Thursday, December 25, 2008

Take the Cannoli

Take the Cannoli (Sarah Vowell, 2000) is a collection of essays, most of which appeared in one form or another on NPR,, etc. I liked some essays better than others--basically, my overlap points with Sarah Vowell are American history and fundamentalist childhoods, not Frank Sinatra and the Godfather movies. But it's a good book for reading over the holidays when you have ten minutes here and half an hour there, and Vowell has a way with words.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Circle of Seasons

I finished the first book of my holiday reading on the plane last night: The Circle of Seasons (Kimberlee Conway Ireton, 2008). A book on the Christian liturgical year seemed appropriate as Advent is about to slide into Christmastide.

Kimberlee goes to my church, so I recognized at least half of the names in her stories and remember hearing a good number of the sermons she references. The book is all about bringing theology into everyday life through the means of the church year, and I enjoyed reading it because I've been looking for ways to make my beliefs experiential as opposed to purely cerebral and ethical. However, it did remind me of a mild grudge I have against my church at this time of year: the careful and near-absolute exclusion of Christmas themes and music from the Advent season. IOW, "O Come, O Come Immanuel" or "Of the Father's Love Begotten" is kosher for Advent, "Joy to the World" not so much. I can't argue with the leadership's liturgical logic, but the unintended consequence for me is that I never get to sing Christmas carols anymore, at least not in a full-bodied, four-part-harmony with fellow choir members sort of way. (Which is much more fun than singing in the shower or along with a CD in the car, y'know?) You see, neither my husband nor I is a Seattle native, so we're always out of town by Christmas Eve and are rarely back in church before Epiphany ends liturgical Christmas. So I'm starting to wonder if I'll ever get to sing "Joy to the World" or "Hark! the Herald Angels Sing" with a choir again, much less the more obscure Christmas carols like "Gentle Mary Laid Her Child" or "Once in Royal David's City."

But other than that gripe? Liturgy is a good thing.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Rachel LeMoyne

Rachel LeMoyne (Eileen Charbonneau, 1999) was inspired by a historical footnote--the fact that the Choctaw Nation, less than twenty years after their forcible removal from Mississippi to Oklahoma, took up a collection for victims of the Great Famine in Ireland. Charbonneau elaborates on that incident, having a Choctaw schoolteacher, Rachel LeMoyne, travel to Ireland with a pair of missionaries to help distribute the aid. She gets involved in the Irish people's struggles, marries an Irishman wanted by the English for assorted acts of what they consider sedition, and brings him back to America with her, where they end up on the Oregon Trail.

I never expected to read a book that featured the Trail of Tears AND the Great Famine AND the Oregon Trail, but it makes sense and gives the book an old-fashioned saga-like appeal. Rachel, her husband, and her brother occasionally seem too super-capable in the course of their travels, giving them a bit of an Ayla & Jondalar feel as they overcome prejudices by assorted medical, mechanical, educational, and equestrian skills, but it's a thoroughly enjoyable read that kept me turning pages.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Christmas Books

My husband knows to buy me books as at least part of my Christmas present every year, and this year he got me all books--which was just right, since I've been taking part in the "Buy a Book, Save the World" campaign that's been going around a lot of writer-agent-editor online communities ever since publishing got caught up in the general economic downturn a few weeks ago. I've bought books for everyone on my gift list who even sorta kinda reads, and I wanted to get books even more than I normally do.

We went ahead and opened presents for the three of us tonight, partly because we're flying out Tuesday morning and partly because we hoped it would improve our daughter's mood. We're having something of a Snowpocalypse in Seattle, and though we've managed to get out of the house a little between storms, the girl has cabin fever. It seems to have worked, too--she's a lot less bored and cranky with her new play tent up in her room and her stuffed animals tucked in her new doll bed.

And I got to unwrap a big stack of books. My favorite was a new Complete Jane Austen, since a previous edition was my very first Christmas present from my now-husband the first Christmas we were dating. But I'm also happy with the research books, and Sarah Vowell and Anthony Bourdain are probably coming on the plane to Oklahoma with me.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Once Upon a Christmas

I like reading a Christmas romance or two at this time of year. They're a great way to relax amid the frantic holiday scramble. (A scramble which, incidentally, has been made exponentially worse this year by the weather. We're basically snowed in here, with more on the way tomorrow afternoon, but I've got to find a way to get to the office either tomorrow morning or Monday before I go out of town for two weeks on Tuesday, or else assorted Bad Things will happen. I happen to work atop one of the steepest hills in the city. Fun fun fun.)

Anyway, Diane Farr's Once Upon a Christmas (2000) really hit the spot. A dying duchess in 1817 or thereabouts wants to see her only son suitably married and doesn't trust him to make a wise choice himself, so she takes in an orphaned distant relative to groom to be the perfect duchess. When the son comes home for Christmas, wacky yet poignant hijinks ensue.

