Sunday, December 18, 2011

Buried Treasures

Just in time for the last-minute holiday shopper (or anyone looking for a good airplane read), I thought I'd do a post recommending some of my favorite buried treasures. This isn't a Best Reads of 2011 list--I'm saving that for January, since I typically get a lot of reading in over the last two weeks of December between long plane rides and being away from work. These are just books I think deserve more buzz and a wider audience.

I didn't give myself any hard and fast rules for what constitutes a buried treasure. Most of them are little-known books by little-known authors, but I threw in a few lesser-known works by popular or classic authors, especially when my favorite isn't the book or series that gets all the buzz.

However, since this is meant to be a shopping guide of sorts, I limited myself to books readily available new in either print or electronic form, priced no higher than $12 or so. Which meant saying no to Clyde Edgerton's Raney, though I love his Southern voice and reading it is like stepping back into my 70's and 80's Alabama childhood. It also ruled out Pat of Silver Bush and Mistress Pat, though I swear everything else LM Montgomery wrote is readily available.

In no particular order:

Assiniboin Girl, by Kathi Wallace
Buy for Kindle

This book was originally published by the now-defunct Drollerie Press, but it looks like Wallace has re-released it as a self-published Kindle book. It's a YA coming-of-age story about a Native American girl who's grown up in New York knowing little about her heritage, but, after being orphaned and sent to live with an aunt and then her extended family on the reservation, develops a deeper connection to her past. With a certain amount of what I guess could be described as magic realism. It's a difficult book to describe or categorize, and it's not the most polished work I've ever read, but I couldn't put it down.

No Quarter, by Broos Campbell
Buy for Kindle
Buy for Nook
Buy the paperback from Powell's (though the price is above my target range)

Age of Sail (1799, to be specific), but in the American navy. First in a series following Matty Graves, a young midshipman just setting out on his career. Campbell has a wonderful American historical voice and a way for bringing little-known corners of history to light. I'd love to see the three books that are out so far become big hits so he can keep writing and follow Graves all the way through the War of 1812. If you like Patrick O'Brian or Bernard Cornwell (very different voices, I know, but Campbell's voice is different from both), do give this series a try.

And, doesn't the second book in the series, The War of Knives, have a gorgeous cover, in a badass war story way?

In This House of Brede, by Rumer Godden. (not available in ebook)
Buy from Amazon
Buy from Barnes & Noble
Buy from Powell's

If you looked at the rest of my bookshelf (or even just the rest of this list), you'd never guess that one of my favorite books of all time is this quiet, rambling story of Benedictine nuns in mid-20th century England. But it is. Almost all my favorite books share a strong sense of place and communities of characters who seem so real to me I feel like I could step into the story and know how to fit into its world. Brede Abbey and Dame Philippa, Sister Cecily, Sister Hilary, Dame Catherine, and the rest are one of those communities to me, just like Narnia, Barrayar, Terre d'Ange, Peter Wimsey's London, or Marcus Didius Falco's Rome.

Captive Bride, by Bonnie Dee
Buy for Kindle
Buy for Nook
Buy from Carina Press

(Speaking of covers, isn't this one a beauty?)

I will always at least try a historical romance with an unusual setting, and this interracial romance set in 1870 San Francisco worked for me. Dee made me completely believe her hero and heroine found true love and deep knowledge of each other despite lacking a common language at first, and also that they would find a way to make their cross-cultural relationship work despite all the challenges they would face in their place and time. Also, I would love to see more historical romances set on the West Coast, as opposed to the conventional Westerns with deserts and cowboys. Give me more of the early days of places like Seattle, Portland, and San Francisco, please!

Eight Cousins/Rose in Bloom, by Louisa May Alcott
Both free for Kindle.
Or $0.99 for both for Nook
Or you can pay a little more for the paperbacks

Not that obscure a pair of books, obviously, but I think fewer people have read them than Little Women or An Old-Fashioned Girl. They're actually my favorite Alcott books, I think because they're the only ones in which the heroine marries the same man I would've chosen myself.

The Golden Key, by Melanie Rawn, Jennifer Roberson, and Kate Elliott (not available for Kindle)
Buy from Amazon
Buy for the Nook
Buy from Tattered Cover

This book blew my mind when I first read it over a decade ago. You mean fantasy isn't just swords and sorcery? Fantasy cultures are allowed to evolve and change technologically and politically just like real ones? You mean magic could take a form other than potions or wands and spells? (In this case, paints.) Now that I've also discovered Guy Gavriel Kay, Jacqueline Carey, George RR Martin, and Lois McMaster Bujold, to name just a few, it no longer seems so unique and revolutionary, but it's still an excellent book.

The Winter King, by Bernard Cornwell (print only)
Buy from Amazon
Buy from Barnes & Noble
Buy from the Tattered Cover

Don't get me wrong, I love Sharpe and wish Cornwell would get back to the Starbuck series. But I think his Arthurian trilogy, which begins with this book, is the best thing he's ever written.

Lady Elizabeth's Comet, by Sheila Simonson
Buy for Kindle
Buy for Nook

One of the many traditional Regency romances that's gained a new lease on life as an e-book, and the most delightful and freshly written one I've found.

