Sunday, March 29, 2009

Going Too Far

Jennifer Echols is from more or less the same corner of Alabama as I grew up in, and she writes YA novels set there, so reading her books is always a bit of a trip in the wayback machine. This one is set in my very own home county, maybe about fifteen miles from my hometown. (It would've actually passed for my hometown, only we're near US 280, not the interstate.)

The heroine of Going Too Far (2009) is Meg, a wild child 17-year-old who in the opening scene is stoned, drunk, and planning to have sex with her sorta-boyfriend on a railroad bridge when they're caught by the cops--one of whom she eventually discovers is John, a 19-year-old who graduated her high school the year before, and despite good grades and test scores decided to stay home and go to police academy rather than heading for college. Meg's punishment for the bridge escapade is to forfeit her spring break Florida trip and ride along with John for a week to see what her behavior looks like from the other side. While the set-up is a bit implausible, the characters were so real and fascinating that I didn't really care. We gradually discover just what demons from her past are driving Meg, along with the ghosts that haunt John (though I guessed his before I figured out the exact details of hers), and I was rooting for both of them to let go of their self-destructive behavior (hers obvious, his subtle) and embrace the future.

Forging the Sword

Forging the Sword (Hilari Bell, 2007) is a solid conclusion to the Farsala Trilogy. I like how Bell allows plenty of room for moral gray areas and good and bad people on both sides of her conflict, and manages to come up with an ending that feels just for everyone.

Thursday, March 26, 2009


Fourteen or fifteen years ago, some friends of mine dragged me to a Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood seminar, where the speaker--I think it was John Piper--delineated what he thought was a woman's proper way of relating to men. He wasn't necessarily opposed to women working as such--just insisting that they avoid any kind of directive authority over men. E.g. a woman could be a nurse, but probably not a head nurse who'd be directing male nurses and hospital support staff. And women should be careful how they handle even the most innocuous communications that could be considered authoritative. The example he used was a man asking for driving directions. While the biblical woman is allowed to tell a lost traveler how to get back to the freeway, she's supposed to do so in a feminine, gentle manner. Which insofar as I could tell meant a soft voice and not sounding too authoritative. Seemed silly to me, as I assume the lost driver would rather the person guiding him sound confident and certain!

Looking back, that conference, and how appalled I was by it, was a first step for me in my journey from the Religious Right to the religious center-left. (I'm still a Presbyterian, but I'm now in the mainline branch of the tradition.) But for awhile there I tried very hard to believe God had designed women for a different and subservient role because that was the worldview surrounding me, and I wanted to be a good Christian woman. Perhaps because of that, I've developed a fascination for the Christian patriarchy movement that's grown out of teachings like I heard at that seminar back in the 90's. I've watched the Duggars' show once or twice. I lurk on blogs related to the movement, both pro and con. I write alternative history, and I guess patriarchy is my alternative history. If I'd made a few different choices in the mid-90's, I might be a submissive wife with twelve children instead of a partner in an egalitarian marriage with just one. There but for the grace of God go I...though doubtless they'd say I'd turned my back on that grace!

So naturally I made a point of reading Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement (Kathryn Joyce, 2009) as soon as I heard about it. Joyce, a journalist who isn't religious herself but has often written on religious topics, investigated the movement, meeting leaders, dissidents, and ordinary families. Mostly she just stands back and lets her subjects speak for themselves. She focuses on women as wives, mothers, and daughters, and I thought the last, shortest section on daughters was especially powerful--daughters who don't go to college or work before marriage, who consider themselves as helpmeets of their fathers, under their fathers' authority until they're transferred to their husband's keeping upon marriage. In some cases they even refer to themselves as owned by their fathers. I read that chapter, I look at my daughter, who at not-quite-five is already so full of spirit and dreams (lately she wants to be a painter and have her work in a museum, but some days she says astronaut or veterinarian instead), and I'm glad I'm not living that alternate reality.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Sky Took Him

Donis Casey is high on my list of authors who deserve to be much better known. The Sky Took Him (2009) is the latest in her series featuring Alafair Tucker, farmer's wife and amateur sleuth in early 20th century Oklahoma. Lovely voice, lovely local color, and I especially enjoyed this entry's romance subplot involving Alafair's independent oldest daughter. And there was a nice balance of obvious clues that even mystery-clueless me could spot and unexpected twists that were subtly but fairly foreshadowed.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Pluto Files

I've seen Neil deGrasse Tyson over and over again on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report and always enjoyed his appearances, so I wasn't surprised to find The Pluto Files (2009) an entertaining book. It's all about the controversy over Pluto's recent reclassification to dwarf planet and Kuiper Belt object, and it's a good mix of science, humor, and cultural commentary (in that Pluto doesn't care how we classify it, but the fact of the controversy says a lot about us.)

