Monday, December 31, 2007

Holiday Reading (Books 128-134)

We just this evening got in from our trip to Alabama, so instead of partying I'm curled up on the couch enjoying having high-speed net access again. Here are my final reads of 2007:

Sharpe’s Christmas (Bernard Cornwell, 2003) contains two short stories Cornwell wrote for Christmas editions of British papers. They were entertaining reads, perfect in-flight entertainment, and it’s always good to see Sharpe, but I can tell the short story isn’t Cornwell’s usual form--it’s like he sets up a situation that could develop into a novel, realizes he’s only got 2000 words or so left on his count limit, then wraps it up in a hurry.

The Wise Virgin (Jo Beverley, 1999) is part of a Christmas anthology of medieval romances and features a young woman who finds a way to unite two families who’ve been feuding for generations over a holy relic. As usual, Beverley delivers a good balance of romance, strong characterization, and a believable historical background.

The Drop Edge of Yonder (Donis Casey, 2007) is the third mystery featuring Alafair Tucker, an Oklahoma farmwife and mother of many in the early years of the 20th century. This time Alafair’s young brother-in-law is the murder victim and one of her daughters is a witness, if only she can recover from a head injury in time to work out what happened before the murderer comes after her, too. I figured out who the killer was well before Alafair did, unusual for me when reading a mystery, but that’s partly because I narrowed it to two suspects and made up my mind it just COULDN’T be the more sympathetic of the two characters, even though the evidence seemed stacked against him. Anyway, these are engaging mysteries written in a strong voice, and I’ll be looking forward to the next murder that threatens the Tucker clan.

I’ve read a lot about Wellington over the past four years or so, but Wellington: The Iron Duke (Richard Holmes, 2003) brings out the less appealing side of his character more than most histories. He was undoubtedly easier to admire than to like, and Holmes doesn’t obscure or make many excuses for his occasionally reactionary politics, his reluctance to give praise and credit where due, or the fact that he was what we today would call a control freak. Even so, Wellington admirer that I am, I think Holmes is a fair biographer, concluding that while Wellington wasn’t always a good man, he was unquestionably a great one.

At this point in my journey I started running low on things to read, especially since I was saving two books for the flight home. So I started raiding my mother’s bookshelves and picked up Reflections on the Psalms (C.S. Lewis, 1958). I’d read it before at the age of 13 or so, but I figure if it’s been 20 years and more since I’ve read a book, it can count as a new read for the purpose of this journal.

I remember being baffled and perturbed by this book the first time around, because it didn’t accord with the strict view of biblical inspiration I’d grown up with. Now, though in superficial matters Lewis is very much a man of his nation, class, and time--and I’m much more aware of the fact that I’m two generations or so removed from him and from a cousin nation with a subtly different culture--I found the book both thought-provoking and encouraging as a view of a faith that doesn’t need absolutes to function.

Lord John and the Hand of Devils (Diana Gabaldon, 2007) is a set of three short stories (more like one short story and two novellas) featuring Lord John Grey, 18th century British officer and closeted gay man. This was an entertaining airplane read. I think Gabaldon is almost better writing Lord John than Jamie and Claire Fraser, as if the shorter length and mystery genre constraints force discipline and structure upon her.

It’s Not About the Accent (Caridad Ferrer, 2007) is a coming-of-age novel about seeking adventures and exploring roots. Caroline Darcy feels that her Ohio hometown is too boring, so she gloms onto her 1/8 Cuban heritage, courtesy of a great-grandmother she adored as a child, and pretends to be an exotic half-Latina babe when she goes off to college. At first the adventure is everything Caro hoped for, but complications ensue--at its midpoint, this is a very dark book--before she learns to make her search for roots less about playing pretend and more about exploring history.

This was a great book to close out my 2007 reading. I’ve never really pretended to be what I’m not, but I can relate to glomming onto one fraction of your heritage that seems better and more interesting than the rest of an ordinary small-town background. For instance, I used to make much of the fact that I’m part Highland Scot, really I am, I’ve got to be, because I had an ancestor named Fraser. In 1750 or so, but still! Fraser! Highlander! I’ve also gotten excited about a possible trace of Creek blood, and ever since the “Freedom Fries” idiocy of a few years ago, I’ve been extremely proud of my French ancestry, never mind that it’s only a trace of Huguenot from a long, long time ago. We’re talking “stand up and hum La Marseillaise” proud, and never mind that the Fanchers left France a hundred years or so before there WAS such a song. Anyway, in Caro’s journey she does find meaningful Cuban roots and family ties--she’s more Cuban than I am French, Indian, or Highlander--but I’ve been figuring out how to own all facets of my own family history, without making them more or less than they are, so I connected to this book.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Going dark...

Tomorrow morning we're flying down to Alabama to spend Christmas with my side of the family, returning on Dec. 31. Since my mom only has a slow dial-up connection, I expect to be spending very little time online over the next week. The withdrawal symptoms will be terrible, I'm sure, but I'll live through it.

I'm taking a bunch of books with me and will close out my 2007 reading journal with one big post once I'm back.

Sharpe's Story (Book #127)

Sharpe's Story (Bernard Cornwell, 2007) is a booklet containing two essays--a long one about the origins and growth of the Sharpe series and a shorter one about Cornwell's childhood with abusive adoptive parents who were members of a cultic church. All I'll say about the second is that I've long since stopped being surprised by the evil that humans will do in the name of God, but I haven't stopped being infuriated by it.

As for the rest of the book, if you're a Sharpe fan who's read most of the series, you'll enjoy the window into the author's mind.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Napoleon's Master (Book #126)

I've spent the week reading Napoleon's Master: A Life of Prince Talleyrand (David Lawday, 2007).

Anyone who lived in France between 1754 and 1838 lived in interesting times; Talleyrand was an aristocratic diplomat who shaped them. He was a consummate survivor who was managed to hold high positions under Louis XVI, various Revolutionary governments, Napoleon, and the restored monarchy. Not surprisingly, he was accused of being a self-serving turncoat, but Lawday presents him as a man who had both personal ambition and a genuine desire to promote the good of France, and ultimately of all Europe, even if that meant betraying the current government of France. (He definitely gave intelligence to Napoleon's enemies after concluding that the emperor's hunger for conquest could never be sated and would end in France's ruin.) I'm not sure he was quite as principled as Lawday paints him--but, then, Wellington defended him on much the same terms, and I tend to trust Wellington's character judgments.

The biography is an enjoyable read, chatty and full of anecdotes. I especially liked the story of a dinner Talleyrand hosted at the Congress of Vienna, where the various ambassadors and princelings got into a good-natured argument about which was the finest cheese of all--Castlereagh lauding Stilton, etc. Talleyrand just listened until a valet came in and whispered to him that a shipment of supplies had just arrived from France. He gave an order, and his servants brought in the brie. "Gentleman, I present the winner," he announced.

All in all, an informative ramble through a turbulent life.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Story of a Girl (Book #125)

Story of a Girl (Sara Zarr, 2007) is a dark, gritty YA novel about learning to overcome the past, forgive, and accept forgiveness. The protagonist is a girl who got caught at 13 having sex with her older brother's best friend and three years later is still branded the school slut of her small town. Not at all a fun read, but a compelling one.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

The First Total War (Book #124)

The First Total War: Napoleon's Europe and the Birth of Warfare as We Know It (David Bell, 2007) sees the seeds of our modern attitude toward war not in the horrific conflicts of the 20th century but in the social upheaval of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. I don't know if I agree with him 100%, but I enjoyed this look at "my" era from the perspective of intellectual history, and I feel like it gave me a better understanding of how the various upheavals in France 1789-1815 (and their impact on Europe as a whole) flowed from each other and from the intellectual currents of the time.

Oh, and while the book spends only a small part of its page count on comparisons to what has happened since, don't read this book if you think the Iraq War was a good idea. Bell has some digs at Bush & Co. that will just make you angry.

Monday, December 10, 2007

One Perfect Day (Book #123)

One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding (Rebecca Mead, 2007) wasn't a perfect book, but I was surprised by how many one- and two-star reviews it got at I saw how many of them came from wedding industry professionals. Hits a little close to home, I suppose.

It's not that the book is that much of an expose. (BTW, I don't know how to put in accent marks on Blogger.) It's sort of journalism with a touch of sociology. Mead's theory is that since wedding is no longer the transition to adulthood--few brides and grooms are virgin, even fewer have no experience living and working away from their parents' homes--couples are anxious to make this ancient tradition into SOME kind of rite of passage, and the wedding industry has happily stepped in to make lots of bucks by making in a transition to a new level of consumerdom. (Sure, you were getting by before, but now that you're 26 and getting married, don't you need matching Calphalon cookware? And don't you want every detail of your wedding to simultaneously declare your individuality while expressing some kind of ersatz traditionalism? And don't you above all deserve to be a princess on your wedding day, even if that means getting married at DisneyWorld and riding in Cinderella's carriage?)

Sunday, December 9, 2007

General Winston's Daughter (Book #122)

General Winston's Daughter (Sharon Shinn, 2007) is YA fantasy that reads more like historical fiction. There's no magic or supernatural beings, and the heroine's homeland is obviously based on 19th-century England, right down to the names of characters.

