Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Books read, week of 1/31

I had a busy week of reading, though most of these books were extremely short.

13) Book Which Must Not Be Named (#2 of 8). Another Rita entry, like #11 a book filled with words collected into sentences, about which I will not comment.

14) Catching Jordan, by Miranda Kenneally. If this book was one of my Rita entries, I'd give it a perfect 9. It's a YA romance that I loved despite being, oh, 20-25 years older than the target audience. Aside from that, it could've been written for me. The heroine, daughter of an NFL quarterback, happens to be the best high school quarterback in her state, and she dreams of playing for an elite program in college. Given my love for college football (War Eagle!) and the fact I was always more one of the guys than a typically girly girl, I couldn't NOT enjoy this book.

15) Book Which Must Not Be Named (3 of 8): Another Rita entry.

16) Wellington's Generals, by Michael Barthorp. This one wouldn't be of interest to anyone who isn't a devoted scholar of Wellington's army, but for me it was a useful reminder of how the command structure worked and what divisional and brigade commanders did. (The hero of my current manuscript is a fictional major-general.) Also, I'll probably be scanning the color plates of generals in uniform to include with my cover art information sheet once the book is finished and in production. Not that I get too worked up over whether every single detail is right, but I'm hoping I can keep my streak of heroes actually wearing clothes on my covers going for at least a couple more books...

17) Book Which Must Not Be Name (4 of 8): Halfway through my Rita entries! Since I'm avoiding any hint of identifying information, I think I'm safe in saying this one was an especially sweet, satisfying mini-gem of a story. And it's NOT one of the ones I expected to enjoy based on the cover blurb. The one I thought I'd like best in fact got my lowest score so far.

18) Avatar: the Last Airbender - The Promise Part 1, by Michael Dante DiMartino, Brian Konietzko, Gene Luen Yang, and Bryan Gurihiru. I was late to the party on Avatar:TLAB, only discovering it last summer because my daughter is into anime, manga, and anime-esque shows and I thought she might like it. I'm glad I found it, because IMHO the storytelling is on par with Buffy or Deep Space 9 at their best (i.e. my all-time favorites). I'm even more excited for The Legend of Korra this summer than I am for the second season of Game of Thrones. So naturally I got the first entry in the comic book series bridging the two as soon as Amazon would bring it to my doorstep.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

52 Cookbooks - Week 16, Colorado Cache

Though Mr. Fraser grew up in Oklahoma, he has family in Denver (and he's an alum of the University of Colorado). Because of that connection, one of our 52 cookbooks is the Colorado Cache Cookbook, a 1978 production of the Junior League of Denver.

I'm trying to up my vegetable intake and get out of the habit of eating the same round of carrots, bell peppers, green beans, and caesar salad again and again, so I decided to try Honey-Glazed Acorn Squash. It reminded me of a recipe my mother used to make with butternut squash and molasses:

Honey-Glazed Acorn Squash
4-6 servings

2 or 3 acorn squash
salt and pepper to taste
1/4 c. honey
2 T butter, softened
1 T Worcestershire sauce
1/4 c. chopped walnuts
1/4 c. raisins

Cut squash in half, remove seeds. Place cut-side down in shallow pan. Add 1/2 inch hot water to pan. Bake uncovered at 350 degrees for 40-50 minutes or until almost tender. Turn cut-side up, season with salt and pepper. Combine other ingredients and spoon into cavities of squash. Bake uncovered at 350 degrees for 15 minutes or until filling is heated.

The good: It's a simple, straightforward preparation. The hardest part was sawing through the squash.

The bad: It's edible, but I wouldn't go beyond that--on the bland side, and the squash is somehow squishy AND stringy. I think my mom's butternut squash with molasses tasted better, and I didn't even much like squash when I was a kid.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Books read, week of 1/24

I continue on my journey toward reading 75 books in 2012:

10) Tough as Nails: One Woman's Journey Through West Point, by Gail O'Sullivan Dwyer.