The Old Buzzard Had it Coming, by Donis Casey
Buy for Kindle
Buy for Nook
Buy the paperback from Powell's

First in one of my all-time favorite historical mystery series. The heroine, Alafair Tucker, a farmer's wife in early 20th century Oklahoma, is a surprisingly effective amateur sleuth, and the books have what I always love in my historical fiction, a vivid sense of place and time. The first book is only $0.99 for Kindle and Nook, so if you enjoy mystery at all, give this one a try.

Friday, December 16, 2011

52 Cookbooks - Weeks 10 & 11

Another double post. Also, a friend pointed out to me that these posts would be more interesting if I included the recipes, so from now on I will. My understanding is that there's no copyright issue with quoting a recipe or two from a cookbook, but please do correct me if I'm wrong.

Last week I drew the Weight Watchers New Complete Cookbook (from 1998, so not all that new anymore). It's not a bad cookbook, but it's not particularly exciting, either. I chose Southern Oven "Fried" Chicken because I had the ingredients readily to hand:

1/2 c. fat free buttermilk
2-3 drops hot red pepper sauce
1/2 c. cornflakes, crushed
3 T all-purpose flour
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp freshly ground pepper
2 lbs. chicken parts, skinned
4 tsp canola oil

1) Preheat the oven to 400F. Spray a large baking sheet with nonstick cooking spray.
2) In a large, shallow bowl, combine buttermilk and pepper sauce. On a sheet of waxed paper, combine cornflake crumbs, flour, salt, and pepper. Dip chicken in buttermilk, then dredge in cornflake mixture, coating completely. Place on baking sheet, drizzle with oil. Bake 30 min., turn over, and bake 15-20 min longer until cooked through.

My modifications: I used boneless, skinless chicken breasts because it turned out I didn't have thighs and drumsticks left in the freezer after all. I soaked the chicken for several hours in the buttermilk because I know that works from previous recipes. I used at least a teaspoon of hot sauce and didn't bother measuring salt and pepper. And it took me more like two cups of cornflake crumbs to get the chicken coated. Oh, and I cooked it at 350 instead of 400, because that seemed a little hot for pieces as prone to drying out as boneless breasts.

The results: Meh. Edible, something you could throw together quickly. Nothing exciting or memorable.

This week's cookbook was Life After Pizza, which I used to teach myself to cook in college and the first few years thereafter. It covers everything from basics like how to scramble an egg and soups you can make by mixing various canned condensed soups to yeast breads and souffles (neither of which I've ever mastered). I still consult it now and again for reminders of cooking times and such for basics I haven't made in awhile, and I confess to a fondness for one of those canned soup blends. Finding a recipe in it I'd never made before that sounded appealing was a challenge, but I finally settled on:

Pizza Pasta

1/4 c olive oil
1 large onion, thinly sliced
2 green peppers, sliced
8 oz. thinly sliced pepperoni
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 15 oz. can tomatoes
1 tsp oregano
1/2 tsp salt
cooked pasta

1) Heat oil in skillet over medium heat. Add onion, peppers, pepperoni, and garlic. Cook for 5 min, stirring constantly.
2) Mix in tomatoes, oregano, and salt. Cook, covered for 5 min. Remove cover, cook for 5 min until sauce thickens slightly.
3) Pour over pasta, serve with parmesan cheese.

Modifications: I used 3 oz. of pepperoni, because that's what the package I'd picked up at the store held. It was still too much. I added another half can of tomatoes, because it didn't look saucy enough. I doubled the oregano.

The results: Not inedible, but I'll never make it again. My younger self would've enjoyed the pizza-topping gimmickry, but my older, somewhat skilled cook of a current self can make a better homemade pasta sauce improv. And the pepperoni just doesn't work at all.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Books read, week of 12/13

Even as I scramble my way through a hectic holiday season, I'm finding time to read. (I'm also waiting with eager anticipation to see what my LibraryThing Secret Santas got me and Miss Fraser. Neither of my Santees was much of a romance reader, but I'm hoping they'll like my fantasy choices. I got both of them some Bujold and one His Majesty's Dragon, which apparently was one of the top ten most-given books this year.)

In the meantime, I've been reading...

The Deception of the Emerald Ring, by Lauren Willig. I'm not always the biggest fan of spy Regencies, but I love this series because it never takes itself too seriously and yet is very intelligently written--not an easy combination to find.

Bold, Brave, and Born to Lead: Major General Isaac Brock and the Canadas, by Mary Beacock Fryer. As I'm sure the title reveals, I got this book as research for An Infamous Marriage. It's YA military history/biography. Not sure how wide a readership that gets, but it's just right for what I'm looking for--information to give my hero, a protege of Brock's, a backstory without getting bogged down in minutiae. (Brock, for those of you who've never heard of him--a group that would've included me until a few months ago!--was probably the most talented British commander in the War of 1812 and is regarded as a hero in Canada for blocking American attempts to invade in the summer and fall of 1812. Unfortunately for the British and their Native American allies, he died less than a year into the war.)

