Sunday, May 31, 2015

2015 Reading catch-up post, books 46-54

So, getting ready for the Europe trip, along with some personal writing projects, has taken over my life for the past month. My reading pace has slowed down, way down, though I'm hoping to be able to make up some time what with all the hours I'll be spending on airplanes and the occasional train in June and July!

46. The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

With this book I ventured into the rare-for-me genre of literary fiction as part of a recent commitment of mine to seek out more books by nonwhite authors. As part of a discussion about people trying to read more books by women, I reflected that that wasn't an issue for me, given that almost all of the fiction I read is woman-authored, along with maybe half the nonfiction. But I could easily go months without ever reading a nonwhite author and not even notice I'm doing it.

So, at least once a month, I plan to read a book by an author of color. And I can't count the same author more than once a year, since it would kind of defeat the purpose of exposing myself to a broader range of voices if I find an author with, say, a nice long mystery series and read one per month.

Anyway, while this was a fascinating book, it was also dark and depressing enough to remind me why I generally prefer genre to literary fiction. I am glad I read it, though.

47. The Underground Abductor by Nathan Hale

The latest in Nathan Hale's series of graphic novels for upper elementary readers about American history looks at Harriet Tubman's childhood and youth, her escape from slavery, and her work on the Underground Railroad. This wasn't my favorite in the series--Donner Dinner Party has a tighter narrative arc (probably because it covers a shorter time period and was just a more linear historical incident), and Treaties, Trenches, Mud, and Blood impressed me by actually making WWI comprehensible to young readers like my daughter without trivializing it. But an average Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tale is still an awesome book, and I learned quite a bit from it, since I didn't know much about Harriet Tubman beyond her name and the fact she was involved with the Underground Railroad.

48. How We Got to Now by Steven Johnson

A quick, fascinating read looking at how innovations in six different areas have built on each other in unexpected ways over the past few centuries. Definitely recommended for those who like history of science books.

(As a side note, I'm way too prone to describing books as "fascinating." Memo to self: find new adjectives for "this book was cool and really held my attention.")

49. In Real Life by Cory Doctorow & Jen Wang

Another graphic novel read to be shared with my daughter, though this one was a Message Book, and one that was too heavy-handed for my taste despite my agreeing with its views.

50. The Dirt on Clean by Katherine Ashenburg

An interesting, readable social history on the history of cleanliness in the western world from ancient Greek days to the present.

51. Pocket Apocalypse by Seanan McGuire

Fourth in the InCryptid series. I haven't liked the last two books as much as the first two--I enjoyed Verity Price's New York adventures more than her brother Alex's role as zookeeper to creatures both ordinary and paranormal--but this one did have a good bit of the family's Aeslin Mice, which are my favorite magical creatures EVER.

52. Cheated by Jay Smith and Mary Willingham

A detailed account of a long-running academic scandal at the University of North Carolina involving the funneling of academically ill-prepared athletes, especially in the "money" sports of football and men's basketball, into courses whose requirements were basically nonexistent. Basically, it's the kind of thing I always kinda assumed was going on with elite collegiate sports programs, but it's depressing to see it spelled out.

I love football especially so much, but lately between the head injury issues, the stunted educations of young men who are unlikely to ever see the NFL (or play long enough to amass a fortune to last them their lifetimes if they do), and the fact the sport's powers that be seem to think I should be happy to ignore rampant domestic violence and sexual assault issues, I'm finding it harder and harder to justify that love.

53. Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms by Gerard Russell

What with how busy and travel-focused I've been, it took me two weeks to finish this book, though it's fascinating--an account of the (mostly) obscure minority religions of the Middle East--Druze, Samaritans, Yazidi, Zoroastrians, etc.

54. Dead Wake by Erik Larson

An account of the last Atlantic crossing and sinking of the Lusitania. A good read if you like historical disaster tales, and IMHO Larson's best work to date. It's remarkable in a way that the loss of so many American civilian lives didn't expedite our entry into WWI--and, I have to admit, it speaks well of Woodrow Wilson, who isn't my favorite of the well-known POTUSes for several reasons. But the book's focus, and where it shines, is in the stories of all the individuals aboard the ship (mostly the survivors, though in some cases I guessed wrong about who was going to survive because some particularly vivid account turned out to be from a survivor's memory of a dead companion or from papers recovered from a body).

Sunday, April 19, 2015

2015 Reading, Books 43-45

43. Ms. Marvel Volume 2: Generation Why by G. Willow Wilson, Jacob Wyatt (Illustrator), Adrian Alphona (Illustrator)

What a fun series, and how awesome to have something like this to share with my geeky tomboy 11-year-old daughter!

44. Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson

...And I continue to raid my daughter's graphic novel collection. This one got me right in the feels. I seriously almost cried reading it. It's about a 12-year-old girl navigating changing friendships and trying to forge her own identity...and between having a preteen daughter and my own vivid memories of that age, this one was a direct hit.

45. American Apocalypse by Matthew Avery Sutton

A history of fundamentalist and evangelical Christianity in America from the late 19th century through the present day (though the strongest focus is ~1900-1950). Sutton focuses heavily on the importance of apocalyptic belief in an imminent Tribulation and Second Coming and its impact on fundamentalist political engagement. It's a dense but fascinating read. I was surprised to see how deeply rooted the criticisms I've seen of current politicians and policies are--e.g. I hadn't realized FDR came in for similar venom to what Clinton and Obama have been on the receiving end of in my lifetime.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

2015 Reading, Books 37-42

37. An Invitation to Sin by Sarah Morgan

Harlequin Presents aren't my usual thing, but I do love Sarah Morgan's because she's so good at writing heroines who can stand up to the powerful, rich, sexy alpha heroes required by the line. In this one I enjoyed how the heroine's toughness and confidence upended all the hero's stereotypes and expectations about women without ever crossing the line (IMHO) into the dreaded "I love you because you're nothing like other women" trope.

