Monday, February 23, 2009

Vlad: The Last Confession

Vlad: The Last Confession (C.C. Humphreys, 2008) won't be released in the U.S. for another week or two, but I bought a copy in Canada last October at the Surrey International Writers Conference, where Humphreys was one of the presenters. If you're ever at a conference where he's speaking, do go to his workshops--he's an actor as well as a writer, and his presentations are always lively and engaging. He's also at least as much of a research junkie as I am, but with a better travel and weaponry budget. (Hopefully one day I'll be so lucky and get to regale my audiences with, say, a firsthand description of the walls around Badajoz or what it's like to fire a Baker rifle or wield a French infantry officer's sabre.)

Anyway, the book. It's a novel of Dracula, but not a vampire story. Instead we meet the historical Vlad Dracula, at least an interpretation thereof based on the scanty facts available. And it's a page-turning epic adventure, albeit occasionally a stomach-turning one as well. I think I was happier without knowing so much about how to go about impaling one's enemies, for example. But I recommend it for anyone who likes their historical fiction with a lot of war and danger or who craves unusual settings.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Favorite authors through time

Crossposted from Facebook, because it seemed to fit here, too.

Instructions: List your ten favorite authors when you were ten years old, and your fifteen favorite authors when you were fifteen years old. Star those who are on both lists. Then list ten authors you love whom you discovered after the age of 15! The final step: decide on your five favorite authors of all time.

(in no particular order)

CS Lewis*
Marguerite Henry
Walter Farley
Judy Blume*
Beverly Cleary
Donald F. Glut (wrote a novelization of THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK that I read to *tatters* in 4th grade)
Katherine Paterson
Anna Sewell
Whoever wrote the Encyclopedia of the Horse that I had back then
Whoever wrote the Time-Life book on Early Man I used to get out of the library again and again.

After the first five, this was really tough. Mostly I just read my favorite books over and over again. And I was surprisingly into non-fiction, or at least pseudo-non-fiction, for a girl who would grow up to write fiction. My local library had a series of fictionalized biographies of the childhoods of early Americans that I loved--I especially remember the ones about George Washington, Robert E Lee, Douglas MacArthur, and Tecumseh, for some reason. I also read a lot of military history written for kids. There was a whole series on WWII.

It strikes me that I was a somewhat strange kid.

(also in no particular order)

CS Lewis*
Judy Blume*
Jean Auel
Belva Plain
Alexandra Ripley
Celeste de Blasis
Georgette Heyer
Clare Darcy
Candice Ransom
Charlotte Bronte
Anne Frank
Mary Francis Shura
Taylor Caldwell
John Jakes
Margaret Mitchell

Fifteen-year-old Susan sure loved her some family sagas...


Jane Austen
Patrick O'Brian
Louisa May Alcott (I know! But I never read her as a child!)
LM Montgomery (see note on Alcott)
Bernard Cornwell
Dorothy Sayers
Jacqueline Carey
Lois McMaster Bujold
Lindsey Davis
Bill Bryson


Jane Austen
CS Lewis
Dorothy Sayers
Patrick O'Brian
Bernard Cornwell

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Wellington: Pillar of State

Wellington: Pillar of State (Elizabeth Longford, 1972) held my attention, but it also saddened me. It's about Wellington's life post-Waterloo, which I've paid less attention to, given that I became a Wellington fangirl via my interest in the Napoleonic Wars, and that it's Sir Arthur Wellesley the brilliant young general who shows up in my alternative history WIP, not Wellington the aging reactionary Tory politician. I'd describe Wellington as the last great 18th century Englishman, but he never quite got into synch with the post-1815 world despite living till 1852 and staying active politically right up until his death. And his politics frustrate me, 21st century American Democrat that I am--I want to jump in the nearest TARDIS, go back to 1820 or so, and shake some sense into the man, because, dang it, he was far too intelligent to have such rigid ideas!

Still, despite disagreeing with him, I don't admire him any less. I wish more people on both sides of my country's politics had his rock-solid integrity and willingness to put the public good as he perceived it ahead of ambition. And while I didn't enjoy this book as much as the first volume of Longford's biography (Wellington: The Years of the Sword), because there's just no way in the WORLD I'm going to find 19th century Parliamentary minutia as interesting as the Peninsular War and Waterloo, she made the human interest so strong and lively that I managed to soldier through all the Whig and Tory wrangling.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Kitchen Confidential

I'm sick again. Or perhaps I should say still. This round may be a mild case of pneumonia; I'll be staying home from work and seeing the doctor tomorrow. So I've again been spending a lot of the time lounging on the couch or in bed with a book. Currently I'm re-reading Sense & Sensibility and working my way through the second volume of Elizabeth Longford's Wellington biography, but over the weekend I read Kitchen Confidential (Anthony Bourdain, the 2007 updated edition).