And, to my surprise, I learned something I didn't know about my historical era--when William Herschel discovered Uranus in 1781 (the first planet not visible to the naked eye to be found), he was offered the honor of naming it. He called it Georgium Sidus (George's Star) in honor of his patron, George III. He believed this was more rational and in keeping with the spirit of the times than to name it after a pagan god or mythological figure. Problem is, no one outside of England much liked the idea, and the scientific community eventually settled on Uranus. (I can't figure out, either from deGrasse Tyson's book or Wikipedia, how long it took for the Uranus name to gain currency, so I can't figure out which name the characters in my 1805-set WIP would use. Fortunately, I can't think of any reason why they'd need to bring it up, though I do like discovering these little nuggets of history to remind me how my characters' mental map of the universe would differ from mine.)

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Rise of a Hero

Rise of a Hero (Hilari Bell, 2005) is the second book of the YA fantasy trilogy that began with Fall of a Kingdom. It's the kind of fantasy that isn't exactly alternative history, but that flaunts rather than disguises its similarity to our world (much like Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel series or most of Guy Gavriel Kay's books). The three protagonists are from Farsala, an obvious Persian analogue, which has just been conquered by the Hrum--i.e. the Romans. After the defeat at the end of the first book, aristocratic Soraya, her half-caste half-brother Jiaan, and the peasant Kavi start to figure out how to fight back.

It's a page-turner, and if I have a little trouble believing teens like Jiaan and Kavi could become rebel leaders, well, I know it's YA. (I find Soraya's role more plausible, since I can see a 16-year-old girl having such a dogged and single-minded focus on saving what's left of her family.) I've already put the last book in the series on hold, and I recommend it for anyone who likes a good epic adventure.

Friday, March 13, 2009

The Recollections of Rifleman Harris

I finally got around to reading The Recollections of Rifleman Harris (Christopher Hibbert, ed., 1970), one of the better-known Peninsular War memoirs. Harris was a shepherd and cobbler from Dorsetshire who was drafted into the militia (think National Guard, only they couldn't be required to serve outside of Great Britain and Ireland) and then chose to enlist in the 95th Rifles. He only served in the earliest part of the Peninsular campaign--after the first expeditionary force was evacuated in 1809, he was sent on the ill-fated Walcheren expedition and was one of many men who came down with what was probably malaria. He never recovered enough to resume active service, and was working in London as a cobbler years after Waterloo when he encountered Henry Curling, the officer who set down his story. (Harris himself was probably illiterate.)

Harris's memories are rambling and disjointed; Christopher Hibbert's occasional footnotes and clarifications are a big help. Even so, I'd only recommend it to readers who know a fair amount about the Peninsular War. It's a striking read for its calm, straightforward narrative of the horrors and privations of war, and the mixture of inhumanity and grace in how people respond to it. It did sadden me a bit to see Harris completely buy into the evils of the system he served in--he believed flogging was a necessary evil and preferred officers to be from the gentry or the aristocracy. It doesn't surprise me to see beneficiaries of such a system defend it, but I like to think people like Harris would've been itching to, oh, fight the power and stick it to The Man. Of course, if they had, the course of British history would've been very different, but reading that kind of servility still makes me wince.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Whee! My CP sold her book!

I've been sitting on this for nearly two weeks, but now it's all official. The following just appeared on the Publishers Marketplace deals page:

Rose Lerner's IN FOR A PENNY, in which a dashing and feckless Lord enters a marriage of convenience with the lovely and practical daughter of a wealthy merchant in an effort to salvage the family fortune, and they find themselves unprepared for the challenges they face; scandal, revolting tenants, a menacing neighbor and in the end a love that is neither convenient nor practical but entirely heartfelt and enduring, to Leah Hultenschmidt at Dorchester, for publication in Spring 2010, by Kevan Lyon at Marsal Lyon Literary Agency (World).

Rose, who is one of my critique partners, writes some of the most intelligent, witty, and thoughtful Regency romances I've ever read. While she very much has her own voice, her writing has shades of Loretta Chase and even Georgette Heyer, and I recommend her book without hesitation to fans of the genre. (And will come back and do so again as soon as her book is available for preorder on Amazon!)

In this economy, I'm always excited to hear about a debut non-celebrity author selling a book even when it's something I have no interest in reading myself, just because it's proof that publishers are still buying and the industry isn't wholly dead. But to have a good friend of mine sell a book that I can personally attest is wonderful? That's just SO FRICKIN' AWESOME!