38. What Matters in Jane Austen by John Mullan

A recommended read for anyone with at least moderately high familiarity with the Austen canon. (If you haven't read the books or maybe read Pride & Prejudice once 20 year ago, you'll be lost and bored.) Over 20 chapters, Mullan looks at how Austen handles topics such as marriage proposals, money, and characters' reading habits across her novels, along with aspects of her literary technique in point of view, dialogue, etc.

39. Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography by Laura Ingalls Wilder

When the South Dakota Historical Society Press decided to put out an annotated version of the autobiography that became the root of Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House series, apparently they expected it to be of interest to a few historians and scholars, and then had to rush to print copies for all the people like me who read their Little House books into tatters as children!

And if you were also such a child, you should read this book. It's interesting to see how Wilder streamlined her real life into the fictional account. The real Ingalls family was less iconic--e.g. De Smet in the novels seems a lot more isolated than it really was. (Except during the Long Winter. The trains really couldn't get through the snow for months, the settlement really was that unprepared due to the early onset of that year's snows and the fact it was newly settled and therefore no one had managed a large crop that year or had much livestock, and you get the impression people did come damn close to starving. I even wonder if Laura was so very short as an adult, 4'11", partly because of enduring such an experience during her prime growth spurt period in early adolescence, though she probably would've been petite regardless.) But in some ways the real Ingalls family struggled more, since in the novels Wilder left out the worst of the poverty they occasionally fell into, the death of her baby brother, and sundry other incidents that wouldn't seem right for a kids' book.

40. Rose Sees Red by Cecil Castellucci

A YA novel set in the early 80's at the height of the Cold War (and HOW weird is it to see my own youth become an era that gets the retro treatment) about a teenager depressed over her childhood best friend's betrayal who goes out adventuring one night with the Russian girl next door (the daughter of Soviet diplomats). A quick, engaging read.

41. Promise of the Wolves by Dorothy Hearst

First in a fantasy trilogy about a young wolf 14,000 years ago destined to become a bridge between wolfkind and humankind, and by extension between humanity and the natural world. While I wasn't absolutely blown away by it, I did enjoy it and was sufficiently intrigued to put the second book on hold at my library.

Incidentally, I thought of buying this book as a birthday present for my 11-year-old daughter. It's not YA per se, but it's a coming-of-age story, the reading level is well within her above-grade-level capacity, and she loves animal fantasies.

However, the Kindle edition is $13.99. I'm not normally one to whine about ebook pricing--to me, it's about the content, not the format, and I'm happy to pay the same price I would for a print edition, or very slightly lower because I can't give the ebook away or donate it to the library when I'm done, which lowers the value somewhat. But for a book that's been out since 2008, I don't want to pay more than a normal MMPB price, say $5.99 or $6.99 or so. Maybe I'm somewhat biased by the fact that before I was an ebook reader I was a MMPB reader for almost anything that wasn't a new release by an absolute favorite author--and even then I was willing to wait for the paperback or wait out the hold list for the library hardcover unless the prior book had ended on a cliffhanger. But that still seems high to me.

42. The Nine Tailors by Dorothy Sayers

This was a re-read of a Lord Peter Wimsey mystery I'd only read once, so many years ago that at first I barely remembered any of the plot, though it came back to me as I went along, enough so to give me the pleasant sensation of being ahead of the sleuth for a change. :-) Not my favorite Lord Peter book by a long shot--the story gets bogged down in the minutia of fen drainage and bell-ringing, IMHO--but a lesser Lord Peter book is still better than most of what's out there.

Monday, March 23, 2015

2015 Reading, Books 34-36

34. Animal Weapons: The Evolution of Battle by Douglas Emlen

More popular biology, this time comparing animal weapons to human weapons across military history. An interesting, quick read, though not the best book of its kind I've ever read. I could've done with fewer pictures and realistic line drawings of insects (you know how I mentioned above that I hate spiders? I really prefer my animals with four legs or fewer, thank you), but that was unavoidable given that the author's research specializes in dung beetles!

35. When Britain Burned the White House by Peter Snow

And my non-fiction binge continues, though I really need to get on the stick if I'm going to make ten books on the month... ::looks around for some SHORT books, whether fictional or otherwise::

Anyway, I recommend this book for anyone who'd like to know more about the War of 1812--though it doesn't get into the causes, the overall sweep of the war, or the peace negotiations except tangentially--it's strictly about the invasion of Washington and the bombardment of Baltimore. It's even-handed and sympathetic to both sides, which you'd think would be easy to do 200 years after the fact when writing about countries who are now firm allies, but you'd be surprised how many War of 1812/Napoleonic histories can't pull it off.

It's also a contrast to a lot of the military histories and biographies I've read because both sides were so plagued with indecisiveness, mediocre or downright incompetent commanders, etc. A nice reminder that the Napoleons and Wellingtons, the Hannibals and Scipio Africanuses, etc. are the exception rather than the rule! (Though it's an interesting exercise to imagine how the campaign would've played out if Andrew Jackson had commanded the American forces and Wellington had been persuaded to take on the British command. IMHO Wellington was by far the better commander, but Jackson was no slouch and home-field advantage counts for a lot in war.)

