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).

Second Chance (Book #61)

Second Chance (Zbigniew Brzezinski, 2007) is one of the best books on current events and recent history I've read. It's short and clear without being simplistic, and it's pragmatic rather than partisan and doctrinaire. (Not that I don't enjoy a good partisan preaching-to-the-choir sermon on occasion.)

Brzezinski analyzes the foreign policy performance of the three post-Cold War presidents more or less as follows: Bush I was a solid tactician who managed the many crises of 1989-92 ably but lacked the strategic vision to follow through and so wasted opportunities and planted the seeds for some of our current problems. Clinton was intelligent and visionary but erratic and unfocused, slow/reluctant to act in certain crises and overly optimistic about globalization, leading him also to neglect opportunities to stabilize the chaotic post-Cold War world. Bush II is a disaster, ruining American power and prestige through his simplistic good vs. evil worldview and reckless behavior WRT Iraq. Brzezinski thinks the next president will have a second chance, hence the title, to restore America as a respected lead actor on the world stage, but it will be a daunting task, particularly because of the insular nature of the American electorate.