Raised Right, by Alisa Harris, is a memoir by a young woman raised in the Religious Right who's kept her faith but changed her politics...and that's really all I can say about it without saying more about religion and politics than I like to do on this blog. Suffice it to say that if it sounds relevant to you, you'd probably enjoy reading it.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Drive-by post

Just a quick post to say that my author website has just been updated (thanks to Frauke at Croco Designs), and there's an excerpt of An Infamous Marriage now.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Two weeks or so of books read

Now that I'm back in blog-land, here's what I can recall reading the last two weeks or so:

Hark! A Vagrant, by Kate Beaton. Just the best history geek and all-around geek comics going. If you don't already ready the web comic, you should, and if you do, you'll enjoy the book. (Here's one of my favorites that didn't make this collection.)

The Lady's Secret, by Joanna Chambers. I enjoyed this book (a debut historical romance from Carina Press), despite never 100% warming up to the hero, for the lovely writing and well-evoked period atmosphere. Mind you, there was nothing WRONG with the hero. He was just a bit too much the quintessential bored aristocrat for my taste, keeping in mind that my ideal of an aristocratic hero, real-life division, is Wellington, while the fictional division is a three-way tie between Peter Wimsey, Aral Vorkosigan, and Miles Vorkosigan. And obviously it's not every hero who can solve murders or help save Europe, Barrayar, or half the galaxy.

The Lady's Scandalous Night, by Jeannie Lin. A long short story/short novella set in Tang Dynasty China. The hero has been ordered to track down his best friend, now turned rebel, but the friend's sister will do whatever it takes to delay him and give her brother a chance to escape. Lin does a great job packing a lot of characterization into a story you can read in a single sitting.

To End All Wars, by Adam Hochschild. There's something uniquely appalling about World War I. Other wars have been senseless, and other wars have had appallingly high casualty rates, and I'm sure others set up the conditions for future conflicts, but I can't think of any other that combines all three factors to such a horrific degree. I find it almost too painful to read about, but Hochschild's history of those who fought the war and those who resisted it is too compelling to put down.

Sunday, December 4, 2011


Generally I don't mention my religious or political views on this blog. I'm going to make a tiny exception today by talking about some thoughts on reader expectations that I had at church this morning...but I'm not going to preach at you, and if anyone uses the comments for preaching, they will be deleted.

All that being said, I recently started attending an Episcopalian church in my neighborhood, and I was happy to see that today's service was going to be Lessons and Carols. The year I lived in England, I went to two such services and loved them because they were a dream come true for someone like me who loves to sing and can never get enough of the traditional Christmas carols. Basically, someone would read a passage from the Christmas story, we'd sing two or three carols related to it, lather, rinse, repeat until we'd made it from the Annunciation to the Magi and sung at least a dozen carols.

So when I sat down with today's order of service, I was disappointed. There was maybe half as much congregational singing as in those English services, and none of it was Christmas classics like "Joy to the World," "Angels We Have Heard on High," or "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing." It was, you see, an Advent service, with Advent music. (For those of you not versed in the liturgical-church calendar, Advent is the four weeks before Christmas, and Advent music is more about anticipating Jesus than celebrating the Nativity story. Probably the best-known Advent hymn is "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.") Now, I like Advent music fine, but I grew up in a non-liturgical church (translation: Baptist) that sang Christmas carols all December, and because of family travel I'm never at my church during Christmastide when they break out the shepherds abiding in the fields and the multitudes of the heavenly host. So there's this whole tradition of songs I grew up loving that I never get to sing anymore, and singing along with the radio or singing in the shower just aren't the same. (I know, I should probably find some carolers or something to join...but where would one find such a thing? I'm picturing the Craiglist ad: "Experienced alto seeking like-minded musicians for casual yet sophisticated and tuneful musical encounters...")

I think I spent the first third of the service feeling sad that, in fact, those Lessons and Carols services I attended back in 1997 weren't representative of the Anglican Communion as a whole--that just because two Church of England congregations in Bristol sang Christmas songs for one service in Advent did not make it required or even likely that an Episcopal one would do the same thing in Seattle in 2011. But then we sang a song that was both completely new to me and incredibly fun to sing, and the man sitting next to me, a fine baritone, started to harmonize, so I did the same. (To me, harmony is more interesting to sing and uses the richer, fuller part of my alto range--I can go as high as an E atop the treble clef, but I start sounding reedy and thin around B-natural. Still, I hesitate to harmonize when everyone else is singing melody, since it can feel conspicuous in the wrong way.) From then on, I appreciated the service for what it was instead of what I'd hoped it would be, and I'm glad I was there.

What does any of this have to do with reading? Well, it occurred to me that I was acting like someone who'd read one or two historical romances--say, a book or two by Jo Beverley--and then picked up a book by Courtney Milan or Loretta Chase and couldn't deal with the fact the voice and tone were different because all my expectations of historical romance were built on that initial sample.

I don't think I've ever been quite that picky a reader, but I've definitely had experiences where someone pushed a book on me, saying, "I know you love Author X, so I'm SURE you'll love Y, too." Once I try the book, I think the book pusher must be crazy, because X and Y are nothing alike, since Y's voice isn't as smooth or her characters aren't as vivid. Or I'll read bad reviews of books I love, and clearly the reviewer is disappointed not because the book is poorly written or offensive, but because it didn't match the expectations they had when they sat down to read.

