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.