Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Recent reading

A combination of illness and holiday travel has kept me away from blogging the past few weeks, but I've been able to do a little reading in the midst of the chaos.

The Book of Genesis Illustrated by R. Crumb (2009) is just that: the whole text of Genesis with gritty and often explicit cartoon illustrations. I suppose some might find the graphic illustrations offensive (this is emphatically not a Bible story for the kids), and others might find its exact adherence to the biblical text boring, but for me it opened a new window on a book I'd read over and over again and reminded me how deeply weird many of the Genesis stories are when you don't have a pastor or a book of commentary right beside you to tell you what spiritual meaning you're supposed to take away for your own modern life.

For seasonal reading, I went to Tinsel: A Search for America's Christmas Present (Hank Stuever, 2009). Stuever, a Washington Post staff writer, spends the 2006 Christmas season and part of the two that follow with three families in Frisco, TX (a Dallas exurb), using them as a window on Christmas as it's observed now. His conclusions aren't groundbreaking--as a culture we spend piles of time and money pursuing unattainable ideals and a nostalgic past that never really existed--but it's well-written and absorbing.

In Are Women Human? (1938), Dorothy Sayers posits that society treats men as individuals first, but defines women by gender rather than allowing us to be individual human beings with varied interests, dreams, and vocations. I found it a bit disappointing how much of it still felt relevant to my experience 70 years later--though if anything I feel more pressure from other women to conform to feminine expectations and/or to see myself as a woman first and a person second than from men.

Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language (Patricia O'Connor and Stuart Kellerman) takes on so-called rules that aren't, urban legends of etymology, and the like. As a series of brief essays, it's a good book for the bedside table, the bathroom, or other situations where you aren't looking for an extended, focused read.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Book blogging catch up

As it turns out, finishing one job and starting another eats all of your time, both for reading and for blogging about it. I've only managed to finish two books in the past two weeks.

Waiter Rant (Steve Dublanica, 2009) is yet another book from a blog, this one the story of a man who drifts into a career as a waiter. Apparently his blog is mostly humorous restaurant war stories, but the book is a little bit of that plus meditation on how the author, who started out as a Catholic seminarian, ended up where he did. Since I've been wrestling with the question of vocations/mission in life vs. finding reasonable satisfaction in a day job myself, I enjoyed reading someone else around my age dealing with the same questions.

The Kingdom of Carbonel (Barbara Sleigh, 1961), is the second book in the Carbonel trilogy of children's books about a girl and a boy who find themselves involved in the intrigues of Cat Country in 1950's England. A good read if you enjoy Narnia and/or Harry Potter

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Reading, week of 11/22

Last week I actually didn't finish a single new-to-me book--almost unheard-of, for me. Too much was going on with my job search for me to easily focus on reading, and none of the books I tried worked for me. I did read, of course--I just turned to old favorites, like the Jane Austen on my bedside table and the Louisa May Alcott on my Kindle.

This week was better, more relaxing all around, and I finished three books.

Carbonel: the King of the Cats (Barbara Sleigh, 1955) was meant to be a read-aloud for my 5-year-old, but when I got it I realized it was too long and complex for her. But I read it myself anyway and enjoyed it thoroughly. It's set circa 1950 in England with a girl and a boy finding magical adventures, and it feels similar to the Chronicles of Narnia in voice and tone, but without the religious overtones. I'd recommend it for kids who enjoy Narnia and/or Harry Potter, and for adults like me who've never outgrown that kind of story!

Serenity: Better Days (Joss Whedon, 2009) didn't work as well for me. I think I'm going to stop trying the graphic novels based on Joss Whedon TV shows, because the appeal just doesn't come through in quite the same way. I had some trouble following the story, possibly because I don't read a lot of comic books, and Mal just isn't quite Mal when he's not Nathan Fillion, you know?

Touched by Time (Leanne Shawler, 2005) is a time travel romance in which a modern woman and a Regency gentleman both see ghosts in their bedroom (it's the same room). Eventually they touch each other, which pulls the modern woman back to 1812, but only between sunset and sunrise. She knows that the hero is destined to disappear, presumed murdered, and she makes it her mission to use archival research to solve the mystery and give him a happy life. A fun, quick read, and a different take on both the Regency (hero is not an aristocrat!) and time travel.

Thursday, November 26, 2009


On this Thanksgiving I am thankful for:

1. Getting a new job when I least expected it. I almost didn't even apply, because the job posting listed a Masters degree as a desired qualification. I don't have one, and I figured in this economy they'd get plenty of applicants who did. But I interviewed, was offered the job the very next day, and I start 12/9.

2. Finishing a good draft of my alternative history. Time to go back to the scary but exhilarating process of submitting to editors and agents, at long last.

3. My family--a supportive and loving husband and a beautiful daughter who's loving kindergarten and having fun learning to read on her own.

It's been a long year, and in many ways a hard one. But with the new job and the completed novel, I'm looking forward to the holiday season and feeling cautiously optimistic for 2010.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Busy busy busy

Because I have been too busy to post of late (Update coming over the weekend! I mostly promise!), I'm going to do something I've never done before and don't plan on making a habit of. Just to keep the blog from growing cobwebs, you understand...

I'm posting a lolcat:

funny pictures of cats with captions
see more Lolcats and funny pictures

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Write or Die

I never wrote in the pre-internet era. (Unless you count the Narnia-derivative talking horse stories I produced in elementary school or the teen romances I started and never finished in high school, in which the heroines were NOTHING AT ALL LIKE ME because they played clarinet or flute while I played saxophone, they were petite while I was tall, they had naturally curly red or black hair and blue or green eyes instead of standard-issue straight brown hair and dark eyes like mine, and above all because the hero NEVER played the same instrument in the band or position on the football team as whatever boy I had a crush on at the time.)

You know, I still tend to give my heroines better and more unusual hair than my own, though I now realize that straight hair is easier to manage, and am so wholly reconciled to its brownness that I actually dye it a few shades darker than its natural hue. But that's fodder for another post.

So. Writing. Internet. In the years I've been writing seriously, I've always had the net there to help me with my research or provide a link to a supportive writing community. E.g. just last week I needed to describe a French hussar's uniform from 1805, and I found a print of one from 1804 in less than five minutes using Google. In a world without an internet, I would've had to wait for interlibrary loan, because neither the Seattle Public Library nor the University of Washington library system has a large Napoleonic collection. Or else I would've spent even more on research books than I already do.

But one site I've been using more and more lately is nothing but a simple productivity prod: Write or Die. You give it a time limit and a word count and tell it how cruel you want it to be. It gives you an empty box to type in. If you stop typing, it gives you a virtual rap over the knuckles.

I usually set it for 500 words in half an hour, and on a good day I can make that in 15 minutes. Maybe that sounds like a bad thing to you--as if I'm valuing quantity over quality--but I don't think that's the case. Using Write or Die forces me to plan out what I'm going to write instead of rambling, so I'm more focused.

If at other times it takes me an hour to write 500 words, trust me, it's not because I'm carefully pondering each word and producing deathless prose. No, I'm popping over to Gmail every time I see a new message, or else I'm stopping to research as I go along. Sometimes you can't write any farther until you've looked up that detail, but most of the time it's more like what happened to me last week: I needed to confirm a half-remembered biographical detail about the first Duke of Wellington's father, who was titled the Earl of Mornington. I googled and got what I needed, but also found several photos of and articles about the current Earl of Mornington (the current Duke of Wellington's grandson, and one of these blog posts I'll explain why the titles work that way). I promptly clicked on the links and spent a good fifteen minutes reading what amounts to celebrity gossip. While it's sorta nice to know his wife is pregnant with twins after years of trying, and since he's just a few years younger than me it's vaguely interesting to imagine how my life would've been different if I'd been born to English old money and old blood, all that has exactly ZERO relevance for my manuscript. And if I'd been using Write or Die, I would've just made a note to myself to confirm the detail later and wouldn't have been sucked down that particular rabbit hole.

Plus, I have a full-time job and a five-year-old. Anything that makes me write faster is a Good Thing.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Reading, week of 11/9

I promise next week I'll start with those writing craft and life posts. This week I was too busy actually doing the writing!

The theme of my reading week was Nostalgia. I picked up Betsy-Tacy (Maud Hart Lovelace, 1940) from the library hoping that I could read it to my five-year-old daughter who's just starting to like chapter books for read-aloud time. She wasn't interested--I'm learning not to bother with any book for her that doesn't have an animal on the cover!

But I'd heard so many people say the Betsy-Tacy series was an all-time favorite that I decided to read it myself anyway. And I enjoyed it, in a pure nostalgia sort of way. Betsy and Tacy are two little girls growing up Minnesota circa 1900. It's a sweet book, and I liked it enough that I'll probably try the later books, where I understand the reading level gets higher and the plots more complex.

