Saturday, February 20, 2016

Book Review: The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins

Carolyn's not so different from the other human beings around her. She's sure of it. She likes guacamole and cigarettes and steak. She knows how to use a phone. She even remembers what clothes are for.

After all, she was a normal American herself, once.

That was a long time ago, of course—before the time she calls “adoption day,” when she and a dozen other children found themselves being raised by a man they learned to call Father.

Father could do strange things. He could call light from darkness. Sometimes he raised the dead. And when he was disobeyed, the consequences were terrible.

In the years since Father took her in, Carolyn hasn't gotten out much. Instead, she and her adopted siblings have been raised according to Father's ancient Pelapi customs. They've studied the books in his library and learned some of the secrets behind his equally ancient power.

Sometimes, they've wondered if their cruel tutor might secretly be God.

Now, Father is missing. And if God truly is dead, the only thing that matters is who will inherit his library—and with it, power over all of creation.

As Carolyn gathers the tools she needs for the battle to come, fierce competitors for this prize align against her.

But Carolyn can win. She's sure of it. What she doesn't realize is that her victory may come at an unacceptable price—because in becoming a God, she's forgotten a great deal about being human.

I’m in conflict with this review.  On one hand, I find The Library at Mount Char to be a mind-bending epic, with notes of religion, fantasy, philosophy and science.  At times I was completely amazed at Scott Hawkins’ knowledge of such a wide range of subjects; certainly his mind must be like a library itself. On the other hand, I also found his plot difficult to follow at times, and more often than not, I had a poor grasp of where we were in the story.  There was a moment about halfway in when I felt as if I’d made a breakthrough, that I was beginning to understand Hawkins’ world and even come to really enjoy it, but after a while I found myself lost again in the shuffle of his mythology.

Yes, The Library at Mount Char is a departure for me. I tend to focus on Austenesque “bonnet stories” and the like. But as a self-confessed sci-fi and fantasy story geek (although mostly in the realm of film), I thought I’d give this a try.  When I later found out that a good friend of mine is also a college friend of Scott’s, I was thrilled with the small world connection and was even more enthusiastic about presenting a raving review of his work.

Despite that connection, I can’t offer a raving review of this one, at least not for those who generally follow my reviews and read similar works.  The content can be very rough, with coarse language, graphic violence, and some sexual content.  I didn’t find that to be as off-putting as you would expect. I can handle some cursing and a little blood now and then. The most alienating thing about Mount Char was the story in general.  It took a while for me to understand the main characters, and I never quite claimed a firm grasp on the plot.  I’m sure there was a point there-- I just missed it.  I think.  Most likely, it’s my lack of sophistication as a reader.

While I cannot recommend this title for my usual demographic, I can say that there is a definite audience for this mind-bending novel.  I see it as a mix of Stephen King and Rick Riordan, with a bit of Chris Kyle (of American Sniper) mixed in.  Those with a higher I.Q. than mine, with flexible minds that are open to all sorts of possibilities, who enjoy fantastic tales that dip into the very nature of existence itself… They might enjoy The Library at Mount Char.  It also has its moments of humor (I laughed out loud and underlined text on several occasions), tenderness, as well as horror and confusion.  As I write this, I have a friend in mind that I think will enjoy Mount Char very much, and I intend to share my review materials with her.

On another note: Scott was gracious enough to send me the audio book edition of Mount Char, which aided in my finishing the book in a shorter time period. I loaded it onto my iPhone and listened while doing dishes, riding around town or doing other menial chores.  I’m happy to report that narrator Hillary Huber did excellent work. As a frequent listener of audio books, I truly enjoyed her performance. She has the ability to capture just the right tone of this novel, with a slight edge to her voice, but still having the talent to be sensitive and emotional as well.  She almost sounded cynical as she voiced the main character Carolyn, but I think that was fitting.  Her range, from sinister to sweet was remarkable.

