystery” with each twist. My personal experience gave me the insight into the Academy world and also fueled the questions I couldn’t answer but couldn’t help but ask."

Thanks, Kathleen for visiting and discussing Black Wings. 

For more interviews/reviews visit the Black Wings Blog Tour Site:

Jun 26, 2012

Book Teaser: The Island House by Posie Graeme-Evans

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly meme hosted by MizB; choose sentences at random from your current read. Identify the author and title for readers.

But something else was down there, something big. As she stood on the stone floor of what was, undeniably, an undercroft - a crypt such as a monastery might have - awe feathered her spine. (ch. 7)

Title: The Island House: A Novel by Posie Graeme-Evans

Published June 26, 2012; Atria Books

A novel about a young archaeologist who unearths ancient secrets, a tragic romance, and Viking treasure on a remote Scottish island. Written by the author of The Dressmaker.

Jun 25, 2012

Mailbox Monday: New Books

Mailbox Monday is hosted in June by Burton Book Review. These books arrived in my mailbox recently, sent by the publishers.

Title: Wallace: the Underdog Who Conquered a Sport, Saved a Marriage, and Championed a Breed - One Flying Disc at a Time
Release date: August 30, 2012 by Gotham

New York Time bestselling author of The Lost Dogs writes about an unwanted pit bull rescued in 2005 from a shelter who became an international celebrity. A true story. Today, Wallace is a champion. But in the summer of 2005, he was living in a shelter, a refugee from a suspicious pit bull–breeding operation. Andrew “Roo” Yori entered the picture. A scientist and shelter volunteer, Roo could tell immediately that Wallace was something special. Roo learned that Wallace was about to be put down. Frantic—and even though they already had two dogs—Roo and his wife fought to keep Wallace alive until they could adopt him.

Serendipity led them to the world of competitive Frisbee dogs. It seemed like a terrible idea. Pit bulls are everything that most Frisbee dogs aren’t: large and heavy with thick muscles that can make them look less than graceful. But that was fine with Roo—because part of his mission was to change people’s minds about pit bulls. After overcoming everything from injuries to prejudice against the breed, the unlikely pair became World Champions. (book description)


Title: Disgrace by Jussi Adler-Olsen
Released June 21, 2012; Penguin
Genre: thriller

By the author of Mercy also known as The Keeper of Lost Causes, this is a new thriller in the same Department Q series. The two books in the series will be made into movies in 2013.

A homeless girl on the streets of Copenhagen carries secrets about some powerful people. But she has a secret of her own. They are looking for her, but so is Detective Carl Merck of Department Q.

No Rest for the Dead

Title: No Rest for the Dead: A Novel by twenty-six mystery writers.
Reprint release date: July 3, 2012; Touchstone

Twenty-six bestselling authors collaborated to write one mystery, No Rest for the Dead. Each writer wrote a chapter in the thriller about Joe Nunn, a detective, who tries to find the true murderer of a curator of a San Francisco museum.

The Skeleton Box

The Skeleton Box: A Starvation Lake Mystery by Bryan Gruley
Released June 5, 2012; Touchstone
Genre: mystery

What did you get in your mailbox recently?

Jun 23, 2012

Sunday Salon: Books Set in Asia

The Sunday Salon.com Welcome to the Sunday Salon.

I was really happy to receive two surprise books yesterday, thanks to the publishers, both novels set in India.

The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken: A Vish Puri Mystery by Tarquin Hall will be released July 10, 2012 by Simon and Schuster. It's a mystery novel set in New Delhi. I've read The Case of the Missing Servant, the first in the series, and really enjoyed the main character, India's P.I. Vish Puri.

I received the ARC of Jana Bibi's Excellent Fortunes by Betsy Woodman, the first in a planned series of books featuring Jana Bibi, her chatty parrot, and her housekeeper, living in Hamara Nagar, India. The book will be released July 17, 2012 by Henry Holt.

I'm in the middle of reading
Mingmei Yip's Skeleton Women, a novel set in early 1930s Shanghai,
finished The Headmaster's Wager by Vincent Lam, set in the Vietnam during the Vietnam War, and
finished The Fear Artist (A Poke Rafferty Thriller) by Timothy Hallinan, a thriller set in Bangkok.

