Uncommon Grounds

When I was little, I hated coffee.  I thought it smelled bad, looked gross, and on the rarest of occasions when I tasted it my main reaction was "ewww - yuck!" followed by immediate expectoration.   And then, I went to college and met a bunch of people that liked to hang out in coffee shops.   I stared at the menu of Espresso Royale (exotic sounding cafe, right?) and tried to decide on a choice of tea when one of my friends prompted me, "Get the Caramel Royale, even if you're not a coffee person, you'll love it!"  I followed that sage piece of advice and it remains a turning point of my college education: the day I liked coffee.  Granted the drink I chose was hardly "coffee" in that it contained a shot of espresso, a lot of steamed milk, and a more than generous helping of caramel, caramel, and caramel; but it still gave me a taste for the beautiful brewed beverage.  And recently, I came across an author that combined my love of coffee with my love of a good mystery in a cute book that starts off a whole series of coffee-house based detective work.

Maggy Thorsen is eager to open her new coffee shop Uncommon Grounds with her two friends, but none of them predicted murder to be on the menu for their opening day. The small town of Brookhills, Wisconsin produces a surprisingly long list of suspects and when Maggy and her business partner Caron are both on it, Maggy decides to take on the task of investigating the murder herself.

Sandra Balzo constructs a clever and intricate mystery in this novel. There were multiple suspects with motive and opportunity and new clues were revealed slowly throughout the story to keep the reader guessing to the very end. Maggy was a smart and witty heroine, likable and believable, and I look forward to reading more of Balzo's mysteries centered around Thorsen's coffee shop adventures.

I tend to lay off coffee a bit in the summer, but especially in the winter, I love to start my morning train ride with a cup of joe to go with my book du jour.  How about you?  Coffee-fiend?  Soda-holic? Tea-meister?   Any special beverage that you like to pair with your current read?

Author Interview: Michelle Hoover

I've been on a bit of a historical fiction kick this year and as I've said before, I really enjoy learning through reading.  The Quickening was a book that was educational about farm life during The Great Depression, but it was also an emotional character study with a look at the perspectives of two very different women living in the same time and place.  To offer a little more insight into this well-drawn book, I'm thrilled to present my interview with Michelle Hoover.

*applause, applause*

With so many places and time periods to choose from, how did you choose the setting of The Quickening?

Though I don’t name the actual location, in my mind the book takes place in central Iowa. It’s a setting I grew up in, and it’s so much a part of me that, even though I now live in the northeast, it carries a great deal of emotional and thematic resonance. But for some reason I’ve had trouble writing more contemporary stories about the place. I suppose I sense such a deep history there, even if only a geographical one, that it feels old to me. The novel was inspired in part by the few remaining pages of my great-grandmother’s journal, and so the time period in the book is her own, or at least the years among her own that had the most dramatic possibility for me.

I've heard writers say that a key to good plot is to essentially torture your main characters. Both Mary and Eddie suffer great hardships in the story, was it challenging for you to write these difficulties for them?

Novelists may appear to “torture” their characters, but what they’re really doing is forcing their characters to confront the wounds, flaws, or desires that have shaped the core of their personalities. Stories focus on characters at a time in their lives that best defines them, that reveals to the reader the “mystery” of who they are and what they promise to be. That’s why we’re watching that particular character at that particular moment. Of course, you must have compassion for your characters, but not so much that you don’t allow them to make the mistakes that their personalities are driving them toward.

But my answer to this question is still yes. Writing is always challenging, and paying enough attention to your characters to follow the truth of a situation takes an extremely concentrated mindset. And I did find one scene very emotionally difficult to write because I was empathizing with my character so heavily. The scene simply broke my heart. I tried to write around it for months, tried to avoid it and take the novel to a different place, but I couldn’t ignore the inevitable result that my earlier scenes had given me.

Which character do you think is most (and which is least) like you?

I think they both have parts of me, though I admire Enidina far more. I was actually surprised at an Amazon review in which the reader considered neither woman admirable. For me, Enidina has the strength, perseverance, tact, honesty, sense of goodness, and love for her family that the women I have always known, that I grew up around, have. These are traits that I try to foster in myself every day.

