Going to BEA and the Book Blogger Con? Let’s get together!

This time next Monday morning, I’ll be on a plane to New York for BEA and the Book Blogger Convention. In many ways, it will be the culmination of a lot of hard work and planning, and in others, it will be the beginning. I’m trying to sleep a ton this week, knowing I’ll be lucky to get four hours a night next week, and I’m gearing up for that exhaustion that comes with being “on” for days on end.

It will be tiring. But it will be awesome.

I have comfortable shoes, business cards, and fun outfits ready to go, and I only wish I’d thought to ask the #pantyworthy stylist if I could keep the pink flower from our shoot to wear in my hair so you could recognize me.

I have my Google Calendar to keep me organized and a highlighted list of events and author signings, and I’m looking forward to several meet-up/tweetup events.

And I’d love to meet you, too! So if you want to get together to gab or gossip or gush about great books next week, let me know!  Email me at bookladyblog at gmail dot com or DM me on Twitter so we can trade cell numbers and make plans. Also check out Dawn’s post to enter your info into a book blogger contact form that will organize all of our deets and simplify the process.

I’m off to look at that schedule one last time and do some additional highlighting. What are your can’t-miss events for the week?

And if you can’t make it to New York next week, you don’t have to feel left out of the action. Several awesome bloggers put their heads together and created Armchair BEA, in which you can participate from the comfort of your couch. Register for Armchair BEA here.

Let the countdown begin!

The Sunday Salon 5.16.10

Oh, interwebz. What a week it’s been!  I was hoping to launch the new look on Friday, but we encountered some glitches with importing my archives (and by glitches, I mean that my archives are twice the size of the standard import size) so you still have some time to update your feed or become a new subscriber before it switches over. (Thanks to all who offered help via Twitter, but there’s nothing to worry about. The fabulous designer is on it.)

I started the week with a piece about my recent streak of rave reviews, and I gave warning that my forthcoming reviews of The Singer’s Gun and Day for Night will both be gushy as well. Then my week got busy, and I didn’t get around to reviewing those two (look for them this week because at this point, it’s review it before BEA or bust!), but I DID end up being accidentally ironic by then writing a negative review of a book many authors have loved: Minrose Gwin’s The Queen of Palmyra.

I also blogged about my night with Swapna and Michelle at the Junior League of Richmond’s Book & Author Dinner (where I met Abraham Verghese and just *barely* resisted the urge to throw my panties at him, and then breathed a huge sigh of relief when he was kind enough to not only read the post but comment on it and assure me that he gets the whole pantyworthy thing). It was a fabulous event, and I’ve started thinking of it as the warm-up for BEA and the Book Blogger Convention.

Speaking of the Book Blogger Convention, have you seen the auction we’re running?  There are really amazing items up for grabs, and all of the proceeds go to First Book.

Let’s see.  What else?

I started Matterhorn this week, and so far, it is really stunning. It reminds me of The Things They Carried in many ways, and the sense of place, along with Marlantes’s ability to take readers so far into an experience that is so far outside of what most of us will ever know, is amazing.  I don’t normally like war novels, but this is just above and beyond, and I can tell it’s one of those books that I’m going to be shoving on people, saying “Trust me. You’ll thank me later.”  My goal is to finish it before I leave for BEA next Monday, but I’m not sure how realistic that is.

Also, I’m suffering from the rare (for me) desire to read more than one book at the same time, since I had the pleasure of meeting Joanna Smith Rakoff during her event at Fountain Bookstore this week. I started reading her novel, A Fortunate Age, while I waited to meet her for coffee, and after about ten pages, I was wondering why I’d taken so long to pull it off the TBR pile. I’m telling myself it will be my travel book for the BEA trip, and I’m really looking forward to getting back to it. I’m also looking forward to welcoming Joanna for a guest post this week.

And now, for those of you who requested photos from my sister’s wedding two weeks ago, I have a few to share. These were taken by Wendy Lewis (WendyLew Photography), who is my sister’s new sister-in-law. She managed to do double duty as a bridesmaid AND wedding photographer, and these images couldn’t be any more beautiful.