36. Ms. Marvel Vol 1: No Normal by G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona

Maybe I'm finally getting the hang of reading graphic novels, because this one completely blew me away. It's about a 16-year-old Pakistani-American girl in Jersey City who's suddenly bestowed with shape-shifting superpowers--and then has to figure out how to control them and make use of them even while grounded. And the characters and setting are SO vivid.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

2015 Reading, Books 28-33

Wow, I hadn't realized it had been THIS long since I'd updated. Life has been a little crazy of late, especially the past week after a misstep on uneven pavement led to a faceplant, three hours in the ER, five stitches holding my lip together, and a face full of scabs.

But I'm now mostly recovered and trying to get caught up on everything that took a back seat to napping between doses of the good Tylenol. I'll have more to blog about later, but for now here's six books instead of three:

28. Rita book #8

This one came out in a near-tie with #4 as my favorite of this year's slate--and, as it happens, both are from the same imprint of the same publisher. Neither was necessarily the kind of book I rush to read in terms of setting, character type, etc., but both were strong enough that I think I'll be looking to the imprint in question for change-of-pace/palate cleanser reads in the future.

And that's it for Rita reads for the year, though I expect to be back in 2016 with more vaguely worded and cryptic contest commentary.

29. Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

Well, that took forever, but I finally completed my first book for March. (It wasn't this book that bogged me down--I spent too long on a book that just wasn't working for me because it's one enough other people have raved about that I kept plugging along thinking I'd eventually appreciate it. Didn't happen.)

But this book proved fascinating. It's a complex and intriguing debut SF novel, a bit more cerebral than my ideal for leisure reading, but compelling and impossible to put down for all that.

30. The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert

A book that manages the neat trick of being a compelling page turner despite its depressing subject matter--how we as humans are driving an extinction event that's beginning to rival that of the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs.

31. The Nile by Toby Wilkinson

A sort of historical travelogue traversing the Nile from Aswan to Cairo. The book assumes a certain familiarity with the basic outline of Egyptian history, but as long as you have that I recommend it as a way to better tie that history to the geography. And it will never not blow my mind to reflect on the fact that the pyramids are more distant and time from Jesus and Julius Caesar than we are from them.

32. The Oldest Living Things in the World by Rachel Sussman

This is more of a coffee table book than the kind you'd ordinarily read straight through. I did read it quickly, but only because A) I got it from the library, and B) in my current wounded state, a book like this hits just the right spot. It's a photography book, with each set of pictures accompanied by a short essay on the ancient subjects and Sussman's experiences visiting and photographing them. Most of the life forms--trees, along with some lichens, mosses, corals, and the like--aren't all that impressive to gaze upon, though there are some striking exceptions, like the sequoia and baobab trees. And it's striking how many of the long-lived organisms are in bleak environments like deserts or the Arctic/Antarctic. Overall, the book is a testament to both the endurance and fragility of life, since many of the ancient lives recorded here are threatened by climate change.

33. Unbound by Jim C. Hines

Third in the Magic Ex Libris series, which continues to be one of my favorite current fantasy series. Hines continues to expand his world and bring added nuance to his core characters even while the plot races along at breakneck speed. And he's finally convinced me to wish I had a fire spider like Smudge even though I hate hate HATE spiders.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

My artistic daughter

My daughter drew this for a fan art contest, and I'm hosting it on my blog so she can enter it.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Making me happy, week of 2-22-15

1) OK, so I promise to stop with the babbling about Sleepy Hollow soon. If nothing else, the season finale airs tonight, at which point I won't have anything left to gush about until (hopefully!) the show is renewed and comes back in the fall.

But really, if you're a former fan who's been put off by the show's sophomore slump, you want to come back. They've got the pacing and the focus on the core characters back. The promo for the finale looks AMAZING:

And those lucky souls who've seen the early screeners are all raving from what I've seen.

Watch it! You want to watch it! Help me get my show renewed!

2) Pitchers and catchers have now reported. Baseball is back!

3) Jo Walton's The Just City isn't a perfect book, but it's one of the more fascinating ones I've read in a while.

4) Want a great comfort-food recipe for the lingering winter? Try this Chili-Cheese Mac from Cooking Light. I up all the spices just a smidge, use regular cheddar cheese instead of reduced-fat, and spicy Ro-Tel diced tomatoes with chiles instead of the mild kind.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

2015 Reading, Books 25-27

25. An Age of License by Lucy Knisley

The Year of the Memoir continues with a graphic memoir of a month Knisley spent in Europe in 2011. It's something of a coming-of-age travel diary, and one that I liked but didn't love. I got it to see if it might be a good read for my daughter as we're preparing for our month in Europe this summer and ended up concluding it wouldn't work for her. I'm fine with her reading above her age level--best and safest way to try on adulthood IMHO--but I don't think she'd connect with Knisley's writings the way she does with, say, Liz Prince.

26. Rita book #7

Not the best nor the worst of my slate this year. I only have one left, which I'm saving for next weekend--it's one that was already on my wish list by an author I've never read before but have heard nothing but good things about, so I'm hopeful.

27. The Just City by Jo Walton

Jo Walton writes thinky, idea-driven books, and this fantasy novel about a time-travel attempt to build Plato's ideal city of philosopher-kings (with the backing and participation of Athena and Apollo) is no exception. But unlike many idea-driven writers, she creates characters who are believable and human, not just mouthpieces for her Big Idea, and I enjoyed this very much, with two caveats:

1) It ends abruptly, though I've been told a sequel is in the works.

