Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Deirdre and Don Juan (Book #43)

Just finished Deirdre and Don Juan, the second book in Jo Beverley's Lovers and Ladies re-release of traditional Regencies from the early 90's. After reading the first book, I commented that Beverley is a better writer now than she was then. Now I'm not so sure. Deirdre and Don Juan is right up there with A Most Unsuitable Man and Lady Beware on my all-time favorites list of her works. VERY good book.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

The Fortune Hunter (Book #42)

Signet just reissued two of Jo Beverley's traditional Regencies from early in her career in a trade paperback called Lovers and Ladies. I just finished reading the first one, The Fortune Hunter (original copyright 1992). The fortune hunter of the title is Amy De Lacy, a young woman of good family fallen on hard times who seeks to make a fabulous marriage to pay off debts and secure a good future for her sisters and brother. She turns down the hero early on because he's not quite rich enough, and the story unfolds from there.

Beverley is a better writer now than she was in 1992. (Which isn't necessarily stating the obvious--I can think of plenty of writers with long careers whose work has gone downhill.) Her recent writing is more dramatic and polished, her plots tighter. That said, reading this book reminded me how much I miss traditional Regencies. The Fortune Hunter is full of historical grace notes that have grown all too rare even in well-researched recent historical romances, little things like how the victory celebrations of 1814 formed part of the background even though Amy doesn't actually meet the Tsar or any such notable. And while I'm no prude, I enjoyed the subtler sensuality and how it fits with the mores of the time. It's probably too much to hope that books like this reissue will bring the traditional Regency back, but I'll do it anyway. I've always been good at unrealistic hopes!

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Serenity Found (Book #41)

I still haven't quite let go of my grudge against FOX for mis-marketing, mishandling, and prematurely canceling Firefly, so I'm solidly in the target audience for Serenity Found: More Unauthorized Essays on Joss Whedon's Firefly Universe (Jane Espenson, ed., 2007). As usual with an anthology, it's a mixed bag. Some made me think. (How could I not have noticed how similar Mal and Simon's hero's journeys were?) Others got on my nerves. (I don't care what Orson Scott Card says, I still think Deep Space 9 was excellent TV scifi, and Next Gen at its best was pretty damn fine, too. If I can ever in my LIFE come up with a cliffhanger hook to rival, "Mr. Worf, fire!" I'll die a happy writer. Of course, I think Card and I are operating from different standards of merit, and that's allowed.)

Anyway, a worthwhile read for the Firefly fan. I need to find time to rewatch "Out of Gas" sometime soon...

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Soldier's Heart (Book #40)

When I was 6 or 7 years old, I dreamed of going to West Point, not out of any real knowledge or understanding of what army life meant, but because my brother Jim started West Point as a plebe the same year I started kindergarten, and from very early childhood I looked to him as a measure of achievement. (Seriously--I watched his high school graduation, where he was the only student to give a speech. I asked my parents about it on the way home, and they explained that he was valedictorian, which meant he had the best grades in the class. I decided then and there that I would be valedictorian, too. And 13 years later, I was.) I ended up choosing different goals and a different life, and, really, I probably would've made a lousy officer. I don't like hierarchies, even the small ones I have to deal with at work. One of the reasons I dream of being a full-time writer is that it's as non-hierarchical a career as you'll find anywhere. Sure, you have an agent and an editor, but they're not your bosses, and they're not there in the office with you telling you what to do. And unless you're one of the rare authors who hires a researcher or an assistant, you don't have to order anyone else around, either. But I retain a love for West Point (which I visited regularly during my own college years at Penn, because Jim was a math instructor there at the time), and I admire and respect my friends and relatives who've served in the military. I opposed the Iraq War from the time it was a dream in the neocons' eyes, but I'm no pacifist, because sometimes there's nothing short of war that will stop a great evil run amok. And I've found myself drawn to writing about war and soldiers, though so far I haven't strayed any closer to the present than 1815.

I'm sure that's why Soldier's Heart: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point (Elizabeth D. Samet, 2007) is my favorite of the books I've read so far in 2008. Samet is, like me, a bookish civilian who nonetheless feels connected to the Army--but her connection is a lot more tangible than mine. She's been a professor of English at West Point for ten years, and Soldier's Heart is her memoir of working with cadets and showing the relevance of literature to their lives. She's stayed in touch with many of her cadets as they've gone on to service in Iraq and Afghanistan, men and women who read and think deeply even as they're engaged on the front lines of the present war. And that's something a lot of people I know who haven't had the same engagement with the military as I have just don't get--there's this nasty stereotype of soldiers as mindless killing machines, which from my experience (and Samet's far more extensive experience) couldn't be further from the truth.

Which is not to say that Samet's portrayal of the miltary is completely positive--she's critical of pressures to conform to conservative religion and politics, for example, and while not all soldiers are conservative Christians and Republicans, those pressures are there.

When I put Soldier's Heart down, I had a reading list. I need to read the Fagles translations of the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Aeneid. I need to learn what else Wilfred Owen wrote besides "Dulce et Decorum Est." And most of all, it's past time I read War and Peace.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Mirage (Book #39)

Mirage: Napoleon's Scientists and the Unveiling of Egypt (Nina Burleigh, 2007) covers much the same ground as Juan Cole's Napoleon's Egypt. Burleigh's is the more accessible of the two--shorter and more conversational in tone--and it's more focused on straight history than on drawing parallels to current events. (Which is not to say such parallels are ignored entirely.)

