Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Female Chauvinist Pigs (Book #24)

OK, I don't generally finish two books in a day. But I left work early this afternoon for a doctor's appointment--I have a sinus infection--so I came home feeling sick enough to need to take it easy, but not too sick to read. And they're both fairly short books.

So. This evening I read Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture (Ariel Levy, 2005). The author appeared on the Colbert Report a few months ago, and her book sounded interesting enough to be worth picking up. And I found it disturbing and thought-provoking. It's basically about how we as a culture have turned a commodified form of sex into the ideal, and how messed up that is. As she states at the very end of the book:

Our national love of porn and pole dancing is not the byproduct of a free and easy society with an earthy acceptance of sex. It is a desperate stab at free-wheeling eroticisim in a time and place characterized by intense anxiety. What are we afraid of? Everything...which includes sexual freedom and real female power.

Airs Beneath the Moon (Book #23)

Airs Beneath the Moon (Toby Bishop, 2007) is a page-turning fantasy novel about a teenaged farm girl who takes in a mare wandering alone--a mare who a few months later dies giving birth to a winged foal. By the time the proper authorities have arrived, the girl and the horse have bonded, and since winged horses bond for life with one human woman, the powers that be have no choice but to take young Larkyn and her colt to the Academy of the Air, where intrigue related to the colt's mysterious parentage ensues.

It's a bit reminiscent of His Majesty's Dragon, what with an outsider unexpectedly bonded to a magical beast, though the social shift is in the opposite direction--Larkyn is too low-class to fit in among the aristocratic horsemistresses, in contrast to Will Laurence, who gives up a more socially prestigious naval career to become a dragon aviator. I'm not as wowed by this book as I was His Majesty's Dragon, which was one of my favorite 2006 books, but I enjoyed it and look forward to the rest of the trilogy.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The Original Miss Honeyford (Book #22)

Back in high school, I read Regency romances like The Original Miss Honeyford (Marion Chesney, 1985) by the dozen. These old-school Regencies are different from most modern ones--more emphasis on quirky historical trivia (and, occasionally, deeper history), more details of fashion, generally more of a period tone--so I pursue them in used bookstores and the library's paperback rack. I don't enjoy them quite as much as I did as a teen. I've grown more jaded and more aware of recycled plot devices, cliched character types, etc. But they're still very good fun and enjoyable light reading.

Miss Honeyford is a well-executed typical 1980's Regency. The young heroine (aged 19) is a tomboyish hoyden who needs to be tamed and taught to appreciate the value of pretty dresses and ladylike behavior. The somewhat older hero (aged 30) is jaded but can't help saving the heroine from the worst consequences of her impulsiveness, discovering she's Not Like All the Other Girls in the process.

Monday, February 26, 2007

1491 (Book #21)

It took me the better part of a week to read 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus (Charles C. Mann, 2005), but it was well worth the investment of time. It looks at new archaeological discoveries, especially over the past 20-30 years, that render most of what you learned in school about Native American life prior to European contact wrong. (Incidentally, if you have kids in school now, they're still learning all the wrong things you were taught, because the textbooks haven't caught up with the current state of science and history.)

To oversimplify incredibly, the Americas were much more densely populated, and therefore subject to much more intensive agriculture carried out by sophisticated cultures, than was previously thought. So the marvel of Native American cultures isn't that they lived in some sort of Noble Savage state of harmony with wild nature, but that they found ways to shape their environment to create a generally stable equilibrium allowing them to sustain large populations without ruining the land--in other words, rather than looking back on pre-contact America as a Garden of Eden we proceeded to destroy, we can learn lessons for our own complex, densely populated societies.

So. A highly recommended book, if you're interested in anthropology/history/climatology/ecology/etc. Very much in the Guns, Germs & Steel interest area.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Author Series: Jacqueline Carey

Jacqueline Carey is in a dead heat with Naomi Novik as my favorite new author to debut in the 21st century. Admittedly, sometimes as a good Presbyterian* I feel like I ought to find Carey’s Kushiel novels heretical, but I just don’t. On the contrary, as a matter of fact. They do more to make me think about my beliefs and their implications than any number of “inspirational” books.