First, the site of the ceremony: All Saints Chapel in downtown Raleigh, NC.

Photo credit: WendyLew Photography

A great portrait of Sarah and Tim, on the front steps of the chapel.

Photo credit: WendyLew Photography

Family photo, plus Tim and Sarah’s dog Angus, who was the mascot of the day and *almost* followed the bride down the aisle.

Photo credit: WendyLew Photography

And one of Bob and me, after several hours of celebrating. (Did I mention that the wedding party entered the reception to the Rocky theme song and then performed the dance to “Jump On It?”  Buy me a margarita at BEA, and I’ll demonstrate!)

Photo credit: WendyLew Photography

I’m off to spend my Sunday reading, napping, and working on a fun project that may or may not involve a few more crazy photos AND the phenomenon known as #bookspastic. (Actually, it’s two separate projects, but who’s counting?)  I’ll also be trying to forget the hilarious image of my eight-year-old nephew (who spent the night with us last night in order to escape a sleepover of seven 10-year-old girls at his house) taking down an entire GINORMOUS piece of triple chocolate cake at dinner last night. It’s like the kid has a hollow leg.

I’m pretty sure that the universe has decided to rob me of lazy Sundays for a while, so I’m trying to embrace it. What are you up to today?

And P.S. If you or someone you know is planning a wedding in Raleigh, I can’t recommend Orangerie Events highly enough.  Priscilla Erwin did a fabulous job coordinating all of the details of my sister’s big day, so the rest of us were free to relax, enjoy, and just be present.

Happy Sunday!

Why I didn’t finish THE QUEEN OF PALMYRA

Published April 2010 by Harper Perennial

Description from the publisher:

“I need you to understand how ordinary it all was. . . .”

In the turbulent southern summer of 1963, Millwood’s white population steers clear of “Shake Rag,” the black section of town. Young Florence Forrest is one of the few who crosses the line. The daughter of a burial insurance salesman with dark secrets and the town’s “cake lady,” whose backcountry bootleg runs lead further and further away from a brutal marriage, Florence attaches herself to her grandparents’ longtime maid, Zenie Johnson. Named for Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra, Zenie treats the unwanted girl as just another chore, while telling her stories of the legendary queen’s courage and cunning.

The more time Florence spends in Shake Rag, the more she recognizes how completely race divides her town, and her story, far from ordinary, bears witness to the truth and brutality of her times—a truth brought to a shattering conclusion when Zenie’s vibrant college-student niece, Eva Greene, arrives that fateful Mississippi summer.

Maybe it was a case of high expectations from the multitude of rave reviews I’ve seen recently. Or maybe not. I committed to read and review Minrose Gwin’s The Queen of Palmyra as part of a blog tour hosted by TLC Book Tours, and I was excited about it. But I just couldn’t get through it.

Like, it took me three days to read fifty pages.

Whereas I ordinarily put down books I’m not clicking with after 50-100 pages, I’d made a commitment to this one, and I’m not the kind of lady who backs out of those commitments lightly. I knew by page 100 that I wasn’t going to love The Queen of Palmyra, but I figured I would finish it and write an honest, if critical, review. I tried, dear readers, and I couldn’t do it. I made it about halfway through.

And it’s not that this isn’t an interesting book. It is. Florence Forrest is an engaging character, and she’s in one heck of a pickle with her alcoholic mother and racist father and generally shitty situation in which her parents neglect her and she finds herself identifying more with Zenie’s family and then not understanding why it’s a problem when, upon seeing herself in makeup designed for African-American skin, she exclaims, “I’m colored…I look colored!”

I felt for Florence and shuddered at the VERY BAD THINGS that happened and the EVEN WORSE THINGS that were looming in the distance. I had this feeling that her character was going to develop well. Gwin puts Florence in situations that perfectly illustrate the ways in which she does not understand the rules and boundaries that govern race relations, and she makes Florence’s plight as a neglected child very sympathetic. For instance, Florence recalls riding in the car with another girl’s mother, who called Florence “precious cargo” and threw her arm out to protect the girls whenever they took a turn (in the days before seatbelts):

To think of myself as a child, and precious cargo to boot, made me glow inside. Folks in my family were always acting like I was grown up or the wallpaper, one of the two and sometimes both at once.