This book was re-released this year, so if you're passing through a bookstore on the way to the airport and want a relaxing, seasonal read, this is a good choice. Or, you could always buy it now while it's around and stash it on your to-be-read shelf for next Christmas.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Anglo Files

The Anglo Files (Sarah Lyall, 2008) is an amusing and snarky, if not especially profound, look at British life through the eyes of a long-term expatriate American. (She moved there in the early 90's and is raising two British daughters with her British husband.) I lived in England myself in 1997-98, and while I experienced culture shock, it was on a lesser scale--probably partly because I was only there for a year and had friends and coworkers explicitly trying to be nice to the guest, and partly because by the time I got there the economic boom of the 90's was already well in motion. Other than the houses and cars running a bit smaller, England seemed just as wealthy and consumer-oriented (for better or worse) as America. The food was fine, though I did get homesick for good Italian and Chinese, and you should NEVER express a liking for broccoli to people who might someday invite you for dinner in England, not if you only like the vegetable in question raw, stir-fried, or VERY lightly steamed. But my local Tesco had as good a selection as any suburban American grocery store of the time, and I had plenty of decent pub grub, not to mention the best Thai and Indian food I'd ever had. And I honestly can't remember anyone being rude to me, unless you count the kind of questions you get from people who expect you to be the spokesperson and apologist for your entire home country of 300 million people.

That said, I wish I'd read the chapter on the WWII generation before moving in with the older woman who was my hostess for the year. It would've saved a lot of culture clashing, and at least I would've understood WHY she kept the heat turned down so low I'd regularly sit around the house wearing a turtleneck, a sweatshirt, and a fleece while wrapped in a blanket. I knew about the Blitz and children being sent out of London, of course, but I'd already returned to America before I really knew how much harder the British had it in the years immediately following the war.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Simply Christian

My pastor recommended that I read Simply Christian (NT Wright, 2006). I won't go into a lot of detail about why I read it and what I thought here, because this blog is a reading diary and a place to talk about my writing life, not where I go into detail about my religious or political views.

The book is pitched as sort of an updated Mere Christianity, and while there are some similarities to CS Lewis's work, Wright doesn't try as hard to prove Christianity through logic, and he has an idea I've never seen anywhere else that's neither pantheism (God in everything) or deism (a distant God who maybe, occasionally, communicates with his creation) but a God whose world and life overlaps with and intersects with our own.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008


The Greater Seattle RWA chapter has a white elephant gift exchange every year at the holiday party. Unlike most such exchanges, we don't unwrap the gifts until the end, because the competition is all about the wrapping. It can be beautiful and elaborate, goofy, bawdy, or whatever, just as long as it's interesting. I'm not artistic enough to go the beautiful route, so I've established my own tradition of doing some kind of "why Susan writes the Regency era" collage, often heavy on Sean Bean as Sharpe or Ioan Gruffudd as Hornblower.

This year I decided to stick with that theme, but to look for handsome portraits actually from the period. I got some help from my other RWA chapter, the Beau Monde, and did some searching on my own. I ended up with a lot of military images, just 'cuz.

Mine wasn't the most popular gift at the party--I'm pretty sure the one with chains in place of ribbons got that honor! However, the Dead Guys, as my chaptermates kept calling them, were passed around several times during the course of the afternoon.

I also liked the gift I came home with--this riff on Harlequin Presents titles on a book-shaped tin.

Oh, and this post reveals that I've finally learned three Very Important Things: 1) how to take pictures with my new iPhone, 2) how to download said pictures, and 3) how to upload aforementioned pictures to my blog. I may be slow, but I get with the technological program eventually.

Wellington: The Years of the Sword

Wellington: The Years of the Sword (Elizabeth Longford, 1969) is the best Wellington biography I've read. I found myself deliberately slowing down when I got to the Waterloo section because I didn't want it to end, and I don't think I've ever felt that way about a biography before.

I didn't have high expectations of it going in. It's an older biography, for starters. I have this prejudice, one that I can't quite explain, for either primary sources or the most recent treatment out there. Also, Longford was Lady Longford, a countess and a relative by marriage of Wellington's family, which I thought might render her too close to her subject, in a way.

She does take a more intimate approach than the other Wellington biographers I've read, but it works, IMHO. At least for me, though maybe the fact he plays a large role in my alternative history, which means I spend a lot of time trying to get into his head myself, influences my reaction. Anyway, this isn't a work of hagiography--Longford doesn't turn a blind eye to her subject's flaws. But it's clear she likes him in spite of his faults and admires his honor, integrity, and military acumen, which again works for me because I feel the same way.

I even want to read her second volume, Wellington: Pillar of State, now, despite my distinct preference for Wellington the general over Wellington the politician.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Fall of a Kingdom

Fall of a Kingdom (Hilari Bell, 2006) is the first volume of a YA fantasy trilogy set in Farsala, a Persia analogue awaiting an invasion from the Hrum (Rome). It's told through the eyes of three Farsalan teenagers--Soraya, the proud daughter of the high commander, her bastard half-brother Jiaan, who's inherited his father's military acumen but isn't fully accepted among the warrior elite because of his peasant mother, and Kavi, a peddler and con artist. The shared POV works, though I liked Jiaan best of the lot. He reminded me a bit of Jack in my own WIP, actually--I have a soft spot for bright, earnest young warriors.

I like how Bell contrasts the warring cultures. I've always enjoyed fantasies like this with recognizable real-world analogues (think Guy Gavriel Kay or Jacqueline Carey) where the magic is light to nonexistent, and this is a great example of the type. She also did a great job with the battle tactics, IMHO, and I'm getting pickier about that sort of thing.

I'm looking forward to reading the second book.