But that’s not why you should read them, nor should you be afraid to read them if you’re not religious, not in the least. You should read them because they’re sexy page-turners set in a richly developed alternate Europe.

The Kushiel books are epic quest fantasies, but with a twist or two. They’re told in first person, for starters, and the heroine/narrator of the first trilogy, Phedre no Delaunay, is a petite, beautiful courtesan/spy who begins her life in indentured servitude rather than the standard prince or wizard. What makes her unique is that she’s been marked by Kushiel, the angel of justice, as something of a divinely anointed masochist. (Which makes a lot more sense as it plays out in the books than in that bare description.) And over the course of her trilogy, she saves her homeland of Terre d’Ange (France) and ultimately the world through a combination of intelligence, seduction, and capacity for pain. The world is an imaginative twist on our own, with many countries and faiths represented in recognizable but skewed form.

Carey has also written another set of fantasy novels, Banewreaker and Godslayer, designed to be Tolkien told from the side of the bad guys, but they didn’t engage me in the same way as the Kushiel series--the voice is more distant and less engaging, somehow. And she’s recently begun a new Kushiel trilogy narrated by Phedre’s foster son, which I’m enjoying so far.

The only way to read the series is in order. The first trilogy is:

1. Kushiel’s Dart
2. Kushiel’s Chosen
3. Kushiel's Avatar

The second trilogy so far includes:
1. Kushiel's Scion
2. Kushiel's Justice (due out this summer)

*I’m not sure I actually qualify as a “good” Presbyterian, since I don’t believe in predestination. But I’m a member of the mainline PCUSA, which isn’t as ardently Calvinist as more conservative Presbyterian denominations, and it’s a good compromise church for a lapsed Baptist with an Anglican mindset (thanks to a lifetime of reading CS Lewis) married to a lapsed Catholic.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Sharpe's Sword (Book #20)

Sharpe's Sword (Bernard Cornwell, 1983) is a page-turner culminating in the Battle of Salamanca in 1812. As I often say in commenting on these books, this isn't a good entry point to the series as a whole--for that you want either Tiger or Rifles, and in general I prefer chronological order to publication order, which IMHO would get whiplashy in a hurry.

There's very little I can say about my reaction to this particular volume without giving away spoilers. Suffice it to say I was taking mental notes about clues and misdirection for my possible mystery project, even though Sword isn't a mystery as such. Also, on the one hand I like Sharpe a lot and even identify with him in a strange way (much like I used to identify with Spike in my Buffy-watching days--when you're under a lot of pressure in real life, including the pressure to behave and be nice, there's something immensely cathartic about some nice fictional ass-kicking). But OTOH, I often want to throw him against the nearest wall and inform him of what an IDIOT he's being, and the urge has never been stronger than in this book.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Through the Narrow Gate (Book #19)

I went from reading about hunter-gatherers to a memoir about life as a nun--and what Karen Armstrong endured in Through the Narrow Gate (1981) seems nearly as foreign a lifestyle. After all, I'm a Protestant, and I'm married. Convent life isn't just the road not taken, it's a road that doesn't connect to any road I've ever been on.

Armstrong entered religious life at 17 in 1962 as one of the last group of nuns to go through the old, more rigid pre-Vatican II religious training. And it was a hellish life, not so much for its physical hardships or sacrifices as for the way the order tried to repress every bit of her will, her intellect, and human feeling and friendships. (I think it was an unusually strict order even for the time.) She endured for seven years before leaving when she began to realize she wasn't suited for the life and had entered for the wrong reasons--basically, she was an intense, intelligent, socially and physically awkward adolescent, and a religious vocation was a way of hiding from the challenges of the outside world. And while she encountered some good people during her years as a nun, I couldn't help but feel that there was more of the grace of God in the day she left the life and some fellow Oxford students who barely knew her took her in, took her shopping for new clothes, and generally did all they could to smooth her way back into an unfamiliar world, than in all the years that had gone before.

The Old Way (Book #18)

(Incidentally, I seem to be going through one of my nonfiction phases. I try to read fiction by new-to-me authors, but I keep being stymied by awkward voices, cliched characters, and the like. I won't name names, because I'm never sure whether it's the book or me, particularly when I'm being this difficult to please.)