Bourdain is as close to a universal crush object as I've found--I think because he's a real-life reformed but not exactly repentant rake, AND he could pamper you by cooking amazing meals. And it doesn't hurt that he's tall, dark, and handsome. Don't get me wrong, I'm a happily married woman, but Bourdain makes a nice Secret Celebrity Boyfriend. And Kitchen Confidential is a fun memoir of his wild youth and eventual success, with musings about food, cooking, and life. If you like No Reservations, you'll enjoy this book.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Country Gentleman

Whenever I'm in a thrift store or used bookstore, I look for traditional Regency romances, the older the better. One of my recent finds was The Country Gentleman (Dinah Dean, 1986), a pastoral tale of English village life in 1807--with some soldiers, including a brief cameo by the future Duke of Wellington, smugglers, and a spy, just to spice things up a little. Dean really, really knows her stuff, whether it's bell-ringing or details of relatively obscure campaigns of the Napoleonic Wars, and I enjoyed the rich, three-dimensional world she created. As a history geek, it's always a pleasure to find a writer who shares some of my obsessions and introduces me to a few of her own. That said, the romance takes a back seat to the period piece aspects of the story. I didn't mind, but many readers might.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Quarrel With the King

I'm still not all the way over my cold, but Thursday I went back to work and resumed my normal life. I also took a break from quick, fun novels and read Quarrel With the King (Adam Nicolson, 2008). It took me outside my usual narrow area of English history, focusing on a noble family's course between rising to royal favor in the 1520's and taking the parliamentarian side of the English Civil War in the 1640's.

It's a tough book to categorize. It includes intellectual history, history of art, vignettes of the lives of the Pembroke family's tenants, etc., but its overarching theme is the slow end of England's medieval ways, where there was hierarchy but also a degree of mutuality, in the face of the encroachment of the modern, more authoritarian state.

It's an artfully written book, and it gave me a better sense of the sweep of the times--how the seeds of the English Civil War were planted all the way back under the Tudors, and how the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries influenced "my" era of the late 18th and early 19th.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Sharing Knife: Horizon

Still home sick, still enough energy to read but not do much else. So last night and this afternoon, with some Nyquil-induced sleep between, I read The Sharing Knife: Horizon (Lois McMaster Bujold, 2009), the final volume in a four-book fantasy series about the cross-cultural romance between a woman from ordinary, non-magical stock (farmers) and a Lakewalker man (possessed of certain magical powers useful in fighting the evils of their world).

It's an excellent conclusion to the series, but the key word is conclusion. If you want to read these books, you really need to go back to the beginning and start with Beguilement. Bujold has gradually raised the stakes and the scale of the story all along from what started out as mostly the romance of the principals, and the way she wraps it up feels right. Fawn and Dag haven't solved their world's problems, but they've planted the seeds for greater cooperation between their peoples. There's satisfying closure, but with plenty of loose ends should Bujold choose to revisit this world.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Susan lies on couch, reads YA novels

I've been home with a cold for the past two days, with little energy for anything beyond reading. It seemed a perfect time to indulge my taste for the occasional YA novel, like the two I've read over the past two days.

Perfect Chemistry (Simone Elkeles, 2008) is basically an updated take on Romeo & Juliet or West Side Story, only with a lower body count and a more optimistic ending. Rich girl Brittany Ellis and gang member Alex Fuentes are forced to work together after their chemistry teacher assigns partners in alphabetical order. It's a compelling read, and I enjoyed it with the caveats that Brittany and Alex both sounded a bit too adult for their age, and maybe the epilogue was a bit too tidy an ending.

Forever Princess (Meg Cabot, 2009) is the tenth and final volume in the Princess Diaries series. Cabot again performs the neat trick of combining pure wish fulfillment fantasy (e.g. Mia's 18th birthday party on the Genovian royal yacht with the Obamas and the Clintons, among famous others, in attendance) with an emotionally realistic coming-of-age story. The ending can't be called surprising, but it was satisfying, which is far more important, IMHO.

Monday, February 2, 2009

My Jesus Year

One of these days I'm going to think of a good topic for a year memoir--you know, that subgenre that seems so popular of late where the writer makes some lifestyle change or other for a year and writes about it with some blend of comedy and insight. So far my muse hasn't complied, though.

I can't stop reading the things, though, and I enjoyed My Jesus Year (Benyamin Cohen, 2008). Cohen, an Orthodox rabbi's son, had been going through the motions of his own faith, so he wondered if satisfying his lifelong curiosity about Christianity will give him new insight into his own beliefs. And since he live in Atlanta, he's well-placed for such a project. He spends a year visiting assorted churches and Christian events (all while maintaining faithful Jewish observance) and comes out feeling reinvigorated by the variety of faith he sees.

Cohen's outsider view doesn't always mesh with my insider perspective. He's a lot more tolerant of megachurches and stadium worship than I tend to be, and he's harsh on a church that sounds exactly like a larger version of my mom's church in Alabama--very informal, with no trappings of tradition or liturgy, and maybe not the most theologically sophisticated in the world--because he's put off by the youth of the prayer leader and the pastor's interpretation of Moses and the burning bush. Still, it's funny and engaging, and I'm feeling inspired to open my eyes a little more to the possibility of God's presence, both in the places I expect it and where I don't.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

A Dead Bore

Sheri Cobb South is high on my list of obscure authors who deserve a wider audience. Her books are published by Five Star, a small publisher that focuses mostly on the library market. You're unlikely to find them in bookstores, but your local library may well have them, and of course they're available on

A Dead Bore (2008) is the second in a series of Regency mysteries featuring Bow Street Runner John Pickett and Lady Fieldhurst, the newly widowed viscountess he cleared of suspicion for her husband's murder in In Milady's Chamber. In this story, set a few months after the first one, Lady Fieldhurst accepts an invitation to a house party in Yorkshire to escape London gossip about her husband's scandalous death. When the local vicar dies in what looks to be a fire started by a lightning strike, she senses something is off and invites Pickett to come investigate, and naturally he's eager to comply.

The mystery is good, and the developing attraction between Pickett and Lady Fieldhurst is even better. I love a good slow-blossoming romance, and I've always had a thing for cross-class pairings in historicals where the woman is the aristocrat. I'll be looking forward to the next entry in this series, and I hope I won't have as long a wait between volumes!