That just says it.

But I think there are two kinds of readers: those for whom story is most important, and those for whom writing is most important. I am the latter. For me, good writing can make just about any story or topic interesting. The flip side of that is that if the writing isn’t solid, even a compelling story can’t save it for me. And there were things about the writing that I couldn’t get past.

First, the similes. Minrose Gwin loves her similes. And sometimes they are quite lovely, as when Florence describes her father, who has just received a late-night call to one of his mysterious meetings and is preparing to walk out the door, by saying “he looked like a bell waiting to be rung.”  That’s quite evocative, yes? The problem is that there is a simile for EVERYTHING. Seriously. No description goes unvarnished. It got to a point where I felt like saying, “Don’t tell me what the thing/person/place/scene looks LIKE, just tell me WHAT IT IS.” I appreciate beautiful descriptions,  and many of Gwin’s are surprisingly elegant, but there are too many.

Next, the ever-changing tense. Gwin switches Florence’s narration from present- to past-tense frequently. Often within the same paragraph. When a book is written primarily in past tense, a move into present tense for selected scenes can add a sense of immediacy and urgency that engages the reader and gives the scene added impact. The Queen of Palmyra is written primarily in present-tense—though Florence indicates at times that she is writing as an adult (but never, at least in the first half of the books, indicates how far removed from childhood she is) about her young life—and moves into past tense seemingly without reason. Rather than adding oomph, the frequent changes in tense are distracting and made it more difficult for me to get a fix on what, exactly, Florence’s perspective is.  She obviously isn’t writing the story while it happens when she is eleven years old, but how much older is she?

Maybe these questions are answered in the second half of the book, but I expect to have some idea of where the narrator is coming from sooner than that.

I also felt that the writing was too self-conscious and too determined to be SOUTHERN FICTION with the requisite elements of young white girl, older black maid, a racist parent, the nasty secret bathroom out in the yard, and the gritty and potentially unnecessary dark parts. I can see that The Queen of Palmyra has strong bones and good potential, but for me, it didn’t deliver, and the irksome features in the writing were too distracting for me to continue with the story and find out what happens to Florence.

I didn’t hate what I read of The Queen of Palmyra, but it was nowhere near the love I hoped for.

Hey, FTC: I received a galley of this book from the publisher.

Bookish Event Wrap-Up: Junior League of Richmond Book & Author Dinner

Last Tuesday night, I had the great pleasure of attending the Junior League of Richmond’s annual Book and Author Dinner in the company of Swapna, Michelle, Emy, and several of my IRL bookish friends. The Book and Author Dinner is the JLR’s biggest fundraiser, and now, in its 65th year, it is the longest running event of its kind nationwide. This was my first time attending, and it was fabulous.

Swapna, Michelle, and I kicked off the evening with a pre-dinner drink at Penny Lane Pub, then we took our gussied-up selves down to the dinner for mixing and mingling. Almost immediately, we bumped into my good friend Emy (you know her as Elizabeth Emerson Hancock, author of Trespassers Will Be Baptized), who is a member of the Junior League and served on the planning committee for the dinner. Here’s a pic of us canoodling.

Yes, my forehead looks shiny, and no, I cannot for the life of me figure out how to prevent that from happening when it’s roasty toasty outside. Too bad I can’t keep Deanna Danger (the awesome stylist of the pantyworthy photo shoot) on hand all the time!

Here I am with Swapna and Michelle. Swapna and I didn’t coordinate our dresses, but it was kind of fun that we coordinated.

After we mingled, we sat down to dinner and proceeded to enjoy short talks (well, they were supposed to be short—limited to 8 minutes—but some of the authors weren’t so great about sticking to their time) from six authors. And it all began with Abraham Verghese, author of the stunning Cutting for Stone, which was one of my favorite books of 2009 and has earned a spot on my list of all-time best reads. Verghese discussed the book that inspired him to become a physician—W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage—and he spoke about the power of story to change our lives.