What projects are you currently working on?

Another family story. A couple summers ago I discovered that two of my teenaged great aunts disappeared together from their family farm. I have a photograph of their whole family shortly before the girls went “missing” and am fascinated by the faces there.

Where can we find out more about you and your work?

Go to http://www.michellehoover.net/ for news about events and the story of the book’s inspiration. Thanks!

For those interested, also, Michelle is currently on tour to promote The Quickening!  Her schedule includes a stop in Chicago, as well as several other cities, so check out her website to see if she will be visiting a bookstore near you!

The Quickening

"Debut novel" is always an interesting descriptor for a work. Previously, I was very neutral on the words.  If anything the label was only an assurance that I wasn't being introduced to an author mid-series.  In the past year though, I've found myself very impressed with debut works and have become a fan of several new writers as their careers have just begun to blossom.  One such author is Michelle Hoover and her first novel The Quickening is an elegantly written historical fiction that reveals the pen of a masterful writer.

Enidina (Eddie) Current and Mary Morrow are the neighboring women and alternating narrators of Michelle Hoover's debut novel The Quickening. Drawn together in the sparse farmlands of the Midwest in the early 1900's, Eddie and Mary have a relationship based more on mutual dependency rather than on their similarities. As the years pass, the reader sees both women grow and change through the seasons - spring innocence, the growth of summer, decay of fall, the harsh unforgiving winter - and the story is about the land as well as those who call it home.

The novel was told in a unique manner, and Michelle Hoover plays freely with the time-line. Through snapshots of their lives, the tale jumps in and out of the memories of the dual narrators, and events are hinted at long before they are revealed which keeps the pace of the book rolling smoothly. The setting was remarkably vivid and reveals Hoover's expertise at historical research. Poignant and intriguing, The Quickening was a unique novel that perfectly captures the complexity and richness of the Midwest in the early twentieth century.
I'm curious what others think about seeing a book labeled "debut novel".  Does it act as a persuader or a deterrent to new readers?  Do you see "debut" and think of the work as a fresh new voice to hear or do you consider that perhaps you don't want to take a chance on a new author?

And stay tuned this week for my blog interview with Michelle Hoover!

(An Advance Review Copy of this work was provided through LibraryThing's Early Reviewers program.
This review represents my honest and unbiased opinions about this work.)

Mercy Rising

Mercy Rising by Amber Robinson is true to its subtitle and involves Simple Ways to Practice Justice and Compassion. Aimed mostly at women, Robinson discusses practical ways of serving in everyday life including educating readers about organizations, opportunities, and websites that deal with combating poverty and other social justice issues, locally and internationally.

Drawing from her experiences as an advocate for Compassion International - a Christian child sponsorship organization - Robinson points out easy ways to help better the lives of others. Some of her suggestions seemed rather obvious (donating clothing) but others were new to me (searching websites that report on companies agreeing to stop human rights violations). Mercy Rising is a book that could be a valued resource to those taking the first steps towards justice around them as well as to those that have been making strides for years.

A friend of mine is fond of saying that to start serving others, people just need to get off their "buts" (But I'm too busy, But I don't have money, But I'm not good at that). Robinson takes this philosophy one step further and centers her book around the idea of each person starting with just "one thing". For anyone who's ever been overwhelmed at injustice in the world but doesn't think that one person can make a difference, Mercy Rising is a great place to look to have a change of heart and realize that even small steps can have a positive impact in the world.

A copy of this book was sent to me by the publisher in exchange for a review.  
This review represents my honest and unbiased opinions.

The Angel's Game

Set in Barcelona in the 1920's, Carlos Ruiz Zafon's The Angel's Game is a haunting and captivating novel. David Martin is an aspiring writer gifted with talent but unlucky in life - the woman he loves ignores him, his health is fading, and his greedy publishers care only about his next work. When the wealthy Andreas Corelli appears in David's life offering a contract - a book writing deal that seems a bit too good to be true - the young author hesitates at first, but is soon drawn to accept the bargain. What follows is a dark series of events leading David to seek an escape from the deal and to discover the truth behind the demise of another author Diego Marlasca. Marlasca once lived in the supposedly haunted house that David resides in and also had dealings with David's mysterious benefactor.

