Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Wellington's Victories (Book #47)

I wish I'd had Wellington's Victories: A Guide to Sharpe's Army 1797-1815 (Matthew Morgan, 2004) when I was first starting to research the Napoleonic-era British army, because it's such a concise summary of the army's organization, weapons, terminology, etc. And it's an excellent basic reference, especially if you just want to understand a little more of what's going on in the Sharpe series and similar books. For the serious researcher, it's a good beginning point, but I caught a couple of minor errors that make me hesitant to trust it absolutely. Still, it's a good reminder and springboard for further research.

Not Quite a Lady (Book #46)

Not Quite a Lady (2007) is the final book in Loretta Chase's series about the Carsington brothers, but it's the heroine rather than the hero who makes this story stand out. As a teenager, Lady Charlotte Hayward bore a child out of wedlock after being taken advantage of by a seducer. With the help of her stepmother and a loyal maid, she hid the pregnancy from everyone else, including her father, bore the child in secret, and had him adopted. Since then she has been adroitly avoiding marriage, no mean trick for an attractive, wealthy, and well-born young woman, because in so intimate a relationship her secrets would come out.

This is my second favorite of the Carsington books after the incomparable Mr. Impossible. I thought what happened to Charlotte's son was a bit too good to be true given the strictures of the times, but this is an engaging, fun read.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

On writing and reading

I'm starting to get into the flow of the alternate history. I'm all of 14 pages into the manuscript, though I'd be much further along if I hadn't decided to rewrite Chapter One! I was doing the very thing I know better than to do--spending a dozen pages or so explaining Everything the Readers Need to Know or else they'd never understand my alternate world, what my protagonist, a real historical figure, had and hadn't accomplished when first we meet him, etc. And I was boring MYSELF silly. No reason to expect readers to be excited when I was yawning over the thing. So I went back and rewrote it so Our Hero is in Mortal Peril from the very first paragraph he comes on the scene. It's much better now.

One of these days I'll actually get the beginning right the first time. This is my fourth manuscript; you'd think I'd have learned by now that you don't lead with your explanations!

I think one of the reasons I find the dreaded infodump so very tempting as a writer is that as a reader I put a higher priority than normal on setting. It's not that protagonist and plot aren't important, but when I describe the appeal of beloved books or series, I talk about the setting. A new book in Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel series due out this summer means I get to visit Terre d'Ange again soon. Revisiting a favorite Aubrey/Maturin is taking a cruise on the Surprise. The Sharpe books are time travel to the Peninsular War, where I can fight alongside the South Essex. Granted, those settings wouldn't appeal so if I didn't also love the characters who inhabit them--it's not just visiting the places, it's getting to spend time with Phedre, Joscelin, and Imriel, or Jack and Stephen, or Sharpe and Harper. But the characters wouldn't come alive for me if the world they inhabit wasn't richly developed and intriguing.

Hence, my temptation to lead with way too much backstory and setting information. I want to show my readers what a good world I've built for them. Problem is, you can't do it that way.

The Tribe of Tiger (Book #45)

The Tribe of Tiger: Cats and their Culture (Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, 1994) explores the feline world, from lions to housecats. If you're a cat lover and/or the type who's fascinated by evolutionary biology and natural history, this is a book for you. It's at once scientifically rigorous and an affectionate, whimsical look at the world of cats.

To name two of the things I learned from this book: when a cat brings home a still-living mouse or bird, she isn't being cruel--she's trying to teach the silly humans to hunt by doing exactly what she'd do for a half-grown kitten. Also, tigers? In general happier and longer-lived in circuses than in zoos. As curious, intelligent beasts, they prefer travel and getting to train and perform to the monotony of life even in the best of zoos.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Waterlily (Book #44)

Waterlily (Ella Cara Deloria, c 1988 but written several decades earlier) is a work of ethnography in the guise of historical fiction, exploring the customs of the Dakota people through the childhood and coming-of-age of a 19th century girl. (I'm not sure of the date, but it's at some point where there were American forts and trading outposts on the plains, but before homesteading. 1840's, maybe?)