2) Much is made out of a robot spelling out the word "No"--whether it really happened, or was a prank by one of the teenaged "children" being raised according to Platonic ideals. There's talk of it being the English word, which none of the children should know, as they were brought from around the Mediterranean from no later than the Renaissance...only the kid everyone suspects most is Italian, and from late enough that he considers himself and his native language Italian rather than Roman/Latin. And the word for "no" in Italian? Is "no." Just like Spanish, another Mediterranean language. I'm stunned to think someone as well-educated as Walton wouldn't know that. Maybe there's some detail I'm missing, and she's right and I'm wrong. I'd be glad to hear it, if so.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

2015 Reading, Books 22-24

22. Texts from Jane Eyre by Mallory Ortberg

A fun and occasionally laugh-out-loud hilarious imagining of assorted literary characters conversing via text. I think my favorites were Hermione frantically trying to keep Ron from disaster via hopeless cluelessness and gullibility WRT such Muggle matters as credit cards and Nigerian prince spam schemes and the idea that Prissy of Gone With the Wind was faking her stupidity all along in the interests of sabotage.

23. Rita book #6

I am not the target market for this book. Which made it a challenge to judge, because my not being its intended audience doesn't necessarily make it a bad book, you know? But I did my best to evaluate how well it succeeded at what it was trying to do, and to imagine how a reader who was looking for something different from a love story than I am might perceive it, so hopefully I was fair.

24. Getting Lucky by Beth Bolden

A fun, sweet read that I especially appreciated for having likable characters not prone to overreacting or misunderstanding each other just to drive the plot along. That said, I didn't like it as much as Bolden's previous book in the same series because it's not so much a baseball romance as a small town romance about a character who happens to be a baseball player, and contemporary American-set small-town romances are not my personal catnip.

Monday, February 16, 2015

On enthusiasm

Instead of a What's Making Me Happy post for this week, I decided to write something about the importance of allowing yourself to be happy--especially when that involves being a fan.
“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.”
                                                                                  --C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves
I’m by nature an enthusiastic person. Even an intense one. If I care about something at all, I throw my whole heart into it. If you’ve ever been on Twitter while I’m live-tweeting an Auburn football game or if you’ve seen my recent gushing about Sleepy Hollow, none of this will be a surprise to you. Given the right prompting, I can wax equally enthusiastic about the pizza at Serious Pie, my mother’s stuffing recipe, the military merits of the Duke of Wellington, or the beauty of the Episcopalian liturgy. In my world, if it’s worth liking, it’s worth loving.

And yet until very recently I was trying to suppress that side of my personality. That suppression grew out of a laudable desire to maintain a professional and self-disciplined persona, especially while wearing my writer hat, and especially but not exclusively online. While I don’t have any truly embarrassing internet incidents in my past, in my younger days I had a bad habit, albeit one hardly unique to me, of treating the internet as a sort of diary that talks back. I overshared. I spoke without thinking first.

Once I realized what I was doing, I over-corrected. It’s good that I’ve learned that the internet is public and forever, and that I should therefore step away from it when I’m feeling ranty or needy. It’s even better that I didn’t become published until I was mature enough to force myself to stay offline at all costs upon receiving bad reviews, at least until the urge to rage and cry has passed.

But somehow as a side effect of all that praiseworthy self-control, I started holding in my passions and enthusiasms too. Part of that is my habit of defensive pessimism that I use to protect myself from heartbreak by expecting the worst--like how if the Mariners are ever up by 10 runs with 2 outs in the bottom of the 9th of Game 7 of the World Series, I’m STILL going to be cautioning everyone not to jinx things by celebrating before the final out, and honey you better put that champagne right back in the fridge because remember Super Bowl 49? Of course you do.

Yet it wasn’t just a coping mechanism. Somehow I’d got it into my head--though I never quite spelled it out to myself--that I should’ve outgrown my enthusiasm by now. I’m over 40, after all. Shouldn’t have I outgrown the urge to scream for joy over a football game, or being so caught up in a TV show that I race downstairs to catch it the instant it airs, DVR notwithstanding? Is it really seemly to get a physical rush from singing Handel? And isn’t everyone kind of tired of foodies now? So I tried to deny that part of myself, or at least to keep it under a tight rein.

Only I recently realized that holding back my fangirl enthusiasm was hurting my passion for my own life and creativity. If I didn’t let myself care too deeply about the season-long real-life saga of a beloved sports team or get caught up in shipping characters on a favorite TV show, I struggled to awaken that passion when I was the one inventing the saga and the romance. And my love of cooking and trying new things in the kitchen is at least in part fueled by my passion for eating, of being That Person Who Tweets Her Restaurant Meals in the most cliched of foodie fashions.

Which is where that CS Lewis quote at the top of the post comes into play. Sure, fan-love isn’t on the same level as love for family, friends, God, or the greater good of humanity...but it still matters. It’s part of what gives joy to all those deeper loves. And there’s vulnerability in being a committed fan. Maybe some people are shaking their heads and thinking, “Aren’t you too old for this?” And, you know, FOX might cancel your favorite show, or your baseball team might miss the playoffs by one game, or your football team might pass on 2nd and goal at the one when they could’ve just handed the ball to Marshawn Lynch. None of that would hurt if you didn’t let yourself care. But I don’t want to live like that--it’s as flat as room-temperature soda that’s been sitting out in a half-drunk open can for days. So I’ll keep caring even if sometimes it makes me look like a fool or drives me to rage and weep. Life is better that way.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

2015 Reading, Books 19-21 (plus why you should watch Monday's Sleepy Hollow!)

19. Rita book #5

A tough one to rate. There were things I loved about it and things I hated. If this had been the kind of contest where you offer critique as opposed to just a numerical score, I would've filled the scoresheet with my rants and raves. As it was, I ended up assigning it a middling score, though unlike most of my midrange scores, I never thought "meh" at any point.

