Monday, December 20, 2010

Favorites Monday: My Best Reads of 2010

This will be my last post of 2010. I'll be taking a break for holiday travel and will return to my more or less regular posting schedule in the new year.

These are my favorites of the books I read for the first time this year. They weren't necessarily published in 2010--in fact, most of them weren't. I've included buy links for all of them, just in case you're doing a little belated Christmas shopping or are looking for something to read yourself.

In no particular order:

The Miles Vorkosigan Series, by Lois McMaster Bujold (Science Fiction) I've blogged about these recently. Well-written, character-driven but with page-turning plots, and a protagonist like no other I've read. Though I have a sneaking preference for Aral over Miles...

Battle Cry of Freedom, by James McPherson. (Nonfiction - History) Pulitzer Prize-winning history of the Civil War era, politics, battles, personalities, and all. If you read one book on the Civil War, this should be it.

The Sevenfold Spell, by Tia Nevitt. (Fantasy - Fairytale Retelling) A novella revisiting Sleeping Beauty from the perspective of one of the spinsters put out of work by the kingdom's ban on spinning wheels.

The Checklist Manifesto, by Atul Gawande. (Nonfiction) A doctor shows how checklists, when properly designed and followed, enable people and teams to manage complex and often risky tasks, but surprisingly helpful even for those of us who don't fly planes or perform surgery.

When the Stars Go Blue, by Caridad Ferrer. (Young Adult Romance) Carmen in a drum corps, and the one book this year that made me cry.

The Pericles Commission, by Gary Corby. (Historical Mystery) A young sleuth solves a political murder in Periclean Athens.

Fatal Affair, by Marie Force. (Romantic Suspense) I rarely read romantic suspense, but I enjoyed this story of a cop and a political aide working together to solve a young senator's murder.

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, by Winifred Watson. (Fiction - not sure how to classify beyond that) A lovely 1938 book about a middle-aged governess whose employment agency mistakenly sends her to a nightclub singer's home and the adventures and friendships that ensue.

Naamah's Curse, by Jacqueline Carey. (Fantasy) Epic fantasy set in an alternate version of our world, but it's book two of a trilogy so you don't want to start here. Try Naamah's Kiss first, or, better yet, get Kushiel's Dart, the first book set in this world.

The Millers Kill mysteries, by Julia Spencer-Fleming. (Mystery) She's an Episcopalian priest, he's a police chief in a small upstate New York town. They fight crime, not to mention their inappropriate attraction, what with him being married and nearly 20 years her senior. And despite the fact I don't usually read contemporary settings and normally hate big age differences or anything that hints of an adultery plot, I love these books beyond reason.

In For a Penny, by Rose Lerner. (Historical Romance) A fresh take on the well-worn marriage of convenience between impoverished lord and common-born heiress tale, and the best Regency-set romance I've read in I don't know when.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

New Year's Resolutions of a Writer and Reader

But, I hear you saying, it isn't New Year's yet. You're right, but it's not too early to think about what I mean to accomplish in 2011. And anyway, I decided to count the remaining two weeks of 2010 toward my 2011 resolutions. I'm only at work two more days this year, and I'll have all that lovely time on the plane to my in-laws' place to read and maybe even write. Plus, if the political and/or football arguments get bad enough, I may just go hide in the guest room with my books. :-)

Resolution the First:
I will finish both my current WIPs--the Waterloo novella (historical romance) and the historical fantasy--where "finish" means "ready to submit." This will be a challenge, as neither is anywhere near done and I still have that pesky full-time day job plus an April release to promote. But I'm enthusiastic about both ideas and want to put myself in a position where I can sell steadily and build up a backlist. To do that, I need more complete, polished manuscripts.

Resolution the Second:
I signed up for a Buy One Book and Read It challenge. The challenge comes in two forms: for those who rarely read, buy one book and read it over the course of the year. But for people like me who read a lot but are kinda haphazard about it, the challenge is to buy at least one book per month and actually READ those books IN 2011 instead of just leaving them in my virtual to-be-read pile forever.