I don't think it's possible to prevent expectations dissonance. But thinking about it makes me see the value of a well-chosen cover and title or a thoughtful review--really, anything that makes an accurate promise to the reader about what they'll find once they open my book.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

52 Cookbooks - Week 8 & 9

Just a quick post to catch up on the last two weeks of 52 Cookbooks:

The week before last I drew The New Covent Garden Soup Company's Book of Soups, a cookbook Mr. Fraser bought the year we lived in England (we met there, started dating within a month or two, and got married a year after returning to the States and nearly two years to the day after we met). To get into the proper spirit of the thing, I made their vegetable stock despite certain oddities of ingredient. (Lettuce? Cooked? In a stock? Really?) And I'm glad I did. It gave the resulting soups a freshness and lightness you just don't get with canned stock.

I first made Cheese Soup with Crispy Bacon, which was every bit as yummy as it sounds, but nowhere near as heavy:

Since I had plenty of stock left over, I made their herbed cream of chicken soup and served it alongside a pesto bread recipe (bruschetta, basically) from my Week 9 cookbook, Starters and Closers, the Mariners' wives charity fundraiser cookbook from the 2001 season--i.e. back when we had a really good team. (Though that 116-win season is a lot less glorious in retrospect, since we weren't able to follow it up with a championship and have been wallowing in futility since 2004. But I digress.) Anyway, I decided to make one "starter"--the appetizer pesto bread--and one "closer"--Mike Cameron's contribution to the dessert section, cinnamon-dipped marshmallows baked inside crescent rolls. I thought they were kinda gross, but my husband and daughter ate them all.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Still here!

I promise to resume blogging soon. I'm recovering from a sinus infection and a neck-shoulder-hand pain flareup, so I've been devoting what computer time I can manage to staying on pace with my manuscript.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Trading with the enemy

One of the more surprising things I've learned in my recent study of the War of 1812 was that, before the war, America was a major supplier of grain to Wellington's army in Portugal and Spain...and that this commerce continued DURING the war, with the approval of both governments. The British kept buying because their Peninsular army needed to eat, and a series of bad harvests in Europe around that time made America the most reliable supplier available. And the Americans kept selling because the government didn't want to turn its farmers against the war by depriving them of a valuable market for their crops. Also, just because they were at war with Britain didn't make them allied with France, and they were perfectly happy to help keep the bulk of Britain's army and its best commander in the field in Europe, fighting someone else. Makes sense, once you understand their reasoning.

However, in reading Adam Hochschild's book on World War I, To End All Wars, I discovered a far more baffling case of trading with the enemy. The British, you see, found themselves short of binoculars for their officers and NCOs, and lacking the capacity to manufacture them quickly, since it wasn't an industry they specialized in. At the same time, the British naval blockade cut the Germans off from their sources of rubber, also an important military commodity by that time. Germany, however, was well set up to make binoculars. So they set up a top-secret trade. Um...Whiskey? Tango? Foxtrot? Actively trading military technology with your direct enemy in a war brutal beyond example?

(Though I can't confirm the truth of the WWI story. Hochschild's research seems thorough to me, but googling turns up nothing but debates over whether it really happened. I hope it didn't, because WWI really doesn't need another level of senselessness. Sure, the War of 1812 was as pointless a conflict as was ever fought, but at least it was relatively small-scale, and the combatant nations have been at peace ever since. As for World War I...well, the British had more casualties on the first day of the Battle of the Somme than they had regular soldiers in the War of 1812. And we all know how well the Treaty of Versailles worked out...)

Thursday, November 17, 2011

52 Cookbooks - Week 7, Everyday Food

This week for the first time I drew a cookbook I already use fairly frequently, Everyday Food: Great Food Fast. It's a 2007 collection by the editors of Everyday Food magazine, so it's full of recipes suited to current tastes and food trends, without being too labor-intensive or beyond the skills of the average home cook. In other words, everyday.

For the sake of my challenge, I chose a recipe I'd never made before, Chili-Rubbed Skirt Steak. Simple stuff--just steak coated with a chili-heavy spice rub and broiled. I also made the suggested side, romaine salad with a homemade creamy chili dressing. It looked like this:

Tasted pretty good, too. I also made a dessert from the book, Grilled Chocolate Sandwiches. Chocolate-stuffed french toast, basically. The flavor was fine, but it was messy to make, since chocolate melts softer than cheese and kept wanting to ooze out rather than adhere to the bread. I think you could get the same or better flavor with easier clean-up from pouring a good chocolate sauce over ordinary french toast.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Books read, week of 11/15

After last week's somewhat gloomy reads, I decided I was due for some lighter fare.

