Monday, December 31, 2012

Best reads of 2012

When I looked over the 109 books I read in 2012, I couldn't come up with a tidy top ten. Instead, here are some books I especially enjoyed and would recommend to anyone who likes the genre in question. Note that few of them are 2012 releases. Except in a few cases, e.g. a new book by a favorite author in a series I love, I don't make it a priority to read books immediately after release.

Favorite Historical Romance (New)
My Fair Concubine, by Jeannie Lin (2012). My Fair Lady in Tang Dynasty China, and my favorite of Lin's books to date.

Favorite Historical Romance (Old But Now Available as an Ebook)
The Wives of Bowie Stone, by Maggie Osborne (1994). The hero is the most heroic and admirable bigamist you'll ever meet.

Favorite Contemporary Romance 
Doukakis's Apprentice, by Sarah Morgan (2011). I'm not usually a Harlequin Presents reader--I'm just not into wildly rich, wildly alpha heroes outside of SF or history, and even then I want them to be extra-awesome, brave, honorable, and brainy--we're talking Aral Vorkosigan or the Duke of Wellington here. But I've enjoyed Morgan's medical romances, and this book came so highly recommended that I tried it anyway. And I'm glad I did, hence its placement on this list.

Favorite YA Romance/Debut Book
Catching Jordan, by Miranda Kenneally (2011). Just a well-written book all around, and one of the few sports-themed romances I've read where I came away convinced the author thoroughly knows and loves the sport in question.

Wildly Popular Book That Actually Didn't Disappoint Me
The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins (2008). No need to say more, since I figure y'all have already heard of this one...

Favorite Mystery Discovered Randomly When I Heard Its Author Interviewed on NPR
Bruno, Chief of Police, by Martin Walker (2009). Lovely, leisurely-paced mystery that will make you wish yourself in France.

Favorite New Entries in Long-Running Series
Captain Vorpatril's Alliance, by Lois McMaster Bujold (2012). A lovely science fiction romance, albeit one that I doubt would have the same impact for readers lacking a long history with the characters and their world. Those readers should go grab Shards of Honor or The Warrior's Apprentice and start building that history!

The Scottish Prisoner, by Diana Gabaldon (2012). I really appreciate how Gabaldon writes soldiers. Jamie Fraser and John Grey remind me of the officers in my family and the ones I meet in my historical research in a way military heroes in historical romances often do not.

Most Useful Psychology/Self-Help Book
The Willpower Instinct, by Kelly McGonigal (2011). Explains why it's so hard to change and ways you can make it easier.

Best Food for My Inner History Geek
Moscow 1812, by Adam Zamoyski (2004). Gripping tale of Napoleon's invasion and retreat.

Guest of Honor, by Deborah Davis (2012). Race relations 100 years ago viewed through the lens of Teddy Roosevelt and Booker T Washington.

1493, by Charles C. Mann (2011). A history of the Columbian exchange and how it altered the course of the world in the past 500 years.

The Worst Hard Time, by Timothy Egan (2006). If you watched Ken Burns' The Dust Bowl and want to learn more, go here.

Final reading update of 2012

Favorite reads of 2012 to follow in a separate post...

106) Black Diamond, by Martin Walker. Third in the Bruno Courreges mystery series, which like its predecessors makes me want to hop on a plane for France asap. This one involves rival Chinese and Vietnamese gangs, buried state secrets, truffle market tampering, and some particularly sordid goings-on that appear late enough in the book that mentioning them here would be a spoiler. But for all that, it's still a fairly cozy and leisurely mystery, and the biggest surprise for me was that it introduced yet a third potential love interest for Bruno.

107) Dream More, by Dolly Parton. I admire Dolly Parton for her guts, sense of humor, and the fact she's used her brains, talents, and all-around gumption to build a successful life from an unpromising background (and one not unlike my own family's, though I think compared to the Partons we were a relatively rich and educated bunch of hillbillies. This book, based on a commencement address she gave at the University of Tennessee a few years ago, made a nice read for reflecting on the year that's ending and the new one about to begin.