By ordinary novel standards, the plot is meandering and slight, and there's way too much tell and too little show. But as a glimpse into a bygone world and its customs, it works very well.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Sharpe's Honor (Book #43)

After awhile I run out of new things to say about books in a long-running series. Of course I enjoyed Sharpe's Honor (Bernard Cornwell, 1985). If you're sixteen books into a series, you're just going to be hooked on the characters and their world by then. Anyway, I found this particular entry to be a real roller coaster ride, ideally paced, and it's possibly my favorite of the original portion of the series (I tend to prefer the prequels and the new books that are woven into the previous canon).

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Life news

Just a quick update on the whirlwind that is my life:

My mother is slowly recovering from her cancer surgery, which removed her entire lung. At this point, she's not planning to undergo chemotherapy, which would normally be recommended for her type and stage of cancer, after seeing what my father went through with chemotherapy just before he died in 2005. I wish she'd try it, but I do understand and respect her choice.

In happier news, I accepted an offer for a new job last week. 5/25 is my last day at the current place, and I start at the new place 5/29. I think it'll be a good fit for me. I like the people, and on paper at least it looks like the best match for my skills and interests I've yet found. The only downsides I can see so far are a longer commute and somewhat dressier dress code.

We're still settling into our new place, and I'm finding my way into my new novel. Both unpacking and writing are going in fits and starts.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid (Book #42)

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid (2006) is Bill Bryson's memoir of growing up in Des Moines in the 50's and 60's. As much as I generally love Bryson's work, I picked up his memoir with some trepidation, worried that it would be filled with a particular brand of Baby Boomer self-absorption that I as a member of the following generation (Bryson was born in 1951, I in 1971) find more than a little tiresome. But it wasn't--or, at least, to the degree it was, it wasn't beyond my powers to relate to it. He talks a lot about the uniqueness of his childhood world, the world before the ubiquity of chain stores, and I can relate to that, if only because I grew up in what in the 70's and early 80's was a rural backwater that got chained a few decades later than more cosmopolitan corners of America. (It's not a backwater anymore. It's practically a Birmingham suburb, and every chain you could imagine is within half an hour's drive.)

Bryson's 1950's were by and large a happy place, but he acknowledges the dark side of the era--racism, McCarthyism and the HUAC, etc. And I have to say, as much as I've complained about the excesses of the Patriot Act and government surveillance post 9/11, it sounds like the constraints on civil liberties were actually worse during the height of the Red Scare. Which gives me hope that America will survive this particular crisis with democracy intact, too.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Lord Sin (Book #41)

I have to say it feels a bit weird to be reviewing Lord Sin (Kalen Hughes, 2007) right after Take This Bread, but it's not MY fault that the biography of Napoleon that I tried to read between the two turned out to be a) boring, b) nothing I hadn't known already, and c) full of annoying hints at the writer's present-day politics, which are in opposition to my own. It's also not Kalen's fault the book is called Lord Sin. It wasn't her original title. Marketing gave it to her, along with, I presume, the lurid and not remotely period-appropriate cover with the red-lit naked guy. I'm sure all y'all reading this blog would've been amused to see me trying desperately to keep the book lying flat with cover concealed as I finished it over lunch today at the Indian buffet by my office.

A disclaimer: As you may have already guessed, I know Kalen. We're both members of the Beau Monde (RWA's Regency special interst chapter), we frequent the same blogs, and I hung out with her a bit at RWA National last summer. She's my corner of the internet's acknowledged expert on historical clothing, which is saying a lot, because, at the risk of boasting, we're a well-informed bunch. (I aspire to know as much about military history as Kalen does about costume, but I've got a ways to go yet.)

Anyway, Lord Sin is a strong debut. Kalen has an excellent historical voice, and her knowledge of history and attention to detail shine through on the page. It's a very sexy romance, with love scenes specific to the protagonists and their relationship--nothing paint-by-numbers about it. I definitely recommend it.