Lady Averie Winston is a spirited and somewhat flighty 18-year-old who goes out to visit her father and fiance at their colonial posting, only to discover some uncomfortable truths about herself, her loved ones, and her nation. The moral is straightforward and obvious. (Colonialism is BAD? You don't say!) However, Averie and most of her countrymen are well-meaning people, and the people they conquer aren't saints, which keeps the story from becoming cloying, IMHO. I do wish that Averie hadn't always been a spirited rebel, however--I think a story like hers would've been more interesting if she'd started out as a conventional aristocratic girl.

That said, it's a good read. I almost always like fantasies that feel like historical fiction--best of both worlds!

Friday, December 7, 2007

Under the Mistletoe (Book #121)

I bought Under the Mistletoe (Mary Balogh, 2006) last Christmas, but didn't get around to reading it till this year. It's a collection of five Christmas stories, either long short stories or short novellas, mostly collected from multi-author Christmas anthologies Balogh has participated in over the years. (One story is new for this volume.)

Individually the stories are all good, but I think multi-author anthologies work better, because I was starting to overdose on Balogh's style and favorite themes by the middle of the volume (which isn't a criticism--I make a point of never reading more than one book by the same author per month, because otherwise I burn out on the sameness). Or, you know, I guess I could've read them individually over several weeks instead of all at once.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Wellington's War (Book #120)

Wellington's War: His Peninsular Dispatches (Julian Rathbone, ed., 1984) is composed of selections from Wellington's dispatches and correspondence during the Peninsular War, woven together with commentary and narrative by Rathbone to make it comprehensible for the modern reader, who lacks the context Wellington and his correspondents had for the events described.

It's an informative read if you're reasonably familiar with the war and want a better window into Wellington's mind, but it's an awkward read because Wellington's terse, impatient style clashes with Rathbone's chatty narrative. It wouldn't matter if Rathbone's narrative stood more separate from Wellington's writings, but they're woven together, sometimes within the same sentence. Reading it gave me whiplash. Also, Rathbone has such an obvious man-crush on Wellington that I was almost embarrassed for him--and I share his pro-British, pro-Wellington bias!

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Look Me in the Eye (Book #119)

Look Me in the Eye (John Elder Robison, 2007) is a memoir of living with Asperger's, and Asperger's that went undiagnosed for 40 years because Robison was born in the late 50's, long before Asperger's was on the radar for doctors, parents, and teachers.

On balance, it's an inspiring story. Despite the double burden of Asperger's and a high dysfunctional family (Robison is the elder brother of Augusten Burroughs, author of Running With Scisssors), he built a successful life for himself--satisfying career, family, and so on.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Fray (Book #118)

I finally got around to reading Fray (2003), Joss Whedon's graphic novel featuring a vampire slayer in a dystopic future world. And, wow, it's good. It's got something of the sensibilities of both Buffy and Firefly...and Whedon is just such an amazing storyteller that I don't know how I'm going to work on the alternate history tonight after finishing this. I just can't bring the action and the angst and all-around coolness on anything like the same level. Sigh.

Oh, and I finally think I'm getting the hang of graphic novels--I didn't blow through this one in no time flat and then wonder what the big deal was. I guess I'm learning to think visually and verbally at the same time, or something. I even found myself imagining my WIP as a graphic novel, like which images would make for the most dramatic illustrations. You know, if I could only tell stories a bit more like Joss and all...

No Graves As Yet (Book #117)

No Graves As Yet (Anne Perry, 2003) is the first of a mystery series following a family of British siblings (whose parents are the first murder victims of the book) through WWI. This story is set between the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and the actual outbreak of hostilities, and there's a sense of leisurely menace throughout. Frankly, until the very end the pacing is a little slow. Though I enjoyed the book throughout, it didn't hit the point where I couldn't put it down until the last 20-30 pages. I'll look for the rest of the series over the next few months.

Monday, November 26, 2007

What If? (Book #116)

What If? (Robert Cowley, ed., 1999) is a collection of essays postulating counterfactuals--i.e. speculations on how the world would've turned out if just one small detail was changed. What if the Greeks lost at Salamis? What if Publius Quinctilius Varus never lost those legions? What if the Union hadn't found Lee's famous "Lost Order"? Etc.

They're fun reads, though some are far more plausible than others (e.g. I'm pretty sure if Athenian democracy had been nipped in the bud, someone else would've thought of it eventually). The whole exercise is of particular interest to me now, since my WIP is an alternate history, and one that's more a lengthy counterfactual speculation with action and character development than a fantastical alternate history like Naomi Novik's Temeraire series or Orson Scott Card's Alvin Maker books.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

The Mask of Command (Book #115)

The Mask of Command (John Keegan, 1987) examines the command styles of Alexander the Great, Wellington, Grant...and Hitler. That fourth section was a weird read for me, because insofar as I'd compare Hitler to Wellington or Grant at all, the labels I would've chosen are Evil and Not Evil. Keegan doesn't deny Hitler's evil, but that's not his point--the focus of that section of the book is on what made him an ineffective commander compared to the other leaders analyzed. And once I got past my aversion to thinking of Hitler as something other than a demon in human form, I decided that was a useful approach, given that Hitler was actually as much a human being as Wellington, or me, or anyone else, and I think we need to be reminded that as a species we have that capacity for evil just as much as we're capable of greatness or ordinariness.

Anyway...that issue aside, this is an informative look at how the nature of military command has changed over time and what makes an effective commander given the changing constraints of military technology. He confirms my high opinion of Wellington and has made me rethink my low opinion of Grant. His conclusion focuses on how nuclear war changes the nature of command by adding unavoidable layers of secrecy and giving the people with the most protection from danger the power to pull the nuclear trigger that they alone won't suffer from. I'd love to see what he says about the post-Cold War, post-9/11 world, and since Wikipedia assures me he's still alive and writing, I might get some of his recent works to do just that.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Sharpe's Waterloo (Book #114)

We're down in Tulsa for Thanksgiving week with my in-laws, and my airplane book yesterday was Sharpe's Waterloo (Bernard Cornwell, 1987). It's a damn good read, maybe even good enough to go into a three-way tie with Triumph and Trafalgar as my favorite in the whole series. And if you allow for Cornwell inserting Sharpe and other fictional characters into various key moments and for a certain amount of British homerism, it's an excellent book on the battle itself, probably tied with another favorite of mine, Alessandro Barbero's The Battle. (And I don't have a problem with the homerism, since I tend to agree with Cornwell that Wellington is an underrated general who won the battle fair and square. Waterloo was the ultimate goal line stand, and the British held against long, long odds. Yes, the Prussians' arrival was important, but it was the British who held off the best Napoleon could throw at them all day, and it was the redcoats who carried the day against the supposedly irresistible force of the Imperial Guard. Picture me waving a Union Jack here for proper effect.)

Friday, November 16, 2007

Voices from the World of Jane Austen (Book #113)

I have mixed feelings about Voices from the World of Jane Austen (Malcolm Day, 2006). It does provide a decent overview of all aspects of late Georgian and Regency England, and, as the title suggests, is packed with quotations from primary sources. While it focuses most heavily on everyday life in the gentry and middle classes--i.e. Jane Austen's stratum of society--it includes a decent amount of info on the aristocracy and working classes as well. And it includes chapters on war, politics, technological advances, and the like. To me, that's a plus because it's easy as a writer to get so focused on your own narrow area of interest--for me, the military, for many romance writers, aristocratic society--that you forget just how much was going on in the era.

But on the downside, I noticed numerous small errors on the topics I'm most familiar with, errors that weren't so much outright falsehood as oversimplifying to the point of incorrectness. E.g, the book perpetrates the popular myth that almost all army officers were scions of the aristocracy who purchased their commissions. (Some were, but the demand for officers was so high during the Napoleonic Wars that pretty much any tolerably genteel man could get a commission by recommendation without purchase as long as he didn't want an ultra-prestigious Guards or cavalry regiment.) Knowing that, I don't know how much to trust the book on topics like technological advances where I'm not so expert. It's a useful overview, but I wouldn't use it as a sole source on any make-or-break detail in my writing.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

From Where the Sun Now Stands (Book #112)

From Where the Sun Now Stands (Will Henry, 1959) is a beautiful but heartbreaking novel that through the eyes of a young kinsman of Chief Joseph tells the story of the Nez Perce's attempt to escape to Canada. I wanted to go back in time and fix the world to give them a better ending--the doomed gallantry of the thing had me crying at the end.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Voice of Crow (Book #111)

Voice of Crow (Jeri Smith-Ready, 2007) is the second book in the fantasy trilogy that began last year with Eyes of Crow. They're part of a genre I'm coming to think of as "village fantasy"--think Sharon Shinn's YA fantasy or Lois McMaster Bujold's Sharing Knife series. There's a rustic, pastoral feel, and magic is woven into the fabric of life. In this case, the heroine's peaceful world is being threatened by a neighboring city-state with imperial ambitions. It's a good read, though it took me awhile to catch on to remember enough of what had happened in the previous book to follow the action.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Ha'penny (Book #110)

Ha'penny (Jo Walton, 2007) is the second volume of a chillingly dark alternate history set in an England that made peace with Germany after Dunkirk and has a few years later been taken over by fascist forces in a coup of sorts. Basically, the British traded liberty for safety, and as Benjamin Franklin once said, those who are willing to make that trade deserve neither.