So, after getting bored with a mystery three chapters in and turning to the end to find out whodunit, I turned my attention to The Old Way: A Story of the First People (Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, 2006). As a teenager in 1950, the author accompanied her parents and brother into the Kalahari to live among the Ju/wasi Bushmen. She recounts what they learned then about the Ju/wasi's way of life and beliefs and then provides a bit of an epilogue describing what's happened over the decades that followed. Basically, it's a sad tale--the old Kalahari lifeways have disappeared, crowded out by modernity, encroaching agriculture, and environmental degradation, and the Ju/wasi's efforts to adapt have been hampered by aid organizations' determination to force them to maintain a way of life that's no longer viable and isn't what they want. Depressing all around. But it's a fascinating book, and I'm going to seek out more of Thomas's writing on science and anthropology.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Napoleon & Josephine (Book #17)

Napoleon & Josephine: An Improbable Marriage (Evangeline Bruce, 1995) is a very readable dual biography, a real page-turner even though there's not exactly any suspense as to how it will turn out!

While the book focuses more on Josephine than Napoleon, it's such an intensely personal look at their lives that I feel like I understand him better than I have before, and I think he was the most selfishly ambitious person I've ever encountered. Of course, it takes a certain amount of selfish ambition to aspire to high political office, IMO, even among the saintliest of leaders. But for Napoleon, AFAICT there wasn't ANY leavening of patriotism, principle, or ideology--it was all about what brought him the most power. Any good or evil he committed was almost by accident. A strange, strange man.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

It all depends what your definition of pizza is...

Last Saturday my husband and I had dinner at a newish restaurant called Serious Pie, a fancy pizzeria owned by Tom Douglas, founder of a miniature empire of Seattle restaurants. Needless to say the pizza is nothing at all like what you'd order from Domino's, and Dylan and I loved it. Dylan ordered the "green eggs and ham" (soft-cooked egg, arugula, and spicy coppa ham), while I had that night's special, which featured onions, garlic, and thin slices of roasted yam. Next time we go, I want to try the foraged mushroom and truffle cheese and the yukon gold potato with rosemary and garlic oil.

Yes, it's an eensy tad pretentious. But utterly delicious, and the crust is a revelation, thin but substantial, perfect in texture, and with a wood-oven char that ought to taste burnt but is the bread equivalent of the smoky, crispy outer bits of good barbecue.

So, after this blissful culinary experience, out of curiosity I googled the restaurant to see what other diners had thought. While official restaurant critics were near-universal in their praise, it got surprisingly mixed reviews from regular diners. People complained that the crust is burnt and weird-tasting. They griped that there isn't enough cheese (me, I think ordinary pizzas often have so much cheese it drowns out the taste of the crust and toppings, but that's neither here or there). They thought the toppings were TOO out there. In short, Serious Pie doesn't match their idea of what a pizza is.

At first, I was tempted to sneer at these reviewers--don't they appreciate great food when they taste it, and don't they realize this is closer to authentic Italian pizza? But then I realized I don't have a leg to stand on. Give me a choice between the best authentic Chinese food and the Americanized mu shu chicken and sweet and sour pork from the local takeout place, and I'll take the latter every time. I know it's not as good, but it's comfortable and familiar and is therefore what I want to eat. I'm just a little (OK, a lot) more willing to experiment with Italian cuisine, and less attached to the Americanized standards for pizza or spaghetti and meatballs. Quirk of the taste buds or something.

I thought of this yesterday when I received a thank you letter from the coordinator of an RWA contest I judged recently. Enclosed was a chart comparing the scores for the five entries I'd judged--always a useful thing, IMHO, so you can get a feel for whether you're being too harsh or too generous in your scoring. In this case, I was in line with the rest of the panel on all but one entry, but I noticed that one of the other judges was basically my opposite. Our scores were very close on the one entry that was strong on all levels (and happened to be one of the finalists). But for the other four, the two I scored low, she scored high, and vice versa.

