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.