Scott Hawkins is a talented author who will most surely go on to more published titles.  Although I don’t find The Library at Mount Char to be the best fit for me as a reader, I applaud his work and acknowledge that he has created something amazing here. It is a world and library unto its own, with a tale that spans time, space and matter in a way that I’ve never experienced before. For those who might be up for a challenging, sometimes insane and mind-bending read, this might be for you.  Just be prepared for a ride that is unique and thoroughly unpredictable.

Giveaway Notice!

Hop over to Goodreads and enter to win a copy of The Library at Mount Char, if you'd like to give this original fantasy work a try. Giveaway ends on February 29, 2016 and is open to US entrants.  CLICK HERE TO ENTER

Hardback Paperback Kindle Audio CD

Friday, February 12, 2016

Book Review and Giveaway: The Mapmaker's Children by Sarah McCoy

Have you ever wondered if your decisions could change the course of history? Questioned whether or not bad things happen for a reason? In Sarah McCoy's THE MAPMAKER'S CHILDREN: A Novel (in paperback February 9, 2016), two women's lives are inextricably linked as they struggle through personal conflicts and wade through mysterious secrets. As the chapters alternate between these two commanding female protagonists, the reader must redefine courage, family, and destiny alongside these two remarkable women.

Sarah Brown, the fiercely independent daughter of abolitionist John Brown, is a talented artist in 1860s West Virginia. When Sarah discovers that she cannot bear children, she turns her skills toward helping others and becomes one of the foremost mapmakers for the Underground Railroad. Taking cues from Slave Quilt codes, she hides maps within her paintings as the United States moves toward a bloody civil war.

Over one hundred and fifty years later, Eden Anderson, a modern-day woman struggling to conceive a child, moves into an old house in West Virginia as a last-ditch effort to save her marriage and start a family. When she stumbles across part of an old porcelain doll in the root cellar, Eden slowly uncovers a dramatic connection to the Underground Railroad.

McCoy, whose novel
The Baker's Daughter was a nominee for the 2012 Goodreads Choice Award for Best Historical Fiction, spent three years researching the Brown family history. This research became the basis for her inventive narrative, one in which McCoy honorably portrays the spirit of the real Sarah Brown and imagines her ties to the fictional Eden. Skillfully plotted and magnificently transporting, THE MAPMAKER'S CHILDREN highlights the power of community and legacy, illustrating the ways in which history and destiny are interconnected on one enormous, intricate map.

Fresh off my review of Christmas Bells, my mind easily slipped into the time periods of The Mapmaker’s Children. Once again we have two main narratives: One set in the 19th century during the American Civil War, and another transpiring within modern times.  In the older plot line we find Sarah Brown, daughter of abolitionist John Brown, a historical figure that many of us might have studied in school as we learned of the Underground Railroad.  Sarah’s father meets a tragic end, but his cause does not halt with his death. It carries on with those who strove for the cause of liberty of all mankind, slave or free.  Sarah preferred to make her nonviolent contribution to the abolitionist cause through her artwork, creating paintings and dolls to help lead slaves to the north, to freedom.  She faces conflict both without and within, dealing with the political issues of her society as well as battling issues of the heart. She was a strong, brave woman and I came to admire her greatly.  I cannot say I agreed with one particular decision she made in the light of possible romance, but her intentions were honorable, and I respect her for her choice.  Author Sarah McCoy has done a masterful job of taking the facts as they are known in history and weaving them into a semi-fictional tale that is very believable. We may never know what went on in the hearts of many of the characters in The Mapmaker’s Children, but I enjoyed the choices that McCoy made in her craft, as she painted a picture of love, loss and social liability.

As the chapters alternate, we are introduced to Eden and Jack, a couple which has struggled with infertility for years and is beginning a new life away from the city in somewhat rural New Charlestown, West Virginia. Like Sarah Brown, Eden wrestles with the notion that bearing children may never be in her future. While I have personally experienced a miscarriage, I have never known the pain of long-term infertility.  There were times when Eden’s pain was so visceral, I wondered if it would be difficult for an infertile couple to read this novel.  I imagine they would either relate to Eden and Jack’s story in a way that would be profoundly comforting, or McCoy’s words might be too painful to take in.  She isn’t inappropriate in her descriptions – I could just easily imagine these portions to be difficult for some.