This is a dark, dark book, the more so because it's obviously an exaggerated reflection of America post-9/11. (The key word here is exaggerated. I am not remotely claiming that 2007 America is a fascist state. We're just not cherishing and protecting our liberties and those of others quite as we ought.) When fear rules, it's too easy to let all you hold dear, all the best of who you are as a nation, slip through your fingers. There's supposed to be a third volume in this series next year, and I hope Walton will end it on a optimistic note--and I hope America will choose liberty over fear in 2008, too!

(I try not to be political, I really do. But it's hard sometimes when I have such strong opinions.)

Thursday, November 1, 2007

How I Live Now (Book #109)

How I Live Now (Meg Rosoff, 2004) is an unusual YA novel and yet another example of how YA fiction is more interesting and varied than it ever was half my lifetime ago when I was in the proper demographic to read it. It's about a girl who's sent from New York to live with cousins in England because of problems with her new stepmother...only while she's there a war breaks out. Rosoff writes tightly in the POV of her narrator, who was already troubled before the war starts, and there's no tidy conclusion. I found it a different, compelling read.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Wellington's Army in the Peninsula (Book #108)

Wellington's Army in the Peninsula, 1808-1814 (Michael Glover, 1977) covers much the same ground as Sir Charles Oman's earlier work, which I read a few weeks ago, though it's a bit shorter, more modern in tone, and kinder to Wellington's character (and fairer, I think--in all my reading, it's pretty obvious there's a thoroughly decent and in many ways likable man hiding under all that snark and arrogance).

Lord John and the Brotherhood of the Blade (Book #107)

Lord John and the Brotherhood of the Blade (Diana Gabaldon, 2007) in true Gabaldon style combines elements of many genres in one volume. It's a mystery (sort of), a bit of a family saga, occasionally reads like a military adventure story, and has strong romantic elements (male/male) without quite qualifying as a romance. And it's a cracking good read, though it had been so long since I'd read the Outlander series that I was a bit rusty on Lord John Grey and his family and how they connected with Jamie and Claire and all their people. (It doesn't quite stand alone, IMHO. At least, if you'd never read the first three Outlander books, you'd be pretty mystified by who this Jamie Fraser guy who occasionally appears is and why Lord John is so obsessed with him.)

Friday, October 26, 2007

Body Clutter (Book #106)

Body Clutter: Love Your Body, Love Yourself (Marla Cilley, Leanne Ely, 2005) is by the FlyLady, who's best known for her system, complete with lots of motivational cheering, for de-cluttering and cleaning your house. Body Clutter applies the same basic principles to eating and exercising. It's less about a diet system than about adjusting your attitude to deal with whatever fears and needs make it hard for you to change your eating and exercise habits. It also stresses the problem of perfectionism--we expect too much of ourselves, try too ambitious a plan, and then give up completely and pig out on junk food as soon as we fail to live up to one part of our perfectionist scheme. And I recognize that in myself. As in, I do it all the time: "Oh, well, I had a regular coke instead of diet or water at lunch, guess I might as well have a big bag of potato chips and another coke for my afternoon snack!" Instead, we're supposed to forgive ourselves, love ourselves, and make gradual changes--baby steps.

The book is really too rah-rah motivational, emotional, and downright girly for cynical tomboy me, but that insight about perfectionism hits home. I'm trying to make some lifestyle changes, and I think the lessons in this book will help me stick with them.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Here If You Need Me (Book #105)

For the past few months, I've been working with hospital chaplains. I'm the Operations Manager for a hospital chaplaincy and chaplaincy education department, which basically means I wrestle the bureaucracy so the chaplains don't have to.

Here If You Need Me (Kate Braestrup, 2007) gave me greater insight into what my coworkers do. It's a memoir by a Unitarian minister whose vocation took an unusual form--her first husband was a Maine state trooper who'd been planning to go to seminary and become a law enforcement chaplain, but was killed in a car accident. His widow, Braestrup, decided to take his call upon herself, and she ended up a chaplain to the Maine Warden Service--i.e. lots of search-and-rescue for lost children, missing snowmobilers, and the like. It's moving, and gives me a better picture of how a chaplain operates ecumenically as she tells stories of supporting people of no faith at all and of faiths considerably more conservative than her own.

It reminds me a bit of Take This Bread, which I read a few months ago, in that it's the story of an intelligent adult coming somewhat belatedly to a religious life, a life that's more about doing than about believing. It's appealing, but I have trouble wrapping my head around it, coming as I do from a background where faith is largely accepting a set of intellectual propositions about God and then trying to live in a way consistent with that belief scheme. Being as I am sort of an agnostic believer--"I believe, Lord, help my unbelief" is probably the Bible verse I identify with most easily--every time I find out about one of these smart adult converts, part of me hopes they've found The Answer. I want them to have some airtight bit of logic that will prove to me that yes, there IS a God and there IS an afterlife, for sure, and here's how you go there, and I will see my dad again and get to meet all these fascinating dead people I research and try to bring back to life in my books. But so far, my quest for The Answer seems fruitless--but I'm pondering what it means to have Faith without Answers.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

My Lady Judge (Book #104)

My Lady Judge (Cora Harrison, 2007) is a cozy mystery, likely the first in a series, about a woman judge in the Burren, an Irish region still free of English dominance and following Celtic traditional law in the early 16th century. I don't know the history well enough to know if a woman really could've played the role, but Harrison makes it seem rare but plausible.

Anyway, it's a very cozy mystery, as sweet as a story can possibly be and still involve the investigation of a rather grisly murder. It's not my usual taste, but worked well as a palate cleanser.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Sharpe's Revenge (Book #103)

Having finished Sharpe's Revenge (Bernard Cornwell, 1989), I now only have two books left in the series, and then where am I supposed to go for my Age of Sail/Flintlock adventure fix? Other than writing them myself, which while satisfying is also time-consuming. And sometimes you want to be taken along on someone else's ride rather than having to build the roller-coaster yourself from the ground up, you know?

So. Peace after two decades of war--hard on soldiers. Jane--sneaky shallow little bitch, though I have to say that double standards SUCK. Lucille--more appealing in the book than in the movies, though she's still not quite Teresa or Lady Grace. General Calvet--made of awesome. Ducos--evil, but how many times can one man's glasses be broken? One of these days I'm going to write a nearsighted historical hero who's a bespectacled badass, just 'cuz. Myopic Pride, or something like that.

Anyway, I'm really going to miss this series when I'm done. I've still got most of Cornwell's books set in earlier eras to get to, but it's just not the same for me, since the Napoleonic Era is my main "home" in the past. Anyone else ever get the dread not that they'll run out of BOOKS, because that's impossible, but that they'll run out of GOOD books that hit their readerly sweet spots? Especially because the older I get and the more I write myself, the more persnickety and hard to please I become.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Wellington's Army (Book #102)

Wellington's Army, 1809-1814 (Sir Charles Oman, 1913) is a thorough overview of the personalities and organization of Wellington's Peninsular Army. I wish I'd read it years ago when I first started researching the military side of the Regency era. While it's not quite as encyclopedic, I think it makes a good companion to John Elting's book on Napoleon's army, Swords Around a Throne.

That said, I couldn't help noticing Oman's Edwardian point of view in spots. He pays more attention to the relatively few Methodist and Evangelical soldiers and officers than more recent accounts do, praising their pious and patriotic response to the atheism and destruction of tradition of the French Revolution. And he's shocked, SHOCKED, I tell you, and APPALLED that soldiers and even officers brought their WIVES along and generally collected female camp followers. He doesn't quite come out and say that war is no place for a woman and the ladies should've stayed back in England being Angels in the Home, but the implication is there. Which amused me, because one of the reasons I enjoy writing the Napoleonic Wars as opposed to many earlier and later conflicts is that there's so much scope for writing bad-ass female characters. Of course, I expect Sir Charles would've found me shockingly unwomanly--and I am a total tomboy, always have been except for my ill-fated attempts to be popular and girly as a teen.

However, I can't help thinking of something I read in CS Lewis years ago. Paraphrased, he said that it's a good idea to read works written before your own time, because each era has its biases in values and worldview. And you're not generally aware of your own time's skewed perspective, because you're soaking in it. So now I'm trying to figure out whether my view of of the Napoleonic era is more or less accurate than Oman's, and, on a related note, whether the present is more like the world of Oman's time or Wellington's. (My instinct is Wellington's, but I'm speaking from a West Coast, big city perspective. The world might look a little more Edwardian from the heartland.)

Monday, October 15, 2007

The Nine (Book #101)

Usual caveat: Democrat, albeit more on the Jim Webb than the Dennis Kucinich end of the party. Usually don't talk politics on this blog, but it's partly my reading diary, and sometimes I read politics.

The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court (Jeffrey Toobin, 2007) is an intimate and anecdotal look at the justices and decisions of the Supreme Court, roughly during my adult life--the early 90's through the present. It's extremely depressing at points (I don't think I'll EVER be able to revisit the 2000 election without wanting to weep, or smash things, or something), but also informative and engrossing.

