Friday, October 30, 2009


As my longtime readers know, I am not fond of Napoleon. Paul Johnson is likewise not fond of Napoleon. But as I read his brief 2002 biography (Napoleon: A Life), I found myself wanting to defend the emperor. Johnson sees Napoleonic France as the prototype of the modern totalitarian state, and therefore Napoleon as the progenitor of Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and the like. Possibly it's because I've seen far too many sloppy comparisons to Hitler and Nazism over the past few years, but that left me rolling my eyes. He might have a point if he didn't insist on exaggerating it, tossing around the "evils" and the Hitler references, and blaming ideas whose time had come on one person.

Despite my annoyance with the author, I'm not sorry I read the book. When you're researching someone intensively for your own writing, it never hurts to get another perspective, even if you disagree with it. But if you read one Napoleon biography, this shouldn't be your choice. I'm not sure what should be--I like Evangeline Bruce's Napoleon and Josephine and Christopher Hibbert's Napoleon: His Wives and Women, but those focus too heavily on his personal life to be comprehensive. If I find one that leaves me nodding and saying, "Yes, that's him," I'll be sure to let my five loyal readers know. :-)

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Across the Nightingale Floor

I love the idea of Across the Nightingale Floor (Lian Hearn, 2003), a fantasy set in an alternative feudal Japan, complete with samurai and ninjas. I didn't quite love the characters, however--I just liked them--which kept me from being fully hooked by the story, though I finished it just to see how the plot would resolve and which of the three threads of his history the protagonist would choose to follow.

Shipwrecked and Seduced

Yes, the title is corny. I know. But books shouldn't be judged by their covers or their titles...though I have to admit that Shipwrecked and Seduced (Amanda McCabe, 2009) is an accurate description of the story in question!

I say "story" and not "book" because this isn't a full-length novel. It's part of Harlequin's "Undone" series of short historical romance stories, only available electronically. It's not something I would've sought out on my own, since I prefer longer stories and have trouble suspending disbelief that a couple could fall in love and commit to a lifetime together in 50 pages or less! But an online writers group I'm part of is doing a challenge where we try to write an Undone, so I decided to read a few. (I ended up deciding not to participate in the challenge because I've got too much going on finishing my alternative history and getting it ready to submit in the next month.)

This story's heroine is a young Spanish servant girl who's the only survivor of a shipwreck in 16th century Cuba. She's mistaken for a highborn passenger and decides to play along, but a handsome colonial official suspects she's not what she seems...

It's a very quick, very sexy story. It's well-done, evoking a sense of place and time in a few short pages, so I'd recommend it if the length and sensuality sound appealing to you.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Three Napoleonic Battles

In a way, I learned about Napoleon as a commander backwards. My interest in all things Napoleonic initially grew out of my reading of Regency romances, where the occasional hero is a veteran who served under Wellington. Nowadays it's rare, but in the 80's and 90's one sometimes ran across a Regency set in Brussels in the run-up to Waterloo, at the Congress of Vienna, or in Spain or Portugal during the Peninsular Campaign. Those were always my favorites, since I had a lurking interest in military history (possibly because one of my brothers started West Point the year I started kindergarten), and I liked the higher stakes than your typical Regency set against London high society or the pastoral English countryside.

Then I stumbled across Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe series. I have to confess I started with the TV movies, after watching The Fellowship of the Ring and wanting to know what else the Boromir actor was in. But I read the books, too, and started researching the history behind them. Which meant mostly the Peninsular War, and mostly Wellington. Like the Great Duke, I first encountered Napoleon at Waterloo. As my interest in the era and the people broadened and I started to want to write about it myself, I learned more about Napoleon, but I still know Waterloo better than anything else from his career.

I picked up Three Napoleonic Battles (Harold T. Parker, 1944) as part of my ongoing effort to get a broader perspective on Napoleon's career. Parker analyzes the battles of Friedland (1807), Aspern-Essling (1809), and, yes, Waterloo (1815). In the first, Napoleon was at the top of his game and facing a Russian commander who made serious blunders, in the second he made blunders of his own against a solid opponent and was checked, but through his and his marshals' skill and his opponent's overcaution avoided a crushing defeat, and, well, we know what happened at Waterloo. (At least I hope we do. If you're reading this and thinking, "I vaguely recall Napoleon from high school history class, but isn't Wellington a boot and Waterloo an ABBA song?" please talk to me. I have books to recommend. You'll love them, I promise. History is exciting, and 1789-1815 especially so.) For the most part, Parker's conclusions are pretty straightforward--Napoleon got older. His health and energy declined, enough that he lost a mental step, too, though he was obviously still beyond unusually intelligent. His natural optimism was perhaps less tempered by realism--e.g. his stubborn refusal to believe the evidence that the entire Prussian army was indeed marching to unite with the Anglo-Dutch forces at Waterloo. Plus, his opponents got better, both in the sense of learning his game plan and that over decades of war, the cream of the other powers' generals eventually rose to the top.

For all that, it's a worthwhile and well-researched read, dense with detail. I expect I'll be turning back to the Friedland and Aspern-Essling sections as I develop my alternative history, and I never get tired of learning more about Waterloo. Wellington once commented (I'm paraphrasing wildly here) that you might as well write the history of a ball as of a battle--everyone who was there gives a different account, and it's impossible to pin down what really happened. To me, that's precisely what makes Waterloo especially so endlessly fascinating. Every time you look at it from another angle, you get another facet of the glorious horrible chaotic epic of it all.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

What I've been reading lately

In my continuing Kindle excursion through the worlds of Louisa May Alcott, I read Jo's Boys. It is indeed very preachy, and I confess to skimming past a lot of the sermons to find out what happens to everyone. Oh, and if I'd written it, everything would've turned out differently for Dan. I sometimes envy 19th century writers--I'd give a lot to be able to introduce my characters with a nice backstory synopsis like Jane Austen does, for example--but I'm glad I don't have to set up characters for punishment as Moral Examples.

Staying in YA but on a much lighter note, I curled up with The Ex Games (Jennifer Echols, 2009). The heroine, a snowboarder with fear of heights left over from a childhood accident, has to overcome her fears to defeat her ex-boyfriend in a battle of the sexes that engrosses their whole high school, and incidentally to take advantage of a chance to take lessons from a pro.

Refuse to Choose (2007) was my second self-help book by Barbara Sher. In it, she describes "Scanners"--people who have trouble settling on one single direction in life. I recognized myself in almost every page. I've always felt like I should have some grand passion or vocation. And in one sense I do--my love for history and my hunger to write have been with me all my life--but at various points I've wanted to be a reporter, a theologian, a paramedic, a professor, etc., etc. And because I've never been able to make up my mind which one is my One True Vocation, I haven't done any of those things. Sher's book helped me see that it doesn't have to be all or nothing. She suggests that many Scanners search for a "Good Enough Job"--one that will match their interests and work style well enough to give them stability and contentment, while leaving them enough life space and mental energy to pursue other interests at the same time. Somehow that phrase alone was a revelation for me. A day job isn't quite the same thing as a Good Enough Job, you know?