In The Food of a Younger Land (Mark Kurlansky, 2009), Kurlansky discovers a never-published WPA project from 1941 looking at local and regional American foodways and cuisine. He provides an introduction and excerpts. If you're interested in the intersection between food and culture, you'll enjoy the book just to see how much has changed in the last 70 years or so. E.g. tacos were unknown outside of the Southwest, Pacific salmon were considered inferior to the Atlantic variety, etc. It's not the kind of book you read cover to cover. I focused on what I wished I could eat (everything from the Vermont sugaring-off, game dinners) and what I'm glad I don't have to (chitlins, lutefisk, and yes, I know both of those still exist).

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Reading, week of 11/2

I'm planning some changes to my blog in the next week or so. I want to make it less of a reading diary and more about writing, research, and the writing life.

I'm still figuring out how I'm going to go about that. I may set up a weekly schedule--say, Research Mondays, Craft Wednesdays, and Time Management Fridays--or I may just commit to blogging three times a week on a writing-related topic but not being terribly regimented about topics and times.

But I have decided to limit my reading diary posts to once per week. With that in mind, here's what I've been reading the first week of November:

The End of Empire: Attila the Hun and the Fall of Rome (Christopher Kelly, 2009): Until recently, I was only familiar with the Roman Empire at its peak in the 1st Century AD. I knew early church history and the Marcus Didius Falco novels (there's you a contrast!). But of late I've been seeing a lot of books about the fall of Rome. (Imperial anxiety on my own nation's part, perhaps?) The End of Empire explores what can be known about Attila the Hun and how his actions helped cause the collapse of the western empire within a few decades of his death. I had trouble keeping all the eastern and western emperors and their generals and diplomats straight, but it helped fill out my picture of a corner of history I'm just beginning to explore.

I read the first chapter of Betraying Season (Marissa Doyle, 2009) several years ago when Doyle entered it in an RWA contest I was judging. Between the time my daughter was born in 2004 and when I went back to work in late 2005, I must've judged over a dozen writing contests. RWA chapters are always looking for volunteer judges, and I had enough time on my hands to answer most of the pleas for judges that went out. Betraying Season was one of the two or three most outstanding entries I encountered, and I was thrilled when Doyle sold it and its prequel, Bewitching Season. It's the story of a magically gifted young British aristocrat in the 1830's trying to improve her witchy powers while visiting her old governess in Ireland. If you liked Sorcery and Cecelia, give Doyle's books a try.

Cake Wrecks (Jen Yates, 2009) contains many favorites from the Cake Wrecks blog along with some new material. Fun for a laugh after a long week.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Flesh and Fire

Flesh and Fire (Laura Anne Gilman, 2009) is epic fantasy with an unusual twist--the otherworldly aspect of the story is magical wine. It's just the kind of fantasy I like best, set in a recognizable alternative Europe, with an epic, historical feel but without the standard swords & sorcery quest structure. And the world-building is wonderful, enough to hold my attention all by itself. That said, I was just warming to the characters and starting to put together the plot threads when the book ended--it's more set-up for the rest of the series than a self-contained story.

Friday, October 30, 2009


As my longtime readers know, I am not fond of Napoleon. Paul Johnson is likewise not fond of Napoleon. But as I read his brief 2002 biography (Napoleon: A Life), I found myself wanting to defend the emperor. Johnson sees Napoleonic France as the prototype of the modern totalitarian state, and therefore Napoleon as the progenitor of Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and the like. Possibly it's because I've seen far too many sloppy comparisons to Hitler and Nazism over the past few years, but that left me rolling my eyes. He might have a point if he didn't insist on exaggerating it, tossing around the "evils" and the Hitler references, and blaming ideas whose time had come on one person.

Despite my annoyance with the author, I'm not sorry I read the book. When you're researching someone intensively for your own writing, it never hurts to get another perspective, even if you disagree with it. But if you read one Napoleon biography, this shouldn't be your choice. I'm not sure what should be--I like Evangeline Bruce's Napoleon and Josephine and Christopher Hibbert's Napoleon: His Wives and Women, but those focus too heavily on his personal life to be comprehensive. If I find one that leaves me nodding and saying, "Yes, that's him," I'll be sure to let my five loyal readers know. :-)

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Across the Nightingale Floor

I love the idea of Across the Nightingale Floor (Lian Hearn, 2003), a fantasy set in an alternative feudal Japan, complete with samurai and ninjas. I didn't quite love the characters, however--I just liked them--which kept me from being fully hooked by the story, though I finished it just to see how the plot would resolve and which of the three threads of his history the protagonist would choose to follow.

Shipwrecked and Seduced

Yes, the title is corny. I know. But books shouldn't be judged by their covers or their titles...though I have to admit that Shipwrecked and Seduced (Amanda McCabe, 2009) is an accurate description of the story in question!

I say "story" and not "book" because this isn't a full-length novel. It's part of Harlequin's "Undone" series of short historical romance stories, only available electronically. It's not something I would've sought out on my own, since I prefer longer stories and have trouble suspending disbelief that a couple could fall in love and commit to a lifetime together in 50 pages or less! But an online writers group I'm part of is doing a challenge where we try to write an Undone, so I decided to read a few. (I ended up deciding not to participate in the challenge because I've got too much going on finishing my alternative history and getting it ready to submit in the next month.)

This story's heroine is a young Spanish servant girl who's the only survivor of a shipwreck in 16th century Cuba. She's mistaken for a highborn passenger and decides to play along, but a handsome colonial official suspects she's not what she seems...

It's a very quick, very sexy story. It's well-done, evoking a sense of place and time in a few short pages, so I'd recommend it if the length and sensuality sound appealing to you.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Three Napoleonic Battles

In a way, I learned about Napoleon as a commander backwards. My interest in all things Napoleonic initially grew out of my reading of Regency romances, where the occasional hero is a veteran who served under Wellington. Nowadays it's rare, but in the 80's and 90's one sometimes ran across a Regency set in Brussels in the run-up to Waterloo, at the Congress of Vienna, or in Spain or Portugal during the Peninsular Campaign. Those were always my favorites, since I had a lurking interest in military history (possibly because one of my brothers started West Point the year I started kindergarten), and I liked the higher stakes than your typical Regency set against London high society or the pastoral English countryside.

Then I stumbled across Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe series. I have to confess I started with the TV movies, after watching The Fellowship of the Ring and wanting to know what else the Boromir actor was in. But I read the books, too, and started researching the history behind them. Which meant mostly the Peninsular War, and mostly Wellington. Like the Great Duke, I first encountered Napoleon at Waterloo. As my interest in the era and the people broadened and I started to want to write about it myself, I learned more about Napoleon, but I still know Waterloo better than anything else from his career.

I picked up Three Napoleonic Battles (Harold T. Parker, 1944) as part of my ongoing effort to get a broader perspective on Napoleon's career. Parker analyzes the battles of Friedland (1807), Aspern-Essling (1809), and, yes, Waterloo (1815). In the first, Napoleon was at the top of his game and facing a Russian commander who made serious blunders, in the second he made blunders of his own against a solid opponent and was checked, but through his and his marshals' skill and his opponent's overcaution avoided a crushing defeat, and, well, we know what happened at Waterloo. (At least I hope we do. If you're reading this and thinking, "I vaguely recall Napoleon from high school history class, but isn't Wellington a boot and Waterloo an ABBA song?" please talk to me. I have books to recommend. You'll love them, I promise. History is exciting, and 1789-1815 especially so.) For the most part, Parker's conclusions are pretty straightforward--Napoleon got older. His health and energy declined, enough that he lost a mental step, too, though he was obviously still beyond unusually intelligent. His natural optimism was perhaps less tempered by realism--e.g. his stubborn refusal to believe the evidence that the entire Prussian army was indeed marching to unite with the Anglo-Dutch forces at Waterloo. Plus, his opponents got better, both in the sense of learning his game plan and that over decades of war, the cream of the other powers' generals eventually rose to the top.

For all that, it's a worthwhile and well-researched read, dense with detail. I expect I'll be turning back to the Friedland and Aspern-Essling sections as I develop my alternative history, and I never get tired of learning more about Waterloo. Wellington once commented (I'm paraphrasing wildly here) that you might as well write the history of a ball as of a battle--everyone who was there gives a different account, and it's impossible to pin down what really happened. To me, that's precisely what makes Waterloo especially so endlessly fascinating. Every time you look at it from another angle, you get another facet of the glorious horrible chaotic epic of it all.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

What I've been reading lately

In my continuing Kindle excursion through the worlds of Louisa May Alcott, I read Jo's Boys. It is indeed very preachy, and I confess to skimming past a lot of the sermons to find out what happens to everyone. Oh, and if I'd written it, everything would've turned out differently for Dan. I sometimes envy 19th century writers--I'd give a lot to be able to introduce my characters with a nice backstory synopsis like Jane Austen does, for example--but I'm glad I don't have to set up characters for punishment as Moral Examples.

Staying in YA but on a much lighter note, I curled up with The Ex Games (Jennifer Echols, 2009). The heroine, a snowboarder with fear of heights left over from a childhood accident, has to overcome her fears to defeat her ex-boyfriend in a battle of the sexes that engrosses their whole high school, and incidentally to take advantage of a chance to take lessons from a pro.