I have a much-older brother who was in West Point Class of '80, the first US Military Academy class to admit women. He was my idol and my measuring stick when I was little. I remember going to his high school graduation, and on the way home asking my mom why Jim got to give a speech when none of the other students did. She said it was because he was valedictorian, which meant he had the highest grades in the whole class. I decided on the spot that I would be valedictorian of my class, too. I was five. But 13 years later I made good on that vow.

All through elementary school, I dreamed of going to West Point too. Jim left his cadet sabre with us after graduation because he moved so often as a young officer, and I used to get it out and pose with it. I even think some of my interest in the Napoleonic Era might spring from having imprinted on West Point dress uniforms, which wouldn't have looked at all out of place at Austerlitz or Waterloo!

I ended up changing my mind about the military by the time I got to high school, which is just as well. I'm allergic to chains of command. I can fake it in my day job, but one of the reasons I hope to write full time someday is if I'm self-employed I neither have to boss or be bossed. Gail O'Sullivan Dwyer, however, did follow her brother to West Point. She's Class of '81, so just behind my brother (and her husband is one of his classmates). Her memoir is mostly a straightforward account of her years at the Academy and how she toughed her way through as part of the second class to include women despite being tiny, not particularly athletic, and having almost no practical knowledge of Army life when she went in. I'd love to read a follow-up about her post-West Point years, how she managed as an officer despite not having what I think of as a typical officer's personality (she doesn't come across as assertive as most of the officers I've known, either in my family or on the pages of history), how she came to terms with the disordered eating habits she picked up during her education, and what it was like making the transition from officer to Army wife. (Two VERY different roles. I'm glad I never seriously tried to date any of the cadets I met when my brother was a math instructor at West Point while I was an undergrad at Penn, because if a lone wolf like me would be a less than ideal officer, I'd be even worse as one's wife.) I'd also like to read about other women's West Point experiences, because hers is very much an individual story.

11) Book Which Must Not Be Named (#1 of 8). I'm a first-round judge for Romance Writers of America's annual Rita awards, and the contest rules obligate me to keep strict confidentiality about the books I'm assigned to judge. Since I want these books to count toward my 75, I will just say that it was indeed a book, which I read and formed an opinion of in the form of a score somewhere between 1 and 9.

12) Mighty Be Our Powers, by Leymah Gbowee. The memoir of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize winner and a leader of the Liberian women's peace movement. A moving book, and all the more so because Gbowee isn't the kind of person you'd expect to take on such a role--after escaping an abusive relationship, she was a single mother with four young children, she struggled with alcohol abuse, etc., but she kept fighting to get an education and then to organize women from across tribal and religious boundaries to work together for peace.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

A cancer awareness post

I have a fairly significant family history of colon cancer, including a brother and a cousin who were diagnosed in their mid-40's. As a result, I had my first colonoscopy four years ago when I was 36, and my second one yesterday, a couple weeks after my 41st birthday.

I'm not going to go into details, because I'm naturally squeamish and unwilling to publicly discuss bodily functions--it isn't ladylike, gosh darn it, and I was Raised Right. I will say that I'm glad that between my primary care doc's persuasiveness and my utter terror of cancer (when we say "the C-word" around my house, that's the one we're talking about), I was able to overcome said squeamishness and have the test done.

I'm also not going to lie to you and claim it's an easy process. The prep is pretty much 24 hours of misery. The procedure itself, though, is not so bad, because you're sedated, and at least where I had mine done, they're very kind and understanding about the fact you're scared and feeling like every last shred of dignity you have is being taken away.

But it's still worthwhile if you have a family history like mine or you've turned 50 (the age at which screenings are recommended for everyone). Either you find out you don't have any signs of cancer, as has fortunately been the case for me so far, and you get to go home with one less thing to worry about, or the fact you're having it done as a screening rather than waiting to develop symptoms means they'll be able to catch any issues while they're still at the easily treatable and highly survivable stage. And isn't that worth an uncomfortable and undignified day or two out of your life?