And it's made me more determined than ever to see a Democrat elected in 2008, preferably a two-termer. It's likely there will be several vacancies in the next decade, and if they're filled with more justices in the Roberts and Alito mold, we won't recognize our civil liberties ten years from now.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

And Both Were Young (Book #100)

And Both Were Young (Madeleine L'Engle, 1983) is one of L'Engle's lesser-known books, an early work revised in 1983, according to the author's note, to put back some grittier elements that were taken out at her editor's request in days when YA fiction avoided certain harsh realities. It's a YA romance/coming-of-age story set in a Swiss boarding school in the late 1940's, with an American heroine grieving a dead mother and afraid her father will remarry a woman she despises. I haven't read many stories set in postwar Europe, and it's interesting to see how some of the aftermath of WWII plays out in the lives of the students at a multinational school.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Agnes and the Hitman (Book #99)

I thought Jennifer Crusie and Bob Mayer's first book as co-authors, Don't Look Down, was promising but flawed--their voices didn't quite meld for me. Agnes and the Hitman (2007) is IMHO a much stronger work--tightly written and funny as all get-out. Highly recommended.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Once Upon a Quinceanera (Book #98)

Once Upon a Quinceanera (Julia Alvarez, 2007) isn't exactly an anthropological analysis of the quinceanera tradition (and I'd love to read such a book), but it's an intriguing meditation on what it means to come of age as a young woman, especially a Latina woman, in the United States today and in the author's 1960's youth. It made me think about what I hope for my own daughter in 10 or 12 years and the kind of values I want to be passing down to her. Alvarez often repeated a quote from Plato--paraphrased, "Education means teaching our children to desire the right things." I want my daughter to desire knowledge, justice, integrity, and courage--but also joy, laughter, and a good story.

Tactics and the Experience of Battle in the Age of Napoleon (Book #97)

One of the hardest parts about exploring a new and relatively obscure topic as an adult is figuring out where to start. (Relatively obscure=any subject you can't take a class on at community college or find a basic For Dummies or similar introduction.) It's not always easy to find the bridges that take you from basic, wikipedia-article knowledge to the kind of expertise you need if you're going to write about a topic yourself. I've frequently requested books from interlibrary loan or shelled out my hard-earned money only to find they're barely more informative than a wikipedia article or else are way over my head.

Way back in 2003 or so when I was first developing the plot for The Sergeant's Lady, I realized I needed to know a lot more about all aspects of Napoleonic-era army life. One of the first books I tried was Tactics and the Experience of Battle in the Age of Napoleon (Rory Muir, 1998). And at the time, it was way over my head. I remember being baffled by the terminology, as if each paragraph was a thicket of thorns I was trying to push through.

Four years later and many research hours later, I tried it again...and found it easy reading. Informative, but easy. So I guess I've been learning something after all. That's encouraging, really--that my mind still has at least some of its collegiate flexibility despite being so busy and out of practice academically.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Empire of Ivory (Book #96)

Empire of Ivory (Naomi Novik, 2007) is the fourth book in Novik's series about an alternate world in which the combatants in the Napoleonic Wars have air forces of dragons and their aviators as well as armies and navies. While I don't think it's quite as brilliant as the first book, His Majesty's Dragon, IMHO it's stronger than books #2 and #3, with a tighter plot arc and a strong hook at the end to make the wait till 2008 for the next volume seem endless.

I promised friends who haven't read it yet that I wouldn't spoil it, so there's not a whole lot more I can say, except that I like how Novik is expanding her world and focusing more on the differences dragons make in the intercontinental balance of power in the 19th century. Which sounds dry as dust, but this is a page-turner. I started it at 7:00 last night, pausing only to play with my daughter and watch The Office, finally going to bed at 12:45 a.m. with ~30 pages to go, which I finished on the bus this morning.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Phrases you just can't use anymore...

So I'm working away on my manuscript. A colonel is flattering his commanding officer a bit, talking about the utter success of their most recent action.

He called it "a glorious battle."

In my mind's eye, my characters instantly morphed from humans in the elegant officers' uniforms of 200 years ago, developing ridged foreheads and growing long, long hair. Their discreet glasses of claret disappeared, replaced with great goblets of blood wine. My colonel's concern that the general would give him a stern tongue-lashing upon learning he allowed an important enemy leader to slip through his fingers became shame and terror that his fearsome commander would declare him without honor and kill him where he stood.

So. Humans cannot fight glorious battles. The very phrase transforms them into Klingons.

Rites of Peace (Book #95)

As I suspect is true of most English speakers who develop an interest in the Napoleonic Wars, the parts I know most about are the ones England was involved in. Trafalgar? Check. Peninsular Campaign? Check, in great detail. Waterloo? I've read all about it. Anything east of France is a bit fuzzier. OK, a lot fuzzier. I know the names Austerlitz and Borodino and so on, but I don't know a lot about the players involved, the stakes, how it ties to what went before in the 18th century and what came after in the 19th and 20th.

I'm trying to remedy that defect, so I read Rites of Peace: The Fall of Napoleon and the Congress of Vienna (Adam Zamoyski, 2007) to bone up on the political personalities and interests of Russia, Prussia, Austria, and the like. It was a bit of a slog at first, and for someone who was reading it to learn about not-England places, I was pathetically grateful for such blessedly familiar names as Castlereagh and Wellington! At least I knew who somebody was as I battled to keep the Austrians, Prussians, and German principalities and duchies straight.

The Congress and the settlements that followed it weren't the European powers' finest hour. It's as if they were trying to put the genie of self-determination back in the bottle by creating an inflexible principle of "legitimacy" that left armed revolt as almost the only option for anyone who wanted a change. And if you want, you can trace the consequences of the choices they made all the way down to the wars of the 20th century. (Though the author points out, and I agree, that it's pointless to blame Metternich, Tsar Alexander, Castlereagh, et al. for unforeseeable consequences a century and more after their time, and it's not as if we can KNOW things would've been better if they hadn't been so reactionary.) A good book, if a trifle depressing in spots.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Sharpe's Siege (Book #94)

It's always a challenge thinking what to say in these little reviews when I'm deep into a long-running series. Of course I couldn't put down Sharpe's Siege (Bernard Cornwell, 1987). It's not like I'd go 17 books into a series and then decide the 18th one isn't worth bothering with. So I'll just make three comments:

1. This is one of the most tightly plotted entries in the series, IMHO. I enjoyed mentally laying out the puzzle pieces and putting it together.

2. I wish the American captain hadn't been named Killick, because to me Killick=the comic relief character in the Aubrey/Maturin series. So I kept having to readjust my mental picture.

3. In general Cornwell writes women better than most male authors. Even when I don't like them, their actions and motivation make sense to me--they're people, not fantasies. So WTF was up with that French farmgirl? Seriously. WTF?

Monday, September 17, 2007

Four Queens (Book #93)

Four Queens: The Provencal Sisters Who Ruled Europe (Nancy Goldstone, 2007) isn't the most intriguing book I've ever read. (I seem to be missing the "fascination with all things royal" gene.) And yet it filled in some blanks in my historical knowledge, since I don't know much about 13th century Europe. The focus is on France and England, the kingdoms the two eldest sisters married into, and it's kind of interesting to see the embryonic national characteristics of two countries I know so well in their later incarnations.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Are We Rome? (Book #92)

Fans of The Colbert Report will remember an episode from a couple months back where he dressed up in Americo-Roman armor (apparently a gift from a fan who makes handcrafted gear for reenactors) to interview Cullen Murphy, author of Are We Rome? The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America (2007).

Anyway, that's where I heard of this book, and I'm glad I picked it up. It's well-written, thought-provoking, and readily comprehensible without being simplistic. Murphy's answer to his titular question is "yes and no."

In a thousand specific ways, the answer is obviously no. In a handful of important ways, the answer is certainly yes. As societies, America and Rome are built on different premises. As people, Americans and Romans cherish different values. But Rome and America share certain dangerous traits--habits of mind and behavior. America and Rome also face similarly fraught circumstances, arising both from inside and from outside.

For more detail, read the book. At 200 pithy pages, it's well worth your time. Though it did give me a plot bunny for the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest that I have a feeling is going to stick with me and insist on becoming a novel. Which means I may end up investing a few years of my life in an idea that sprang from this book. But that's just me, the military history geek/writer woman.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Adios to My Old Life (Book #91)

Adios to My Old Life (Caridad Ferrer, 2006) won this year's RITA award (Romance Writers of America's award for published romantic fiction) in the Contemporary Single Title Romance category. This created a minor firestorm, because it's a YA book and the romance is a subplot compared to the heroine's coming-of-age journey. (Ferrer originally entered it in the YA category, but when YA was canceled for insufficient entries, it was bumped into her second choice category.)

The fact that there was a kerfuffle doesn't surprise me in the least. RWA lives to kerfuff. But IMHO the win was well-deserved. Adios is a fine book by any measure. Ferrer takes a concept that could be gimmicky and silly--a 17-year-old competing in a reality show to pick the next Latin music superstar--and gives it depth via Alegria Montero's passion for music and performance. I've never watched American Idol, and I know next to nothing about Latin music, but Ferrer still made her world come alive for me. I don't have an $8,000 guitar, but I do remember how I treasured and guarded my saxophone in high school, and how I loved the smell of it and the way the keys felt under my fingers, even that one that was always a little sticky. I'll never perform for thousands of people, but I do know the rush I get from singing Handel at Advent or Easter, both the glorious transcendence of the music itself and the fist-pumping triumph I feel whenever I nail one of those alto lines. Adios brought the heroine's passion for music to life and reminded me of my own.