Refuse to Choose (2007) was my second self-help book by Barbara Sher. In it, she describes "Scanners"--people who have trouble settling on one single direction in life. I recognized myself in almost every page. I've always felt like I should have some grand passion or vocation. And in one sense I do--my love for history and my hunger to write have been with me all my life--but at various points I've wanted to be a reporter, a theologian, a paramedic, a professor, etc., etc. And because I've never been able to make up my mind which one is my One True Vocation, I haven't done any of those things. Sher's book helped me see that it doesn't have to be all or nothing. She suggests that many Scanners search for a "Good Enough Job"--one that will match their interests and work style well enough to give them stability and contentment, while leaving them enough life space and mental energy to pursue other interests at the same time. Somehow that phrase alone was a revelation for me. A day job isn't quite the same thing as a Good Enough Job, you know?

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Sad news

I won't be having a baby in April after all. I woke up to some bleeding this morning, and when I went in for an ultrasound they discovered that there was no heartbeat.

Naturally we're sad, especially after having such an upbeat visit with the blood pressure specialist last week. But Dylan and I are taking care of each other and will call on our support networks as needed.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

An Echo in the Bone (and Kindle)

For our tenth anniversary, my husband got me a Kindle. Having read ebooks on my iPhone, I was ready to make the transition to a full-fledged e-reader, so the gift was a winner.

It arrived on Monday, so I decided to try it out by pre-ordering An Echo in the Bone (Diana Gabaldon, 2009), which was released on Tuesday. The book was downloaded and waiting for me when my alarm went off at 6:30--much preferable to making a special trip to the bookstore or waiting weeks for it to show up in my library hold queue. Also, I enjoyed being able to read on a fairly light handheld device I could stuff in my purse rather than toting around a bulky hardcover. On the downside, it's harder to page back to a previous chapter to remind yourself of some little detail you barely noticed at the time but that turns out to be important the next time the character shows up. And at least in this book there was a glitch where sometimes two words in a row would be italicized where clearly only one should've been. But on the whole I was satisfied with my Kindle experience and plan to use it extensively in the future.

Now, the usual, it's hard to review a book deep in the series. If you love the Outlander books, you'll want to read this one. If you haven't, you'd be totally lost. (Actually, you'll be a little confused if you haven't read the Lord John series as well.) As has been the case in the last few books, the emphasis is less on Jamie and Claire and more on the broader cast of characters--we see a good bit of Lord John, Willie, Brianna and Roger back in the 20th century, Ian, a Quaker brother and sister whom both Willie and Ian befriend, etc. I've seen some readers complain about that, especially the emphasis on Willie and Lord John, but I liked it. Gabaldon has the IMHO unusual gift of making me care about a large cast of characters almost equally, and I thought those two were especially valuable because they're both English officers, thoroughly loyal and baffled that anyone would consider their king and their government tyrannical. Always good to show both sides, IMHO, especially when both sides have a point.

My only complaint is that authors who take three years to write a book shouldn't leave quite so many cliffhangers!


A few posts ago I mentioned that I have a lot going on in my life, some of which might eventually merit revelation here.

I can now reveal one piece of all that: I'm pregnant, due April 28. All seems to be going well so far, though since I'm over 35 and had slightly high blood pressure going in, I'll be getting more monitoring than I would otherwise.

Little Men

I've been getting free and cheap downloads of classics and reading them on my iPhone's Kindle app lately. Mostly I've been reading old favorites, but after revisiting Little Women, I decided to get Little Men and Jo's Boys, neither of which I've ever read.

Little Men is a soothing read, just what I'm looking for an iPhone book, i.e. something I read in short snatches while waiting in lines or late at night when I'm having trouble falling asleep. That said, Louisa May Alcott's preachy strain, which shows up to some degree in all her books, is on steroids here, and none of the new young characters are as engaging as Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy, and Laurie.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Poor Relation

I've got a lot going on in my life now, some of which may eventually rate a mention on this blog once I know a bit more about how it's all going to turn out. Since I'm dealing with more stress and chaos than normal, I find myself turning to comfort reads. I've downloaded lots of free and cheap classics onto my Kindle-for-iPhone app, and I've been working my way through L.M. Montgomery and Louisa May Alcott. Also, I've been trying out some of those older traditional Regency romances I buy whenever I can find them in thrift stores or used bookstores and pile onto my To Be Read shelf against the need for a good escapist read.

One such book was The Poor Relation (Cathryn Huntington Chadwick, 1990). It has all the usual trappings of the traditional Regency--high society life, a Cinderella heroine, a dashing hero in a red coat (the poor relation of the title), heiresses, fortune hunters, etc. It doesn't break new ground, and it isn't thought-provoking, but it's not supposed to be. And last week it was just the kind of literary comfort food I was looking for.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Unlikely Disciple

The Unlikely Disciple (Kevin Roose, 2009) is yet another entry in that currently popular memoir subgenre, Person X Does Uncharacteristic Activity Y for Z Time Period. This one is even a direct descendant of a previous work: Roose got interested in his topic while working as a research assistant for A.J. Jacobs, author of The Year of Living Biblically. But it's also the best outsider view of the evangelical subculture I've read yet.

As a 19-year-old Brown undergraduate, Roose decided to study abroad without leaving the country by spending a semester at Liberty University, having discovered he knew so little about evangelical Christians that he didn't even know how to talk to them. After a crash course in the lingo from a high school friend, he plunges into the Liberty life, taking 6 credits in the core curriculum and joining the Thomas Road Baptist Church choir. (At Brown he sang in an a capella group.) He goes undercover, posing as a relatively new Christian so he doesn't seem too suspicious for such errors as pronouncing Paul's Epistle to the Philippians as "fil-ip-PYE-ans." (It's "fil-IP-ee-ans.")

Though he never stops being appalled by his classmates' homophobia or the political and creationist indoctrination in his classes, he also can't help seeing his classmates and the faculty as human beings, many of whom he forms lasting friendships with. It's a useful reminder for me. As someone who's either evangelical left or slightly on the conservative side of mainline Protestantism, I don't like being lumped in with the Falwell brand of Christianity. I kept getting annoyed when Roose mentioned songs he sang at Thomas Road that we also sing at my church because how dare they sing what we sing when we have so little in common? But if Roose can befriend them, I can at least admit we're co-religionists.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Chosen One

The Chosen One (Carol Lynch Williams, 2009) is a YA novel about a young girl in a fictional fundamentalist Mormon sect. Her family--father, three wives, multiple siblings--is loving and affectionate, and apparently somewhat on the fringes of the sect despite their devotion to their prophet and his teachings. The 13-year-old heroine, Kyra, is a loner and a rebel even within her family, sneaking out to get a book from the mobile library every week (all books except sacred texts being forbidden) and indulging in what in mainstream society would be an innocent romance with a teen boy from another of the compound's families.

When the Prophet has a vision that Kyra must become an elderly uncle's seventh wife, she has to reconcile her love for her family--and the knowledge that her resistance can put them at risk--with her unwillingness to go through with the marriage. The book is a page-turner, and the ending, though satisfying, leaves a host of realistically unanswered questions.


My hometown library had an extensive collection of Clare Darcy's Regency romances when I was growing up, but I don't think they had Eugenia (1978). It's a fun, quick read whose heroine is plucky, young, and unconventional, but not obnoxiously so. As is not uncommon in early Regencies, the romance is underplayed. The hero and heroine seem well-suited, both being rural, horse-mad types, but they don't spend enough time interacting to convince me that they know it. That said, if you like old-fashioned Regencies, heavy on the comedy of manners, light on the sensuality, Darcy's books are a good choice.

Rick Steves' Amsterdam, Bruges & Brussels

I skimmed Rick Steves' Amsterdam, Bruges & Brussels (2009) as very early scouting for a trip I'm planning to take in 2015. I mean to be at Waterloo (just south of Brussels) on the bicentennial of the battle, 6/18/2015.

It wasn't that useful for my purposes, because so much of the book is devoted to Amsterdam and so little to the two Belgian cities. Waterloo is a dot on the map, but doesn't even rate a mention, though it seems like an obvious day trip from Brussels to me. Even aside from my personal and admittedly quirky interest, I found myself more interested in the two Belgian cities than Amsterdam.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Day of the Barbarians

Alessandro Barbero wrote The Battle, one of my favorite books on Waterloo, and the one I always recommend to readers who aren't already students of Napoleonic military history. So when I found out about The Day of the Barbarians (2008), I decided to see what he had to say about an event I knew nothing about going in: namely the Battle of Adrianople in AD 378.

As I learned, Adrianople took place during an uprising by Gothic tribesmen who had come into the Eastern Roman Empire as refugees from the Huns but were quickly exasperated when the emperor's promises of land and food were not fulfilled. The Goths were well-led, and Adrianople was a debacle for Rome--2/3 of the army on the field that day was destroyed, and the emperor died on the field. Barbero's thesis is that the empire wasn't in severe decline prior to the battle, and that while Adrianople didn't cause the decline and fall of the empire all by itself, it was an important event along the way. Looked at that's a bit sobering how quickly a powerful nation/empire can go downhill.