20. Sleepy Hollow #1-4 by Marguerite Bennett

I'm choosing to count these four comics as a single graphic novel, since they have a linked story arc and they're about the length/number of issues I usually see bound into book format.

OMG these are SO much fun. Far better than average for a TV tie-in, and filled with everything I loved about Season 1 of the show that's been too often lacking in the current season--focus on Ichabod and Abbie working together with wit, intelligence and loyalty, Katrina used minimally but effectively, plenty of Jenny and Irving. As with most tie-ins, not what you'd want as an introduction to the story and characters, but if you enjoy the show, you MUST read these.

...And if you're a Sleepy Hollow viewer who's stepped away over the way the show occasionally dragged this season with way too much Crane Family Drama and focus on extraneous characters like Nick Hawley to the exclusion of established favorite supporting characters like Jenny and Frank, I encourage you to come back for the two-part finale that starts Monday night. For that matter, I'd encourage you to tune in if you'd never seen the show before and want to know what I'm constantly babbling about of late. IMHO the writers have righted the ship and the show is moving in the right direction again. Plus we get Evil!Katrina. FINALLY.

Look, I've got excerpts from Monday! You want to watch this! You want to know what happens! I know it all sounds crazy, but that's what makes it so awesome!

21. Does Jesus Really Love Me? by Jeff Chu

Arguably yet another entry in my Year of the Memoir, but I decided to count it as a religion book, since I felt like I learned more about the churches Chu visited and the people he met than I did about his personal journey--though that was in there, too. The balance felt like 60-40, or maybe 70-30.

Homosexuality is arguably the most contentious issue in modern American Christianity. My native state of Alabama is currently making something of an exhibition of itself over it, and as someone who's evolved into a theologically liberal Christian, I feel a certain satisfaction that my chosen home state of Washington didn't have to wait for a court order, we voted for same-sex marriage. But as a straight woman, I'll always have an outsider's perspective on the issue. Chu provides an insider's view as a gay Christian from an evangelical background as he explores everything from the most extreme of extremists (he actually meets the Westboro Baptist Church people) to the most open and accepting congregations. A readable, gracious, and generous book.

Monday, February 9, 2015

2015 Reading, Books 16-18

16. Rita book #4

Excellent, unique, and moving. I hope the other judges agree with me and it earns a place in the finals.

17. Without You, There Is No Us by Suki Kim

For whatever reason I find North Korea endlessly and horrifically fascinating--something about how it's endured and tightened its hold on its people's lives and minds as other totalitarian states have collapsed or at least become more open, especially with South Korea and Japan and China right there surrounding it, with all their prosperity, vibrance, and, you know, plentiful food. This memoir by a journalist who teaches for two semesters in a school for the sons of Pyongyang's elite is a bit of a different view insofar as these boys aren't dealing with hunger and physical privation...but in a way it makes their intellectual, political, and spiritual deprivation stand out all the more.

18. Tomboy by Liz Prince

This is turning into quite the year for memoir reading for me so far. This one is a graphic memoir/nonfiction comic borrowed from my 10-year-old daughter, who's read it multiple times. Miss Fraser has never been a girly girl--I vividly remember the day when she was just learning to talk and I offered her a choice of a plain denim jumper or pink floral print overalls and she pushed away the latter, saying "No flowflers! No pink!" A vow she's pretty much stuck to ever since. She found this book tremendously helpful as Prince relates her childhood and adolescence and how she eventually found her own "tribe" and identity in her late teens. And I'm glad she has books like this, and the confidence to be herself even when that means looking and acting different from the norm.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Making Me Happy, Week of 2/8

So, at the risk of oversharing, the thing that's making me happiest at the moment I type this is I think I'm FINALLY over this stomach bug I first came down with Thursday night. It's been almost two hours since dinner now, a normal-sized dinner of normal richness and spiciness (a pork and vegetable stew over polenta), and my stomach feels...totally calm. This is AWESOME.

With that out of the way, here are a few things making me happy that have nothing to do with the state of my intestines:

1) Pitchers and catchers report next week, y'all! Baseball is back, the days are getting longer, and life is good. My Mariners missed the playoffs by just one game last year, and they're considered a contender for this season. Mind you, I've been burned so many times by this team that I'll believe it when it happens and not before--meaning if they're up by 10 runs with 2 outs in the bottom of the 9th of Game 7 of the World Series, I'll still be holding my breath and not jinxing it by prematurely popping the cork and pouring champagne for my watch party or making plans for where I'll watch the parade or anything.

2) We're making serious plans for our big trip to Europe this summer. We've booked an apartment for our five nights in Paris and a cottage for our week in the Dordogne, and we should have hotels for London and Brussels within the next day or two. I'm starting to believe this is really going to happen.

3) At the risk of being a broken record of a Sleepy Hollow fangirl, if you're a fan of the show, you totally need to check out this four-issue comic series. It's set during the middle of Season 1, with tons of Abbie and Ichabod at their most awesome, and a good dose of Jenny and Frank, my favorite secondary characters, and ones we've seen far too little of in Season 2.