I plan to write reviews of the above three but may not post two of them till their release dates in the U.S! These books are going to take some thinking to review; they are pretty complex, with complex settings, and complex situations and characters. But I think I'll enjoy doing it.

What's on your plate for the next couple of weeks?

Saturday Snapshot: At the Dog Park

Visit Alyce at At Home With Books to join in and link your picture to her meme.

Don't worry. That's just fun play among the dogs, most of whom know each other from being off-leash all the time at this LA dog park.

They got along great when we were there and loved being free to run around with their pals while their owners watched. Note that the park is fenced so none of the dogs can run off.

Jun 22, 2012

Great-Aunt Sophia's Lessons for Bombshells by Lisa Cach

Welcome to The Friday 56 hosted by Freda's Voice
Rules:*Grab a book, any book.
*Turn to page 56.
*Find any sentence (or a few) that grabs you.
*Post it.
*Add your (url) post to the Friday 56 Linky. It's that simple.

Title: Great-Aunt Sophia's Lessons for Bombshells
Author: Lisa Cach; paperback; June 19, 2012
"It's grossly unfair that at my age, one tires easily but sleeps hardly at all." Sophia was sitting in the large breakfast nook at the end of the kitchen, the bay window behind her providing an elegant backdrop of green garden. A plate of toast and a coffee mug sat on the table." (p. 56)
About the book: 
Grace Cavanaugh, a PhD student, experiences a life-changing summer while taking care of her great aunt, a 1940’s movie star.

Jun 19, 2012

Mystery Novels: New Cozy Mysteries out in June

Mass Market paperback mysteries this month:

The Azalea Assault (new series)
Hot Button
Dead Man Waltzing
The Diva Digs Up Dirt

Grace among Thieves
Quilt or Innocence (new series)

Vision Impossible: Psychic Eye Mystery
Grace Among Thieves by Julie Hyzy
The Azalea Assault: A Garden Society Mystery by Alyse Carlson (new series)
Quilt or Innocence: A Southern Quilting Mystery by Elizabeth Craig (new series)
The Diva Digs Up Dirt: A Domestic Diva Mystery by Krista Davis
Dead Man Waltzing: A Ballroom Dance Mystery by Ella Barrick
Vision Impossible: A Psychic Eye Mystery by Victoria Laurie
Hot Button: A Button Box Mystery by Kylie Logan

Don't say there are no cozy novels to read this summer!

An Unmarked Grave by Charles Todd: Book Tour/Review

"But I thought he had felt like so many men had, that the only end to their suffering would be death, and home seemed so very far away and unreachable." (ch. 19)

Title:  An Unmarked Grave by Charles Todd
Hardcover; published June 5, 2012 by William Morrow

About the book: This is the fourth in the Bess Crawford Mystery series, featuring a WWI nurse from England who plays amateur sleuth. In 1918, Bess travels to France to care for wounded soldiers as well as the many soldiers stricken by the Spanish flu epidemic. At the beginning of the book, Bess is shown the body of Major Carson, an old family friend, lying among the flu victims.
"He is not an influenza victim," Private Wilson said. "Look at him." (ch. 1)
Bess realizes that the major's neck has been broken and that he must have been murdered.  When Private  Wilson is found hanged and his death declared a suicide, Bess knows she has two mysteries to solve. She wants to help the wife of the Major and also clear the name of Private Wilson, who she thinks fell victim to foul play. She also has to discover if the deaths are connected.

My comments: I enjoyed A Bitter Truth, the previous mystery in the series, and thought this novel is as good in plot and characterization. It also gives a good sense of the horrific conditions of the wounded and the war and the work the nurses did to aid the doctors on the WWI battlefront.

The descriptions of the maimed, the dying, and the dead for me was overwhelming, and I had a deep sense of sadness and discomfort reading about it throughout the book. I would have liked some contrast in the novel, some descriptions of nature, for instance, that would periodically lighten up the dreary atmosphere. In other words, the novel wasn't pleasant to read, even though the plotting was flawless.