Barbero has one more book that's been translated into English, on Charlemagne. I'll have to give it a look soon.

Live the Life You Love

Live the Life You Love (Barbara Sher, 1997) is one of my occasional forays into the self-help genre. What makes it different, and what makes me think I might buy my own copy (I got it at the library) and/or look for Sher's other books, is her contention that you can't change your fundamental nature, so you shouldn't try. Instead you learn what you want and what motivates you, and work with it.

Napoleon: His Wives and Women

Christopher Hibbert writes in-depth, readable biographies, but he doesn't engage in much speculation on the inner workings of his subjects' souls. Napoleon: His Wives and Women (2003) is no exception. It's probably the best route, but I found myself wanting him to express opinions so I could argue with them or approve them as the case warranted.

This shouldn't be your first biography of Napoleon, since, as the title indicates, it focuses on his personal life rather than affairs of state and war. It assumes a certain knowledge of the major events and figures that a casual reader wouldn't have. But it's a good supplement if you're interested in the man and/or the era to get a detailed look at a part of Napoleon's life most histories barely explore. It didn't make me like Napoleon any better than I did going in, but I do feel like I have a fuller picture of his life and personality.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Complete Writer's Guide to Heroes and Heroines

The Complete Writer's Guide to Heroes and Heroines (Tami Cowden, Caro LaFever, Sue Viders, 2000) is a book of archetypes for writers and screenwriters. I like archetype-based approaches to plotting and characterization, e.g. The Hero’s Journey, because they don’t feel as paint-by-numbers as writing advice tends to be. And I definitely found food for thought in this one. It clarifies my thinking about one of the major characters in my WIP, for instance, to conceptualize him as a Swashbuckler evolving into a Chief by way of a Warrior.

That said, I didn’t particularly like the book’s approach to gender. The authors present parallel but separate archetypes for heroes and heroines. The male Chief’s counterpart is the female Boss, the Bad Boy is analogous to the Seductress, and so on. In several cases I felt like the male archetype was more positive and/or powerful. E.g. my associations with the word Chief are broadly positive. A Chief is a great leader who’s proven his worth, someone you’ll happily follow into battle or to the ballot box. A Boss? Well, that’s the person who signs your timesheets. Even if you have a good boss, you probably don’t think of him or her as inspiring. “Bossy” does not have positive connotations. And while a Professor and a Librarian are both good things to be, Professor implies higher rank.

Also, four of the eight male archetypes are at least partially fighters: the Chief, the Bad Boy, the Swashbuckler, and the Warrior. Women get exactly one fighting archetype: the Crusader (the equivalent of the Swashbuckler). I’ve already mentioned the Boss and the Seductress; the female counterpart to the Warrior is the Nurturer. Admittedly, as a woman currently writing a military historical, I probably care more about this one than the average reader…but you can’t cram every fighting woman into that Crusader archetype the way the authors seem to want to. F’rex, I wouldn’t call Buffy Summers a Crusader. At least by the end of the series, she’s a Chief. NOT a Boss. A Chief. And, staying in the Jossverse, how could you call Zoe on Firefly anything but a Warrior?

So. Useful book, though I wish the authors hadn’t split the genders. I think they could’ve just gone with eight archetypes and talked about the different ways they tend to appear in heroes vs. heroines.

Brighton Honeymoon

Last night I got back from a week at my mom's house in Alabama where I had limited internet access but a decent amount of time to read, so over the next few days I'll be catching up my reading diary.

Brighton Honeymoon (Sheri Cobb South, 2000) is a well-executed light, comedic Regency romance. A sequel to THE WEAVER TAKES A WIFE, it features the newlyweds from that book taking in a girl claiming to be the husband’s long-lost sister. She’s lying, and they doubt her claims from the first, but her circumstances are desperate enough that she’s still a sympathetic character.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

I was never required to read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for school, which I'd say was a bad decision, if not a particularly surprising one, on the part of whatever committee planned English and History curricula for Alabama in the 1970's and 80's.

Over the past twenty years I gradually realized it was a book I needed to read, though all I knew about it is that it involved Huck and a runaway slave named Jim on a raft down the Mississippi River, that it's an Important Book in American Literature, and about the famous "Then I'll go to hell" scene. So when I got it as a free ebook as part of an iPhone app, I decided it was high time I remedied the defects of my education.

I'm glad I've read it--I can cross it off my bucket list, for starters--but I think I would've gotten more out of it if I'd read it at a younger age. I enjoyed it, but with more intellectual appreciation than emotional engagement. Knowing its Importance to American Literature, I was somewhat surprised to discover how much of it is pure kids' book. (Not that I was oblivious to the deeper layers there, or how much satire and social criticism there was in the antics of the Duke and the King, but the surface of the read wasn't what I was expecting.) It's brilliantly written, of course, and the "I'll go to hell" moment, once I finally got there, was wonderful. I was relieved, however, to read the Wikipedia article after I finished the book and discover I was far from the only person to think the Tom Sawyer plot at the end dragged on pointlessly! I'd been afraid I'd been committing some kind of unpardonable sin against Important American Literature.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

A Breath of Snow and Ashes

I've spent the past week with A Breath of Snow and Ashes (Diana Gabaldon, 2005), so I'm now all caught up with the Outlander series, just in time for An Echo In the Bone to debut next month.

This is the sixth doorstopper tome in the series, so it's by no means the right place to start. But it's a wonderful place to spend time with characters you already know and love. This volume takes the characters from 1774 to 1776 in North Carolina, with Jamie, who knows how the Revolution is going to turn out thanks to his time-traveling wife, daughter, and son-in-law, having to balance that knowledge with the fact that most of the rest of his friends and relatives are Loyalists.

What Gabaldon excels at is combining the grand, violent sweep of history with the little intimate moments of daily life. I hope I can write something half so rich someday.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Dangerous Games

Dangerous Games: The Uses and Abuses of History (Margaret MacMillan, 2009) is adapted from a series of lectures the author gave at a Canadian university. Because of its origin, it's a short book that doesn't go into tremendous, footnoted detail on any of its examples. On the other hand, it's a quick, accessible overview of an important subject.

Basically, MacMillan's thesis is that history is very useful for us in the present, but only if we're willing to view it both broadly and realistically. We get in trouble with nationalistic histories designed to show how brave and just and chosen by God our nation is, or with cherry-picking our historical analogies (Chamberlain at Munich being a popular choice with which to smear one's opponents).

All that, on the face of it, seems too obvious to bother with. But that doesn't keep us from making the same mistakes again and again. I know that the more I learn about the past, the less surprised I am to learn that the assumptions I walked in with are false. This applies to everything from the relatively trivial (clan tartans in Scotland were the product of 19th century marketing rather than ancient tradition, the Duke of Wellington never said that the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing-fields of Eton) to the deadly serious--just from MacMillan's book I learned that everything I'd always heard and assumed to be true about WWII being caused in large part by the punitive reparations placed on Germany after WWI isn't quite as straightforward as that, and that a lot of the Soviet rhetoric of the Cold War was just a cloak for the same Russian nationalism and strategic self-interest that existed before the Communist takeover.

It's a good book, and one that questions the assumptions of all sides of the political spectrum.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Kensington Palace: The Official Illustrated History

I must admit that I did not read every single word of Kensington Palace (Edward Impey, 2003). A few scenes in my WIP are set there, so I got this book through interlibrary loan in hopes of finding floor plans and images to help me make the setting more vivid. So I skimmed through the details of William and Mary's and Anne's reigns, and I didn't pay much attention to anything after my story's time period.

The floor plans weren't as detailed as I hoped, so I'll just have to fudge a bit. Which may be just as well, because a whole page of, "She sneaked from Room X to Room Y, then ducked out into the passage because there was no connecting door to Room Z," would make for dull reading. But I did get my visuals, so I think I'll be able to make my scenes evoke Kensington Palace rather than Random Great House.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Loving a Lost Lord

I have to start with my usual caveat about hating the cover. If I were Queen of the Publishing Industry, no cover in any genre would be approved unless everyone on the editing, design, and marketing teams could honestly say they'd be perfectly comfortable reading the book on a plane, a bus, the cafeteria at work, in front of elderly parents and young children, etc. It's easily possible to make a cover that's romantic, even sexy, that's still tasteful. This, IMHO, isn't it.

Loving a Lost Lord (Mary Jo Putney, 2009) is the first in a new historical romance series about childhood friends known as the "Lost Lords" because they met at a school for aristocratic problem children. The story opens with several of the friends coming together to search for one of their number, the Duke of Ashton, who is missing and presumed lost at sea. He isn't, of course--he merely has amnesia and thinks he's married to the lady who found him. If that sounds a bit over-the-top, it is, and to enjoy this book you need to be in the mood to embrace the OTT--besides the amnesia, it's got murder attempts, long-lost relatives returning from the supposedly-dead, etc. And it has a certain degree of prequelitis, with multiple friends of the hero clearly being set up for their own stories. I wouldn't recommend it for anyone who's never read Putney before--my favorites of hers are One Perfect Rose and Shattered Rainbows--but if you're already a fan, you'll enjoy the start of a new series.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Illustrious Dead

When you think of Napoleon's invasion of Russia (as I'm sure you often do, doesn't everyone?), you probably think it failed because of the Russian winter, hunger, and the Russians' clever, though somewhat accidental, strategy of leading the Grande Armee deep into their territory, too far from supplies or reinforcements. All those, along with a strange combination of lassitude and hubris on Napoleon's part, certainly played a role. But The Illustrious Dead (Stephan Talty, 2009) gives the lion's share of the credit to typhus, showing how the disease burned its way through the army from the very beginning of the campaign to when the handful of survivors staggered into Germany.