As long as we're on the subject of Sleepy Hollow, if you're a fanfic person at all, please give Shoqed by AmbrosiaJones a read. It was inspired by a Tumblr discussion of how the show has told us next to nothing about Abbie and Jenny's father, and wouldn't it be nice if he turned out to be an awesome demon fighter and not, you know, the stereotypical deadbeat absent black father? And it is now part of my "head canon" until the show tells me otherwise, and maybe even then, if what the show gives us is that stereotype.

To give you a feel for how good the voice is, here's a bit of Jeremiah Mills, forced to watch his beloved daughters from afar for their own safety:

Watching Gracie- no, Abbie. It’s Abbie now. Watching her had been harder. He remembered the first time he heard her ask to be called Abbie. “I hate my first name. I hate it. Grace was my dad’s idea. He called me ‘Gracie.’ He’s an asshole that I haven’t seen since I was like seven, so I use my middle name instead. Simple as that.” He didn’t leave his bed for a week after that.

She had been so sad. So closed off. So angry. So lonely. Even though Jenny had her troubles, she’d carved out a weird little family among the mercenaries and rogue archaeologists and treasure hunters she’d hooked up with. But not Gracie. Dammit. Abbie. Not Abbie. She wanted to go it alone.

Until that gangly white boy showed up in his graveyard time machine.

Then every glimpse of her was peppered with “Leftenant, why this?” and “Leftenant, why that?” He didn’t feel an awful lot of sympathy for this Ichabod Crane, though he knew he should. It probably had something to do with the way he looked at his daughter when he thought she wouldn’t notice. Plus the limey bastard was married to that magical fraud and if you really thought about it, could meet some of the qualifications of a zombie.

So. Now that I've revealed to you all the depths of my fangirling, I wish you an awesome week filled with whatever makes you the happiest.

Monday, February 2, 2015

2015 Reading, Books 13-15

Here's a little more detail on the two nonfiction books I mentioned in my latest Making Me Happy post.

13. Rita book #3

Much better than #2. I don't hope or expect it to be among the finalists, since the writing quality didn't wow me and some of the characters and situations were on the cliched side, but it was a tightly plotted, well-paced, and enjoyable read.

14. Over Here by Edward Humes

A highly readable account of the G.I. Bill and its lasting impact on American society told through extended anecdotes of veterans' lives and accomplishments used to illustrate the larger principles and trends. The several decades between WWII and my being alive and aware enough to pay attention to world and national events are something of a gap in my historical knowledge--I think in part because my teachers and parents didn't think of them as history that needed to be taught any more than I do the 80's and the 90's. This book helped fill that gap, showing how we went from the struggles of the Great Depression to the prosperity and burgeoning middle class of the 50's and 60's...and how we began to lose that starting in the 70's as income inequality ticked up when we began to pull back from public investment in our future like that of the G.I. Bill.

Good book. Strongly recommended.

15. Promise Land by Jessica Lamb-Shapiro

A hybrid between a memoir (the author is the daughter of a self-help author) and critical analysis of self-help culture, but heavier on the memoir elements. As someone who's managed to, um, help herself through carefully selected self-help books, but who rolls her eyes forever at the likes of The Secret or The Rules, I found this an enjoyable and often laugh-out-loud funny read.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Making Me Happy, 2/1/15

So, I've fallen down on posting about things that make me happy over the past couple weeks...time to catch up a bit.

1) The Seahawks are back in the Super Bowl after an epic comeback win in the NFC championship game, one that's easily in the top 5 best endings of any football game I've ever watched in my life--and I grew up in Alabama. I've watched a LOT of football down through the years.

2) I've read two really good nonfiction books in the last week, Over Here by Edward Humes on the GI Bill and Promise Land by Jessica Lamb-Shapiro, a memoir/journey through the self-help industry.

3) This isn't something I'd usually include in this type of post, since I try to focus on things that you the reader could also watch/read/cook/listen to/etc. But I just had an idea for a new book, possibly a series, that has me excited about writing in a way I haven't been in a long time. Since I'd been battling burnout and self-doubt for several months, this makes me even happier than the new idea rush usually does. What's the idea, you ask? I don't want to go into too much detail at this stage, but suffice it to say I asked myself why I wasn't writing the kind of thing I most enjoy to read or watch these days. So think something in the vein of Sleepy Hollow, The Librarians, and Doctor Who. Sort of. You'll see, assuming the idea pans out.

Friday, January 23, 2015

2015 Reading, Books 10-12

10. Rita book #2 was grammatical. And not offensive in any way. But that's all I can say for it.

11. The Book of Jezebel by Anna Holmes, Kate Harding, and Amanda Hess

If you enjoy visiting the Jezebel website, you will most likely enjoy this encyclopedia of feminism, snark, and pop culture. And since it IS an encyclopedia, you will likely read it in the same way I did, using odd snatches of time here and there--it's your classic bathroom or waiting-in-line book.

12. Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell

I've always felt that plotting is one of my weak points as a writer. I can create believable and sympathetic characters, write smoothly crafted prose, and build a believable setting, but figuring out what to do with those elements is more of a challenge. I enjoyed this book because it treats plotting as a skill that can be taught, and because it offered practical and flexible guidelines. I expect to refer back to it when I start my next project.