Thursday, January 19, 2012

52 Cookbooks - Catching up

I've still been cooking a new recipe from one of my randomly chosen cookbooks every week except when we were out of town for Christmas, but between one thing and another, I've neglected to blog about it. I intend to go back to proper blogging with recipes and pictures next week, but here's a quick summary of the cooking I've been doing in the meantime:

Mom and Me Cookbook, by Annabel Karmel. I made spaghetti with homemade tomato sauce with Miss Fraser, age 7. She enjoyed it, and I mean to find ways to cook with her more often, at least once or twice a month, so she'll learn.

Calling All Cooks Two, by the Alabama Telephone Pioneers. Lesson learned from this week: if you're making a chocolate-pecan pie, choose one with more pecans than chocolate. Otherwise it's so chocolatey you can't taste the pecans.

How to Cook Everything, by Mark Bittman. I also have the mobile app, so I decided to make the two top-rated recipes. The meatloaf turned out tasty, if a smidge on the bland side, but I'm baffled by the popularity of the "boiled water" soup. It's sort of like French onion soup, but with garlic. To me, it's boring and a waste of good garlic.

Good Eats 2: The Middle Years, by Alton Brown. I think this is my favorite of the cookbooks I've attempted so far. I made broiled steak, German hot slaw, and chipotle-mashed sweet potatoes, all of which I'd gladly make again.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Another week's reading

I've been neglecting this blog shamefully of late, largely due to a pinched nerve flareup. I'm trying to save my best computer time for my writing. But I never stop reading, and here are books 7-9 toward my goal of reading 75 books in 2012:

7) Margarita, by Joan Wolf. This is a traditional Regency romance--i.e. a subgenre with less sex and often a bit more history than you generally find in historical romance. They're rare in print publishing nowadays, but more and more trad authors are reviving their backlists as ebooks, as is the case with this book, originally released in 1982.

Wolf delves deeply into the actual history of the time period even by the standards of the subgenre. In this case the heroine is the daughter of a Venezuelan man and an English woman, and she loses all her family fighting in Bolivar's revolution. She goes to her English grandfather for lack of any other options, and after he dies she finds herself married to the cousin who inherited his title and estates. It contains multiple elements that would be a tough sell in today's market--very young heroine (17 when she marries), a rather distant omniscient POV, a hero who doesn't give up his mistresses until long after marrying the heroine, and a hero and heroine who are cousins (anathema to your typical American reader, though I've read Mansfield Park and Rose in Bloom often enough that I can put on a 19th century brain for the duration of the read and not be bothered by it). I enjoyed it, though I don't think I'd want omniscient POV in most of my romance reading.

8) Cinderella Ate my Daughter, by Peggy Orenstein. I heard Orenstein interviewed on Fresh Air a few weeks ago and knew I had to read this book. She's a few years older than I am, and her daughter is about the same age as mine, so we're both experiencing a certain disconnect in seeing the very pink, princessy, and girlie-girl culture our daughters are pushed to conform to--one that's in many ways more constricting than what we knew in the 70's despite all the strides women have made in the past 30-40 years.

It's a quick read, and one that doesn't pretend to have all the answers, either to why the cultural shift happened or how to raise a confident, true-to-herself daughter in the midst of it. (For the former, she points to similar moves to shelter and cherish daughters during previous economic and cultural crises.) Speaking from personal experience, one of the persistent and unexpected challenges of parenting Miss Fraser has been the fact she DOESN'T embrace her surrounding culture. She's a tomboy--not unusually so, but she reminds me of myself at the same age, more interested in animals and animal stories than dolls or fairy tales, and she doesn't like pastels or fussy, dressy clothes. One day when she was barely 2 and just starting to get really verbal, she pushed away a pink floral-print set of overalls I was trying to dress her in and said, "No flow-flers! No pink!" And she has stuck to that line ever since, though she'll wear fuchsia or raspberry shades. When her grandmother or aunts and uncles try to call her princess, she frowns and says, "I'm NOT a PRINCESS!" I wouldn't have her any other way, but it makes her surprisingly hard to shop for, given how gender-coded and branded so much children's merchandise is these days.