The two I scored highly both stood out as different from standard historical romance fare. The settings were a bit off the beaten path, the characters weren't from Central Casting, and in one case especially I could just see the author's love for her characters and setting and all the research she'd put into their world shining on the page, without being at all over-researched or pedantic.

The two my opposite favored were much more typical historical romance fare--AND were to differing degrees completely historically implausible. I couldn't accept their premises, and therefore couldn't enter into the world of the story. Maybe my opposite judge didn't notice the inaccuracies. Maybe she writes contemporaries or paranormals or whatever and volunteered to judge the historical category because she was entered in one of the others. Or maybe she's just not a raging history geek like me. Most people aren't. (I've commented to Dylan that the part of the brain he uses for listing MVPs and Cy Young Award winners, I use for Regency-era marriage law, forms of address for the different ranks of British nobility, and Napoleonic-era military tactics, weapons, and uniforms. This led to speculation on our mutual uselessness in a post-apocalyptic society--"No, we can't grow food, but he knows who was the AL Rookie of the Year in 1987, and I know how to properly address the daughter of an earl." But I digress. A lot.)

I know the moral of the story should be that it's just like the pizza thing. I don't have any more right to put on airs over preferring the unusual and the historically accurate than I do over liking my pizza exotic. But, and it may be snobbery on my part, I can't quite make myself believe it. IMNSHO, the two things the historical romance genre needs most right now are more variety of setting, era, and character type and greater historical accuracy. The variety issue IS a matter of taste, and I'm delighted to read popular settings and themes when they're executed with strong characterization and a fresh voice. But I just can't make myself accept that historical accuracy in what is after all a form of HISTORICAL fiction is trivial and optional.

Monday, February 12, 2007

The Sharing Knife: Beguilement (Book #16)

I got a surprise long weekend today, since Annabel's daycare is closed due to too many of the staff calling in sick to run the center. Once Annabel is down for her nap I mean to be productive--get some writing done, maybe some housework. But I used my unexpected gift of time this morning to finish reading The Sharing Knife: Beguilement (Lois McMaster Bujold, 2006). It's a story painted on a smaller canvas and at a more leisurely pace than is typical of Bujold's work. More than anything else it reminded me of Sharon Shinn's recent YA fantasies. It has a similar rural farm country setting, with the magic of the fantasy setting everyday and practical, though with a bit more action and peril. Also, it's as much romance as fantasy, being the story of a young farmer girl (culture not that different from what ours was a few centuries ago) who falls in with a Lakewalker man (nomadic, matrilineal, and possessed of magic enabling them to fight the "malices"--the magical evil of the world). They end the story in love, but there are unanswered questions about an accidental magical link forged between them in battle with a malice, and I have a feeling their troubles are just beginning. I'll be looking forward to the next installment, due out this summer.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

La Belle France (Book #15)

As I've mentioned here before, I don't know much about French history. I picked up La Belle France: A Short History (Alistair Horne, 2005) to help remedy that lack and give me a better sense of the context of the Napoleonic era.

It's not a perfect history. I caught a few errors--e.g. he treats droit de seigneur (the right of a lord to deflower the young women of his estate) as established fact, when AFAICT it's an urban legend, or at least dubious and poorly documented. Also, he has his dates off in at least one place; there was no US presidential election in 1970. But I do feel like I have a better understanding of what makes France tick, and of what happened in Europe between 1815 and 1914--a topic I know almost nothing about compared to the 19th century as experienced in America and in Britain and her empire.

Really, it's remarkable that a country as unstable as France was from 1789 right up to my own lifetime has held together as well as it has and is still important enough to play a role on the world stage.

Friday, February 9, 2007

My first ebook

Cerridwen Press, the mainstream arm of popular erotic romance publisher Ellora's Cave, has brought back the traditional Regency, a subgenre largely featuring chaste comedies of manners, at their best reminiscent of founding mothers Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer. Trad Regencies used to be a huge part of the romance market, but sales dwindled over the past decade or two, squeezed out, IMO, by the growth of the sexually explicit Regency historical on the one hand and the growing inspirational romance market on the other. As a result, all the major print publishers dropped their Regency lines, with Zebra and Signet the most recent casualties a year or two ago.