The rules:
1) Books must be leisure reading. Nonfiction allowed, but only if it's read for fun.

2) Though I will buy at least one book per month, I don't have to read them in the same month, and there's nothing to stop me buying three books in January and reading one apiece in January, April, and October, as long as I also buy at least one book those other months.

3) I will blog about what books I read for the challenge, but not necessarily all the ones I buy. Since I blog as an author first and as a reader/reviewer second, I have a policy of not discussing my Do Not Finishes.

4) I will try to experiment with debut and new-to-me authors, but books by established favorites still count. For example, I can tell you right now one of my April purchases will be Julia Spencer-Fleming's One Was a Soldier and one of June's will be Naamah's Blessing, by Jacqueline Carey, because I've already pre-ordered them and can't wait for them to hit my Kindle.

Resolution the Third
I will NOT buy any more research books until I've read at least twelve of the unread ones already on my shelves.

You see, I have this impressive collection of research books in my writing office. They fill one full-sized bookshelf and are spilling onto a second, and I like to stand admiring them and feeling all erudite. But yesterday I started counting how many of them I hadn't gotten around to reading yet...and suffice it to say I felt much less erudite after that. Problem is I see a book and think, "Wow, that's a good price for something with lavish color illustrations," or, "Really, one can't have too many biographies of the Duke of Wellington, can one?" or just, "Hey, look! A used bookstore! I should wander inside and see what their history section looks like." Unfortunately, making the time to read them requires a bit more commitment.

The rules:
1) I will blog these, too.

2) At least four of them will NOT be directly relevant to the Waterloo novella or the historical fantasy, 'cuz that's how muses stay fed.

I'm toying with making a Resolution the Fourth where I vow to cook at least one recipe from each of the cookbooks on our dining room bookshelf this year, because I have that same "Oooh, shiny!" problem with cookbooks that I do with research books. However, that means committing to cooking from the Les Halles Cookbook and theFrench Laundry Cookbook, and while I'm by no means a bad cook, I don't think I'm that good.

What about you? Do you know what your resolutions will be yet?

Friday, December 17, 2010

Friday Find: The Golden Ocean

Did you know that Patrick O'Brian wrote other naval historical novels before the Aubrey-Maturin series? Neither did I, but one of the reader guide emails I get from the Seattle Public Library recommended them to me, and I'm almost finished with the first one, The Golden Ocean. It follows a young midshipman on an actual voyage I gather I would've already known about were I as up on my naval history as I am my army, and if I knew the first three quarters of the 18th century as well as I know 1775-1815.

The book has the same lovely language and evocative descriptions as the Aubrey-Maturin series, though I'm not quite as engaged by Peter Palafox, the midshipman hero, as I am by Jack and Stephen. And I'll definitely seek out The Unknown Shore, which I gather is not exactly a sequel, but set during the same expedition.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Belated Research Wednesday: When Research Gets Personal

I was going to post something about my general philosophy on research for historical fiction yesterday afternoon, but life intervened.

You see, there was a blood drive at my office yesterday, and I stopped by to donate after lunch. It'd been over ten years since I'd given, because for awhile there the fact that I lived in England 1997-98 was considered a mad cow risk. Now they've got that changed to 1996 and earlier, so I decided it was high time I donated again.

I'd never had any kind of medical issue with those previous donations, and I didn't expect one yesterday. But it ended up kinda terrifying, really. Probably the scariest single hour of my life in medical terms, though I've had pregnancy complications and a bacterial infection or two that were far more dangerous in the "could've killed me if left untreated" sense. Basically, I kept almost fainting for close to an hour. Apparently my vitals never looked scary--I was breathing fine, pulse only a little faster than my baseline, bp plummeted but in a "she's fainting" way, not a "she's dying" one. But I felt like I was falling apart, my chest was tightening, the world was blurry around the edges, and so on.