Charles and Caroline Todd are a mother and son writing team who live on the east coast of the United States. Caroline has a BA in English Literature and History, and a Masters in International Relations. Charles has a BA in Communication Studies with an emphasis on Business Management, and a culinary arts degree that means he can boil more than water. 

For other reviews of An Unmarked Grave, visit the Blog Tour ScheduleThe authors can be reached at  http://charlestodd.com/homepage/or on their Facebook page.
Thanks to TLC Book Tours and the authors/publisher for a complimentary review copy of  An Unmarked Grave.

Submitted to the War through the Generations: WWI Reading Challenge

Jun 18, 2012

It's Monday: New Book Releases

It's Monday! What Are You Reading is hosted by Sheila at One Person's Journey. Visit her to join in.

Here are some new release books that I hope to begin reading this week and possibly review, thanks to the publisher.

Size 12 and Ready to Rock

And Laughter Fell From the Sky

Keepsake: A Novel

The Girl Below: A Novel

Would you believe that Size 12 and Ready to Rock is a mystery novel? And Laughter Fell from the Sky is about an Indian-American. The Girl Below is written by a British writer who has lived in New Zealand for about two decades.
Keepsake deals with the question of what can happen when someone values things over love.
What's on your calendar to read this week?

Books I finished reading last week:

Title: Brownies and Broomsticks : A Magical Bakery Mystery
Author: Bailey Cates
Published May 1, 2012 by Signet
Source: publisher
Rating: 4/5


An Unmarked Grave: A Bess Crawford Mystery by Charles Todd, which I will review tomorrow, June 19 for a TLC Book Tour. See you then!

Jun 17, 2012

Sunday Salon: Books for Dad

The Sunday Salon.com Welcome to the Sunday Salon.

Two small bunnies that ate my lily plants and my miniature roses, and nibbled on the basil, are now in the front yard eating the grass. I hope they forget about my backyard and move on where the grass is greener and there are not flowers or herbs to nibble on. Cute as they are, I want my Thai basil to grow! And so does the Dad, who loves to cook Thai!

Happy Father's Day to all loving, deserving dads!

Books for fathers to read? Here are a few May and July releases ...

Title: 15 Seconds by Andrew Gross
Hardcover; release date, July 10, 2012
Genre: thriller

Henry Steadman didn't know what was about to hit him when he pulled up to a red light. A successful Florida plastic surgeon, he is in town to deliver a keynote address at a conference when suddenly his life becomes an unrelenting chase to stay alive. (publisher)

Title: The Fear Artist by Timothy Hallinan
Hardcover; release date, July 17, 2012
Genre: thriller

An accidental collision on a Bangkok sidewalk goes very wrong when the man who ran into Rafferty dies in his arms, but not before saying three words: Helen Eckersley. Cheyenne. Seconds later, the police arrive, denying that the man was shot. That night, Rafferty is interrogated by Thai secret agents who demand to know what the dead man said, but Rafferty can't remember. (publisher)

Title: Starting and Closing: Perseverance, Faith, and One More Year
Author: John Smoltz
Hardcover; published May 8, 2012
Genre: sports memoir

John Smoltz is a former Major League Baseball pitcher and active sportscaster. He is best known for his prolific career of more than two decades with the Atlanta Braves, during which he garnered eight All-Star selections and received the Cy Young Award in 1996. He is currently the chairman of King's Ridge Christian School in Atlanta and is a scratch golfer. (Tiger Woods has said that Smoltz is the best golfer outside of the PGA tour.) He lives in Atlanta with his family. (publisher)

What do you have in mind for Dad today?