Now Cerridwen, which is mostly an e-publisher, with some successful titles eventually seeing print, is picking up the slack with its Cotillion line. Today I was poking around on their website when I realized one of the debut Regencies sounded awfully familiar--I'd judged it in an RWA contest for unpublished writers last year and thought it was charming and well-written. Pleased to see an entry I'd enjoyed for sale, I bought my first ebook, A Certain Want of Reason. It'll be awhile before I have a chance to read it. I managed my library hold list poorly and as a result have 13(!) library books crowding out all my time to read things I actually own. But I have high hopes for it, and for the Cotillion line in general. I'd hate to see traditional Regencies die out.

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

The Water Devil (Book #14)

The Water Devil (Judith Merkle Riley, 2007) is book three of a trilogy featuring Margaret of Ashbury and her life of adventure and mysticism in 14th century England. You really want to begin at the beginning with this series--the first book is A Vision of Light and the second In Pursuit of the Green Lion. Otherwise you'd have no idea who was who in The Water Devil nor why you should care about them.

And you should read these books. They're just plain wonderful, with strong writing and memorable characters, especially strong-willed, mystical yet practical Margaret. I feel like Riley does a better job than most authors at capturing the feel of the Middle Ages--the energy, the social tensions, the color.

Monday, February 5, 2007

Rubicon (Book #13)

It took me nearly a week to finish Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic (Tom Holland, 2003). Frankly, it was a bit of a slog, and if I hadn't been so impressed by Holland's Persian Fire, a chronicle of the Greco-Persian Wars, I might not have made it through Rubicon. But I'm glad I stuck with it. I know a fair amount about Rome in the first century AD, mostly from learning it as the context for the rise of Christianity and from Lindsey Davis's Falco mysteries (there's you a contrast!). Yet I'm almost ignorant of what happened in the hundred years before that, beyond a vague awareness of Caesar and Marc Antony as personalities. Now I've got some context for that, even if the factions and what drove them are still a big blur in my head.

What struck me the most was that the Romans didn't set out to destroy their Republic--it just collapsed under the weight of their ambition and partisan infighting. I'm sure there's a cautionary tale there somewhere...

Sunday, February 4, 2007

Author Series: Meg Cabot

I went back and forth on whether to include Meg Cabot in this series. My intent is to write about authors I consider in some way influences or inspirations, not just those whose books I happen to enjoy, and there's no obvious connection between my work and Cabot's. I write historical fiction that's a touch on the gritty side, while she writes chick-litty contemporary fiction, much of it YA. And yet when you look at my LibraryThing author cloud, there's her name in giant print. (Print size indicates how much of an author's work is in your collection.) So I pondered for a bit, trying to figure out what it is that makes me so willing to try any new Cabot book even though her work doesn't fit my normal reading patterns, and I realized that she may be more of an influence and inspiration than I'd thought.

For one thing, Cabot is all about the series, and I love a good, long series where you can settle in with the characters and get to know them over time. On the surface, Cabot's Princess Diaries have next to nothing in common with series like Sharpe or Aubrey/Maturin (or Little House or Anne of Green Gables, for that matter), but my pleasure in all those wildly different books is enhanced by the fact that there's so many of them, and I don't have to abandon a character after one brief story. And few things would make me happier as an author than to be able to create an ongoing series myself. One book isn't enough for a good character, IMHO.

Another thing Cabot does that I'm trying to do better myself is writing about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. VERY extraordinary circumstances. She doesn't just write about an ordinary, bright Manhattan teenager, she writes about one who discovers she's heir to a European principality. When she writes about a young woman with few marketable skills trying to restart her life, that woman is an ex-pop star fallen on hard times. I can learn a lot from that because my instinct as a writer is to go too ordinary and subtle out of fear of producing something over-the-top and laughable. But reading Cabot's stories reminds me that big characters in extraordinary circumstances work, as long as you make them human and show all that ordinariness in the life of your princess or former pop star.

Cabot reading recommendations:

The Princess Diaries: Introduces Manhattan teen and reluctant princess Mia Thermopolis.