Eventually I got better enough that they sent me back to my desk, though it wasn't my most productive afternoon ever, and I was told to take it easy--when I told the tech I had choir practice last night, she first tried to make me skip it and then said I could go only if I promised to sit down throughout the rehearsal. And after a good night's sleep I thought I was fine this morning until I walked up the hill from Miss Fraser's bus stop to our house. Suddenly I was woozy and lightheaded again, though not in the terrifying way I was yesterday. So it's at least one more day of avoiding exertion and drinking extra fluids for me.

(Why did this happen when I'm generally healthy and had never had problems before? The tech and I have a couple of theories ranging from the fact I had a low-grade fever, not enough to keep me from donating, but maybe enough to trigger a reaction, to a medication I'm on that isn't on the contraindicated list but could theoretically cause such a reaction in rare cases. I'm going to compare notes with one of my brothers who takes the same thing and talk to my doctor before giving again. My blood type is B-positive, so I'm pretty far removed from being a universal donor with high-demand blood. I can always just make a cash donation to Puget Sound Blood Center or the Red Cross if I feel bad about not giving my actual blood.)

What does ANY of this have to do with research, you ask? Well, I'd already planned a scene for my historical fantasy WIP where my heroine loses a lot of blood quickly and thinks, not without reason, that she's about to die. While she's in a lot more danger than I ever was, after yesterday I know the EXACT sensory details I need for that scene!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Favorites NEXT Monday

I was going to post yesterday about my favorite reads of 2010, but work went mildly haywire, I didn't have time to blog at lunch, and by the time I got home I was completely exhausted and didn't have energy for anything beyond the bare necessities of cooking, eating, and reading Miss Fraser a bedtime story. (She prefers my reading to Mr. Fraser's for some reason, which strikes me as odd because I really think he's better at reading aloud than I am. Lovely baritone voice, and doesn't get tongue-tangled trying to read aloud at silent reading speed like I'm prone to do. Maybe it's that I'm marginally more tolerant of being asked to explain the plot when if she'd just wait till the next chapter or sometimes even the next SCENE, all would be revealed.)

Anyway, I'll move my Favorite Reads post till next Monday and make it my last post before taking a travel/holiday break until the new year.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Writing Weekend: Edits In

A very brief post to say that I've turned in my last round of edits for my April release, A Marriage of Inconvenience. So that particular book-baby is out there in the big world, and if I think of a better way I could've written it or notice an anachronism or infelicitous word of phrase, too bad so sad. Too late to change it now.

There's still plenty of publicity work for me to do on Marriage, but now my primary focus must shift from polishing a completed manuscript to finishing the two new ones I'm working on. And to be quite honest, have barely started, between edits and tendinitis. Time to get cracking!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Welcome, Vivi Andrews!

Today's guest is Vivi Andrews, whose novella No Angel is available from Carina now (and can also be bought as part of the paranormal holiday anthology Winter Wishes).

1. You have quite a few books out! Any advice for those of us who are just starting out? Things you wished you’d known before your first or second or third sale?

I don’t really have any “if I’d only known” regrets – I’ve been really lucky to stumble blindly along a good path. My best advice is to be open to unexpected opportunities. There isn’t only one way to become a successful author and the best path for you might not be the one you originally envisioned. Adaptability is key. My strategy is to always keep pushing myself to write better and continue to seek out new opportunities. So far I’m loving the results.

2. No Angel isn’t your usual Christmas story. What gave you the idea?

Believe it or not, No Angel started out as my spin on A Christmas Carol. The Dickens classic has always been my favorite Christmas story and I wanted to twist it around and make it new while blending it with paranormal romance themes. At its heart, Scrooge’s story is all about trial-by-fire redemption and being given an opportunity for a new beginning, and those were the elements I carried through into Sasha & Jay’s journey to Hell and back on Christmas Eve.

Though, admittedly, by the time I was done with it, No Angel didn’t bear much resemblance to A Christmas Carol. Angels flying around Hollywood, demons tempting us all to land on Santa’s naughty list, a little visit to Satan’s house… not so Dickensian.