Sunday, March 8, 2009

A Candle in the Dark

Don't let the painfully ugly bodice ripper cover on A Candle in the Dark (Megan Chance, 1993) fool you. This book breaks almost all the unwritten rules of the romance genre. Hero and heroine are down on their luck--he's an alcoholic doctor who refuses to practice medicine and she's a whore who needs to get out of town after killing a violent client. "Town" is New York in 1849, so the heroine pays the hero to pose as her husband on a steamer trip to Panama, with the ultimate destination of San Francisco. They're terribly broken people, and the hero in particular shows a degree of weakness that you rarely see in romance. It wasn't an easy read because, I admit, I'm used to at least one of the protagonists in a romance being nice and therefore easy to root for, and this wasn't the case here. But it was different, and it held my interest.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Wolves at the Gate

Wolves at the Gate (Drew Goddard, Georges Jeanty, Joss Whedon, 2008) is the latest in the Buffy Season 8 series of graphic novels. It's funny, it's fast-paced, it has some great visuals...and one sucker-punch of a character death. Joss sure does that a lot, doesn't he?

You know, I can't promise that I'll never kill a character my readers care about. But I hereby pledge my protagonists' lips are not poisonous, nor are their beds preludes to the long sleep of the grave. In other words, I promise not to kill anyone they kiss or sleep with within 24 hours of their first encounter!

The Myth of Certainty

I wish I'd read The Myth of Certainty (Daniel Taylor, 1986) fifteen or twenty years ago. On the other hand, back then I would've taken one look at the title and said, "Certainty isn't a myth! What is Intervarsity Press thinking to publish something like that?" It's not that I didn't have doubts about my faith back then, I just kept them buried deep and beat them down whenever they tried to well up with uncomfortable questions. That's not a sustainable way to live and think, and I eventually admitted that the kind of faith I'd been taught to believe didn't have all the answers--and contained some out-and-out falsehoods. Ever since I've been trying to figure out whether I can sustain some kind of faith without the certainties I used to cling to. For Narnia fans, I often say I have the faith of Puddleglum--I want to live as like a Narnian I can even if there is no Narnia, and I'm on Aslan's side even if there is no Aslan to lead it. I think it would've saved me a lot of angst along the way if I'd realized years and years ago there was no such thing as certainty and that maybe that's OK.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009


Growing up, I was always a tomboy. I hated wearing dresses. I never played with dolls, preferring toy horses and blocks. My bicycle was a racehorse, my swing-set was various ships from the Star Wars movies, and I used spare beanpoles for tipi frames or broke them in half and pretended they were swords or lightsabers. I either wanted to go to West Point and become an Army officer like my big brother Jim, or else become the first woman jockey to win the Triple Crown. Even if I'd had more chances to ride, the latter would've been impossible, given that I'm a big-boned 5'7". As for the former, no regrets on that score. Someone with my authority issues is better off writing about soldiers than becoming one!

Back then I loved fiction with girls in traditionally male roles, whether as themselves or disguised as boys. Princess Leia gave me an early expectation that a woman should hold her own and not sit around waiting to be rescued. Much as I adored the Narnia books, I always got annoyed at CS Lewis for the "battles are ugly when women fight" line from TLTWATW, though he redeemed himself a bit with Lucy's presence with the archers in The Horse and His Boy and Jill in all her awesome Jillness.

I'm still fond of warrior women and tomboys. I recently introduced my four-year-old daughter to Jane and the Dragon, which I love because I get to simultaneously encourage her to love historical fantasy and warrior woman stories, while hopefully eventually weaning her off Dragon Tales, which is nails on a chalkboard to my ears, my eyes, and my storytelling sensibilities. Jane is a girl being raised to be a lady-in-waiting like her mother who dreams of becoming a knight, and of course gets to become a knight-apprentice when she rescues the prince from a dragon and befriends said dragon.

My daughter asked me what a lady-in-waiting was and why Jane didn't want to be one. I explained that it was a woman whose job was to help a queen or a princess, and that Jane just wanted to be a knight instead. And then it struck me as a bit ironic that the female lead of Book Two of my alternative history series is going to be lady-in-waiting to a queen, and think it's the best thing that ever happened to her. My Anna the lady-in-waiting is a bit of a tomboy, and the queen she serves is traveling with the insurgent army that's trying to restore her to her rightful throne, which makes Anna's role a bit more adventurous, but still.

So far I haven't put a warrior woman, a chick-in-pants, or a woman in a traditionally male career into any of my historical fiction, mostly because despite my love of the trope I think it's been overdone, and often done badly. It's so easy to make that kind of character a modern woman in historical dress, which is one of my biggest pet peeves in historical fiction. That said, I do have a story idea stewing on my mental back burner involving a 17-year-old girl in 1797 or so who dresses as a boy to run away from home (for good reasons), planning to resume her real identity as soon as she gets to the relative she trusts to protect her...only circumstances intervene and she has to live as a boy for the next five or six years. I'll have to get to it someday...