Regardless of this, I highly enjoyed Eden’s story line. Between her strained relationship with her husband, to the nascent friendships she has with the residents of New Charlestown, to the unexpected affection for an adopted dog, I loved the interactions she had and the journey she took from August to December 2014.  She’s a wounded woman, but yet strong and working to make something of herself.  I found her and the residents of New Charlestown to be colorful, well-drawn and captivating. The added mystery of certain contents of her antique home tied her life to that of Sarah Brown quite nicely, making the transition from 19th to 21st century effortless. 

Sarah McCoy has a wonderful novel with The Mapmaker’s Children.  She has blended the truth of the past with realistic fiction, and merged this into a modern story that is captivating and heartfelt. I highly enjoyed the choices she made in her narrative, and it has brought me greater appreciation for topics such as the Underground Railroad, infertility, forgiveness, and risking all for what you hold dear.  Both Sarah Brown and Eden Anderson are characters to be admired, and I heartily recommend this title to my readers.


TLC Book Tours has graciously offered a paperback copy of The Mapmaker's Children to one U.S. entrant.  Please see the Rafflecopter widget below to enter to win.  The contest period ends at 12am EST on February 29, 2016.  Good luck to all of the entrants!  For a bonus opportunity to win, stop by the book's Goodreads listing and enter that giveaway as well!

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About Sarah McCoy

SARAH McCOY is the New York Times, USA Today, and international bestselling author of the 2012 Goodreads Choice Award for Best Historical Fiction nominee The Baker's Daughter as well as The Time It Snowed in Puerto Rico and the novella "The Branch of Hazel" in Grand Central. She has taught English writing at Old Dominion University and at the University of Texas at El Paso. She calls Virginia home but presently lives with her husband and their dog, Gilly, in El Paso, Texas. Sarah enjoys connecting with her readers on Twitter at @SarahMMcCoy, on her Facebook Fan Page or via her website,


Friday, February 5, 2016

Book Review: Jane and the Waterloo Map by Stephanie Barron

Jane Austen turns sleuth in this delightful Regency-era mystery

November, 1815. The Battle of Waterloo has come and gone, leaving the British economy in shreds; Henry Austen, high-flying banker, is about to declare bankruptcy—dragging several of his brothers down with him. The crisis destroys Henry’s health, and Jane flies to his London bedside, believing him to be dying. While she’s there, the chaplain to His Royal Highness the Prince Regent invites Jane to tour Carlton House, the Prince’s fabulous London home. The chaplain is a fan of Jane’s books, and during the tour he suggests she dedicate her next novel—Emma—to HRH, whom she despises.

However, before she can speak to HRH, Jane stumbles upon a body—sprawled on the carpet in the Regent’s library. The dying man, Colonel MacFarland, was a cavalry hero and a friend of Wellington’s. He utters a single failing phrase: “Waterloo map” . . . and Jane is on the hunt for a treasure of incalculable value and a killer of considerable cunning.

For years, Stephanie Barron's Being Jane mysteries have been on my literary radar, but I took little interest in them, despite their Austenesque genre placement.  I'm not generally drawn to mysteries; in fact, the last few that I've read had almost put me off the subject matter entirely.  About a year ago I won a signed copy of Jane and the Twelve Days of Christmas, and I decided that at some point I would at least give Ms. Barron's work a try.  If nothing else, the Twelve Days cover art was enticing me to give it a go.  Yes, I'm that type of reader.

Fast forward a year, and I still haven't read the book.  Yet here comes another title in the series, Jane and the Waterloo Map. I'm intrigued with the battle of Waterloo and pairing it with Austenesque fiction heightened my interest in a mystery novel once again.  I was thrilled when I received an invitation to be a part of the Waterloo Map blog tour and danced a little jig when the book arrived on my doorstep.