108) The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, by N.K. Jemisin. This fantasy novel was recommended to me by any number of readers whose taste I trust, and I have to say I found the worldbuilding original and compelling, and I was intrigued enough by the plot to finish the book in a day. Yet for all that, the characters didn't quite come to life for me, so I never developed that undefinable connection that makes me want to revisit fictional places ranging from Terre d'Ange to Barrayar to Anne Shirley's Avonlea.

109) Julie, by Jean Craighead George. These are just delightful books, though I get depressed thinking how the Arctic environment they're set in is being wrecked by global warming.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Random Cookbook of the Week is back-Best One-Dish Meals

Now that Christmas is over and Mr. Fraser and I are reasonably well-established in our Weight Watchers routine, I figured it's time to get back to Random Cookbook of the Week. This week I drew McCall's Best One-Dish Meals, a 1997 cookbook that I believe may have been a wedding present. Each recipe has basic nutritional info, making calculating its Weight Watchers PointsPlus value nice and simple. (See, Weight Watchers powers that be? I said "PointsPlus" and not just "Points." Aren't you proud of me?)

I chose...

Pork, Pepper, and Onion Sandwiches

- 1/4 tsp dried thyme
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
- 4 (1/4 to 1/3-inch-thick) boneless pork loin chops (about 12 ounces total weight)
- 1 T olive oil
- 1 sweet green or yellow pepper, cut into 1/2-inch-wide strips
- 1 medium onion, halved lengthwise and cut lengthwise again into 1/4-inch-wide strips
- 2 plum tomatoes, cut into 1/4-inch-wide wedges
- 1 clove garlic, crushed
- 2 T red wine vinegar
- 4 thick slices peasant-style bread, toasted

In a cup, combine the thyme, salt, and ground pepper. Stir until the ingredients are blended. Sprinkle 1/4 tsp of the mixture over the pork chops; reserve remaining mixture.

In a nonstick skillet, heat 1 tsp of the olive oil over medium high heat. Add the pork chops and cook for 1 1/2 to 2 minutes on each side; transfer the pork chops to a platter. Add the remaining 2 tsp of olive oil, the pepper, and the onion to the skillet; saute until the vegetables are coated with oil. Cover the skillet and cook over medium heat for 5 minutes, stirring once. Add the tomatoes, garlic, and remaining thyme mixture; saute for 2 minutes.

Return the pork chops and any juices on the platter to the skillet. Gently reheat the chops, stirring, until all the ingredients are blended. Sprinkle with the vinegar. Cook, stirring, until the juices boil.

Place each bread slice on a plate. Top with 1 pork chop, some of the vegetable mixture, and some of the pan juices.

For anyone keeping score for Weight Watchers purposes, this comes to 8 PointsPlus.

Mr. Fraser liked the resulting dish fine and ate two servings. (Being male and ~80 lbs heavier than me, he often gets to eat twice as much dinner as I do and stay within Weight Watchers' bounds, sigh.) I took two bites, found it disgusting, with a strange, off, moldy sort of taste, and heated up a frozen mini-pizza instead. All I can think is that the bell pepper was a bit overcooked and overpowering, since I tend to like my peppers on the raw side.

For next week I drew Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Gulp....

Sunday, December 23, 2012

I have a title! (And also a reading update)

My 2013 interracial historical romance novella now has a title--A Dream Defiant. I just finished my first round of edits, and I'll have much more to say about the story as its July 29 release date draws closer.

I've been busy with edits and Christmas prep, but I've managed to squeeze in a little reading time, and now that I'm off work till Jan. 2, I plan to fit in a lot more before the new year. Tune in 12/31 for my last reading update of the year, plus my top ten reads of 2012.