This is a good, readable work of popular military history. I'd recommend it to just about anyone interested in the era--it's straightforward and clear enough for those who haven't read much military history, but the focus on typhus gives a different spin for those who already know Napoleon's campaigns well. And Talty knows how to make nonfiction history read like a page-turning novel.

I've never been an admirer of Napoleon's, but I try very hard to understand why so many people have been, then and now. And sometimes I think I've almost grasped it until I read another account of the invasion of Russia. So much death and destruction for the sake of one man's ambition and hubris.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Gothic Charm School

For years, Jillian Venters, the Lady of the Manners, has been offering advice to Goths and their friends and families on how to be a polite member of an oft-misunderstood subculture on her website, Gothic Charm School. She now has a 2009 book with the same title--a mixture of etiquette advice and guidance for the perplexed, with some history lessons thrown in. I'm not a Goth myself, but despite not being the target audience I loved this book. It's a witty, well-written guide to a subculture several of my friends belong to, and I enjoyed learning more about their world. Also, the etiquette advice is applicable to anyone, especially all of us who are a bit out of the mainstream in one way or another. How to be different without being rude, if you will.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Not Quite a Husband

Sherry Thomas is something of a rising star in historical romance, both because her books are good and because they're different. She sets her books at the very tail end of the 19th century, rather than the ever-popular Regency or mid-Victorian eras. Her characters are difficult, troubled and flawed but in nuanced ways, and she doesn't do the saintly heroine-sinful hero dichotomy. And all three of the books she's written so far have been second chance stories, featuring the reunion of a couple who've caused each other deep pain.

Not Quite a Husband (2009) is probably my favorite of the three. (Though I don't like the cover. Granted, I've seen tackier clinches, but that's bad enough that I'm vaguely embarrassed to have it show up on my new books blog sidebar. Don't the publishing houses consider the fact some of us are reading these books on public transportation? I don't try to hide my romance-reading habits, but if I'm going to flash the cover to all and sundry, I'd rather it look like Jo Beverley's latest or Julia Quinn's)

Anyway, this book covers the failed, annulled marriage of aristocratic mathematician Leo and well-born doctor Bryony. (Fond as I am of the Regency/Napoleonic era, one benefit to turn-of-the-last-century is that professional women are rare, but not implausible.) We see them meeting again, years later, on what is now the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, and learn what drove them apart through flashbacks as they're caught up in the Swat Valley Uprising of 1897. The leads are compelling, and my only real complaint is that the story focuses on them so relentlessly that the setting and secondary characters, though well-researched, didn't feel as three-dimensional as I would've liked.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009


Renegade: The Making of a President (Richard Wolffe, 2009) is a chance to relive Obama's primary and general election campaigns, if you are inclined to do so. If you're not an Obama supporter, this probably isn't the book for you, since Wolffe clearly admires his subject. I didn't learn a whole lot I didn't already know, but as someone who spent the better part of a year anxiously following political blogs, taking part in my precinct and district caucuses, agonizing over swing states, and the like, it was fun to read about the campaign from the relaxed safety of knowing how it was going to end.

The one thing that surprised me a bit was how much Obama and his team were making things up as they went along. Especially by the time the primaries were over, they just seemed so smooth and so in control that I assumed they had a Master Plan. Knowing he's an improviser does make the POTUS seem more human--and given the state of the world, it's probably just as well he's good at thinking on the fly.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Don't Tempt Me

Loretta Chase is one of my favorite romance authors because of the wit, historical detail, and high quality of her writing. Her latest, Don't Tempt Me (2009), is a quick, fun read, but I don't think it's going to go on my list of all-time favorites. (Mr. Impossible, Lord of Scoundrels, The Devil's Delilah)

The heroine of Don't Tempt Me is a young English lady who was stolen as a child traveling with her parents in Egypt and spent 12 years in a harem. She's a fun heroine because she's forgotten enough of her original culture (or was too young when she was abducted to understand it) to have an outsider's perspective on the familiar "high society in 1818" setting. But I had a few problems with her characterization, too, that kept this book from joining my list of Chase favorites. She seems to get over the trauma of her captivity very quickly. Also, she's one of my least favorite romance cliches: the virgin widow. (She was given to a pasha's son in hopes she could cure his impotence, and she couldn't.) I understand how the virgin widow got started. With a widowed heroine in a historical romance, you can have an older heroine--25 or 30 instead of 18 or 20, say--and one who has more freedom and autonomy than a young, unmarried girl. And by making her a virgin, you still have the common reader fantasy of the hero as her one-and-only, and you don't have to deal with children of a previous marriage, or, conversely, a heroine grieving dead children or miscarriages or dealing with infertility. Still. I don't like it. I'm fine with both innocent and experienced romance heroines, but innocent ones who should be experienced just make me roll my eyes. If you want to write a virgin, find a way to get around (or work within) the social constraints on never-been-married women in your chosen historical era. And if your heroine is a widow, either have her deal with the trauma of a bad experience or, if her marriage was happy, have her (and your readers) accept that it's possible to have more than one great love!

Anyway. With that caveat, Don't Tempt Me is still a fun book. If I managed to finish a book featuring a virgin widow from a harem, the writing must've been strong!

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Escaping North Korea

Before I read Escaping North Korea (Mike Kim, 2008), I never could've imagined seeing contemporary China as a place of freedom and refuge. But to refugees from North Korea, it's exactly that--a place of comparative political and religious freedom, and, oh, plentiful food.

Kim, a Korean-American Christian, spent four years in China near the North Korean border, helping a network of house churches that protect North Korean refugees. His book is a straightforward account of what he saw and heard from escapees. It's not artfully written or filled with sophisticated political analysis, but there's a certain power in the straightforward simplicity of the accounting of horrors. It's mindboggling, really, to think of a country as thoroughly broken as North Korea, and sobering to speculate on how much it would take to rehabilitate it if Kim Jong-Il's regime collapsed tomorrow.

But, as you'd expect in this kind of book, there's hope, too. If you can read the "Freedom on the Fourth" chapter without tearing up, you're made of sterner stuff than I am.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Fiery Cross

There's no pleasure quite like that of getting lost in a good book, particularly a good long book, and for the past few days I've been doing my best to escape into the North Carolina backcountry, 1770-72. That's the setting of The Fiery Cross (2001), fifth installment in Diana Gabaldon's series about a 20th-century English nurse who stumbles through a stone circle and finds herself in 18th century Scotland. (And, eventually, North Carolina, though I don't want to spoil the plot by giving the whys and hows. Go read the books, starting with Outlander. They're top-quality intelligent escapism.)

There's not a lot of plot to The Fiery Cross, but that didn't bother me. (Except in one spot, very near the end, about which I'll only say that Brianna clearly needs to study the Evil Overlord List.) It's mostly a chance to visit a three-dimensional world and richly developed characters. And that's what I love most as a reader. Plot is window-dressing. I enjoyed this book so much that I'd like to pick up A Breath of Snow and Ashes immediately to find out what happens next. But I won't. I have library books that must be read before they're due back.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

The Ramshackle Suitor

Whenever I'm in a used bookstore, thrift store, or library book sale, I look for traditional Regency romances. Major print publishers abandoned them a few years ago, since their sales went into a decline as longer, sexier Regency-set historicals came to dominate the market. I was sad to see them go--at their best they have a wit and a historical realism that's harder to find in newer romances.

The Ramshackle Suitor (Nancy Butler, 2000) isn't the kind of book that will stay with you forever, but it's a pleasant read with an unusual setting (Isle of Man) and central couple (heroine is five years older and in many ways better educated than the hero).

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Inspiration and Incarnation

Inspiration and Incarnation (Peter Enns, 2005) attempts, I think successfully, to balance the traditional Christian view of scripture as inspired by God while looking honestly at internal contradictions, parallels with other ancient literature, and the way New Testament writers cite the Old Testament (by modern standards, wildly out of context at times). Enns takes an incarnational approach, treating the Bible as a way God comes among people, meeting them where they are--which means it's unfair and inappropriate to evaluate its approach to history by modern standards of science and historicity. He also views the contradictions and complexities of scripture as a feature, not a bug--life is complex and contradictory, so why should God's message to humanity be any different?

I wish I'd had a book like this when I was first wrestling with serious doubts 10-15 years ago. I think it would've spared me a lot of angst.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The annual Powell's haul

Roughly once a year I make it down to Portland, and I can't come here without visiting Powell's--an amazing, ginormous bookstore with both used and new stock. It's one of my favorite places in the whole world. I could easily lose myself in there for days.