Jun 14, 2012

Porch Lights, A Novel by Dorothea Benton Frank

Title: Porch Lights: A Novel by Dorothea Benton Frank
Hardcover; William Morrow, released June 12, 2012
Source: publisher

Opening sentences of a book can help the reader get a flavor of the book and decide if it's one that they want to continue reading. Here are the beginning sentences of Porch Lights.
I will tell you the one thing that I have learned about life in my thirty-something years that is an absolute truth: nothing and no one in this entire world matters more to a sane woman than her children. I have one child, my son, Charlie. Charlie is barely ten years old, and he is the reason I get up in the morning. I thank God for him every night before I go to sleep. When I was stationed in Afghanistan, I slept with a T-shirt of his wrapped around my arm. I did. Not my husband's. My son's.  It was the lingering sweet smell of my little boy's skin that got me through the awful nights while rockets were exploding less than a mile away from my post. 
Publisher's book description: When Jimmy McMullen, a fireman with the NYFD, is killed in the line of duty, his wife, Jackie, and ten-year-old son, Charlie, are devastated. Charlie idolized his dad, and now the outgoing, curious boy has become quiet and reserved. Trusting in the healing power of family, Jackie decides to return to her childhood home on Sullivans Island.

Awaiting them is Annie Britt, the family matriarch.  Annie promises to make their visit perfect—even though relations between mother and daughter have never been smooth.  But her estranged husband, Buster, and her best friend Deb are sure to keep Annie in line. She's also got Steven Plofker, the widowed physician next door, to keep her distracted as well.

What do you think?

Jun 12, 2012

Guest Post by author Lloyd Lofthouse

Welcome to Lloyd Lofthouse, author of The Concubine Saga, an historical novel about the  the first ten years that Sir Robert Hart, who became Inspector General of China's Customs Service in the late 19th century, spent in China, and the influence that his Chinese concubine had on how well he grew to understand the language, culture, and customs of China. Lofthouse talks about his research for this novel.

"My first trip to China was in December 1999—there would be eight more. My last trip was in 2008.

On that first twelve to fourteen hour flight to Shanghai from Los Angeles, I imagined a country with brainwashed drones walking about dazed in drab olive-green uniforms with army troops on every corner holding automatic weapons ready to arrest and possibly execute anyone suspicious.

However, what I knew of China in 1999 could fit in a thimble with lots of room left over. Today, what I know might fit in several fifty-five gallon drums.  I've learned a lot and I am still learning. 

A few months earlier, my wife (we were still dating then) introduced me to Robert Hart. She was researching the life of the Empress Dowager Tzu Hsi (1835 - 1908), who ruled China in her son and then nephew's name for several decades, and she was the last empress in China that held significant political power—no easy feat in a country where women were considered second-class citizens and the property of men. Of course, it helped that she gave birth to one of the last Qing Emperors.
After Tzu Hsi, there were other empresses (title only and no political power) married to Pu-Yi, the last emperor (there is a movie), and he was removed from power in 1911 at age 5 when the Qing Dynasty collapsed.
It wouldn't be until after that first trip to China in 1999 that I would return to the United States and read Robert Hart's journals and letters, which were published by the Council on East Asian Studies, Harvard University. The original material written by Robert Hart is housed at the Queen's College in Belfast, Ireland.
Anyway, I digress. When we landed in Shanghai on that first trip to China, I was shocked to discover the image I held in my mind of China was totally wrong—an image cultivated (brainwashed is a more appropriate term) by the Western media and American politicians running for reelection.  It seems that China is a popular country to paint as an enemy of the United States, when that may be farthest from the truth. I never saw any Chinese troops with automatic weapons. In fact, I never saw any troops of the People's Liberation Army.
What I discovered was a country with 1.3 billion people that were not brainwashed drones, and there is a reason Shanghai is called the Paris of Asia—it is a very fashionable, modern city with millions of independent thinking people that live in a different culture.
Since 1999, I've hiked the Great Wall several times, visited the Summer Palace, the Forbidden City, the Terra Cotta warriors outside Xian, stood on top of the first emperor's tomb, sailed down the Li River in Southeast China and been to many other locations.
Writing the complete "Concubine Saga" took several years and intense research into the history of 19th century China and an in depth look at Chinese culture. It helps that I am married to one of the world's foremost authors that writes about China. My wife's first book, Red Azalea, was published in 1992. Her fifth novel, "Empress Orchid", was a finalist of the British Book Awards.
Stearling Seagrave, the author of "Dragon Lady" (nonfiction about the Empress Dowager Tzu Hsi) said that Robert Hart's concubine Ayaou was his live in dictionary and responsible for his ability to understand the Chinese culture.  If Ayaou was a dictionary of 19th century China, my wife Anchee is a living encyclopedia and an independent woman of another generation.
Ayaou, by contrast, lived during the 19th century when women could be easily bought and sold the same as used merchandise.
Today, women in China are the equal of men and hold up half the sky. Hart's concubine never had that privilege. "The Concubine Saga" is the passionate love story of Robert Hart and Ayaou. Harvard scholars wrote, "Hart's years of liaison with Ayaou gave him his fill of romance, including both its satisfactions and its limitations." (Entering China's Service, page 154, Harvard University Press, © 1986)
Anyone interested in seeing the last trip to China together in 2008, the following link will take you to a menu that leads to some of the photos I took: 2008 China Trip. Enjoy. 