This is the first work of Zafon's that I have read, and it wasn't until I finished The Angel's Game that I learned it to be the prequel to Shadow of the Wind. Angel's Game easily stands on its own though, and I really enjoyed Zafon's serpentine storytelling. The plot was thoroughly unpredictable and the mystery and suspense were painted as beautifully as the historical details of the setting. For those that enjoy gothic mysteries with a supernatural twist, this is definitely the book to check out.

And the winner is....

Congratulations to Ellen, winner of The French Blue giveaway!

On favorite gems, Ellen said, "My favorite gemstone is the one on my left hand. I know that's overtly sentimental, but it's true."

Thanks again to everyone who entered the contest!  I wish you all could win and I really enjoyed reading your responses.   Since there were so many entrants, stay tuned for another Her Book Self Giveaway later this year! 

winner was chosen using a random list generator from random.org

"Because you have begun it"

"Never read a book through merely because you have begun it."
~John Witherspoon

I'm very guilty of *not* following this sage piece of advice.  I have such a hard time *not* finishing books that I start!  Even when I'm not enjoying a particular work, there's a small piece of me that thinks, "Maybe it will end really well and make the whole thing worth it."  The optimist in me keeps believing that the next chapter will be better, and the stoic in me keeps the pages turning... just one more.  And yet, people are always telling me life's too short to read books you don't like.  Every once in a while, I start a book and if it's only so-so I'll put it down, read something else, and then go back to finish the so-so book at another time; I have a really difficult time abandoning books completely once I've started them.  Something in me just can't deal with an unfinished story.  How about you - do you give up on bad books or finish them at any cost?  How long do you give a book to be "good" before you stop reading it?

And don't forget to enter the giveaway to win a copy of The French Blue!  
Contest closes tomorrow - winner will be drawn on Wednesday!

The Sugar Queen

This is another book that's been on my radar for quite some time, but it was a friend's blog post, with a charming quote from this book that most made me want to read it.

Sarah Addison Allen's The Sugar Queen might just be the definition of a comfort read. I picked this book up after multiple friends raved about it, and it turned out to be even more delightful than I expected.

The story follows twenty-eight year old Josey Cirrini who has always lived in the shadow of her high-society mother. Josey's escape from the pressures of others' expectations lies in a secret compartment in her closet filled with forbidden sweets and romance novels. Josey's paradise is disturbed one day when she finds Della Lee Baker, a local free-spirited woman, camped out in the closet hiding from an abusive boyfriend. With Della's help, Josey learns to stand up for herself and breaks out of the image that her mother has imposed on her. Josey learns to see herself as strong, beautiful woman - a lesson that will likely echo in the hearts of most female readers.

I loved the way the characters in this story were interwoven and the magical realism that tied the various subplots together was wonderfully done. The Sugar Queen is a novel that will leave readers with a smile and a sigh - a warm and intriguing love story that is as sweet as its charming title.

With Josey's secret closet filled with sweets and romance novels, I started thinking about my own comforts.  I could definitely relate to Josey turning to books as a means of escape - for me, it's more likely to be fantasy novels than romances - but if you had a secret comfort closet, with what would you stock it?

Author Interview: Richard W. Wise

I suppose I'm still getting used to the idea of authors as "real people". I think it's a feeling akin to running into your grade school teacher at the grocery store and realizing that outside of the school day Mrs. Miller still needs to shop for bread and milk with the rest of the town.  These mysterious writers whose words fill my head and take me to far off places while I traverse the Chicago rail system are real people, with real lives, and real voices of their own.  With that said, I'm pleased to present another author interview and today's guest Richard W. Wise, author of The French Blue, an amazing cross-continent adventure novel set in the seventeenth century.

*applause, applause*

Thank you for agreeing to this interview, Richard! First off, how did you select Jean-Baptiste Tavernier as the subject for your novel?