Shadowland: Introduces Susannah Simon, a teenaged "Mediator"--a person with the power to interact with ghosts in order to help them leave this world and move on to the afterlife. Usually it's a simple matter of clearing up the deceased's unfinished business, but every once in awhile it turns complicated and violent. A lot like reading early Buffy, right down to Suze's Giles-like senior Mediator mentor.

Friday, February 2, 2007

Does where you fall in the alphabet matter?

I'm planning to continue my favorite author series over the weekend, so I was just looking through my LibraryThing collection to see who's next. I've hit the C's. And there are a lot of C's. In general, a disproportionate part of my total collection is by authors whose last names begin with A, B, C, or D. And I'm trying to decide whether that's purely coincidental.

I'm sure it's at least partly so. To some degree, it's because several of those early-alphabet authors happen to be highly prolific. Jo Beverley, Mary Balogh, Bill Bryson, Bernard Cornwell, Jennifer Crusie, and especially Meg Cabot have all written a lot of books, and I've read most of them. But CS Lewis, LM Montgomery, and Patrick O'Brian, just to name a few, weren't exactly slouches in the productivity department, and it's not enough to even out the alphabetical distribution.

So I can't help wondering if having a name near the front of the alphabet aids your success as an author by placing your books near the front of your section of the bookstore where browsers will see them quickly. I hope it's not true. For one thing, all those B and C authors above are good, and I'd hate to think that, say, Bernard Cornwell and Jennifer Crusie would toil in obscurity if their names happened to be Bernard Wilson and Jennifer Yates! And there are certainly plenty of mid- to late-alphabet writers who do just fine--King, Rowling, and Roberts, just to name the obvious REALLY big names.

Still. It's enough to make a Wilbanks wonder if she shouldn't dust off an early-alphabet name from her family tree (I've got Carlson and Carden, not to mention Fancher, Fraser, and Fowler), or take the male pen name suggestion some of my friends came up with when I told them about my plans to try my hand at historical adventure fiction--Will Banks.

Thursday, February 1, 2007

PSA for the non-writers who read this

Back in the day, before the earth cooled (AKA when I was in high school), For Better or For Worse was one of my favorite comic strips. I still read it, mostly out of habit, though I've been rolling my eyes of late over Liz's love life. I mean, it's pretty obvious she's going to marry her childhood sweetheart, and I've never understood the appeal of stories where your first love is your only true love and your hometown is the only place where you can be happy. If it'd been my story she would've stayed in Mtigwaki and married Paul.

But that's neither here nor there. I'm writing about this week's plotline, wherein Mike sells his manuscript, apparently without the assistance of an agent, and is offered a contract and a $25,000 advance by mail. It's a fine story and all, and I can see why you wouldn't want to go into all the details in comic strip format, but I just want to make sure my family and friends understand that's not how the publishing industry really works. That way, if/when I finally sell a book, y'all won't be surprised when I don't rush to quit my day job.

First of all, and this is a minor detail, IME in publishing it's only bad news that comes by mail--offers are made over the phone. We the unpublished dream of The Call, not The Letter.

Second, $25K for a first book advance is HUGE, easily twice what I've seen quoted for a typical first-book advance from even the biggest, best-paying publishers. Some perfectly legitimate publishers I'd be happy to make a sale to offer as little as $1500-2000 for a first book, though somewhere in the $5K-10K range seems typical. I'm not saying it'd be impossible for a first-time author to get a $25K advance, but I'd expect it to be an agented deal, because an agent can play publishers against each other, get a bit of a bidding war going. Authors don't have that kind of pull on our own, which is part of the reason we're glad to find agents!

(The good news is that advances do go up a lot if you can build a track record as a successful writer with a solid and growing readership. My goal is to eventually quit my day job, something I'll do if and only if I reach a point where my annual income from advances and royalties adds up to a middle-class salary. It's damn hard to do and only a lucky, persistent, and talented few succeed, but that's no reason not to try. I know I've got the persistence and I'm pretty sure I've got the talent, so all I need is luck.)

I know. I'm nitpicking a comic strip. Memo to self: get a life. But I'd hate to have my family and friends think the route I've chosen is easier than it is. So if I sell a book, y'all had better rejoice with me, no matter how small the initial paycheck is.