Thanks to Virtual Author Book Tours and the author for this guest post for the blog tour. For other reviews of the book, visit The Concubine Saga Blog Tour

Jun 11, 2012

Book Review: The Concubine Saga by Lloyd Lofthouse

The Concubine Saga is a combination of two previous novels of Robert Hart in China, written by Lloyd Lofthouse, My Splendid Concubine and Our Hart: Elegy for a Concubine.

It tells the story of a real person in history, Robert Hart, son of a Wesleyan pastor in Ireland, who left home at age 19 to work for the British Consulate in Ningpo, China in 1854. Hart stayed for 54 years until 1908. During that time, he received unprecedented honors not given to any other foreigner by the Qing Dynasty for his service to the country.

The Concubine Saga covers the first 10 years of Hart's stay in China, when he lived with a concubine named Ayaou who bore him three children and who also helped him understand the nuances of the language and culture, the social conventions, and many things that would help him understand the Chinese enough to become invaluable to the last Chinese dynasty. Hart became a trusted advisor and  Inspector General of the country's Customs Service. He was known at the "Godfather of China's modernism," and was also "the architect behind China's railroads, postal network, telegraph systems and schools."
Back in 1859, he'd resolved to help the Chinese to the best of his abilities and had never swerved from that path. What he had achieved hadn't been done just for the glory and the power. He'd fallen in love with the Chinese culture. He could thank Ayaou for that. 
Over the years, his rewards had been many. Queen Victoria of Great Britain had knighted him in 1893, along with a grand cross and a baronetcy. More than a dozen countries had honored him. Even the Vatican in 1885 had made him a Commander of the Order of Pius IX. (p. 545)
What is telling is that Hart later destroyed documents and journals and other evidence of his early years in China, those years with the concubine Ayaou. I can imagine that on returning to England in 1908, he had to keep his record and image spotless to show he deserved the knighthood from Queen Victoria and the prestigious honor from the Vatican. What would people say about Hart's relationship with Ayaou if they knew about her, even if, according to The Concubine Saga, she was the key to Hart's education about the Chinese, how he grew to understand their culture and language and learned how to get along.

In this sense, I found it a sad "love" story. Luckily the author Lloyd Lofthouse was able to find surviving letters and journals written by Hart that helped him flesh out this story of the concubine Ayaou. I think Lofthouse tried to apologize for Hart's behavior by saying he was conforming to Victorian standards to deny any involvement with a concubine in his early years in China. His children with Ayaou were taken back to Ireland and placed in foster homes, supported until they came of age, probably remaining unacknowledged publicly by their father.

I learned about the politics of the European and U.S. presence in China during the 19th Century, and the Taiping Rebellion when about two million Chinese were killed  trying to overthrow the Qing Dynasty. Robert Hart advised the Chinese dynasty in its dealings with the foreign powers and also in putting down the Taiping rebellion.

The history of this period is so complex that I can only recommend readers to pick up The Concubine Saga to learn more. I was frustrated that fact and fiction had to be combined in this historical novel, as I wanted to know more precisely where historical fact ended and fiction began in Hart's complex story. I would have loved to have read this as a fictional biography rather than as a novel. Lloyd Lofthouse has done an excellent job however of creating a fascinating book melding important events of 19th century China with a love story.