Made to Stick (Book #90)

Made to Stick (Chip Heath and Dan Heath, 2007) is at its heart a business advice book, and therefore not of obvious use to me, an operations manager for a program at a county hospital. However, I found it extremely relevant to who I am when I'm wearing my aspiring writer hat.

The book's subtitle is "Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die," and it's all about creating and marketing "sticky" concepts. They have a list of core principles, complete with handy mnemonic acronym (it IS a business book, after all), and again and again they warn the reader of the Curse of Knowledge. Not that they're opposed to being intelligent and well-informed--the curse is that the more expert you are on a topic, the harder a time you have communicating with the less knowledgeable audience you want to buy your product or support your company's mission. Their goal is to teach you to find the core concept buried amid your knowledge and bring it forward in a pithy, memorable way.

Reading it, I think I figured out why the manuscripts I've written so far haven't sold, though one of them came so close it still hurts. I wasn't writing stickily enough. I was dealing with my own form of the Curse of Knowledge, writing lovely, elegant, history-packed character studies that delight people like me who are steeped in Regency/Napoleonic arcana, but that lacked a strong hook to pull in the uninitiated. Not that nothing happened in my books, but they were almost like fanfic for my brand of history geek. And the thing is, ten or twenty years ago, that might've been enough for a first sale. Because I am a damn good writer, and at least one of those three manuscripts is a mighty fine book, if I do say so myself. But as it stands now, if I want to sell, I need to write sticky. And that's OK, because I can do that. I'm not going to stop writing elegantly or give up creating believable characters in a historically accurate, lovingly researched milieu. But I'm going to put hooks there, too. High concept hooks, even. Reel them in with clever, hooky concepts, and make 'em mine for good with the writing.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

A Tragic Legacy (Book #89)

Usual caveat when I'm blogging about this kind of book: I'm a Democrat, though I don't talk politics on this blog except when my reading diary necessitates it.

A Tragic Legacy: How a Good vs. Evil Mentality Destroyed the Bush Presidency (Glenn Greenwald, 2007) is a fairly thorough summary of what I've disliked about Bush from the beginning: his tendency, whether it reflects his true beliefs or is merely a political ploy, to see the world in terms of a Manichean battle of Good vs. Evil. A good president, IMHO, is a principled pragmatist--a man or woman who respects the Constitution and basic moral principles (e.g. no torture, ever) and is firmly devoted to making America and the world a better place, but is willing to compromise and horse-trade to serve those ends. Bush is the opposite--someone so convinced of his own righteousness that he'll sacrifice all the principles an American ought to hold dear in the service of his so-called "Good."

Sigh. Is it January 20, 2009 yet? And will we get there before Bush causes or worsens any more catastrophes?

The really heartbreaking part of this book is reading what Howard Dean and Jim Webb predicted about the Iraq War in late 2002 and early 2003. They were right in every particular, downright prophetic. And Dean in particular was crucified for it, and I've yet to hear any mainstream admission that he was right all along. Sigh again.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

I'm History

Most of you are probably familiar with the American Girl series of books and toys. They're children's books featuring a young girl, I think 10 or 11 years old, living at a different point in American history. Girls who read the books learn something about growing up during the Revolution, pioneer days on the prairie, World War II, etc.

Today in the grocery store I spotted a new entry: Meet Julie. Julie is growing up in San Francisco in 1974.


According to my quick skim, Julie's story is designed to teach today's girls about sexism (she wants to join the school basketball team but is told no girls are allowed) and what it was like to have divorced parents when divorce was just beginning to become commonplace. And I suppose that's useful history for a contemporary child to learn.

But 1974 is history? I was born in 1971. I'm only 36. I have a 3-year-old, and we might have another child in the next few years. Because my biological clock still has some time on it. I have gray hairs, but not a lot of them. Who'da thunk my lifetime was already a subject for historical fiction, even for the elementary school set?

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Watching Baseball Smarter (Book #88)

Until I read Watching Baseball Smarter (Zack Hample, 2007), I would've said I knew a little bit about baseball. You see, I'm married to a serious baseball geek, and I spend time on stathead blogs like USS Mariner and Lookout Landing. Compared to those guys I don't know anything, and I expected to learn a lot from the Hample book. But I didn't. Sure, there were plenty of little details I hadn't noticed, particularly nuances of NL play, and anecdotes I hadn't heard, but I didn't learn anything that will enhance my enjoyment of the next Mariners game I attend. It's a perfectly good book, but it's written for a newer, less knowledgeable fan than me. Turns out I was already watching baseball pretty smartly.

I've had things like this happen before. I tend to downplay my own level of expertise. Maybe it's a female thing, or maybe it's a byproduct of being the brainy kid in a small-town school and trying to downplay my intelligence to fit in better. But I measure myself against the biggest expert I know, and if I can't match them, I say I know "a little." Because I don't know baseball like the guys who run USS Mariner, I know a little about baseball. Because I don't (yet) know the Peninsular War as well as Bernard Cornwell, I say I know a little about the Peninsular War. Or I used to, until I learned that saying that led people on one of my writers' loops to explain things to me like how the purchase of commissions worked or why infantry formed squares to face cavalry charges, using words of two syllables or less. This drove me crazy, because I've known that stuff for YEARS. Finally I realized I was setting myself up for it by saying I knew a little when I actually know quite a lot. I just had no idea the same was true of baseball.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

American Band (Book #87)

I was a band geek in high school. First chair saxophone and section leader my junior year before I got TMJ and had to give up my sax, but I played cymbals in order to march my senior year. Because that was my favorite part of high school--band, especially marching and competitions. Cymbals were a major step down from first chair and section leader--my fellow cymbal players were a pair of 8th graders with at best a nodding acquaintance with rhythm. But at least I got to stay in band, and my classmate the drum captain gave me a solo of sorts: I was the only cymbal player allowed to do the big crashes at the end of the national anthem.

So, given my background, I was eager to read American Band (Kristen Laine, 2007), the story of a championship band from an Indiana high school. But I think even a non-bandy could find something compelling here. The author follows the band director and several of the kids through the season, focusing especially on the trumpet section leader, a brainy, focused kid wrestling with a crisis of faith, first love, and family issues that rock his identity as the season goes on. It's an astonishingly intimate work of nonfiction. I feel like I got as deeply inside the head of Grant Longenbaugh, the trumpet player, as I generally do with a well-written fictional character. And I wept at the end. There's one tragedy in the book that's well-telegraphed, but another that's one of life's terrible sucker-punches that no one sees coming--not the reader, not the people who endured it.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

A Thousand Splendid Suns (Book #86)

I rarely read literary fiction and especially tend to flee any book whose buzz cries, "Coming soon to a book club near you as soon as it's out in trade paperback." But I made an exception for A Thousand Splendid Suns (Khaled Hosseini, 2007), because I heard the author interviewed on NPR and was curious enough to give the book a try. I'm very glad I did--I loved this poignant, harrowing, but surprisingly hopeful story of two women in Afghanistan. The action covers roughly 1973-2003, and part of what made it such a compelling read was the constant reminders that this WAS happening during my lifetime, that women my age (I'm about a dozen years younger than Mariam and eight years older than Laila) lived like this.

Good book. Really good book.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Mindless Eating (Book #85)

Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think (Brian Wansink, 2006) isn't your ordinary diet book. The author is a market researcher, not a nutritionist, and his focus is on what behavioral research tells us about how we make decisions about food. We can then harness those insights to work for our health instead of against it. He recommends a "mindless diet"--simple behavioral changes to improve our eating habits without making people feel the deprivation of a diet.

In theory I've been on Weight Watchers since July, but I haven't exactly been sticking with it. I mean to get back on the WW wagon tomorrow--but I'm also following this book's suggestion and making a list of three habits I'm going to follow. That way on days where it's too hectic to track points or I just fall off plan, I'll have a back-up to keep me from just binging. Here is my plan, posted on my blog for all the world to see in hopes that it'll keep me accountable:

1. Maximum of one non-diet soda per day.
2. I will only eat potato chips on weekends.
3. I will have at least one serving of fruit or non-potato vegetable per meal. (In theory this should trick me into making generally more nutritious choices, though probably some days it'll mean a banana or apple with a grilled cheese and fries from the cafeteria.)

There. We'll see how this works.

Friday, August 24, 2007

A Distant Magic (Book #84)

A Distant Magic (Mary Jo Putney, 2007) is part romance, part fantasy, and part history lesson about the 18th century British abolition movement. It's an unwieldy combination at times, but it's also much more ambitious in theme and scope than your average romance novel. I noted that several of the Amazon reviews it's gotten so far complain that it's not escapist enough, that they don't want sermons about the evils of slavery or politics in their romance novels. I suppose I might be something of an oddity among romance readers, but to me a love story becomes MORE compelling when the hero and heroine care about something larger than themselves and have a cause beyond sorting out their feelings for each other. This isn't my favorite of Putney's books--I thought the timeline-hopping element made it a bit disjointed. But so many of the romances I've tried lately and set aside unfinished have felt claustrophobic in their narrow focus on the hero and heroine, with the historical setting nothing more than an excuse for the glamor of pretty dresses and a hero who's a duke or earl. And that doesn't work for me, because the literary escape I crave isn't glitz and glamor--it's adventure, and sometimes the idea that a person like me could make a real difference in the world. A DISTANT MAGIC delivers my kind of escape.