Obviously, this isn't a major problem. My daughter is happy and has plenty of friends at school. It just bugs me that this pattern exists and is so strong. Miss Fraser is fully aware that the mold exists and she doesn't quite fit it. We've talked a lot, at her initiation, about the different ways of being a girl, and how it's fine for her to be, as she puts it, "a little bit girlie," because she enjoys Littlest Pet Shop and My Little Pony and the like, but that above all she needs to be herself and accept other people for being themselves.

9) The Hundred Days, by Antony Brett-James. More Waterloo research, this one a compilation of various eyewitness accounts. In many cases I wished I could know more--e.g. the young Prussian volunteer who talked in a matter-of-fact way about his female sergeant, who was so brave that when she married another sergeant after the war she had three military honors pinned to her gown. And I was flabbergasted by the account of the woman hosting the ball where the Prince Regent was when the officer bringing the victory dispatches and captured French eagles caught up with him--she called it a dreadful night because everyone deserted her ball to either celebrate or try to get hold of a casualty list. She actually said she thought it would've been better for the messenger to wait quietly until the morning!

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

What I've read so far in 2012

LibraryThing has a 75 Books in 2012 Challenge. Before I went back to work full time when my daughter was 18 months old, I used to read 125-150 books a year. Since then, I haven't counted, because I've been afraid the number would depress me with its smallness. But this year I decided to shoot for 75. Surely that's doable.

Anyway, here's what I've read so far in 2012, shamelessly copied from my LibraryThing thread. Lest you think, "Of course you'll make 75. You're on pace for around 200," I was home sick with a bad cold for a good chunk of last week and had more reading time than normal.

1) Chain Reaction, by Simone Elkeles. It's the third book in a YA trilogy. Unusually gritty, sexy, and violent for its genre, but in a good way--at least to read. When I reflect that my daughter will be the age of the main characters in just 10 years, I hope that her life, like mine, will be tame, peaceful, and boring by comparison!

2) The Hundred Days, by Edith Saunders. This is only one of several Waterloo books I plan to read in the next couple months, since my current novel-in-process is partially set there. Saunders takes more of a big picture view than a lot of the Waterloo books on my shelves, so you don't get a play-by-play of the battle, but she includes more of the behind-the-scenes political machinations in France before and after the battle, which gives you a better sense of the context. And during the battle sections, she does a good job of showing what was happening with the Prussians, the French under Marshal Grouchy, etc. throughout the day, so you see their impact on the final outcome. She's no great lover of Napoleon, but neither am I, so that didn't bother me.

3) How Few Remain, by Harry Turtledove. An alternate history of a world where the South won the Civil War that held my interest, though somehow the characters (all real historical figures re-imagined) never quite hooked me. I don't know if there were too many point-of-view characters and plot threads or what, but instead of looking for the next book in the series, I was satisfied to find plot synopses online to see how Turtledove's version of the world plays out.

4) Heat Rises, by "Richard Castle." Castle is my current favorite TV series (mm, Nathan Fillion), and I've enjoyed the three "Nikki Heat" tie-in novels for all the meta references to the show. Obviously not the deepest book I've ever read, but in my view there's nothing wrong with reading purely for entertainment (I won't call it a guilty pleasure, even, because AFAIC there's nothing to be guilty about), and this was a perfect read for a day spent curled up in bed between doses of DayQuil.