Today I ended up with $56 in store credit from the used books I'd brought down to trade in, so I kinda went wild (spending way more than $56, but I only get there once a year). Here's the list. It's almost all nonfiction, because I headed up to the history department first and easily could've spent my entire budget and then some just on the Britain and Ireland shelves.

THE WORLD OF DANIEL O'CONNELL, by Donal McCartney - eventually my WIP world will include Ireland, so I'm starting to stock up on sources on Ireland in the 18th and 19th centuries.

THE ART OF WAR, Antoine Henri Jomini - if I'm going to invent Napoleonic-era battles for my alternative history, I might as well study the actual theory of the era.

WEAPONS AND EQUIPMENT OF THE NAPOLEONIC WARS, Philip Haythornthwaite - I'm always seeking books to help me with the everyday details of my characters' lives.

NAPOLEON, Paul Johnson - a brief biography, and I'm hoping a balanced one. Napoleon tends to be portrayed as either the greatest man EVER or as lacking any redeeming qualities whatsoever. The former makes me roll my Anglocentric Wellington-fangirl eyes forever, while the latter...I'm sorry, you just can't compare Napoleon to Hitler. Not even the same league. Really. Which would you rather live in, Napoleonic France or Nazi Germany?

THREE NAPOLEONIC BATTLES, Harold T. Parker - analyzes the battles of Friedland, Aspern-Essling, and Waterloo.

ORGANIZING FROM THE INSIDE OUT, Julie Morgenstern - a resource for my ongoing struggle to organize my stuff and my life.

THE COMPLETE WRITER'S GUIDE TO HEROES & HEROINES, Tami D. Cowden, Caro LaFever, Sue Viders - a book on archetypes. I was at a presentation based on this book and found it intriguing.

PASSION & PRINCIPLE: THE LOVES AND LIVES OF REGENCY WOMEN, Jane Aiken Hodge - because I'm not only interested in war.


FOOD MATTERS, Mark Bittman - decided I needed my own copy.

NAPOLEON AND HIS COLLABORATORS, Isser Woloch - how Napoleon became First Consul and then Emperor, and who supported him along the way

THE BOOKSELLER'S DAUGHTER, Pam Rosenthal - my one fiction purchase, a historical romance set in France just before the Revolution.

HOW TO GROW A NOVEL, Sol Stein - looked like it might have good advice for my style of writing.

ACCESS 2003 BIBLE, Cary N. Prague, Michael R. Irwin, Jennifer Reardon - hopefully contains the solutions to a pesky database problem or two at work.

Oh, and I got my daughter all the Martha Speaks books that she doesn't yet have.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Saxons, Vikings, and Celts

In Saxons, Vikings, and Celts (2006), Bryan Sykes traces the genetic origins of Britain and Ireland through analysis of mitochondrial DNA (direct maternal lineage) and Y-chromosomes (direct paternal lineage). It's fascinating stuff if, like me, you geek out over the intersection between science and history. Sykes looks at what history and legend claim for British ancestry, then compares it with what the DNA tells us.

Basically, the British Isles are persistently Celtic. (Though Celtic doesn't necessarily mean what you think it does--think Celtic speakers who'd been in Britain since Mesolithic times or came by sea from Iberia rather than descendants of an invasion by the Celts of Central Europe.) Even in areas heavily settled by Saxons and Vikings, over half the mDNA and Y lineages are Celtic. And the maternal and paternal lines don't necessarily match, showing that invaders often fathered children with local women rather than bringing wives from their own people, and in some cases a "Genghis Khan effect," wherein one man or a closely related group of men is disproportionately represented in the gene pool.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Naamah's Kiss

With Naamah's Kiss (2009), Jacqueline Carey opens a new series set in the same alternative Earth of the Kushiel series. A hundred years and change have passed, so Phedre, Joscelin, Imriel, Sidonie, and the rest are all part of history and legend. The new heroine is Moirin, half D'Angeline (French) and half Alban (British), and raised as a hermit even though she's kin to the royal houses of both kingdoms. She goes on a quest to find her gods-decreed destiny and her unknown D'Angeline father and gets involved in courtly intrigue, a love triangle, and dangerous magic, before ultimately going on a journey halfway around the world to rescue an imperial princess of Ch'in.

In other words, it's a great big sexy epic adventure, and if you enjoyed the Kushiel books, you'll like this one, too. I wasn't as immediately enthralled as I was my first time reading Kushiel's Dart. Moirin is in some ways a milder presence than Phedre, and I spent most of the second quarter or so of the book wanting to shake her and insist that she grow a backbone. But then she did, and by the time she left for Ch'in, I was well and truly hooked.

I'm looking forward to the rest of Moirin's story, but I'll miss some of the characters I know are one-offs. And I'm wondering just how far Carey intends to take her loose parallels with our world. It's probably a few generations into the future, but a D'Angeline Revolution has the potential to be interesting, IMO.

Usual caveats for this universe apply: these have far more sex than most epic fantasy, and while they don't bother me in this regard, some Christians might be uncomfortable with her treatment of God, Jesus, angels, etc. I read it as an alternate world rather than an attack on my world and beliefs, but your comfort zone may vary.

Farmers market berries...

Today my daughter was caught red-handed at the farmers market:

Here are the berries she was eating, sliced to go on angel food cake after dinner. I don't think the picture quite does justice to the sheer gorgeous redness of them.

Food Matters

For several years now, Mark Bittman's cookbooks, especially Quick and Easy Recipes from the New York Times and The Minimalist Cooks at Home, have been my go-to sources when I'm looking for something new to try for dinner. I like his approach to food--his recipes are generally quick, easy, and strongly flavored, but they feature real food rather than prepackaged shortcuts. They're foodie cookbooks for the busy and/or not particularly gifted cook--people like me.

In Food Matters (2009) Bittman comes to the same conclusions as Michael Pollan did in The Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food, offering a practical and flexible how-to for Pollan's mantra: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." Bittman urges readers to cut back significantly on meat and dairy products and to treat refined carbs as occasional treats, while eating as many fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains as we want. By doing so you'll both reap health benefits of reduced risk of diabetes and cardiac disease and help the planet, because livestock, especially cattle, contribute to global warming and are, for that matter, an inefficient way of feeding an increasingly crowded world.

I'm going to try it. I've been looking for a healthier way of eating, since I could stand to lose some weight and my annual bloodwork is starting to show dodgy cholesterol and triglyceride numbers. If Bittman's approach works for me, I won't have to count calories or give up anything I love forever. At the moment, I'm on vacation, and Bittman's approach emphatically approves of things like enjoying one's mother-in-law's yummy chicken fried steak with gravy or eating out at a nice restaurants. But I'm taking the week to look at recipes and think of how I could apply the approach to my busy everyday life--breakfast will be a challenge, for example, as will figuring out what to do for quick snacks. And you know, July in Seattle is just the right time and place to start eating more fruits and vegetables. We were at the farmers market this morning, and you never saw such an array of luscious berries, cherries, lettuces, sweet onions, etc. etc. Anyway. I'm going to try and see how it goes. Maybe I'll even start another blog about my efforts...

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The Lion's Daughter

The Lion's Daughter (Loretta Chase, 1992) isn't your usual historical romance novel. It's set mostly in Armenia, for starters, though the action eventually moves to England (the year is 1818). It's at least as much adventure story as romance, which is never a problem for me.

I enjoyed it, but it's not Chase's best work, IMO. (I'd say her best is Mr. Impossible, but that's a minority opinion. Many readers I know say Lord of Scoundrels is not only her best book, it's the best historical romance they've ever read, period.) Still, average Loretta Chase is still thoroughly readable. I may have been mildly bothered by the age gap between the hero and heroine--he was 28 and she 18--especially since he spent most of the book thinking she was younger still, even while he lusted after her. (It's not that I think there's anything wrong with a ten year age gap per se. I'm planning a couple with a ten-year gap in my WIP series, but they're more like 40 and 30 when they hook up. I'm just not a big fan of double-digit age gaps when the younger partner is still in her teens.) And I may have thought the plot a bit convoluted and hard to keep track of. But I still enjoyed it, and if you're looking for an adventurous romance in an unusual setting, give this book a try.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Beyond Heaving Bosoms

I've been a long-time reader and occasional commenter on the Smart Bitches, Trashy Books blog. It's right there in this blog's link section and everything. Their snarky, irreverent commentary is, in my opinion, some of the best discussion of the romance genre out there. They love romance but aren't afraid to mock its excesses and absurdities when they occur, and they've had a real impact on the genre, especially in exposing Cassie Edwards' plagiarism early last year.

Now the blog's authors, Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan, have a book out, Beyond Heaving Bosoms (2009). And if you love their blog, it's a treat--nearly 300 pages of everything you enjoy online. However, I'm not sure it works so well for new readers. Unless you're already familiar with the online romance community, I think reading it would feel a little like trying to catch the drift of a conversation already in progress when you arrive at the party.