The Footman's Directory and Butler's Remembrancer (Book #83)

As I continue to research the life and duties of servants ~200 years ago for my WIP, I just finished reading The Footman's Directory and Butler's Remembrancer (by "Onesimus," 1823, reprinted in 1998). Fascinating stuff, and more reminders of how much work it was to live 200 years ago! What surprised me a bit, though it shouldn't have in an Advice to Young Men book of this sort, is how thoroughly the author accepts the then-current idea that God has assigned us all to our stations in life and that we must be content in them. I always figured the gentry and the nobility were the only ones who actually BELIEVED all that, since their "assigned station" was so pleasant and convenient, and that the "lower orders" might have given lip service to the concept to keep the peace, but that deep down they knew better. I know I'm being very 21st-century American here, but it's just hard for me to believe, deep down, that anyone ELSE could believe they deserved anything less than the best they could earn on their own merit.

On a lighter note...there's a section of recipes, cleaning tips, household remedies, etc. Some of them are fascinating. I'd love to try old-fashioned ginger- or spruce-beer, for example. But I'm baffled by toast-and-water. Basically, you take stale bread, toast it fairly dark, put it in a jug and fill it with boiling water. When the water is quite cold, you then strain it through a sieve and drink it. I'm completely failing to see the appeal of that one...

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The Rules of Gentility (Book #82)

I can't remember when I last read a book that's simply as fun as The Rules of Gentility (Janet Mullany, 2007). It's a spoof of both Regency romance and chick lit that's laugh-out-loud funny while somehow striking the delicate balance of taking its characters seriously enough amid the slapstick and parody that the reader cares what happens to them. The voice makes it--it's told in first person, alternating between hero and heroine, and with tons of charm and wit.

Friday, August 17, 2007

The Complete Servant (Book #81)

The Complete Servant (Samuel & Sarah Adams, 1825, republished in 1988 with an introduction by Pamela Horn) is one of the earliest domestic advice books. I got it to research a footman's duties for my WIP, in which two of my characters go undercover as footmen. It came to me courtesy of interlibrary loan from Linfield College, which I'd never heard of before but now know is a small liberal arts college in NW Oregon.

The book details the work of all the servants in a well-to-do early 19th century English household, from the butler down to the scullery maid. Reading it makes me want to go home and hug my vacuum cleaner, microwave, dishwasher, etc. Any one recipe in the cook and housekeeper's sections makes me feel tired. I'd never bake a cake if I had to go to that much effort. Not sure I'd like the cakes, anyway. Chocolate was only a drink then, and vanilla doesn't show up in the recipes, either. Lots of almonds and lemon zest, which is fine, and currants everywhere, which isn't. (I've never been a big fan of dried fruit in my desserts.) Currants in pound cake, even! Blech! One of the few recipes that sounded wholly appetizing to my modern palate was one for "East India Curry," which, allowing for changes in technology, sounds a lot like a modern curry recipe, not even especially blanded down for the English palate. But the rest? You can keep your boiled beef and currant-festooned cakes, English people 200 years ago.

Really, it's a fascinating window on a bygone world...that I wouldn't want to eat in.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Patriot Battles (Book #80)

When I was growing up, we were taught that the American Revolution was all about scrappy frontier riflemen beating the robotic soldiers of an empire against incredible odds, mostly because the soldiers were so, well, robotic. You know, too stupid to realize that wearing bright red coats made them targets for those daring riflemen and so on. As an adult, and particularly an adult who's becoming something of an expert on the Napoleonic Wars, I'd figured that school history was a myth. The British were far from stupid, after all. 18th century battlefield tactics actually make a lot of sense when you understand the technology available then. E.g. rifles of the time had serious disadvantages compared to a musket--a much slower rate of fire, and frontier hunting rifles couldn't be fitted with bayonets, leaving a sharpshooter vulnerable when unloaded. Ideally you want a small number of rifles to supplement your musket-armed infantry with their sniper mojo. Which is what the Americans actually had during the Revolution, and what the British used so successfully in the Napoleonic Wars.

Anyway. That's one small myth of the many busted in Patriot Battles: How the War of Independence Was Fought (Michael Stephenson, 2007). A larger one is the idea that the odds were against the Patriots, what with Britain being one of the great superpowers of the day and all. Actually, the odds were stacked against the British to begin with, because they never had anything like enough soldiers available to garrison a large, hostile territory far from home. Sound familiar? It should. Stephenson draws the obvious parallel and gets excoriated for it by Amazon reviewers, but I think he's right. It's not an exact parallel, but there is a lesson there to be learned.

Oh, and it's a good, readable introduction to the realities of 18th century warfare, if you're interested in such things.

What the Lady Wants (Book #79)

What the Lady Wants (Jennifer Crusie, 1995) is vintage early Crusie--a quick, frothy, but utterly intelligent read. I read it on the plane coming back to Seattle and enjoyed it thoroughly.

Friday, August 10, 2007

The English (Book #78)

While living in England I became inordinately fond of Jeremy Paxman's work on Newsnight (basically, Nightline with a bit more bite), so I snapped up The English (1998) when I recently discovered it in a used bookstore. It's a good read. If I weren't limiting myself to brief posts, I could go on about it at length, but what stood out to me was in how many ways the English and American peoples are more alike than different--individualistic, independent, in their hearts more rural than urban despite living in cities and suburbs, etc. Basically, Americans are Englishmen, given a whole continent to be individualistic and independent in, and with more religion and less aristocracy. Which, of course, is exactly what you'd expect.

Redcoat (Book #77)

A very brief review of Redcoat (Bernard Cornwell, 1988), since I'm still in the land of slow dial-up modems and am trying to keep all my internet usage brief.

It's a standalone Revolutionary War story set in and around Philadelphia in 1776-77. As you might expect of a novel in this era written by an Englishman who married an American and became a US citizen, he neither lionizes nor demonizes either side, which I generally like. It's a bit sweeter and more romantic than most of Cornwell's work, and I can't help wondering if his own experience of True Love with an American blonde came into play. :-)

Thursday, August 9, 2007

A week in an oven

My husband, daughter, and I are at my mom's house in Alabama this week. She's having chemo for lung cancer, so it's not the happiest visit, but I'm glad we came. The internet connection here is a terribly slow dial-up, so I'll be posting less frequently and with more brevity than normal till I'm back in Seattle.

As for the title of the post? It's been over 100F every day since we got here on Tuesday, and it's forecast to continue for at least one more day before "cooling" into the upper 90's.

Saturday, August 4, 2007

Women and Money (Book #76)

Despite having a spicy brain and a B.S. in Economics from the Wharton School, I tend to go running in the opposite direction when asked to contemplate long-term financial planning. Hearing Suze Orman on NPR a few months ago convinced me that this was a Bad Idea. Ignoring retirement planning, debt issues, etc. will not make them go away. So I checked out her Women & Money (2007) to get a sense of her approach. And I'm convinced. I'll buy my own copy. I'll shop for a better bank, find lower-interest credit cards, and re-evaluate how I've allocated the money in my 401(k). I promise. Because she's right. I'm too smart to be stupid about money, and it's too important to ignore.

Princesses (Book #75)

Did you know that George III and his queen had fifteen children, six of them daughters? If you didn't, it's because by royal standards--I take that back, by ANY standard--those daughters led dull, restricted lives. Because of that, Princesses: the Six Daughters of George III (Flora Fraser, 2004) is a strange read--compelling, but depressing. The novelist in me wants to find a way to write the girls out of their predicament--which, basically, is that they reached marriageable age just as their father's grip on sanity was loosening and the long upheaval of the French Revolution/Napoleonic Wars got going. Since George III didn't approve of his children marrying even a little bit below royal rank, they had no opportunities to marry in England. For the most part, they were conventional young women who wanted families, and they just didn't get a chance. Though four of the six eventually married, they married late and left no legitimate descendants. (One of the two who never married gave birth to an illegitimate child by a commoner lover while a young woman.)

Anyway, it was an informative read, if you need information on British court life in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Book #74)

So. Our copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows finally arrived from England Friday afternoon. (Ever since we happened to buy the first two in the British edition while [whilst?] in Canada, my husband has ordered our copies from to keep our set matching.) I started reading Friday evening and finished yesterday afternoon.

There's really not a lot I can say without going into spoiler territory, which I don't want to do while the book is less than a month old. Suffice it to say I thought it far better than Books 5 and 6, and that I wish I'd been able to bring myself to re-read those two, because she does a good job of tying this book back to what happens before, and my memory was fuzzy in spots. There's this one bit early on where the characters are wandering aimlessly where the pacing lagged, the characters she kills aren't the ones I would've offed, and I would've written a different sort of epilogue, but hey. That's why I write my own books, to have the pleasure of making things turn out EXACTLY the way that most satisfies me. Among other reasons.

For the rest? I'm not going to give anything away. Go read it yourself, if you haven't already.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Survival of the Sickest (Book #73)

Survival of the Sickest (Sharon Moalem w/ Jonathan Prince, 2007) tells of the evolutionary biology of disease, focusing largely on how the adaptations your ancestors evolved to meet the hardships of their environment can make you sick centuries or millenia later. To pick a simple example, as a person of Northern European descent, I'm more prone to skin cancer because my ancestors evolved light skin to make vitamin D more efficiently from weak northern sunlight. But on the other side of the coin, African-Americans who live in places like Seattle are more prone to certain cancers than those living in Miami, because the darker your skin, the more likely you are to have a vitamin D deficiency if you live in the north, which increases your predisposition toward cancer. And it's speculated that I'm more prone to type 2 diabetes because elevated blood sugar may have helped my ancestors survive the cold of an Ice Age winter close to the glacier line. Super-tasters? Less likely to accidentally ingest poison.