101) The Nine Tailors, by Dorothy Sayers. I read this once before, years ago, but I didn't remember the details. Not the best Lord Peter book by a long shot, and I kinda skimmed most of the bell-ringing arcana, but an enjoyable read. Right now it's available as a Kindle book for $2.99, so a good deal if you're looking to fill out your digital Wimsey collection.

102) Tim Gunn's Fashion Bible, by Tim Gunn with Ada Calhoun. A combination brief history of most commonly worn articles of clothing and guidelines on choosing appropriate and flattering modern versions of said articles.

103) The Worst Hard Time, by Timothy Egan. I recently watched Ken Burns' Dust Bowl documentary and wanted to learn more, and this book was highly recommended. It's a gripping, horrifying read, and it's stunning to think such a disaster, both ecological and economic, happened in my country less than a century ago, within my parents' lifetimes, albeit barely (Dad was born in 1929, Mom in 1932). And while my parents grew up in rural poverty, at least they had the blessing to grow up in a place (central Alabama), that's actually endowed by nature with a climate suitable for farming and rich, quick-growing forests. It also gave me a better appreciation, not that I ever truly doubted it, that FDR and the New Deal saved this country and that we ought to be using the current downturn to reinforce and strengthen the safety net, not tear it down in pursuit of debt-cutting and austerity that any sensible reading of our own history, not to mention the current state of much of Europe, shows would only make things worse.

Sorry. Got a little political there...

104) The Betrayal of the Blood Lily, by Lauren Willig. Book 6 in the Pink Carnation historical spy-romance series, which are always great fun, though I often find myself skimming past the modern framing story. I particularly enjoyed this entry, since I'm fascinated by late 18th/early 19th-century India.

105) Ichiro, by Ryan Inzana. A graphic novel about a boy with an American father and Japanese mother learning about the Japanese side of his heritage, considering questions of war, peace, and atrocities committed by both nations, and, oh, getting pulled into the spirit world. Not my usual reading, but thoughtful and beautifully illustrated.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Book 100 at last, Random Cookbook update

I was beginning to think I wouldn't make it, but I finally reached Book 100 on the year:

100) Frozen Heat, by "Richard Castle": I enjoy this series as part of my Castle fandom--it's fun to pull out all the meta references to the show and so on, and little gems like the pair of detectives who help out on this case named Malcolm and Reynolds. How well they'd work for anyone not a fan of the show I couldn't begin to tell you, since I haven't read enough contemporary police procedural-type mysteries to judge.

I haven't abandoned my Random Cookbook series, but it's on a temporary hiatus, at least through the month of December. Mr. Fraser and I have gone on Weight Watchers together, in large part because he's been diagnosed as pre-diabetic and quite likely also has gall bladder issues. (Tests to confirm that and determine whether or not surgery is necessary are on his schedule.) So for now we're focusing on getting on the diet and sticking to it. Once we're in a good groove and immediate health issues are under control, I'll feel steady enough to go back to cooking randomly again.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Blog tour grand prize winner!

With my blog tour for An Infamous Marriage behind me, it's time to draw my grand prize winner from all the commenters who took part. I kept a list as I went along, with each entrant getting one entry per blog post they commented on.

And the winner of a $50 gift certificate to her choice of Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Powell's Books, chosen via, is...

Cathy P!

Cathy, I'll be emailing you about claiming your prize. To everyone else, thank you for taking part in my tour, and if it inspired you to pick up a copy of my book, I hope it brings you hours of reading pleasure.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Drive-by post

I'm insanely busy, as is always the case in December, this year with the added challenge of finishing the first round of edits on my 2013 novella and putting together a proposal for its sequel. However, when I have a spare moment between racing from holiday event to holiday event, I've been cleaning out my Gmail inbox. Which feels like verrrrry slowwwlllly traveling back in time.

Anyway, I found the following link in an email I sent my critique partner back in 2009.

I'm not sure which made me laugh harder, the reason for the heroes' terrible reputation or their titles.