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.