It's a fascinating read, and a quick one due to an unusually chatty and informal style--Moalem's co-author/ghostwriter is a speechwriter. The tone took a little adjusting to--I'm used to my popular science a little more scholarly. But it's a true page turner.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Privilege and Scandal (Book #72)

I've never been fascinated by celebrity for its own sake, particularly the kind where the person is born or marries into his/her fame. So I was surprised how much I enjoyed Privilege and Scandal: The Remarkable Life of Harriet Spencer, Sister of Georgiana (Janet Gleeson, 2007), especially after the cover quotes made a point of noting the Spencer sisters' distant relationship to Princess Diana. I can understand why the publisher wanted to advertise it, but I can't help rolling my eyes all the same.

Anyway. It's not that Harriet was so fascinating herself, but she lived at the epicenter of English power and either saw or was close kin to someone who saw pretty much every major event from 1780-1820. So her biography is a wonderful snapshot of public and private life during a tumultuous era.

New books!

I always feel vaguely dirty when I shop the Edward R. Hamilton remaindered books catalog. I get the impression it's a one-man shop, and that one man has strong political opinions which he expresses in his book descriptions. He'll sell books from all sides, but it's clear that he's a serious conservative with a special hatred and fear reserved for Hillary Clinton.

But I keep getting his catalogs. I look at them, see the latest tasteless vitriol spewed at Senator Clinton, and think, "I can't give this man my money." Then I'll see, on the very same page, a book on the exact topic I most need to research for my WIP, for $5 or less. This time the bait was Napoleon's Troublesome Americans, because I'm researching America's relationships with France and Britain at the beginning of the 19th century. So I bought it, plus four others, all for barely $40 including shipping.

So. Show me cheap books, and my principles fly right out the window...

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Will the Vampire People Please Leave the Lobby (Book #71)

Off and on since 2000 or so, I've been a member of an online forum that started out as a discussion of Buffy the Vampire Slayer but turned into an all-purpose international community. Now there's a book about my mostly-virtual world: Will the Vampire People Please Leave the Lobby? True Adventures in Cult Fandom (Allyson Beatrice, 2007). It's a series of well-written essays, by turns snarky and touching, on how what starts as a simple online discussion on a specific topic can turn into a real community, warts and all.

I honestly don't know how the book would read for someone who's not a part of that tribe, but I'd recommend you try. Allyson has a flair for dead-on description that make her voice a pleasure in itself. Reading it had an impact on my life: it made me decide to return to one of the online forums she discusses after an absence of nearly two years. I'd left after finding myself at the center of a kerfuffle. It was a great big mess, and I decided the only sane thing to do was walk away from it. I still think I did the right thing, but reading Allyson's book made me miss the place. These are the people I talked with on September 11, when we were scrambling for information and comforting each other and trying to make sense of our suddenly shifted world. These are the people who anxiously awaited updates when I was in labor for four days. They're the ones I shared my triumph with when I finished my first manuscript. And they consoled me through my father's terminal illness and death. So I decided to dip a toe back into the waters there and see if I still belong there in any way. It's still early in the toe-dipping process, but I'm glad I read this book and glad I decided to give it a try. Because internet communities are as real as any other kind. They're not always easy, but a good one is worth fighting for.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

The Boys Next Door (Book #70)

The Boys Next Door (Jennifer Echols, 2007) is my latest foray into the world of YA. Like me, Echols is from a small town in central Alabama, and so far both of her YA romantic comedies have been set in that world. They don't drip with Southern culture or anything, but there are just enough little touches there to give me the pleasure of reading about my old world.

In this book, the tomboy heroine/narrator is trying to learn to act like a "real" girl, both because she thinks that's what her dead mother would've wanted for her and because she's trying to draw the eye of her favorite of the brothers who live next door. Of course, she's overlooking the OTHER brother, the one who's always been her best friend and who values her the way she is, tomboy tastes, waveboarding prowess (they live on a lake), and all. It's a standard story, but told freshly and without the cloying wholesomeness of the YA romances of my day. (That would be the 1980's, when dinosaurs roamed the earth.)

THAT book...yeah, that one

I am surrounded by Harry Potter frenzy. It's all over all my internet forums, my husband was reading a spoilery summary on wikipedia last night, and I even ended up in a conversation about it while waiting for the bus after work yesterday evening. But I don't have my copy yet, because ours is coming from England. You see, we bought the first two books in Canada, and they happened to be the British rather than the American editions. My husband has ordered the new ones from ever since, because he wants them to match.

In some previous years, I've went out and bought the American edition too just so I won't have to wait. But I'm not going to this time. I enjoy the books, and I think it's fun and wonderful that the debut of a book is such a Big Event. But I can wait to find out what happens. I just don't feel the urgent passion for them anymore. I have plenty of other things to read while I wait, after all.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Fun With Dick and, I mean, Sharpe's Regiment (Book #69)

Sharpe's Regiment (Bernard Cornwell, 1986) is a departure from the rest of the series in that it's set almost entirely in England, with only bookending scenes in Spain and France with Wellington's army. It's good--all Sharpe books are good--but I don't think it'll go down as one of my favorites. This is the one where he marries Jane Gibbons, you see, and knowing from the movies how that'll turn out, I can't STAND her. Pretty-pretty little b*tch. Reading it, I found myself wanting to throttle Sharpe, because he's so much more besotted with her than he ever was with Teresa, and Teresa is worth ten Janes. Maybe a hundred. Teresa RULES. If I'd written this series, Teresa would probably be the protagonist and Sharpe the love interest. But, you know, it's NOT mine, so I have to live with what BC actually wrote. And he's one of my favorite authors, both to read and to learn from at conferences--just a brilliant snarky guy. So I'll let him write his books his way. I guess it speaks for the quality of the storytelling that I can get so angry at the behavior of fictional people, when it comes down to it. But still. Jane is a b*tch and Sharpe is an idiot.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The New Girl (Book #68)

I can't remember anymore where I first heard about The New Girl: Girls' Culture in England 1880-1915 (Sally Mitchell, 1995). Given the topic, it could've been any number of online communities. Something about the description piqued my interest, despite the fact it's 100 years before my own time and 100 years after my current preferred time to write about, so I flagged it on the library website and eventually checked it out.

Basically, it's an analysis of what girlhood meant to late Victorian and Edwardian girls via their leisure reading--popular novels and girls' magazines. That may not sound fascinating, but it is. It's all about the changes that were going on in women's roles, experiences, and education, particularly in adolescence and young adulthood, and how popular literature encouraged girls and reflected their fears. It's interesting to see how some literary tropes that are still with us got set and how cultural shifts are reflected in fiction/fantasy. And I admit I got a little squirmy reading the discussion of repeated/pet fantasies of readers and writers and what they mean. Because that hits home. I do have tropes and character types I just can't bring myself to let go of in my writing, and I'm sure they say a lot about me...

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Wellington and Napoleon (Book #67)

Wellington and Napoleon: Clash of Arms 1807-1815 (Robin Neillands, 1994) is a quick read, light on the details, at right around 250 pages. I've read books on the Waterloo campaign alone that were significantly longer. But that doesn't mean it's a useless read. It's just a snapshot of the big picture, which is a useful thing to pull back and examine on occasion. It's easy to get lost in the forest of details when you're reading full-length books on individual battles and similarly exhaustive histories.

And one benefit of this book is that since Napoleon and Wellington never actually fought against each other prior to Waterloo, Neillands has to go back and forth between the separate fronts they fought on beforehand, which shows how they influenced each other--something I think is often neglected in books that focus on one man or the other.

Anyway. Every ranking of all-time greatest generals I've ever read puts Napoleon ahead of Wellington. I feel like I must be missing something obvious that I'd know about if I were a reallyo trulyo military historian instead of a self-taught wannabe military novelist, because I just don't see it. And not just because Wellington won their single meeting--Waterloo was a special case in a lot of ways, and I don't think showcased either man at his most brilliant. And I'm not denying that Napoleon was brilliant. I just think that Wellington was the more flexible and adaptable of the two. There wasn't as much of a pattern to his battles, at least from how I interpret what I've read.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

The Sharing Knife: Legacy (Book #66)

I just finished the second half of Lois McMaster Bujold's romantic fantasy, The Sharing Knife: Legacy (2007). First, a note: these books don't stand alone. My understanding is that Bujold wrote the story to be a single volume, but her publisher chose to split them because of length. It was a bad choice, IMO. As a single volume, I don't think it would've been longer than any one book in the Kushiel series, and certainly shorter than those Wheel of Time books I see many of my friends toting around. As it stands, the first book (The Sharing Knife: Beguilement) feels unfinished, and if you tried to read the second without having already read the first, you'd be completely lost. I was a bit fuzzy in places from having forgotten some of the details, and I read the first book earlier this year!