First, I blazed through The Ionia Sanction, Gary Corby's second historical mystery featuring Nicolaos, a fictional older brother to Socrates (who makes occasional appearances as the last 12-year-old brother any 21-year-old man would want around, because he's such a logical little know-it-all). Nico is ambitious and is trying to rise in Athens' new democracy under the reluctant patronage of Pericles, which in this adventure leads to a journey to Persian-controlled Asia Minor in search of traitors and murderers. Corby does a great job balancing history and story, making Nico and his fellow Athenians relatable while still highlighting just how far removed their attitudes and worldview are from our own.

Sheila Simonson's Love and Folly is billed as a traditional Regency romance (one of the many old trads given a fresh lease on life as ebooks), though it's really more a few months in the lives of two families caught up in political tumult in 1820. There is a love story, but it's more a subplot than the focus of the book. In any case, I love both of Simonson's books that I've read so far because they feel so specific and particular. Neither the characters nor the settings are remotely generic, and her world feels three-dimensional.

Finally, I re-read Dorothy Sayers' Clouds of Witness, the second Peter Wimsey novel, now out in a Kindle edition. I'd read it years ago, but unlike Murder Must Advertise or the Harriet Vane sequence, I don't feel driven to revisit it every year or two, so I'd forgotten most of the details of the mystery. I enjoyed it, and it's important to the overall sequence in introducing Lord Peter's family (including his mother the Dowager Duchess, who is made of awesome) but it's just not the same level of masterpiece as, say, Murder Must Advertise or Gaudy Night.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

More on the War of 1812

Still researching the War of 1812, and still looking back at James Madison et al. and asking them, "What the HELL were you thinking picking that fight? Do you have any IDEA how lucky you were to get away with a draw?"

Though, to give my countrymen of 200 years ago credit, a lot of that is my 20-20 hindsight talking. They went into it with the not-at-all-illogical assumption that Napoleon was going to continue as master of Europe, and that he'd either gradually wear the British down or that the European wars would keep going and going and going. Fighting to get some trade and territorial concessions out of an apparently weakened and certainly distracted Britain made all kinds of sense. It's easy to see now that Napoleon was already past his peak as a commander, and that the cracks were starting to show in his empire. While it was actually happening, from the other side of the Atlantic? Probably not so much.

American declared war on 18 June 1812. Three years to the day before Waterloo. And less than a week before Napoleon crossed the Niemen River into Russia--and if there's a single event that sealed his doom, it's that invasion. It's kinda hard to come back from a campaign where you lose over 80% of the army you went in with.

So, yeah, my fellow Americans guessed wrong on that one. Oops.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

52 Cookbooks - Week 6, Ratio

This week picked out Ratio, by Michael Ruhlman, somewhat to my dismay, since it's mostly about baking, making your own stocks, or making your own sausages. None of those are my comfort zone, and with Mr. Fraser out of town at a conference, leaving me solely responsible for all house and kid care, I kinda wanted to stick to what's simple.

What does baking have in common with stocks and sausages, you may ask? (I know I did.) All are amenable to ratios--once you learn a certain balance of liquid, fat, starch, etc. you can use those ratios to create an almost infinite array of flavors. Since I was keeping things simple for the week, I made cookies. Very basic cookies:

They're 1 part sugar to 2 parts butter to 3 parts flour, plus whatever flavorings you add. And that's all. No eggs. I don't think I've ever made cookies without eggs before. I made one batch with a little salt, vanilla, cinnamon, and cloves, and another where I replaced the regular sugar with dark brown sugar but still added salt and vanilla.

They turned out well--dry, crisp, buttery, and more sophisticated somehow than most sweeter, cakier cookies. Will make again, and may use to introduce Miss Fraser to baking, since the dough molds like modeling clay and I wouldn't have to worry about raw egg issues. (I'll cheerfully lick the bowl clean myself, since I know the odds of the one or two eggs I used happening to carry salmonella are very low, but I'd feel like a Bad Mommy to encourage my daughter to do likewise.)

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Books read, week of 11/8

I finished two books in the last week, both of them on the depressing/tragic side.

Tecumseh: A Life, by John Sugden, is a biography of the Shawnee leader who tried to create a confederation of Native Americans from the Great Lakes to the Gulf, and who died in the War of 1812 fighting in alliance with the British. I read it as research for the WIP, and found it slow going because Sugden was so determined to stick to facts over speculation that much of the first 2/3 of the book was necessarily vague. The War of 1812 section, being better documented, was more compelling.

History is full of what-ifs for me, but what makes Tecumseh's story such a tragedy is that I can't find any way for it to have ended differently. The man was brilliant--charismatic, politically savvy, far-seeing, courageous. He was probably the equal in ability to just about any man of his generation (and he was born in the late 1760's, like Napoleon, Wellington, and Andrew Jackson, to name just three of his most famous peers). But there was just no way it could've been enough. The odds were far too stacked against his confederacy. They didn't have the numbers, the divisions between and within tribes were too strong, America was insatiably land-hungry, and Tecumseh's cause was never going to be that high of a priority for his British allies. There is no What Might Have Been. But I still admire what he was and what he tried to bring into being.

An Unquiet Mind, by Kay Redfield Jamison, is a memoir of the author's life as a professor of psychiatry who has bipolar disorder. I read it as part of my grieving process for a friend...and it was as harrowing and difficult as I expected it to be, though I'm glad I got through it.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Welcome, Joanna Chambers!

