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 The only real downside to the book is that in These Troubled Times, anything of this nature is going to be outdated as soon as it rolls off the presses.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.