All that said, I really enjoyed this book. Bujold is great at creating fantasy worlds that feel unique and well-imagined. It's never stated explicitly, but this one feels a bit like a post-apocalyptic North America, or maybe just an alternate one, with an appealing country feel to it. It reminds me a bit of Sharon Shinn's recent YA fantasy trilogy, also of Orson Scott Card's Alvin Maker books, and even a bit of Firefly, while still retaining its own uniqueness. And I like how the romance is resolved--happily, but not unrealistically so.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Lord Ashford's Wager (Book #65)

Lord Ashford's Wager (Marjorie Farrell, 1994) is a traditional Regency romance--lately my favorite form of romance to read. I've read a few of Farrell's books so far and always enjoyed them. She's not a typical romance writer--her love stories are almost afterthoughts to the history she works into her books and the journeys of personal growth made by her heroes (more so than her heroines). This book is no exception. It's all about how the hero conquers his gaming addiction and clears himself of suspicion for a crime he didn't commit. The Bow Street Runner who leads the investigation is almost as prominent a character as the hero, and more so than the heroine.

It's not a book for every romance reader, but I enjoyed it a lot and will continue to seek out Farrell's backlist.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

A good afternoon

Today at work we had a deadline to turn in some paperwork that could mean more money for our department. I've had worse work weeks in my life--MUCH worse, BELIEVE me--but this was challenging and stressful because I've been there less than two months and didn't have a lot of background for the project.

Anyway, when we turned it in, my boss announced that she was going home and told me I could leave whenever I chose. So, naturally, I caught the first express bus of the afternoon back to the park & ride, which gave me an extra hour before I had to pick up my daughter from daycare. And I realized it'd been quite some time since I'd been to a used bookstore. If you're reading this reasonably close to the time I posted it, you can see my haul on your left. Among other things, four traditional Regencies, which I've been stockpiling of late--I find them more satisfying than most romances currently being published. It's a broad generalization and there are exceptions in both directions, but the old trads are often more historically accurate, less over-the-top in plot, and richer in characterization and romantic chemistry from not being able to rely on sex early and sex often to carry the love story.

I also found a research book that should be at least tangentially useful for my current project--it's on the American Revolution, focusing on the Continental Army, but military technology didn't change much between then and the Napoleonic Era (the next big leap in killing power came a few decades later, just in time for the Civil War), and the book has illustrations like a step-by-step diagram of loading a musket, all the better to help me describe it.

As an aspiring author, I try to support my fellow writers by buying books new so they'll reap the benefits of the sale, limiting my UBS purchases to out-of-print books (as I did today). But there's something about going to a UBS that just can't be replicated shopping at Barnes & Noble or ordering from Amazon. Not that I don't do both. A lot. But in a UBS there's the thrill of discovering the unexpected, the rare. It's a treasure hunt.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

A complaint

Having a cold in the summer is bad enough. Being all stuffy and sore-throated and vaguely feverish during Seattle's annual heat wave (generally of blessedly short duration, but miserable while it lasts), is just unfair.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Kushiel's Justice (Book #64)

The Seattle Public Library lets you keep a book for three weeks. If no other patron is waiting for it, you can renew it up to twice, but with new releases there's generally a queue waiting for it, so renewals are forbidden.

A normal person would presumably go to the library every three weeks. I go weekly. I generally have 30 books or so on my hold list, and on average three of those become available each week. The holds expire if you don't claim them within 8 days, so every Saturday I drop off what I've finished (or decided wasn't worth finishing) and pick up my new finds.

Usually I read the books in the order they're due, so I don't end up having to return books unopened because I never got around to them in three weeks. Which possibly makes me a bit obsessive-compulsive. Or maybe just a good Presbyterian, because we're the denomination that likes everything to be done decently and in good order. But sometimes I make exceptions. Kushiel's Justice (Jacqueline Carey, 2007) was an exception. I've been hooked on this series since I read the first chapter of the first volume, and there was no way any other book was going to keep me from finding out what happens next for Imriel de la Courcel.

It's a good read. Carey's twists on the familiar religions and mythologies of our world always make me rethink my own beliefs, and in a good way. Not crisis-of-faith, more, "Just what do love, compassion, and atonement really require of us?" And this book, all about revenge and redemption, and redemption THROUGH revenge, certainly qualifies as thought-provoking amidst all the adventure and sex and memorable characters that keep me coming back to this series.

If you follow that Amazon link, though, don't scroll down. There's a MASSIVE spoiler in the Publishers Weekly review. Normally I don't mind spoilers, but I spent half the book or more bracing for this one, and I think I would've gotten more out of it if I hadn't seen it coming.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

The War of Knives (Book #63)

I just finished The War of Knives (Broos Campbell, 2007), the second book detailing the adventures of a young officer in the fledgling American navy at the turn of the 19th century. While I found the plot a bit tough to follow at points, not being especially familiar with the history involved (chaos and intrigue in Haiti in 1800), it was a good read. I especially love the narrator's voice, which is American country boy with just a touch of Patrick O'Brian. I hope Campbell gets to continue this series--I'm always looking for more good Age of Sail!

Wednesday, July 4, 2007


In last night's list of books I'm looking forward to reading in the second have of 2007, I left out the very one I'm most eager to get: Empire of Ivory, by Naomi Novik. More Temeraire! Squee!

Abraham's Well (Book #62)

Abraham's Well (Sharon Ewell Foster, 2006) was a departure from my usual reading choices on several levels, but I enjoyed it and will be looking for more of this author's works.

First of all, this is a Christian/inspirational novel, published by Bethany House. I went through a brief stage in college where inspirational fiction was just about the only thing I read. It's a long story, but I was very theologically and socially conservative for a few years there, and I thought it was important to keep my entertainment choices "pure" and "wholesome."

Needless to say, I've changed. And most of that inspirational fiction was TERRIBLE. Awkwardly written, preachy, cloying, and prone to making all the complex problems of life easily cured by a light application of Jesus. Abraham's Well isn't like that at all. I don't know if that's because inspirational fiction has improved since the early 90's or because this story and its author are rooted in the black church and the African-American experience. But this is a dark, gritty story with no easy answers, about a girl of black and Cherokee descent who walks the Trail of Tears with her master and mistress and struggles to keep her courage and identity under double persecution for both parts of her heritage. I think non-Christian readers might be put off by an extensive sermon section in the middle, but it's more about the audacity of hope (to borrow a phrase) than about trying to get any "heathen" readers who accidentally stumble across the book to repent.

The other thing different about this book is that it's closer in structure to literary fiction than to the genre novels I usually read. As such, it's not linear and structured, with a tight narrative arc building to a cathartic resolution. It may be a common taste, but I like that structure and catharsis. Still, this was a good read, a refreshing departure.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

2007 in books: the first six months

It's that time of year again--time to reflect on my obsessive tracking of my reading habits!

2007 has been a good reading year so far. Through June 30 I've read 60 books, which puts me well on pace to achieve my personal goal of at least 100 books per year.

Of those 60 books, 31 were nonfiction, 29 fiction. I seem to be going through one of my nonfiction phases, and I'm also deep in research mode for my WIP, which means reading a lot of history. 16 of the 60 books actually have a 2007 copyright, which is a lot for the first half of the year. I've bought more new releases than I have in the recent past and managed to hear about other books quickly enough to get near the top of the library hold queue.

The genre breakdown is as follows:

Historical Fiction - 8
Historical Romance - 9
Contemporary Romance - 2
Paranormal Romance - 1
YA - 2
Fantasy - 2
Mystery - 5
Nonfiction (history) - 17
Nonfiction (other) - 14

I don't grade books as part of my reading diary. I only blog about the books I finish, and I'm a very picky reader. If a book shows up on my blog, that means I enjoyed it enough to give it at least a qualified recommendation. However, I do keep a sort of informal list of A and A+ books. A book gets an A if it's a thoroughly satisfying example of its kind. A+ goes to books that absolutely wow me. So far I haven't had a 2007 A+, but I only had two in all of '06. Here are my A books:

Venetia, by Georgette Heyer (old-school historical romance)
Gallows Thief, by Bernard Cornwell (historical mystery)
The Water Devil, by Judith Merkle Riley (historical fiction)
The Sharing Knife: Beguilement, by Lois McMaster Bujold (fantasy)
Napoleon & Josephine, by Evangeline Bruce (nonfiction-history)
The Old Way, by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas (nonfiction-anthropology)
Sharpe's Sword, by Bernard Cornwell (historical fiction)
1491: New Revelations of the America Before Columbus, by Charles C. Mann (nonfiction-history)
The Cheater's Guide to Baseball, by Derek Zumsteg (nonfiction)
Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion, by Sara Miles (memoir)
The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, by Bill Bryson (memoir)
Sharpe's Honor, by Bernard Cornwell (historical fiction)
Lady Beware, by Jo Beverley (historical romance)
Swords Around a Throne, by John Elting (nonfiction-history)

Here's hoping the second half of 2007 will be as satisfying! Like everyone else on the planet, I'm looking forward to the final installment in the Harry Potter saga. I can hardly wait to get my hands on Kushiel's Justice (I'm #2 in the hold queue!) and the second half of The Sharing Knife, and I'm a bit more calmly awaiting Agnes and the Hitman and the sophomore efforts of two authors whose debuts I enjoyed: Jennifer Echols (The Boys Next Door) and Janet Mullany (The Rules of Gentility).