3. If you could pick the actors to play the hero & heroine in the movie of your current release, who could you cast?

Wow, that’s a hard one for me. Jay is tall, dark and dishy – so perhaps that guy who played Superman? Brandon something or other? But with more of an edge. I feel like there’s probably some insanely hot Italian actor who would be perfect for the role. One with some intense smolder going on.

And Sasha is a tough-girl to the core, but she looks like a princess. Michelle Rodriguez doesn’t have her coloring, but that’s the right attitude, so she’d probably be my first choice. Or Jessica Alba with a gun. Oooh, or the girl who played Kate on Lost. She’d be fabulous. I love the mix of hard and soft all those women are so adept at portraying.

4. If one of your characters came knocking on your door, how would you react?

Sasha is my kind of girl – sarcastic and crunchy on the outside, with a gooey center. I’d love to hang out with her for a day, especially if I could get her to teach me some of her stunt-girl tricks. Jay would be fun to hang with too, just so I could gaze at him, but the demonic minions? They’d be less welcome. J

5. Who was the last author whose writing wowed you?

Nalini Singh continues to knock me over with her awesomeness, Eloisa James gives me little shivers of delight, but my most recent glom was for Kristan Higgins. I feel like I was the last chick in Romancelandia to discover her, but dang can that woman write! She can make my throat tight with emotion on one page and have me giggling on the next and all with this sense that I can really see the events happening, see the story coming to life. Such skill. Can I be her when I grow up?

6. What book is your comfort read?

I really adore Pride and Prejudice, which I’m afraid is cliché, but it’s true. There’s just something about that book that hits all the right notes with me. A guaranteed home run every time.

My favorite books are always those that mix humor, intellect and heart and Pride & Prejudice is a prime example of that.

7. What are your Desert Island movies?

Oh, wow, so many. Definitely Philadelphia Story with Katherine Hepburn & Cary Grant. The Last of the Mohicans for the gorgeous score alone. Chocolat, Noises Off and The Princess Bride because I love them more every time I see them.

8. Anything you’d like to ask my readers?

I'm definitely in a holiday mood these days, so my burning question is: what's the holiday tradition that makes the season glow for you? Or, if you aren’t feeling the holidays, which would you rather have try to romance you: an angel or a demon? Thanks so much for having me round to visit, Susanna!

(If you'd like to read an excerpt of No Angel, click here.)

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Research Wednesday: Accidental Research

Every once in awhile I vow to stop wasting time on the internet, where "wasting time" equals all those activities that neither strengthen relationships with friends and family nor do anything to build my career as a writer. But somehow there are always a few corners of the internet where I just lurk because I find the subject matter interesting even though I don't know a soul involved. Since I'm just watching silently from the virtual sidelines, I'm not even making new friends or driving anyone there to think, "Hey, that's right. Susanna writes books. I should buy one."

But just last week I came across facts that made a major character in my historical fantasy WIP's background fall into place for me...while "wasting time." You see, one of those boards where I lurk got into a discussion of a documentary that first aired a year or so ago on UK Channel 4 called "My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding." (Following the link takes you to the first segment on YouTube.) It's about Roma and Irish Traveller weddings, and it's pretty much what you'd expect based on the title. A lot of gawking at the big, garish dresses--20-foot trains! Crinolines so poofy the bride can't walk gracefully or even fit in a church aisle without smooshing her skirts--leavened with a bit of social commentary on the Roma and Traveller ways of life and the prejudices they face from mainstream Britons.

Being me, after I finished watching the doc on YouTube, I started looking up modern nomadic groups online to see what else I could learn. I happened across a reference to Scottish Highland Travellers, followed a few links, and ended up on this site.

Now, the protagonist of my WIP is of moderately good family--father a minister, distant cousin of a Highland laird, and so on--but after her parents died she and her sister were raised by her outlaw grandfather. I'd imagined her growing up in some isolated cottage, but as soon as I read about the Highland Travellers I realized the grandfather would've taken refuge among such a group. He'd be able to travel about below the official radar and keep practicing his craft. (I don't want to give away too many details of this story before it's done, so suffice it to say his particular method of fighting supernatural evil isn't approved of by the authorities.) And it gives my protagonist a perfect background to be tough, resourceful, and adept at living under rough conditions and traveling constantly--all things she'll need to do over the course of her story.