Monday, January 19, 2015

2015 Reading, Books 7-9

7. Family Plot by Sheri Cobb South

Third in a charming series of cozy mysteries set in Regency England (well, this entry is mostly set in Scotland) featuring young Bow Street Runner John Pickett and Julia, Lady Fieldhurst, the woman he clears from a murder charge in the first book. A lovely light, quick read with a strong sense of period, and the slow burn romance between John and Julia remains delightful.

8. Rita book #1

It's that time of year again! I just got my box of books to judge for the Romance Writers of America annual Rita contest to pick the best book of the previous year in an assortment of romance sub-genres. I'm not allowed to give out any identifying information about said books, but I do count them toward my tally of books read for the year, so...

My first entry was quite average. I liked the characters, but the pacing felt a bit off and some plot elements toward the end seemed to come out of left field and get resolved too quickly.

The story of Polish scientists fighting typhus against the backdrop of Nazi occupation and the Holocaust. A fascinating read, if a little scattered at times--I wished the author had kept his focus more narrowly on 2 or 3 people.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

What's been making me happy this week, 1-18-15

I had a tough time coming up with anything to say for this post, since it's been, in a quiet way, a very sad week for me. One of the key members of an online community that was my internet home for many a year died suddenly last weekend, and though I hadn't been an active participant on the board in a long time and she and I weren't close, it was still a blow.

But there have been some happy things nonetheless. I'm excited that my Seahawks are going back to the Super Bowl. And that was some game, too! Best ending I've seen since the Kick Six.

I got to go to the farmers market yesterday, which sounds like a summer thing, but Seattle has a couple of year-round markets. If you have access to a year-round farmers market, do make time to go. There isn't the ridiculous abundance you see in July and August, but I was able to get local, organic hazelnuts and carrots, some beautiful fingerling potatoes and apples in unusual, not-found-in-supermarket varieties, and the local bacon I adore.

In book news, my critique partner Rose Lerner has a new release, True Pretenses, which I can highly recommend from having read it as she was getting ready to send it to her publisher.

I'll be back next weekend, hopefully with more happiness.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

2015 Reading, Books 4-6

4. The Marshmallow Test by Walter Mischel

Mischel is a psychology professor well-known for his studies on willpower and self-control--including a famous study where children who as preschoolers were able to wait 15-20 minutes for two marshmallows rather than eat one marshmallow immediately tend to achieve more and get in less trouble as adolescents and young adults. Here he summarizes his lifetime of research and the current state of the science on willpower, self-control, and executive function, with the helpful and encouraging message that it's never too late to change. I'm already applying some of the book's lessons to sticking to my diet in the new year.

5. Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

I became so angry while reading this book. Not over anything Stevenson said or did--he is on the side of the angels and I fully support his work--but over the wrongful conviction that forms the core of the narrative. Walter McMillian's joke of a trial and the first part of his six years on death row before his exoneration happened in my home state, Alabama, when I was in high school and still living there. Which means it was in some degree done in my name. Now, since I'm not stupid and I study history, I know Alabama has a terrible history when it comes to race relations. But I did NOT know that such a ridiculous travesty of justice had happened in my lifetime, well after the days of Selma and fire hoses and church bombings and bus boycotts. I don't have words for how furious it makes me.

It will be a tiny drop in the bucket, but at least for the next year and possibly beyond I will tithe the royalty checks from my writing income to Stevenson's organization, the Equal Justice Initiative. Because I have to do something.

6. Never Judge a Lady By Her Cover by Sarah MacLean

My first historical romance read of the year, and the conclusion to a series about a group of scandalous lords (and one lady) who run a casino in 1830's London. The lady in question is the heroine of this entry--though all London thinks she's the mysterious, never-seen, MALE fourth partner in the business. While this isn't the book for you if you're craving historical realism, it's intense and romantic. And I do love the cover, which is something I almost never say about Avon romances. As I've seen pointed out elsewhere, that's a heroine in a hero pose--which is perfect for the character and the story.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

What's been making me happy the past two weeks

We went down to Oklahoma the week of New Year's, and last weekend I was a sleep-deprived mess after our long flight back. So I completely forgot to post. But I've still been happy about things!

1) Football. I was sad that Auburn lost their bowl game, of course, but happy with how the two playoff games New Year's night turned out. All I asked of the universe once the four playoff teams were announced was that Florida State not win it all and Alabama not be the one to dethrone them. quote Sokka from Avatar: The Last Airbender...thank you, The Universe!

To continue my football happiness, last night Mr. Fraser and I were here:

Compared to Seahawks fans cheering a playoff victory, every other loud sporting event or concert I've ever attended is a sedate tea party or an afternoon in the library. Today I think my hearing is mostly back to normal.

Seriously, if you're a sports fan and you ever have a chance to attend a major event like this, grab it.

2. This Tetris lamp set. I got it for Christmas, and it's brought back some of my Tetris addiction from decades ago.

3. Jeannie Lin's Gunpowder Alchemy is the most fun book I've read so far this year. Steampunk 19th century China!

4. The midseason premiere of Sleepy Hollow pleased me greatly, and I'm holding out cautious hopes that my new favorite show will get its Season 1 mojo back.

5. While I was in Oklahoma, I got to eat good barbecue and chicken-fried steak with gravy. Thank you, in-laws!

Monday, January 5, 2015

Freedom to Love, and a few thoughts on writing interracial historical romance

Today is release day for my latest historical romance, Freedom to Love. It's my first full-length book since 2012, and I'm especially excited that it's out this week, since it's set in the aftermath of the Battle of New Orleans and this Thursday is the bicentennial of the battle.