Friday, June 26, 2009

The Ascent of Money

Years ago, I got my B.S. in Economics from the Wharton undergrad program at Penn. The odd, and rather sad thing is that I've never been all that interested in finance and never made use of my degree. My concentration was marketing, largely because it was the least financey and mathy of all the options available. Marketing was all about human behavior and telling stories, things which DO interest me. But I've never even used THAT professionally, aside from being practically the only aspiring writer I know who enjoys preparing pitches and writing query letters. If I had college to do over again, I'd switch to the College of Arts and Sciences and major in history and minor in anthropology. I still occasionally toy with going back for an M.A. in History, but I digress...

All that introduction is to explain how remarkable it is that reading The Ascent of Money (Niall Ferguson, 2008) made me temporarily enthralled by bonds and real estate and hedge funds. It reminded me of This American Life's occasional financial specials since the beginning of the downturn, only it covers centuries instead of years. He makes finance into a series of stories, packed with human interest. The only real downside to the book is that in These Troubled Times, anything of this nature is going to be outdated as soon as it rolls off the presses. Ferguson spotted most of the problem with the subprime crisis, but didn't seem to fully anticipate how global the downturn was destined to become. Nonetheless, he made money interesting, and I'm going to read his books about the British Empire and the Rothschilds.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Early Spring

Early Spring (Amy Seidl, 2009) is a lyrical requiem for a world being degraded by global warming, focusing on the author's Vermont home and the experiences she shares with her children that may or may not be around in 30 years or so when those children have children--ice fishing and outdoor skating, maple sugaring, etc.

I don't have Seidl's eye for intimate environmental detail. I couldn't recognize more than one or two species of butterfly, and lately I've been caught out when my daughter asks me to identify a tree or plant, because most of the time I just don't know. I'd do a little better in Alabama, where I grew up, but here I've never really learned. I tend to look at the big picture. Like, mountains and ocean big picture. But I've definitely noticed that the weather has changed in my lifetime, and I do worry what it means for my daughter and her potential children. So this book made me sad. Because even if we start doing all the right things tomorrow--and God knows we won't--there's so much it's too late to salvage.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

First Comes Marriage

First Comes Marriage (Mary Balogh, 2009) opens a new Regency romance series featuring a family of three sisters and a young brother who are raised from genteel poverty in an obscure village when the brother is discovered to be the heir to an earldom. Vanessa, the plain middle sister, ends up in a marriage of convenience with the neighboring lord who becomes her brother's guardian.

This book gets an interesting mix of reviews on Amazon, almost an even spread from one star right up to five. Some say it's Balogh's best work in years while others are saying she's finally jumped the shark. My opinion is somewhere in the middle, but on the positive side. It's not the most romantic romance ever, but I did believe the central couple would be happy together. But the real strength of the book for me was how three-dimensional the characters and setting felt. Balogh knows her history, and she makes her characters a fully imagined community.

Saturday, June 20, 2009


No time to do a proper post on this once, but Traffic (Tom Vanderbilt, 2008) is a book you'll love if you enjoy reading about practical human behavior and the science behind it.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009


I've read several modern retellings of the Arthur legend--enough that I have trouble getting through the more traditional high chivalry versions, because "my" King Arthur was a Celtic or Romano-Celtic warlord trying to hold back the Saxons, and I'm just not as interested in the other kind. I lost interest in The Once and Future King, and I'm trying to force myself to read Le Mort D'Arthur to figure out what aspects of the Matter of Britain would've stood out for the characters in my 1805 WIP, but I'm finding it a slog. Probably a failing on my part, but once I get a vision in my head of what a story is, I cling to it stubbornly.

Bernard Cornwell's trilogy is probably my favorite Celtic Arthur, and Excalibur (1999) is a fitting end to the trilogy. It has plenty of gore and horror, and honor, courage, and loyalty to balance them out, and all with a sense of a growing shadow throughout, because you know how it has to end.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Miss Ware's Refusal

Miss Ware's Refusal (Marjorie Farrell, 1990) is one of my beloved old-school traditional Regency romances. Since I can be pedantic about such things, I'll say upfront it's not 100% correct in every single historical detail--e.g. I find it difficult to believe a duke with no heir but a cousin he doesn't trust with his estates would've risked his life with the army--but the overall period feel is good. The hero, the martial-minded duke I mentioned, is blinded by a head injury at Waterloo, and must learn to come to terms with his new limitations and accept that he still has much to offer. An impoverished vicar's daughter who becomes his reader provides him an unexpected challenge, and the romance flows from there.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Before the Dawn

Before the Dawn (Nicholas Wade, 2006) is wide-ranging discussion of what genetics can tell us about human prehistory, plus a few examples of how reading DNA can illuminate history--e.g. the extreme prevalence of what appears to be Genghis Khan's Y chromosome persisting to this day across the lands the Mongols ruled, the proof that Thomas Jefferson fathered Sally Hemings' children, etc.

I'm always interested by books on this and similar subjects, but I found this one occasionally depressing because Wade used so much energy on finding the survival and/or reproductive value of every single aspect of human behavior. I'm not denying that there's a biological basis for altruism or anything like that...but I also think that as a species we've managed to transcend our programming, as it were. To borrow a line from CS Lewis, in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, when Eustace meets a sentient Narnian star, he comments that in his world, a star is a giant ball of flaming gas. The star replies, "Even in your world, that isn't what a star is, but only what it is made of." And that's how I feel about humanity. We're a product of our genes and millions of years of evolution...but that's not all we are. And I do mean that as a religious statement, but it doesn't have to be.

Friday, June 5, 2009


I've been a fan of the Marcus Didius Falco mysteries for years, and Falco and Helena Justina are one of my all-time favorite romantic pairs in any genre. Naturally I was quick to pick up Alexandria (Lindsey Davis, 2009), the 19th outing in the series.

As usual, it's the ongoing comic family saga that most holds my interest, in this case as Falco takes his pregnant wife, two young children, teenage foster daughter, and brother-in-law to Egypt so Helena can see the Pyramids before their third child is born to render travel even more challenging. The mystery, involving dead bodies turning up in the Great Library, wasn't quite as compelling to me--possibly because I work on the fringes of academia, and the bureaucratic squabbling and jockeying for power felt all too realistic and everyday! Which is part of the fun of the Falco series, that combination of historically accurate detail with modern tone and world-weariness that comes from being a cog in a giant, complex society. This time it was just a little too close to home for me.

I hope there isn't a two-year gap before the next book like there was between 2007's Saturnalia in this one. I want to know how Helena's pregnancy turns out, and if I'm right in spotting potential romantic angst involving two secondary characters...

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Silver Phoenix

Silver Phoenix (Cindy Pon, 2009) is YA fantasy set in a land strongly resembling imperial China, but replete with mythical creatures, some benign, some terrifying. It stars a spirited young woman chosen by the gods to defeat an evil force, which gives it a Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon meets Buffy feel. It's a fun book, and the food descriptions are guaranteed to make you want to abandon whatever you brought for lunch that day and go out for dim sum. Oh, and minor spoiler alert: if you're a big sappy sap like me, don't expect your romantic side to be satisfied.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Fire in Fiction

At last year's Surrey International Writers Conference, I took a master class from well-known agent Donald Maass. Laptops and notebooks in hand, we rewrote a scene from our own work, adding tension to dialogue, looking for sensory details only our protagonists would notice, etc. The scene I worked on that day is, IMHO, by far the best-written scene in my WIP. (Unfortunately, it's not terribly relevant to my plot based on how the story developed in later scenes, and my critique partners are telling me I might need to kill this particular darling.)

The Fire in Fiction (2009) amounts to nine of those master classes. (And the exercises from ours are found in Ch. 3.) It's full of ideas for strengthening your fiction, along with examples from published novels, most of them recent, with exercises that strike me as actually useful. The copy I read belongs to the library, but I'm going to be getting my own for use in polishing the WIP for submission. I recommend it highly for writers who are ready to go beyond the usual writing guides with their lectures on how to outline and interview your characters and excise adverbs.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Surprised by Hope

My pastor recommended N.T. Wright to me as a theologian who might appeal to someone who loves CS Lewis, but doesn't think he has all the answers the way I did 20 or 25 years ago (have I really been reading Mere Christianity and The Screwtape Letters for that long? I'm getting old!), and who occasionally wants to slap Lewis silly for his sexism.

Surprised by Hope (2008) is my third Wright book, so I'm obviously getting enough out of his work to keep coming back for more, but it must be said upfront that he's no CS Lewis when it comes to turning a phrase. Then again, few of us are. Lewis is one of my all-time favorite prose stylists, right up there with Jane Austen, Patrick O'Brian, and (really!) Judith Martin/Miss Manners. No matter what he's saying, how he says it is pure readerly joy. His sentences flow with all the beauty and freedom of a clear mountain stream tumbling over rocks. Wright's prose, by comparison, is more of a slog through molasses.