That idea, that story and narrative bring our imaginations to life, was a running theme of the evening, and it came up in almost all of the authors’ talks.

Next up was Sarah Blake (The Postmistress), who was just as wonderful and inspiring as she was when Swapna and I saw her at Politics & Prose a few months ago. (Swapna’s wrap-up of this event is up today too, and it is much more thorough. Go check out her thoughts about the evening.) And then came Dean King, who discussed his book Unbound, which is about the thirty women who survived the Long March when the Chinese Communist Party came under attack in 1934. King’s talk was remarkable first because the thirty women he researched were the only thirty women among the 86,000 Communists who sought escape. Only 10,000 of them survived, but ALL of the women made it, and King explained that Unbound is about these women and their strength and resilience.

People, I was ready to toss my panties at him before he even finished his talk—you know I love me a fan with a good feminist sensibility—and I cannot wait to read Unbound, which I picked up during the event.

After the heaviness of Dean King’s topic came Phyllis Theroux, whose book The Journal Keeper is essentially a memoir about writing memoirs. Now, I have no idea if the book is funny, but Phyllis (she doesn’t know it yet, but we’re on a first name basis) was a HOOT and had us all practically falling off our chairs in fits of giggles.  I’m not sure if I’ll end up reading The Journal Keeper, but it seemed like it would make a great book club selection, and I imagine Phyllis would be a fun author to have visit your club.

The final two authors rambled to the point that I lost focus and leaned over to ask Michelle, “Is this guy still talking???” Swapna covers them in greater depth if you’re interested.

After dinner, we got in line to meet Abraham Verghese, who totally made my day with exclaiming, “Oh, so nice to meet you!” and agreeing to take a photo with us.  As this was happening, I was thinking to myself, “I wonder if he knows I want to throw my panties at him….God, I hope he doesn’t think it’s creepy.”  (This was the first time I’ve met one of my pantyworthy authors in person. Dr. Verghese, if your Google Alerts have led you here, pantyworthy simply means a book was so good that I’d throw my panties at the author in a show of appreciation. I swear, it’s not as weird as it sounds. Click here for a full explanation of pantyworthy.)

Then I went to meet Dean King and tell him how much the folks at Fountain Bookstore have raved about his book and how I’m stoked to read it, and then we called it a night.

Oh, and at some point I spilled food right on the front of my dress. Because I’m smooth like that.

All in all, a fantastic night in the company of good friends and great authors.

On the perks of being picky [or, I explain why I’ve been gushing so much lately]

2010 has been a year of great books for me already. It started with The Little Stranger and The Unnamed (the first pantyworthy book of the year). It continued with my better-late-than-never discovery of Sarah Vowell. And then came In the Land of Believers and Flow and Just Don’t Fall (which I should have hated but ended up lurving).

Most recently, Orange is the New Black and The Handbook for Lightning Strike Survivors rocked my world, and in the next week or so, I’ll be reviewing The Singer’s Gun (about which I plan to gush excessively because it was REALLY FREAKING GOOD) and Day for Night (pantyworthy, for sure).

Last night, I started Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes, which I’ve been assured is going to be face-meltingly awesome. In another day or two, I’ll probably be plotting ways to slip him a pair of camouflage undies when I meet him at Politics & Prose on June 8th.

So yeah, there’s been a lot of gushing this year because there have been a lot of deserving books.

And because I’ve been picking the right ones.

Someone (I can’t remember who) said something on Twitter recently to the tune of “I know you don’t write negative reviews, but….” and I was all, “What do you MEAN, I don’t write negative reviews?” Remember #iheartthespark?  Remember when I spoiled The Lost Symbol? Remember all that ambivalence about Beatrice and Virgil?  And don’t even get me started on Stephenie Meyer.

And there are others, novels whose surprise twists just didn’t work out and memoirs that tended to the self-indulgent and nonfiction pieces that were too dry to be readable.