So here is everything you need to know if you'd like to buy the book...and below are some of my thoughts on writing interracial historical romance.

Louisiana, 1815

Thérèse Bondurant trusted her parents to provide for her and her young half-sister, though they never wed due to laws against mixed-race marriage. But when both die of a fever, Thérèse learns her only inheritance is debt—and her father’s promise that somewhere on his plantation lies a buried treasure. To save her own life—as well as that of her sister—she’ll need to find it before her white cousins take possession of the land.

British officer Henry Farlow, dazed from a wound received in battle outside New Orleans, stumbles onto Thérèse’s property out of necessity. But he stays because he’s become captivated by her intelligence and beauty. It’s thanks to Thérèse’s tender care that he regains his strength just in time to fend off her cousin, inadvertently killing the would-be rapist in the process.

Though he risks being labeled a deserter, it’s much more than a sense of duty that compels Henry to see the sisters to safety—far away from the scene of the crime. And Thérèse realizes she has come to rely on Henry for so much more than protection. On their journey to freedom in England, they must navigate a territory that’s just as foreign to them both—love.

Freedom to Love is available wherever ebooks are sold, including directly from Carina Press, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iBooks, Google Play, Kobo, and All Romance eBooks.

This is my second interracial historical romance (my 2013 novella A Dream Defiant precedes it). Why did I decide to write these two books? I’m white--and, moreover, by birth I’m a white Southerner and the great-great-granddaughter of a Confederate soldier. What made me want to tell these stories, and what made me think it was any of my business to do so?

Over the past few years I’ve learned much more about the diversity and complexity of history. There has never been a time in the history of humanity--nor even in our prehistory, as archeology and DNA studies increasingly reveal--that we haven’t been wandering or migrating, all along meeting and interacting with other tribes, other nations, other cultures. Some of those interactions were love stories.

When I first had the idea for A Dream Defiant--a Regency with a black hero, the son of Virginia slaves who gained their freedom by escaping to the British army during the American Revolution--I thought I had no business writing it because of my family tree. My Confederate ancestor, a poor farmer from Alabama, didn’t own slaves, but he fought to preserve the institution. And from what information I have about my 18th century Virginia antecedents, I’m almost certain they were slaveowners. So I was afraid it would be presumptuous of me to write a black hero or heroine.

But then I thought about how much overt racism still exists in this country today, and even about how many whites still hold an idealized, romanticized view of the antebellum South--all Tara, moonlight and magnolias, etc. While I try not to write “message” fiction, these two books do have one simple message: I stand against that present-day racism and any romanticizing of the ugliest chapter in our nation’s history.

I will never know what it's like to be a racial minority in America or Europe. But I ended up deciding that's not a good enough reason to never write a minority protagonist. To not write characters of color at all whitewashes history--and to relegate them to supporting roles ultimately felt like denying them the agency, the heroism, that belonged to them as surely as to any other character I might dream up. No minority characters wouldn't reflect the reality of history. And if they’re never the hero or heroine--never given the mic, as it were, to tell their own story--that makes it all too easy to perpetuate such stereotypes as the Magical Negro or the Sassy Black Friend.

I'm sure I made mistakes and tumble into stereotypes and cliches no matter how much I tried to avoid them, and I'm sure I'll write more books where all the POV characters are white. But I'm not going to be afraid to let inspiration take me where it will. After all, mistakes aren't a reason to stop trying--they're there to be learned from so we can fail better next time.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Closing the book on 2014 reading and starting my 2015 reading

I spent last week visiting Mr. Fraser's family in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Between travel time and the odd quiet moment, I was able to finish 6 books--3 in 2014 and 3 in the new year:

The last of the 2014 reading:

140) Lighting the Flames by Sarah Wendell

A Hanukkah romance set at a Jewish summer camp trying to make a go of a winter break camp to build enthusiasm between terms. The hero and heroine have known each other since childhood, but almost exclusively as campers and then counselors. They're now in their twenties, just stepping into their careers and feeling out a newfound attraction and what it means in their outside-of-camp worlds. Definitely the first book I've read where the hero is a mortician, and by the end of the book I found his career awesome rather than off-putting.

141) Yours Forever by Farrah Rochon

A fun, quick romance about an aspiring politician who wants to keep family scandals going back generations buried and a history professor who needs his family records to keep her faculty position.

142) Ancestral Journeys by Jean Manco

The simple summary: People have constantly been migrating, as DNA increasingly reveals. A little on the dry side, but worth a read if the topic is of interest to you.

And the first of 2015:

1. Yes Please by Amy Poehler

A generally entertaining and occasionally laugh-out-loud funny memoir (though it gets a bit rambly at times). The chapters on focusing on creativity above career had a lot of resonance for me.

2. The Resistance Man by Martin Walker

The latest in Walker's endearing, food-porny mystery series. I pretty much guessed the murderer--at least, I suspected him before the sleuth did, which left me feeling clever.

3. Gunpowder Alchemy by Jeannie Lin

A really excellent steampunk alternative history set in 1840's China. Plenty of adventure and a nice thread of romance.

It's already feeling a bit late to do a "best reads of 2014" list, but I might do one anyway sometime in the next week for the sake of reviewing the year and in case anyone is looking for some recommendations and, like me, doesn't have any particular compulsion to read new books the instant they appear. (Unless they're sequels to books that ended on cliffhangers, in which case GIVE GIVE GIVE NOW NOW NOW.)

For 2015, my reading goals are the same as always--read a lot, and read a good variety of genres and topics.