As I'm a complete neurotic when it comes to reading books in a series, I simply could not begin my experience with the Being Jane novels with Book 13.  I quickly procured a copy of Jane and the Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor for perusal, and I was not disappointed! The novel was incredibly enjoyable, and I was thrilled that I'd begun with the first in the series.  Then I began to hear from other readers (including the author herself) that reading Book 2, Jane and the Man of the Cloth would also be a good idea, as many foundational lines are established in this title as well. I mentioned this to my husband, and he promptly found a copy in a used bookstore and brought it home for me. I had little time to get Man of the Cloth read, but once again Stephanie Barron wrote a thrilling tale that was easy to take in with speed and enjoyment.

Although I'd love to plow through Books 3-12, time was wasting away for this post's deadline, so I leaped forward to Jane and the Waterloo Map, which is set eleven years after the conclusion of Map of the Cloth. I found in short order that I needed to familiarize myself with one character in particular, who had been introduced in Jane and the Twelve Days of Christmas.  While I don't see it as completely necessary for all readers to do this, I quickly opened Twelve Days and got to know the character of Raphael West just a bit.  He plays a major role in Waterloo Map, and I'm glad I took the time to read a few of his opening scenes in Book 12.  Again, this isn't a requirement for other readers to enjoy this latest title. I just found it to be helpful in my understanding of his relationship to Jane.

As with Books 1 and 2, Jane and the Waterloo Map is a delightful mixture of fact (things we've learned from world history as well as Jane's actual letters), fiction (Jane Austen as sleuth!), intelligence, wit, and just a touch of chaste romance.  Barron's narratives rarely lag, and while I find the number of characters introduced into the story to be many, they always contribute to the plot and hold some significance, no matter how small.  As I do with many of the novels I read, I did a "Hollywood casting" in my head to keep the individuals organized.  At the conclusion of this review, I'll offer up some of the names of those who graced the "silver screen" in my mind.

I must say that near the end of Waterloo Map, Barron truly had me guessing as to what would be coming next in her plot choices, and she surprised me on multiple occasions.  My interest never ceased to be held, and I was particularly shocked at the revelation of one villainous character. I truly didn't see this twist coming at all. And just when I thought that the drama would be at its end, Barron threw in one more scene of peril and excitement, just for good measure. There is a bit of a bittersweet ending, and I closed the book with much satisfaction.  While I don't anticipate abandoning my primary interest in general Austenesque fiction, Stephanie Barron has restored my interest in mystery stories.  In her Being Jane series, she has captured the voice of Jane Austen as none I have read in some time, and has combined her ability to uniquely tell a quality story with a whodunit. I'm utterly surprised at how much I've enjoyed reading her these past weeks, and look forward to not only reading the remaining ten books in the collection but hope to see many more new works from her to come.

Hollywood Casting - Jane and the Waterloo Map

Olivia Williams as Jane Austen in
Miss Austen Regrets (2008 at age 40)

Keep in mind, this is my brain at work.  I try to choose as many Brits as I can, with the proper ages, hair color, etc., but as is the case in the real world, this isn't always possible.  It's just a helpful tool for me to keep characters organized as I traipse through the worlds that my authors create.

Jane Austen - Olivia Williams at age 40
Raphael West (age 46) - Joseph Fiennes
Henry Austen (age 44) -  Jude Law
Prince George (age 47) - Zach Galifianakis
Benjamin West - Christopher Plummer at 77
James Stanier Clarke - Toby Jones
Dr. Matthew Baillie - David Bamber
Charles Haden - Michael Socha
Fanny (Austen) Knight - Jessica Brown Findlay at 22
Duke of Wellington - Rupert Penry-Jones
Madame Gauthier - Lily James at 22
Major George Scovell - James D'Arcy

About the Author 

Stephanie Barron was born in Binghamton, New York, the last of six girls. She attended Princeton and Stanford Universities, where she studied history, before going on to work as an intelligence analyst at the CIA. She wrote her first book in 1992 and left the Agency a year later. Since then, she has written fifteen books. She lives and works in Denver, Colorado. Learn more about Stephanie and her books at her website, visit her on Facebook and Goodreads.


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