I do write negative reviews…when the books call for it. I am always honest about my response to a book and my thoughts about its strengths and weaknesses. If something is really horrible, I put it aside after 50 pages because 1) life is too short and 2) I’m not going to tear something apart or go crazy insulting an author just because doing it will give me a bump in traffic. That’s not how I roll.

But the bottom line is that I’m really picky, and the more I read, the better I get at selecting books that are going to challenge me, entertain me, impress me, expand my mind, and make me want to toss my panties.  That’s what this year of reading deliberately is all about. The community of intelligent, discerning readers I’ve found here on the interweb also helps. I know whose recommendations to trust. I know who has similar taste. I listen when they tell me what they think they’ll like.

Also, I’m selective about which review pitches I accept. I take the books that sound fantastic, and when it turns out that they are, I gush appropriately and do my best to tell you what makes them so fabulous. (And when they’re less than fab, you know I tell you that, too.)

I have become a picky, picky lady, and it is totally paying off. I almost always feel that my reading time is well spent, with a variety of books on a variety of topics, with all kinds of characters and themes and language and images. Variety is the spice of my reading life, and the common thread between all of these books I’m gushing about is that they are supremely gush-worthy.

Sure, I can write you a negative review . But what’s with all the suspicion about a series of positive reviews?  Why the assumption that because I’ve been writing positive reviews (about books that totally deserve them), I don’t write negative ones? If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time at all, you should know that I tell it like it is.

I’m just reading the books I want to read. I’m loving most of them. Who would have it any other way?

Winner Winner Chicken Dinner!

Okay, not quite.

But I’m pleased to announce the winner of a 16 x 20 canvas print from UPrinting.com.

Visit Lisa at Lit and Life, and check out the other great offerings at UPrinting.com

Hey, FTC: I am a member of the UPrinting blog sponsorship program. I received a free canvas print for hosting this giveaway.

The Sunday Salon 5.9.10

I’m coming to you this morning from the comfy armchair in our living room, but this is anything but a typical quiet Sunday morning. One of Bob’s three older brothers is celebrating his 35th birthday this weekend, so Bob and the other two flew him to Richmond, and it’s been a nonstop extravaganza.

And by extravaganza, I mean that right now, they are playing MarioKart and all the go-go-go on a Sunday is giving me the shakes.

I have already left the house this morning (on a bagel run), and I’m even wearing real pants, so you know this is serious.

It’s been a busy week in Book Lady Land. I reviewed two fabulous memoirs—Piper Kerman’s Orange is the New Black and Tom Jokinen’s Curtains: Adventures of an Undertaker-in-Training—and revealed what I look for in a review pitch.  I also shared a fundraising effort by the publishing community to support the victims of the Nashville flood and reminded you that the blog is about to undergo MAJOR changes, and you might need to update your subscription feed.

All very exciting stuff, but the really big news this week is that Michelle of Galleysmith and I announced our new business, Social MediU. We’re all about helping authors and other creative professionals understand and use social media to promote themselves and their products, and the emails are already rolling in. We’re going to have rockin’ clients.

(This concludes the moment of shameless self-promotion.)

I’ll be spending the rest of the morning out on the patio with The Queen of Palmyra. I had high expectations for it because of the many rave reviews, but I have to confess that I’m struggling with it. At the 150 page mark (out of almost 400), I’m not yet invested in the characters, and the narration is irritating me for a couple reasons. But I’m hopeful that it will improve, and regardless, I’ll have a review for you later this week.  This afternoon holds the promise of a BEA strategy session with the folks from Fountain Bookstore (definitely worth the donning of real pants!) and, if my dreams come true, a few hours of peace and quiet for a nap.

Apropos of nothing: for those of you interested, my sister’s new sister-in-law (who is totally rockin’ and managed to be BOTH a bridesmaid and a wedding photographer last week) has posted a few sneak peek images from their wedding. So, check ’em out if you want.

I’m off to make some more coffee and start enjoying the day. What’s on tap for you?


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