It's strange reading a book where I had something of an insider's view of its construction, since Kalen talked about some of the changes her editor requested she make after buying the manuscript. For instance, the book was originally set in the Regency, I think post-Waterloo (or, as I'm wont to call it, "the boring part after the war was over," though that applies to my writing rather than my reading interests). The published version is set in 1788, and she really did a brilliant job of incorporating appropriate details to bring the earlier period to life. But one of the heroine's horses was named Talavera, which I don't think would've occurred to an Englishwoman for her horse before the 1809 battle, so I wondered if Kalen just didn't catch that one or if she left it in to make nitpicky people like me go "hey!" Also, I knew the subplot with the villain had been added at editorial request, which I think made me notice the seams where it had been patched in, in a way that I wouldn't have if I'd just happened to buy the book. And lastly, I really thought the book should've been 50 or 60 pages longer. It's a quick read, 301 pages in mass market paperback, standard font size, and I felt like there was all kinds of richness of character backstory and interrelationships only hinted at that I would've loved to see fleshed out a bit more.

But none of that changes my recommendation of this book. It's the best debut historical romance I've read in a long, long time, and I'm looking forward to seeing where Kalen goes from here.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Take This Bread (Book #40)

I don't talk politics or religion much on this blog, but every once in awhile my reading interests alone let slip that I'm a somewhat unusual combination--a Christian and a Democrat.

In the past year or so I've read two books by adult converts to Christianity who share my basic political orientation--Barack Obama and Sara Miles, author of Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion (2007). And the thing that struck me is that neither of them were converted by argument and apologetics. It wasn't a matter of becoming convinced of the factual truth of the Apostle's Creed--it was much more experiential. Sacramental, if you will. Obama, as far as I can tell, became a Christian because of what he saw in the churches he worked in as a community activist. Miles's experience was even tougher for someone from my rational Baptist-Presbyterian background to, er, swallow. She wandered into a church, took communion, and saw God in the bread and wine. As a Baptist, raised to see the elements as just symbols, I have trouble wrapping my head around it. But I also feel like there's something there, and I somewhat envy her the middle way she found. I don't want to be an atheist or a fundamentalist, but my version of a middle ground is almost to oscillate wildly between the two, because I really want all the answers, and those are the belief systems that have them.

Anyway, this is a very good book. You've got to admire someone who takes communion and almost immediately decides to share what she's received by starting a food pantry open to all comers.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Back in the saddle

Last week I wrote for the first time in six weeks. It was all of two pages--the prologue for my alternate history. But it felt wonderful to be a storyteller again. I'm all for taking breaks between books or to deal with major transitions like moving, but six weeks is at least twice as long as I like to go without writing. I get all restless and depressed.

I haven't done actual writing since I finished the prologue, which takes place 25 years before the main action and introduces the change that makes my history alternate. (The prologue is the butterfly flapping its wings; Chapter One will be the hurricane. Hopefully a Category 5 by the time I've got it polished.) I'm in research mode now, but I'll be writing again within the week.

Last night I idly wondered what would've become of the characters from The Inconvenient Bride and The Sergeant's Lady in the alternate reality--what would they have done, would the couples have even met, etc. I realized that there was every chance Jack and Anna from The Sergeant's Lady would meet, but under VASTLY different circumstances. At first I thought there was no way for them to be a couple in the alternate world, but I kept poking at the idea and eventually got them paired off, and it's all very lovely and poignant and starcrossedly romantic, if I do say so myself. I feel like I'm fanficcing my own work. It's tempting to make them major secondary characters in the alternate reality, since they're closer to my heart than any other characters I've created, somehow...but it's probably a Bad Idea. If nothing else, Jack's superficial resemblance to a well-known character in the same basic genre would be a lot more pronounced in this version, and while I don't claim to be the most original writer on the planet I don't want to get TOO derivative. But I might write their story for my own pleasure.

I do so love to tell stories.