I came out of this book liking Napoleon even less than I did before, but full of admiration for the brave young scientists who kept exploring and drawing and measuring in the face of direst adversity.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Mystic Horseman (Book #38)

Mystic Horseman (Kathleen Eagle, 2008) is a follow-up to last year's Ride a Painted Pony. Dillon Black, a Lakota rancher/cowboy/part-time casino worker who wants to start a horse camp for at-risk Lakota youth, gets help from his ex-wife, who uses her TV connections to bring a reality show team in to build the facility. As always, Eagle brings Indian Country authentically to life (at least, it feels authentic to me as an outsider, but one who tries to pay attention to these things). But this particular book had so many character arcs and plot threads going that I never fully connected to any of them--old loves, new loves, coming to terms with possibly fatal illnesses and one's children's sexual orientation, etc. It would've taken a much longer book to do all the conflicts justice, IMHO.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

1 Dead in Attic (Book #37)

1 Dead in Attic (Chris Rose, 2006) is a collection of the post-Katrina columns Chris Rose wrote for the Times-Picayune in 2005. And it made me alternately tear up and laugh aloud on the city bus these past few days.

I'm appalled all over again at the sheer level of incompetence and negligence in the government's response to the storm. This is the best my country can do? Really? But I'm pulling hard for New Orleans. It's not my city--I've never even been there, and I'm too much a creature of mountains and cool weather to imagine making it my home. But I completely understand the fierce love its people feel for it, because there's no place like it on earth, and the world would be poorer without it. And I'm fierce myself about Seattle and Philadelphia and London, so I know what it means to have a place in your blood.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Wellington - Commander (Book #36)

Yes, yes, it's another Wellington book. Am I obsessed? Maybe a little. But Wellington plays a key role in my alternative history WIP, so I have to learn everything I can about the man.

Wellington - Commander: The Iron Duke's Generalship (Paddy Griffith, ed., 1986) is a series of essays that got its start at a symposium in the Waterloo Room at Apsley House (the Duke's London home). I'm jealous--I wanna go to Apsley House and schmooze with military historians! (I'm such a geek. SUCH a geek.)

Anyway, I didn't get startling new revelations from this book, but the variety of perspectives on what made Wellington tick made for intriguing reading. I'm going to look for Correlli Barnett's bio of Napoleon. His essay claimed that Napoleon's behavior in the Waterloo campaign wasn't that out-of-character--that he made similar mistakes in earlier campaigns and was bailed out by a combination of luck, failure of nerve and breakdown of alliances among his enemies, and the fact none of the generals he faced before were of Wellington's caliber. That's definitely a revisionist view, but this armchair military historian has never been able to figure out why Napoleon is supposed to be the best EVAH, so I'd love to read a historian who agrees with me!

Which ones would you marry?

Earlier today a discussion board I frequent was talking about the new Sense and Sensibility adaptation that just aired on PBS. There was general agreement that Elinor gets the short end of the stick compared to Marianne, because Colonel Brandon is more of a prize than Edward Ferrars. I can't really argue with that, though it kinda gives me the creeps that Col. Brandon is so much older than Marianne and that he apparently falls for her because she's so much like his childhood sweetheart. On the whole, though I love the book, I don't envy Elinor or Marianne. Neither Edward or Brandon is the Austen husband I would choose.

Whom would I choose, you may ask? Well, I'm happy to tell you...

1. Captain Wentworth from Persuasion. He's a self-made man who won his fortune through courage and initiative as a naval officer. And that's sexy--both the self-made part and the naval part. In real life I'm glad my husband is a civilian, because who knows how many Iraq deployments he would've had by now otherwise? But if I'm picking imaginary husbands from 200 years ago, I'm free to indulge my love of men in uniform.

2. Henry Tilney from Northanger Abbey. He's intelligent, witty, and has a well-developed sense of the ridiculous, a valuable quality in a husband whatever the era.

3. Mr. Darcy from Pride and Prejudice. As Elizabeth ultimately concludes, sure, he's proud, but he has a right to be. He's brainy, ethical, and generous, and when he realizes he needs to change, he's capable of doing it.

And those are the only Austen men I'd marry. I'm not nice enough for Mr. Bingley--I think his sunny disposition would exhaust me. Edmund Bertram is a prig. Edward Ferrars, though I admire his principles, always strikes me as a nonentity. As for Mr. Knightley and Col. Brandon, I'm fine with age differences when the parties meet as adults on more or less equal ground, but that's not the case for Mr. Knightley and Emma or Marianne and Brandon, so I can't see either man as any kind of romantic ideal.

What about you? Which Austen men would you wed?

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Breathe My Name (Book #35)

Breathe My Name (RA Nelson, 2007) is another of my occasional forays into YA fiction. The narrator/heroine Frances comes from as traumatic a past as one could imagine--her mentally unbalanced mother murdered her younger sisters and tried to kill her too. Frances was adopted by normal, if overprotective parents, and almost a decade later is trying to live a normal, anonymous life as a high school junior in a small town. But then she learns her mother has been released to a lower-security mental institution and may be looking for Frances so she can finish what she started. There's the requisite strong-willed best friend and sensitive, quirky boyfriend to help Frances sort out her past and stay safe in the present. It's well-written and kept me turning the pages, though I thought the resolution was possibly a little too tidy.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

A Lady's Secret (Book #34)

Not much time to do a review of A Lady's Secret (Jo Beverley, 2008) because I'm tired, tired, tired. But suffice it to say I read it earlier than I'd planned because I spotted the book distributor stocking it at my local QFC yesterday. I was there buying food because I'm recovering from a nasty bug and have been home sick for days, and I really wanted a book that I knew I could trust to be well-written and lovely to curl up on the couch with while I rested. And Jo Beverley delivered as always. It's one of her Georgian romances in the Malloren world, but with a bit of a different feel--it's a road romance, set largely in France, with a rakish hero and a heroine with a checkered past and an uncertain future.