Tavernier was one of the most interesting men from a century that included many. Consider that he traveled 180,000 miles. The Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock in 1620 and they never left. Tavernier made six voyages and managed to survive countless adventures, enough to flesh out several fictional heroes. In addition he was like me, an international gem dealer, I figured I could get inside his head.

I loved how you blended fact and fiction so seamlessly in the book. In the afterword you wrote that you incorporated many of Tavernier's opinions from his journal into the story. Was Tavernier's goal of finding a large and unique gemstone something he wrote about or did you concoct it as a storyline?

About 80% of the novel is factual in the sense that it describes actual events in Tavernier's life. I added and embellished mainly in areas that Tavernier left blank in his own biography. How did he manage to get an entre into the highest aristocratic circles? His fictional adventures in Germany provides a context. Like most gem dealers he was very close with information on sources. I had to fill that in so that the reader would understand his objectives and how one goes about searching for gems. I also tried to retain his voice as I found it in his own books.

From your website I see that, like Jean-Baptiste, you have quite the collection of precious stones yourself. How did you first get involved in this trade?

I originally began as a goldsmith that was my third and current career, but when I was a young boy I also read a wonderful book called Pearl Diver that took place in the South Seas and that whetted my appetite for searching for gems and adventure.

Tell us a little about your travels. Where would you say has been your favorite location to go?

Like Tavernier I like Southeast Asia though as a dealer in colored gemstones, Thailand, Burma and Sri Lanka are more important areas for me. Tavernier always traveled to the source. I have visited the gem mines of Brazil, Colombia, Tanzania, Kenya, Australia and the pearl beds off Tahiti. Several articles describing these travels can be found on my business website, www.rwwise.com.

It's not much compared to where you've been, but I had the privilege of viewing The Hope Diamond at the Smithsonian several years ago and it really is a remarkable diamond. (My favorite color is blue, but I was unsuccessful in convincing my husband that it would make a good birthday present for me.) What is the largest or most amazing gem that you have seen? Do you have a favorite of the ones you have bought or sold?

I have many favorites and my latest favorite tends to be my latest acquisition. You can find my collection on my business website: www.rwwise.com

You have a long list of credentials for your work as a Graduate Gemologist, but you also have a remarkable talent for writing. How did you get started as a writer?

Thank you, I have always been a writer. I have published perhaps forty articles on gemstones and most of them contain a travel narrative that my readers seem to enjoy. My first book, Secrets Of The Gem Trade, The Connoisseur's Guide To Precious Gemstones, provided a learning experience. Like many other writers, I also have an unpublished novel. I am now totally hooked on fiction.

The French Blue was a really enjoyable piece. Are you planning on writing more novels in the future?

My next book, also a novel, is set in Boston in the 1970s. It is meant to be a mystery-thriller and recounts the adventures of a community organizer.

Where can we find more information about your work?

Well, obviously there is my website and also my 1st book's website; www.secretsofthegemtrade.com. I also write a blog: GemWise.

Thank you again for your time, Richard!  The French Blue and Secrets of the Gem Trade are available now!   

And don't forget to enter the giveaway for a free copy of The French Blue

(Above author photo and photo of replica of The French Blue used with permission from author website)

The French Blue - Plus a Giveaway!

I love Natural History Museums.  I've long been a fan of The Field in Chicago and, of course, The Smithsonian, and one of my favorite portions of any natural history museum is geology and gemstone collections.  I've often joked I'm part magpie with my love of shiny objects, but it's hard not to be awed when surrounded by precious stones that sparkle, shine, and dazzle (and are worth more than several years of my salary).  I recently came across a book by an author with an extensive background in buying and selling gems, and with careful research and masterful storytelling, he drew inspiration from an adventurous historical figure to construct an amazing book.

Jean-Baptiste Tavernier was a gem trader in the seventeenth century who completed six voyages through Persia and India and is perhaps most widely remembered for his discovery of The French Blue; an enormous blue diamond that was eventually recut into The Hope Diamond. Tavernier's life and astounding adventures form the basis of Richard W. Wise's historical fiction work The French Blue: An Illustrated Novel of the Seventeenth Century.