5) Eat that Frog, by Brian Tracy. As a writer not yet in a position to quit my full-time day job, I tend to collect time management books. This one, picked up on the cheap a few days ago as a Kindle Daily Deal, is nothing I haven't heard before, but it was a quick read with some useful tips. Its focus is on identifying your most critical tasks and doing them first, since you really DON'T have time to finish everything.

6) Waterloo 1815 - Captain Mercer's Journal, by Cavalie Mercer, edited by WH Fichett, introduction by Bob Carruthers. Almost every nonfiction work on Waterloo I've read contains quotes from Cavalie Mercer, a British artillery captain with a gift for vivid, descriptive writing who took part in the battle. I didn't realize when I bought this book that it's an abridged version of his journal, and I'll probably keep digging around until I find the whole thing. For research purposes I was hoping for more details of day-to-day life in the weeks and days leading up to the battle than the abridgment provided.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

A Public Service Announcement

Dear Fellow Writers,

"Y'all" is the second person PLURAL pronoun in Southern US English. Plural. Not singular. Which is only logical, when you consider that it's a contraction of "you all."

You may think you've heard a Southerner use "y'all" in the singular, but this born-and-bred Alabamian believes you are mistaken. If a Southerner asks her friend, "Are y'all going to the game Saturday?" she doesn't mean, Are YOU, the one person I'm talking to right now, going to the game? she means, Are you, Bobby, and the kids all going?

I've met a few people who think "y'all" is singular and "all y'all" is plural. No. "All y'all" either refers to a large group or is sort of a stand-in for "everybody" when you're trying to get a group's attention. As in, "If all y'all will gather over here, the photographer is ready to take the picture," or, "All y'all should come downstairs now--the ribs are ready."

Note too that it's spelled "y'all," not "ya'll." And please don't write "ya" instead of "you" when your Southern character is using second person singular. To my ears, Southerners are no more likely to clip the "ooh" sound off "you" than any other speakers of American English. If anything, since some Southerners really do talk a bit slower than their Yankee brethren, they're more likely to fully sound out "you."

Yes, I'm in Her Grace, the Duchess of Pedantry mode here. But badly written Southern dialect is nails on a chalkboard to me. Actually, it's one of the reasons I don't write dialect--or, at least, I don't use misspelled words to indicate accents--for any of my British characters. I try to avoid anachronisms or Americanisms for all my characters, and I use diction and word choice to show differences in class, education, and personality. But having read so many non-Southerners botch my native accent, I don't trust myself to write Cockney or Scottish or whatever in a way that won't turn native speakers against me.

Monday, January 2, 2012

2011 - my year in reading

I guess I'm a little late to the party for my Best of 2011 list, but that only fits, since over half my list is books I read in 2011 with earlier copyright dates. I've never been very good about reading books the instant they come out, unless it's an ongoing series whose last book ended on a cliffhanger or one of my handful of A+++ most beloved authors.

It was a good reading year for me. Here's hoping 2012 will bring some awesome new discoveries, since it looks like something of a drought for cliffhanger/best-beloved books. Diana Gabaldon's Written in My Own Heart's Blood probably won't appear till sometime in 2013, likewise for Julia Spencer-Fleming's next Russ/Clare book. No Sharpe or Starbuck in Bernard Cornwell's pipeline that I'm aware of. I haven't heard anything about a release date for the Ivan book Lois McMaster Bujold is supposedly working on, and I'm in serious Barrayar withdrawal! Jacqueline Carey is at least on a break from and possibly done with Terre D'Ange, and I think the same may be the case for Lindsey Davis and Marcus Didius Falco (though Master & God looks interesting). And let's just say I hope George RR Martin gets his next out before the TV series catches up with it. Before my daughter starts high school is probably more realistic (she's in 2nd grade).

Don't get me wrong, none of these authors need to write faster or write what I want instead of what their muse gives them. I just don't have anything preordered months in advance right now, and I kinda miss it.

Anyway, back to 2011.

Favorite Debut Book

No Proper Lady, by Isabel Cooper. Fantasy romance that gets the balance between the two genres just right, IMO.