But I do like his approach to theology. He uses some of the same arguments for faith as Lewis, but presents them less as proofs than as matters for consideration, which I find comforting and refreshing as someone who just doesn't seem to be wired for certainty. In this book, he focuses on the doctrine of the resurrection of the body, which many of us Christians recite in the Apostles' Creed but otherwise rarely think about. Wright contends that it's a crucial point, because it proves that God's purpose is to redeem creation, not to destroy it, so it cuts into the subtle heresy of dualism that's common in many parts of the church--a dualism which in its most extreme form leads to Christians who are anti-environmentalism because God's just going to destroy this world soon anyway, and to turning away from the fight for justice and meeting material needs because saving souls is what matters.

Royal Mourning and Regency Culture

To be honest, I skimmed Royal Mourning and Regency Culture (Stephen C. Behrendt, 1997). It's research for my alternative history, in which, among other things, I have a British royal death or two. It occurred to me as I was revising that I know next to nothing about the relevant mourning and funerary customs. The nearest real royal death to my fictional ones was the 1817 death in childbirth of the Princess Charlotte, at the time the only legitimate grandchild of George III and therefore after her father the Prince Regent heir presumptive to the throne. Her son was stillborn, and the double tragedy set off a series of belated marriages among her uncles, ultimately leading to the birth of the future Queen Victoria.

Behrendt's book looks at the cultural response to Charlotte's death as an early example of the kind of public grief we've seen in our time over figures like JFK or Princess Diana. He analyzes everything from poetry to commemorative prints to essays tying Charlotte's life and death to the post-Waterloo uneasiness and social upheaval facing England at the time. Reasonably interesting stuff, if you're a research geek like me...but I still ended up skimming, since I was seeking general principles to apply to my fictional deaths rather than trying to learn all the details of poor Charlotte's real one. (Charlotte's death resonates with me more than you'd expect for an obscure royal who died well before I was born, because it's highly possible she had preeclampsia, which there but for the grace of modern medicine would've killed me, and I first read about her case not long after my daughter was born.)

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Graveyard Book

It took me just a few hours to read The Graveyard Book (Neil Gaiman, 2008). It's YA, so it's not a long book, and there's a spooky lyricism to both the writing and the story that kept me turning the pages.

It's Jungle Book in a graveyard, basically, with ghosts taking the place of the animals and bringing up a boy who alone of his family survived a gruesome murder. An eerie, wistful coming-of-age story...really, it's hard to describe this book. If the concept appeals to you at all, you should just go read it.

The Now Habit

It would be premature to say The Now Habit (Neil Fiore, 2007 ed.) changed my life. I just finished it yesterday, after all. But I do think it solidified my thinking on issues I was already learning how to deal with and gave me some good new strategies as I try to be more productive and build a better life for myself.

Unlike a lot of books on procrastination, The Now Habit examines the root causes of the problem instead of just teaching a new system for your calendar and to-do list. And in Fiore's view, being a procrastinator doesn't mean you're lazy, but that you've learned a less than optimal coping strategy for dealing with perfectionism, fear of failure, and/or being stuck in a situation where you feel powerless. So he asks you to examine the reasons you're putting something off and offers strategies to help you feel safer and/or more powerful. Also, since a common reason for procrastination is the fear that you'll never get to relax again, his system requires you to schedule breaks and time for play first. I'd stumbled across that idea on my own. I have a daily list for the projects and tasks I'm working on outside work, and once I've crossed everything off for the day, I'm done. Instead of working on tomorrow's work, I curl up with a book or watch fun TV, and it's downright reinvigorating.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

For Liberty and Glory

For Liberty and Glory (James R. Gaines, 2007) is a joint history of the American and French Revolutions, viewed through the lens of Washington, Lafayette, and their friendship. Though I know quite a bit about both revolutions, Gaines highlights linkages between the two beyond the obvious and brings the social and cultural context forward more than most histories of the era.

Gaines doesn't explicitly say so, but reading his account of events in France made me wonder if the difference in population density impacted the outcomes almost as much as the fact the Americans had some experience of self-government and came from a system that already limited the powers of the monarchy, while the French were trying to move all the way out of absolutism at once. America, a country with low population density and no city close to the size of Paris, could handle the chaos of a revolution and the weak central government prior to the Constitutional Convention because such uprisings as there were were isolated, and they didn't have a big, half-starved city providing angry mobs to drive the revolution to unhealthy extremes.

Before reading this book, I didn't know much about Lafayette, but I ended it admiring him. He wasn't the most brilliant figure of his age, militarily or politically, but he was honorable, courageous, and consistent--he had his principles at 19, and he followed them still at 70. And I have to admit to getting a bit verklempt at the end, when Gaines points out just how much of Lafayette is in the Constitution of the Fifth French Republic--i.e. the current one, the one that gives every appearance of being here to stay. That's the vindication of history for you.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Reading Drought

Every once in awhile I'll go through a phase where I just can't finish a book. I pick up novels and get annoyed by the characters a chapter in, or by the writing a few pages in. I start nonfiction histories and am interested for a few chapters, but ultimately get lost in a sea of unfamiliar names and stop caring what happened to any of them. And it's frustrating, because there's nothing like the pleasure of getting lost in a good book.

I'm in such a drought now, as evidenced by the fact I haven't blogged about a book in over a week. In that time, I've cast aside a pair of novels, one a YA historical novel that was just a tad too Afterschool Special in its life lessons, the other a double period piece--it was written 80 or 90 years ago, about events that took place ~350 years ago. In the right mood, I could've enjoyed both books, but this week I didn't feel like being preached to by the former, nor putting up with certain old-school conventions of the latter. (No protagonist of mine, whatever his century, woos his woman with "punishing kisses." He just doesn't.) I've also abandoned two nonfiction histories which started out promising but turned dry and slow-paced.

I hope I get past this soon. I started a new research book this morning, Royal Mourning and Regency Culture, by Stephen C. Behrendt, on the cultural impact of Princess Charlotte's brief life and tragic 1817 death in childbirth. This just shows what a geek I am, but so far it's a page-turner. I'm also about to start a semi-research book, For Liberty and Glory, by James R. Gaines, about Washington, Lafayette, and the American and French Revolutions, which sounds so fascinating it had better be good. And if that doesn't work, I've got a Bernard Cornwell in my TBR pile--nothing like a writer you know and trust to tell a good story.

What about you? How do you get out of a reading drought?

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste

I never would've picked up Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste (Carl Wilson, 2007) if its author hadn't shown up on the Colbert Report a little while back. But I'm glad I did, because it's an enjoyable, thought-provoking book.

The author, a music critic, decides to explore an album and an artist he's always considered the epitome of bad music--Celine Dion, and the 1997 album that includes "My Heart Will Go On." He doesn't "review" the album until the penultimate chapter, spending most of the book exploring strands of North American music history, how Quebecois culture and history shaped Dion and her music, and the function of taste (in music, books, art, food, whatever) as a way of defining our identities and our place in social hierarchies.

Good stuff, though I'm not quite ready to take him up on his challenge and, say, hang a Thomas Kinkade painting above my bed. I wonder what it says about me that Thomas Kinkade is my Celine Dion, as it were, when in general I know and care FAR less about the visual arts than I do literature or music. Most of the time I readily shrug off the popularity of books or music I don't enjoy, including Celine Dion, with a "Some people juggle geese." (Firefly reference) But put me in a Christian bookstore with a display of Kinkades or those patriotic paintings of soaring eagles, and suddenly I'm Absolute Aesthetic Judgment Woman.

Monday, April 20, 2009

The Secret Wedding

Apparently I'm not a typical romance reader. In the past few days I've finished one romance and got about a chapter and a half into another before giving up in frustration. I won't name the book I gave up on. As someone who blogs as an aspiring writer rather than as a hard-core reviewer, I have a policy of only reviewing books I can give at least a qualified recommendation to. But I think I can say why the book failed for me without giving away identifying information: the set-up for the hero and heroine's first meeting was one I'd seen too many times, and I didn't like the way the author used the language. There were some misused words, and the word choice altered between overly forsoothly here-we-are-in-Days-of-Yore speech and anachronistic like-whatEVer phrasings. I can accept either style, depending on the overall tone of the work and even when it's set, but veering between the extremes gives me whiplash. But that book gets rave reviews on Amazon and elsewhere, including praise of the author's style and voice. Huh. No accounting for taste, I guess.

However, I thoroughly enjoyed The Secret Wedding (Jo Beverley, 2009). The characters are believable and interesting, the plot moves along at a good clip, and the setting is believable for its time and place (mid-18th century England). But when I look at its online reviews, they're all over the map and tending toward negative. A lot of readers seem to dislike Caro, the heroine, considering her selfish and cold for being so concerned about protecting the property she inherited even though she didn't have relatives or tenants depending on her. And I just can't see it. I feel like those readers are missing the point that unless a woman entered marriage with a specific legally binding agreement to the contrary, every scrap of property she owned became entirely her husband's. I can't blame a woman for wanting some protection--if nothing else, if her husband died and left all his property that was once her property to, say, his brother, she could go from wealthy heiress to penniless widow overnight. And while I'm not generally a fan of insta-sex between the hero and heroine, in this case Beverley made it work. So this one I do recommend.