Title: The Concubine Saga by Lloyd Lofthouse
Paperback, 550 pages; Three Clover Press
Published: May 9, 2012
Objective rating: 4/5

Thanks to Virtual Author Book Tours and the author for a complimentary review copy of this book for the blog tour. For other reviews, visit The Concubine Saga Blog Tour

Giveway: The author is giving away one signed hardcover copy of the novel. Leave an approved comment on one or more of the blog posts found at Lloyd Lofthouse or iLook China between now and June 30 and automatically be entered into a drawing. (Note the giveaway is by the author at his two websites and not by this blog.)

Jun 10, 2012

Sunday Salon: A Cherry Festival

The Sunday Salon.com Welcome to the Sunday Salon.

It was in the 90s yesterday, but we went to the Cherry Festival in Whitehouse, Ohio anyway. This is a yearly local event in the Village of Whitehouse.

Two firsts for me, a sundae with real homemade cherry sauce. Tart and sweet! And a cherry pie eating contest with little kids under age 13 scarfing down a pie with their hands behind their backs and their heads into the pie tins. You guessed it; the oldest kid won. There was also a cherry pie auction to see whose pie or cake could raise the most money. One pie went for $110! All to help the village's Chamber of Commerce. We missed the cherry dessert contest and I don't know who won, but I bet some of the entries made it to the auction. All of these very local events were much fun to watch. Too bad we didn't stay for the fireworks at 10 p.m. as it was too hot to stay longer than 2 p.m.!

The Cherry Dessert Contest

I've been good about featuring new books on the blog but very bad about reviewing. I have a blog tour of The Concubine Saga by Lloyd Lofthouse tomorrow and another tour for An Unmarked Grave by Charles Todd later in the month. I also have a review to post for Tim Hallinan's new thriller, The Fear Artist, which will be released early July.

My yoga teacher is also a sports athlete and gave us a stiff yoga workout stretch on Friday. My right leg is still aching but she did tell us we might feel it for a few days. All for the good, I'm sure.

What have you been up to this hot summer?

Jun 9, 2012

Saturday Snapshot 3

Tour boat approaching Niagara Falls in the mist. Taken July 2011.

Visit Alyce at At Home With Books to join in the Saturday Snapshot and post your picture on the linky there.

Jun 8, 2012

Book Review: The Dog That Talked to God by Jim Kraus

Title: The Dog That Talked to God: A Novel by Jim Kraus
Paperback published by Abingdon Press; March 1, 2012
Source: publisher

Comments: I was intrigued by the title of the book and loved the cover picture of this miniature schnauzer. Christian fiction is not normally a genre I read but this one I couldn't resist, animal lover that I am.  This is a cute story of a recent widow who overcomes her sorrow and loneliness with the help of her new puppy Rufus, whose advice she sometimes suspects but begins to rely on. Rufus talks to God and to Mary Fassler, who never tells about her dog's unusual powers. I admit I flipped through the 330-page book to get all of the plot, but I liked the use of the dog in this story.

Book description: "A wonderfully quirky, heart-breaking, heart-warming and thought-provoking story of a woman's dog who not only talks to her, he talks to God. Recently widowed Mary Fassler has no choice except to believe Rufus, the miniature schnauzer, who claims to speak to the Divine. The question is: Will Mary follow the dog's advice, and leave everything she knows and loves Is this at the urging of God Or is it something else? Will Mary risk it all or ignore the urgings of her own heart?"  (goodreads)

Jun 7, 2012

Wallflower in Bloom by Claire Cook

Title: Wallflower in Bloom: a Novel by Claire Cook
Hardcover, published June 5, 2012 by Touchstone
Source: publisher

Book description: "From the bestselling author of Must Love Dogs comes a new novel about a woman who emerges from the shadow of her overbearing family and finds herself “dancing with the stars.” Deirdre Griffin is the around-the-clock personal assistant to her charismatic, high-maintenance, New Age guru brother, Tag. As the family wallflower, her only worth seems to be as gatekeeper to Tag at his New England seaside compound. Then Deirdre’s sometime boyfriend informs her that he is marrying another woman, who just happens to be having the baby he told Deirdre he never wanted. Deirdre decides to use her brother's massive online following to get herself voted on as a last-minute Dancing with the Stars replacement. It’ll get her back in shape, mentally and physically. It might even get her a life of her own. Wallflower in Bloom is a story of having the courage to take a leap into the spotlight, no matter where you land." (publisher)