And I never would've figured that out if I hadn't been wasting time.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Favorites Monday: Anne of Green Gables

I didn't read Anne of Green Gables as a child like you're supposed to. I don't think my hometown library owned the series, and unlike with the Little House and Narnia books, none of the adults in my life introduced them to me.

Instead, I discovered them in college when a dorm friend, stunned that I'd never read them, loaned me her copies. With their lovely prose, memorable characters, and perfectly evoked Prince Edward Island setting, they were a perfect break from studying for statistics finals or writing up case studies for my marketing classes.

Perhaps because I came to the books so late, my favorites aren't the ones about Anne's childhood. I'll happily re-read any of the series when I need to unwind, but my favorites are Anne's House of Dreams, set during the first two years of Anne's marriage, and Rilla of Ingleside, which details Anne's youngest daughter's experience living through WWI as a teen on the Canadian homefront. Rilla was written only a year or so after the war ended, which adds to its poignancy. And really, if you can get through the Dog Monday part at the end without crying, you're made of sterner stuff than I am.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

A new blog!

The Carina historical authors now have our own group blog, Romancing the Past, which debuted last week. Stop by and say hello! I'll be there on Thursday, talking about how the soldiers in Wellington's army during the Peninsular War celebrated Christmas.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Friday Find: Lois McMaster Bujold

I waffled on whether this post belonged here or in my Favorites Monday series but ended up deciding that since I've read less than half of the author's output and have just in the last few weeks started a massive glom of her best-known series, it's a Find. When I finish, maybe I'll rave about her some more on the Favorites side.

Anyway. Lois McMaster Bujold. She writes science fiction and fantasy with vivid, appealing characters and strong world-building, with occasional books that are basically mysteries in space or fantasy romances. And they are awesome and addictive. Since I'm more of a fantasy reader than a science fiction one, I read her two fantasy series years ago and can recommend them without reservations. The first starts with The Curse of Chalion and would be an especially good fit for fans of Jacqueline Carey or Guy Gavriel Kay. The second starts with The Sharing Knife: Beguilement and is an evocative romantic fantasy set in a world that physically resembles the American South and Midwest and culturally feels maybe 18th or 19th century in technology, but is very much its own place with its own cultures and magical hazards. The central couple are sweet and different--and managed to get past my usual dislike of large age gaps between heroes and heroines--and the writing is lovely and lyrical.

But Bujold is best known for the Miles Vorkosigan series, which I held off on reading for ages because it's science fiction, which I don't like as much as fantasy. But after hearing what I swear was 3/4 of my friends rave about Miles, I finally swallowed my instinctive preference for books with horses or castles on the covers to ones with spaceships and settled down to read Young Miles, an omnibus edition of the first few books in the series. And I fell hard for Miles somewhere around p. 40 and haven't looked back.

How to describe the appeal of Miles? Well, he was born with a compelling combination of power and weakness. He's the son and heir of an influential lord and military leader on a planet where such things matter a lot--but because of an attempt to assassinate his parents by poisoning while his mother was pregnant with him, he was born stunted and deformed into a society whose prejudice against such disabilities is even stronger than our own's. So he's got every advantage...and every disadvantage. He's freakishly smart and a master manipulator, though he mostly uses his powers for good. He swashbuckles and wisecracks and improvises his way across multiple planets, and his story is the best-written pure fun I've run across in years.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Guest blogging today at Vivi Andrews' blog

No Research Wednesday post this week because instead I'm a guest today at Vivi Andrews' blog talking about The Sergeant's Lady, my non-writing dream job, the best books I've read lately, and who I'd be if I could be any character from any book. And next week Vivi will be here on Thursday to talk about her hellish paranormal Christmas novella, No Angel.