I'm delighted to welcome Joanna Chambers here to talk about her new book, The Lady's Secret, a Regency romance which releases today from Carina Press! Take it away, Joanna:


My heroine, Georgy Knight, is a failed-actress-turned-stagehand. She embarks on a quest to prove that she and her twin brother Harry are legitimate and that Harry is the true Earl of Dunsmore. To enable her to search Dunsmore Manor for evidence, she dresses as a man and obtains a post as the valet of the hero who is due to spend Christmas there.

The set up of the book enabled me to play around with some fun stuff: master-servant relationships, cross-dressing and gender, what masks hide and what they reveal. And tying a lot of this stuff together is clothing. Male clothing in particular.

Georgy obviously has to disguise herself in male clothing, but in a way, Nathan does too, using his clothing as an elegant sort of armour to enable him to present an invincible appearance to the world. Nathan's clothes are the epitome of style, and Georgy sees the appeal of all this gorgeous paraphenalia:

From the wardrobe she drew a green velvet riding coat and ran a brush over it to make the nap lie correctly. Buckskin breeches. Clean linen—drawers, a shirt, a cravat. All of it pristine white, and the cravat starched to perfect straightness. Silk hose. A tall, black curly-brimmed hat that she turned over and over in her hands, enjoying its craftsmanship, the pleasing lines of it, its dense, velvety blackness. She brought out his riding boots, cleaned just yesterday, even the soles. They were so polished they looked as though they’d never been worn. Even so, she fished out a soft cloth and gave them one final burnish. As she worked, the tinkle of cutlery, the rattle of china and the rustle of paper reminded her that Harland was breakfasting a few yards away.
- The Lady's Secret

I had particular fun writing the dressing, undressing and bathing scenes. At one level, there was the satisfaction of showing that Nathan and Georgy's physical attraction to one another, but on another level, the stripping away of clothes and revealing of skin became a metaphor for the stripping away of other kinds of masks and layers. You can read one of my favourite scenes, the shaving scene, here.

Do you like Regency fashions? Or those of any other historical period? And can you think of other dressing/undressing/bathing scenes you've loved in fiction?


More about The Lady's Secret:

London, 1810
Former actress Georgiana Knight always believed she and her brother were illegitimate—until they learn their parents were married, making them heirs to a great estate. To prove their claim, Georgy needs to find evidence of their union by infiltrating a ton house party as valet to Lord Nathaniel Harland. Though masquerading as a boy is a challenge, it pales in comparison to sharing such intimate quarters with the handsome, beguiling nobleman.

Nathan is also unsettled by Georgy's presence. First intrigued by his unusual valet, he's even more captivated when he discovers Georgy's charade. The desire the marriage-shy earl feels for his enigmatic employee has him hoping for much more than a master-servant relationship...

But will Nathan still want Georgy when he learns who she truly is? Or will their future be destroyed by someone who would do anything to prevent Georgy from uncovering the truth?


Joanna blogs here, and she can be found on Facebook and on Twitter as @ChambersJoanna

Sunday, November 6, 2011

At Romancing the Past

No new post here today because it's my day to post at Romancing the Past. I'm talking about how just about every topic becomes interesting to me once I have to research it, and how I expect that even sheep will be no exception.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

52 Cookbooks, Week Five - The Route 66 Cookbook

This week's cookbook is also nostalgia, albeit of a different kind than my recent culinary visit to Alabama. My random draw gave me The Route 66 Cookbook, by Marian Clark. It's an homage to the diners of yesteryear, giving a chapter per state's worth of stories and recipes from restaurants lining the route.

Lots of chili, barbecue, and I made pasta from the California chapter. My excuse is that I was at ECWC all last weekend, so I had to do my cooking blog recipe on a weeknight. I needed something I could do quickly, and nothing is more in my culinary wheelhouse than pasta with a homemade sauce. So last night I whipped up Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel Penne Pasta in Spicy Sausage Paprika Sauce:

Tasty stuff, spicy from the sausage and paprika and bright from the fresh tomatoes, green onions, basil, and oregano, but SO rich. It has a cup of heavy cream, plus an entire 6 oz. carton of fresh Parmesan cheese. I might make it again someday, but given that our doctor has given both me and Mr Fraser recent Talks on how people with our familial cardiac risk factors ought to be eating, I don't think it's going to become a staple.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Books read, week of 11-1

This week, despite my hectic schedule getting ready for ECWC, I managed to finish one book and re-read another.

Lady Elizabeth's Comet, by Sheila Simonson, is one of a horde of traditional Regencies from many years ago that are now coming on the market again as ebooks. But it deserves to stand out from the crowd for its delightful, wry first-person narration (heroine's point-of-view), its astronomer heroine, and a hero who manages to make the whole "barely genteel army vet comes into a title and fortune from a distant relative" trope seem fresh. I'll definitely be seeking out Simonson's others Regencies.