Wise did a magnificent job in choosing the subject for his book, as Tavernier proves to be a fascinating protagonist. From the pearl divers of Persia, to the diamond mines in India, and the splendors of the court at Versailles, the story is ripe with action and information and peppered with romance and politics. The tale moves at a perfect pace and Wise's skill at research is equal to his mastery of prose.  The fictional and factual characters are seamlessly blended together - and sometimes nearly indistinguishable. The inclusion of figures and illustrations also add wonderful seasoning to an expertly constructed work.

The French Blue was a highly enjoyable novel. Much like the gems described throughout the plot, this is a book that is eye-catching, intriguing, and overall a stunning treasure.

I can't say enough how much I enjoy books that teach me something new while still telling an engaging and entertaining story, and The French Blue did just that.  And perhaps the highest recommendation I can give is that this book made me want to learn more about Tavernier, the era in which he lived, and the history of various precious stones.  

Coming soon, my blog interview with author Richard W. Wise! 

AND - I've been given the opportunity to host a giveaway for The French Blue (the book, not the diamond).  If you'd like to read this great historical fiction work, leave a comment below telling me something about your favorite gemstone or famous artifact.  Contest is available to US mailing addresses only and closes on July 20, 2010 at 11:59 PM Central Standard Time.  Winners will be contacted by email so be sure to leave an email address (spam protected format preferred - ex: herbookself AT gmail DOT com).  The winner will have three days to respond via email with a mailing address, if no reply, a new winner will be drawn.  Also, as a reader loyalty bonus, if you've commented on this blog BEFORE this post you will be given one extra entry. Good Luck!

(This book was provided by the author in exchange for a review;
this review represents my honest and unbiased opinions.)

Horns and Wrinkles

River trolls, rock trolls, fairies, crickets, and curses combine to form a clever and enchanting story in Joseph Helgerson's Horns and Wrinkles. Set along a northern stretch of the Mississippi River, the novel follows Claire, a young girl constantly bullied by her cousin Duke.

Claire has always heard stories about a spell upon the river causing strange "rivery" occurrences, but she didn't know the truth to the legends until Duke sprouted a strange - and constantly growing - horn. Claire also never anticipated helping Duke nor enlisting the aid of river trolls to do so.

Horns and Wrinkles was a charming and creative book. The mix of magic and mythology with a local flair made the tale unique and enjoyable - a fun story for readers of all ages.

Outcasts United

Well I suppose I should say something about the NBA and LeBron's big decision, but with the World Cup finals just around the corner, I thought it appropriate to highlight a book about soccer.  I haven't really read any books about basketball (or Miami) and I can't say I've read many books about soccer (or should I say football?) but this was a one that I really did enjoy!

Outcasts United - the story of The Fugees, a soccer team of refugee children from a small town in Georgia - at first look seems to have all the makings of a Disney movie.  The story unfolds by introducing readers to Luma Mufleh, a Jordanian woman driven to make a life for herself in the USA while missing the family that disapproves of her new home.  But Luma is no Disney heroine, she is a rough-edged, straight-talking, disciplinarian and her new job as soccer coach to The Fugees is much more than the plot to a family movie.  Taking on leadership of three age groups, Luma's life becomes entwined with those of the players.  Often she is called upon to be much more than a coach and enter into the roles of friend, mother, confidant, provider, chauffeur and counselor to her young charges and their families.

Warren St. John writes the book in a distinctly journalistic style.  At times, this causes choppiness to the story, but ultimately it is an effective way to narrate the various facets of the lives of The Fugees' players, their experiences, and the various effects of refugee resettlement on the town of Clarkston, Georgia.  St. John tackles the issues of racism plaguing the town as well as the challenges faced by the resettlement aides and adjustments of the longtime town residents.  One of the strengths of this book, also, is that Clarkston, Georgia paints a portrait of refugees on a global scale.  Though some parts of the United States have been havens for newcomers from a single country, players on The Fugees bring stories of war-zones, famine, and political unrest from all over the world.