Jasmine Nights by Julia Gregson

Title: Jasmine Nights: A Novel by Julia Gregson
Paperback published by Touchstone, June 5, 2012
Source: publisher

Book description:  "Based on true accounts of female entertainers used as spies during World War II, Jasmine Nights is a  story of danger, secrets, and love set in two exotic cities, Cairo and Istanbul during WWII.

Saba Tarcan knows her only hope of escaping the clamor of Cardiff Bay, Wales, lies in her voice. While traveling Britain, singing for wounded soldiers, Saba meets fighter pilot Dom Benson, recovering from burns after a crash. When Saba auditions to entertain troops in far-off lands, Dom follows her to London.  Saba is sent to sing in Africa, and Dom is assigned a new mission in the Middle East. As Saba explores Cairo’s bazaars, Dom returns to the cockpit,  thrilled and terrified to be flying above the desert floor. In spite of great danger, the two resolve to reunite.

Saba agrees to help the British Secret Service, concealing her role from Dom. Her decision will jeopardize not only her safety but also the love of her life." (publisher)

There Goes the Bride: A Novel by Holly McQueen, new release

Title: There Goes the Bride: A Novel by Holly McQueen
Paperback published by Atria Books, June 5, 2012
Source: publisher

Book description: Happily ever after isn’t always what you expect…

"Polly Atkins, a Londoner living in New York City, is headed back across the pond for her wedding, a grand affair that has her older sister, Bella, in a whirlwind of excitement. Bella can’t wait to take over the wedding plans—and neither can Polly’s best friend, Grace, whose life as a wife, housekeeper, and mother is making her feel older than her twenty-eight years. She’s desperate to see Polly settle down in the same city—and the same life.

The only one not enthusiastic is Polly. She calls the whole thing off with no explanation and lets go of the most perfect man on the planet. Grace and Bella are determined to get Polly and her fiance back together if it's the last thing they do.

Jun 6, 2012

Broken Birds by Jeannette Katzir, a memoir

Opening sentences can give readers an idea of a book's style, writing, and a sense of the story. Here are the beginning sentences for the memoir, Broken Birds: the Story of My Momila by Jeannette Katzir.

Title: Broken Birds: the Story of My Momila
Author: Jeannette Katzir
Published April 2, 2009 by Jeannette Katzir
I hurried down the hallway but stopped when I saw her. "Mom, why did you do this?" I cried. I stood there for a moment and studied her face. She looked beautiful. A white silky scarf was artfully wrapped around her head like a headscarf and she was wearing her favorite red lipstick. She was smiling at me and there was a twinkle in her eyes. "This could have all been avoided," I told her. Waiting for a response would have been pointless, because photographs never answer back.
Book description: "World War II has long since ended, and yet Jaclyn and her four brothers and sisters grow up learning to survive it. Having lived through the Holocaust on the principles of constant distrust, their mother, Channa, dutifully teaches her children to cling to one another while casting a suspicious eye to the outside world. When Channa dies, the unexpected contents of her will force her adult children to face years of suppressed indignation. For Jacyln and her siblings, the greatest war will not be against strangers, but against one another. 

Broken Birds: The Story of My Momila is Jeannette Katzir's achingly honest memoir of the enduring effects of war. From her parents' harrowing experiences during the Holocaust to her own personal battles, Katzir exposes the maladies of heart and mind that those broken by war, inevitably and unintentionally pass down to the generations that follow."

Comments: I always admire the honesty of those who write memoirs and personal family history, but I find that this book has a lesson to teach.

About the author: Jeannette Katzir was born in New York of Holocaust survivors. Broken Birds: the Story of My Momila was published in 2010, marking the beginning of Katzir's career as an author. She lives in Southern California with her husband.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the author.

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