Favorite 2011 fiction

A Lily Among Thorns, by Rose Lerner. Solomon is one of my favorite romance heroes ever--the genre could use more brainy betas like him.

Unveiled, by Courtney Milan. Beautiful, character-driven romance.

One Was a Soldier, by Julia Spencer-Fleming. Another stunning entry in the series that won me over to contemporary-set mysteries.

Captive Bride, by Bonnie Dee. A gem of a historical romance that makes its unusual setting (1870's San Francisco) and interracial love story work.

Favorite fiction published before 2011 I just now got around to reading

The Mischief of the Mistletoe, by Lauren Willig (2010). Just a delightful, frothy Regency romp.

Linnets and Valerians, by Elizabeth Goudge (1964). Children's fantasy set in early 20th century England. I think it would appeal to readers of anything from Narnia to Harry Potter to A Wrinkle in Time to Anne of Green Gables.

Lady Elizabeth's Comet, by Sheila Simonson (1986). Traditional Regency that feels especially grounded in the voice and values of the time.

Can't Stand the Heat, by Louisa Edwards (2009). Contemporary romance after my foodie city-girl heart.

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, by Helen Simonson (2010). A refreshing, subtle love story with older protagonists.

A Clash of Kings, by George RR Martin (1998). After getting hooked on Game of Thrones on HBO, I glommed the entire series, but I think this second book is the strongest.

Memory (1996), Komarr (1998), and A Civil Campaign (1999), by Lois McMaster Bujold. The brightest jewels in the sparkling crown that is the Vorkosigan Saga. I can't say enough about how much I love this whole series, but these are the ones I'd take with me to the proverbial desert island.

Sunday, January 1, 2012


Ah, another new year (and for me, another birthday). I can never resist the impulse to make resolutions, even knowing that the combination of diehard old habits and my busy life will make it difficult to really do all that organizing and exercising and so on.

So I've done the same this year. My 2012 goals list is long, and I probably won't meet all of them. However, the most important ones boil down to:

1) Have a productive year as a writer.

2) Live a more healthy life.

I'm not going to share the rest of my goals, or even the exact steps I've delineated for productive writing and healthy living (though I may blog about them if/when I succeed).

BUT, I decided to give myself two challenges that ought to be easily achievable within 6-7 months, talk about them publicly, AND set up consequences for failing to meet them:

Challenge the First: After I turn in the manuscript for my WIP, due April 1, I want to work on a short novella. Key word here is short: I'm shooting for around 15,000 words. Once I've done a bit of research and settled on the plot, I should be able to complete the first draft in less than a month. So I'd like to finish the draft no later than 5/15 or so, and have it submission-ready by mid-June. But life happens, and my editor will most likely send me developmental edits for the WIP sometime within that window...so I'm giving myself till July 23, the day I plan to fly down to Anaheim for RWA National, to finish that first draft. And if I don't? I will wear a shirt like this on the plane:

Challenge the Second: By that same date, July 23, I want to lose 20 lbs. and/or enough to drop at least a size in my favorite jeans. (Which ought to be one and the same, but I'm giving myself an out in case by some freak chance the weight decides to come off everywhere BUT my waistline.) If I do not do so, I will wear this hat on the plane:

For me, those are some dire consequences for falling short of my goals. You see, in my real sports fan life, I'd wear this hat with this shirt:

Anyone want to pick their own sports gear nightmare and join me? I got the idea for this after hearing a pair of coworkers, one a UW grad and the other WSU, challenge each other to quit smoking with the threat of having to wear a Cougars tee for the former and a Husky one for the latter.

The fine print: the bet is off if some dire medical, natural, financial, or similar disaster interferes. F'rex, if this is the year the Seattle Fault or the Cascadia Subduction Zone is destined to slip, I'm not going to inflict Bama and Yankees gear upon myself on top of everything else.