Being still in a Jane Austen mood from last week, I re-read Northanger Abbey. While it doesn't have the heft of her other works, and I'll never love it quite like I do Pride and Prejudice or Persuasion, it's an altogether charming book. And if I'm picking a husband from Austen's heroes, the rest of y'all can fight it out for Mr. Darcy. I'll take Henry Tilney and his sense of humor and fun.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Back from ECWC...and introducing An Infamous Marriage

I'm now home from the Emerald City Writers Conference. This year's edition was one of the best-run conferences I've ever attended. Even the food wasn't the usual dry conference chicken!

I think my workshop went pretty well, too. The room was close to full, and people laughed at my jokes, which is always something. I was so nervous right before I started. My stomach hurt, and all I could think was what if I went beyond stomachache to actual sickness? And would that ruin my career, if I was always That Lady Who Had to Run Out of Her Own Workshop?

But then once I got the mike in my hand and started talking, I was perfectly calm, and my stomachache disappeared. Strange how that works. The reality is never as scary as the anticipation. OK, there are a few exceptions. Childbirth. Second-degree burns. Getting stung by a bee. But it's a good general rule for most phobias. Now I want to speak again! Maybe send this one in for RWA in Anaheim next summer. And I have this other idea for a talk about how much you can learn about how to behave, and how not to behave, as a writer by watching cooking contest shows.

I'm also dealing with the usual post-conference combination of exhaustion and inspiration. For the next 24 hours, I just want to get through Halloween and get the house half-straightened up for when the maid service comes on Tuesday. I don't usually do the thing where you clean so the maid can clean, but Mr. Fraser and I have had back-to-back conferences since the last cleaning, and the house always goes to seed when there's only one of us home.

But come November 1, I'm digging in. I need to update my website a bit, come up with my writing plan for 2012, and revise my 5-year plan. And then there's the obvious task--finishing An Infamous Marriage. Because my 2012 release finally has a title! I love it. I think it's a great fit for the story, and somehow it's easier to write An Infamous Marriage than to write "My 2012 book," or "The Book to Be Named Later."

Thursday, October 27, 2011

52 Cookbooks - Week 4, Calling All Cooks 3

When I was growing up in rural central Alabama, everyone had the Calling All Cooks cookbook series. They were put out by an organization called the Telephone Pioneers (which Google tells me is a service organization made up of telecommunications workers and retirees), and they're typical fundraiser cookbooks. You know, the ones where all the recipes are contributed by the membership.

I'm not sure why these cookbooks reigned supreme over all the others of their kind. My mom's favorite pound cake recipe is somewhere in the first volume, and one of the pecan* pies has Good written in the margins in her careful, schoolroom-perfect penmanship, even though it's my copy, given to me as a bridal shower present. But for all that, they're just giant collections of the recipes your mother or your mamaw made if you're a Southerner of my generation. Lots of casseroles. Half the pages are devoted to cookies, cakes, and pies. The fruit salads tend to be full of marshmallows, jello, and coconut.

As you might guess, I wouldn't part with my Calling All Cooks set for the world, even though they're not how I usually cook. And when I drew Volume 3 for my Cookbook of the Week, I decided to go full-on Southerner and make me some casseroles, just like I'd do if my church was having a fellowship supper or one of my neighbors had somebody born or die in their family.

First up was tater tot casserole. Simple recipe, just ground beef, an onion, cream of chicken soup, and tater tots. I added salt and pepper even though they weren't listed because that's the minimum you do when you're browning ground beef.

I expected something awesome, total guilty pleasure comfort food. What I got was ultimate blandness. I believe I could get the flavor I was expecting if only I replaced the ground beef with spicy bulk breakfast sausage and sprinkled some cheddar cheese over the top for the last ten minutes of baking, though. Maybe I'll try it that way, because everyone needs guilty pleasure comfort food in their lives.

Though I was afraid my taste buds had lost their affinity for the casserole, I made chicken spaghetti anyway. It was a slightly more complicated recipe, with multiple ingredients in the sauce and actual fresh vegetables mixed in.

Not pretty at all, but so much tastier than the tater tot thing. I've been eating the leftovers for lunch all week.

Last but not least, I stumbled across the recipe for magic cookie bars, one of my mom's favorite quick sweet treats. I had to try it. Just a stick of melted butter poured in a 9x13 pan, topped by layers of graham cracker crumb, sweetened condensed milk, nuts (I used half walnuts and half pecans, since that's what I had in the pantry), chocolate chips, and coconuts. So very rich and sweet. When I was a kid, the chips were my favorite part. Now, I'd happily eat the graham cracker-butter crust all by itself.

*Incidentally, that's a "pick-AHN" pie. Not a "peekin" one, and most emphatically not a "pee-can" one. Also, barbecue MUST be pork, and is best served with a thin, vinegary, tangy red sauce. College football is more exciting and dramatic than the NFL game, the SEC is the best conference, and Alabama-Auburn is the best rivalry in all sports. War Eagle! (You can take the girl out of Alabama, but you can't entirely take the Alabama out of the girl.)

