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.