From Iraq to Sudan, Kosovo to Burundi, Liberia to Jordan, Outcasts United is truly an international story.  Luma Mufleh's life in particular is worthy of great admiration for her discipline and dedication in coaching three teams of children facing some of life's greatest challenges.  With post-traumatic stress, poverty, language barriers and the luring threat of gang life, it is Mufleh and the game of soccer that bring the group together as an oddly mixed family.  Together they must discover that even above winning and losing, what really matters is how you play the game.

Anyone else have any good books about soccer/football to recommend?  Anyone really stoked about the World Cup?  Who are you cheering for or against?  Personally, my favorite summer sports events are Wimbledon tennis (Congrats Rafa!) and Major League Baseball's Home Run Derby.  How about you?

"A Bookmark"

"Why pay a dollar for a bookmark?
Why not use the dollar for a bookmark?"
~ Fred Stoller

When I was little, the bookmark rack was one of my favorite things in a bookstore.   Perhaps this is only because it was usually located near the checkout line and was something to look at while waiting, but even now I tend to browse bookmarks before leaving a bookstore and often include them when giving a book as a gift.  I rarely buy them for myself as I've collected some fun ones over the years.  My favorites are a few from The Lord of The Rings, a promo one signed by Heather Webber, and a beautiful bamboo one painted with herons that was a gift from a friend in Japan (which I almost hesitate to use because it's so lovely!).  I also have several others which I've picked up from the library, booksellers, or book fairs.  And yet, even with these lovely page holders, my current read almost always contains an expired train pass or transit card sandwiched between the pages!  Usually when I pull a book off the shelf to take with me in the morning, I rarely grab a bookmark to go with it and end up pulling out whatever is handy in my purse to mark my spot resulting in a receipt, an old coupon, or any random scrap of paper taking the place of honor that should go to one of my pretty bookmarks. So the question of the day is, what do you use as a bookmark?  Do you have a favorite item with which to hold your place or does any random scrap work for you?  Ever use a dollar to mark your page?

Blood Oath

As many have noticed, my reading tastes are pretty widespread.  Since I tend to enjoy a large variety of subjects, I'm always intrigued when I find books that combine multiple genres in a single novel.  One such chimeric story I read recently was Blood Oath.

I have to say that the premise of this book hooked me as soon as I read it. Combining politics and the supernatural, Christopher Farnsworth constructs his novel around the idea that the greatest threats to national security are straight from the realm of nightmares and horror novels and the greatest defense we have is top secret agent Nathaniel Cade, who happens to be a vampire. Cade was sworn in under the titular Blood Oath by President Andrew Johnson and has been serving the Oval Office ever since.

In present day, Cade is teamed up with a new partner, rookie White House aide Zach Barrows, and the two must stop an anti-government plot that combines Dr. Frankenstein, Nazi Germany, and a terrorist cell from the Middle East. The twists and turns of the story and the multi-layered subplots keep the action high and Farnsworth deftly juggles multiple points of view to maintain suspense throughout the novel. Cade was a great new character too. At first I was unsure if he would come across as a brooding, fang-laden stereotype, but Farnsworth managed to give Cade a unique personality and creative individual traits.

The premise first drew me to Blood Oath but it was the writing, plot and characters that really pulled me in. With a good mix of horror, supernatural, and political thriller, Farnsworth built great potential for both sequels and prequels with this novel and I look forward to where he will take the series in the future.
How about you?  Chick Lit Mysteries?  Historical Fantasy?  Any favorite novels that combine genres?


With the USA celebrating Independence Day this weekend, I want to spotlight one of my favorite nonfiction books.  A true master of dramatic nonfiction, David McCullough recounts climactic events of the Revolutionary War through varying perspectives in the book 1776.  Relying heavily on primary sources such as letters and council notes, history unfolds humanistically under McCullough's artful pen.  American heroes such as Washington, Knox, and Greene - as well their British rivals - come alive as never before. 

And since I'm always striving to learn more through reading, does anyone have good recommendations for other interesting and engaging books about history?  I've heard McCullough's John Adams is also a great work, but I'm all for branching out to other eras of history.  (And not just US history, I love to learn about other countries, too!)

Happy Fourth of July!  Wishing everyone a safe and wonderful holiday!