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Books (re-)read, week of 10-25-11

I normally read three books per week, but lately it's been a stretch to reach two. Partly that's because I've been getting halfway through books but not finishing them--I'll decide around p. 200 that I know exactly where this is going, and neither the writing nor the characters engage me sufficiently that I want to follow their all-too-predictable journey. Contrariwise, I've been doing a lot of re-reading old favorites. You know, where I really know exactly where this is going, but I love the characters and/or the writing so much that I'm happy to read it again and again, and since I already know how it turns out, I can just skip around and read my favorite parts.

So, last week I did a skim-for-favorite bits re-read of Judith Merkle Riley's Margaret of Ashbury trilogy (A Vision of Light, In Pursuit of the Green Lion, and The Water Devil). They're historical fiction set in 14th century England and France, leavened with a heavy dose of supernatural/fantasy elements, and Margaret's relationship with Gregory/Gilbert is one of my favorite love stories.

I'm also re-reading Persuasion, since there's no such thing as too much Jane Austen.

So what did I finish that was actually new to me? Just A Jane Austen Education, in which William Deresiewicz details how Jane Austen's works changed his life as a graduate student in English literature. It's a well-written and engaging memoir, though my favorite man-discovers-Jane-Austen tale remains Ta-Nehisi Coates' blog posts about Jane Awesome.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

My first conference presentation

Around this time next week I'll be making my debut as a conference presenter, speaking on How to Write Like a Full-Time Author When You Can't Quit Your Day Job at the Emerald City Writers Conference. I may not write what I know, but I figured I'd better present what I know. (And due to my pinched nerve saga, I'm adding some tips about overcoming adversity and restarting after your body and/or mind derails you that weren't there when I sent in the proposal.)

My husband happens to be an experienced and popular conference speaker within his field (web development), so I asked him for tips--they boiled down to "make a detailed outline, maybe even write the whole script out, and practice with a timer. Pad or cut as needed." But I'm certainly open to advice from others. Also, for my fellow writers with full-time day jobs: any tips you wouldn't mind my sharing with the group? I'd give you credit, of course. Or any areas you struggle with that you think such a workshop should address?

Thursday, October 20, 2011

52 Cookbooks - Week 3, In Good Time

Over 10 years ago, my alma mater, the Penn Quakers, played the Florida Gators in the 1st round of the NCAA basketball tournament. Although Florida and Pennsylvania are about as easterly as states can be, for some reason they were assigned to the West region. The opening round was played in Seattle, so I got to watch the game.

During the warm-ups, we and the Florida fans taunted each other. We shouted, “Tastes like chicken.” (Gee, I'm sure they never heard that one before.) After a moment, they responded with, “Tastes like oatmeal.” Knowing a good line when we heard one, we laughed and applauded.

What does any of this have to do with cooking? Well, this week I made oatmeal in a crockpot. Which I'd always been told improved it immensely. However, as far as I'm concerned, it still tastes like oatmeal. I'm not even bothering with a picture this week, because it also looks like oatmeal.

Last week's cookbook draw gave me In Good Time, a Weight Watchers cookbook composed entirely of slow cooker recipes. I've never had good luck with my crockpot. I got it as a wedding present, as I suppose many do, and I loved the idea of it. Who wouldn't want to throw a few ingredients into the pot in the morning, set it to low, and come home to dinner ready to eat that night? I certainly would...if I could just get something to come out tasting other than mushy and/or sawdusty. I swear meats cooked in the crockpot manage to be soupy and dry at the same time.

I think the problem is most crockpot recipes call for 6-8 hours of cooking time, while I'm usually out of the house for around 11 hours on a weekday. In my current job, I leave the house at 7:10 to catch the 7:21 bus to work. I work 8-5 (the job has beautifully regular hours), catch the 5:12 bus back to the park-and-ride, and from there pick up my daughter from afterschool care. We walk in the door around 6:15, and Mr. Fraser gets home about 7:00. So if dinner has been in the crockpot since I left in the morning, it's overcooked.

So I groaned when that cookbook came up, and I made the maple-apple-hazelnut oatmeal recipe over Saturday night to get around the overcooking problem. It tasted all right, but not that much better than instant oatmeal. And as it happens, we noticed the next day that the underside of the crockpot is starting to sort of buckle. I don't trust the insulation to hold, so no more slow cooker for me, and I won't miss it.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Weekly book post, 10/18/11

I'm writing this blog using dear old Dragon Dictate because I'm having the worst pinched nerve/carpal tunnel flareup I've had in months. Something about the ergonomic arrangements at the new job. I wish I could figure out what. We've swapped my chair, so now I think it's either the keyboard tray, the keyboard itself, or the fact that I'm at a fairly small L-shaped desk that I think may be kind of jamming my left elbow. Here's hoping I figure it out before they either get tired of me as an employee or I end up in full-on, pain-all-the-time, can't-write-or-cook-at-all misery.

(The writing is the highest priority, by the way. With a novel under contract, I'm going to finish the thing if I have to do every word in Dragon Dictate or write longhand and hire someone to type it in for me. But I like my new job, except for the hand pain thing, and it pays very well, so something's gotta give.)

In any case, I finished two books in the last week.

Faerie Blood, by Angela Korra'ti, is an urban fantasy set in my home city of Seattle. I enjoyed seeing familiar places magically transformed. The heroine is appealing, the magical peril alternately hilarious and terrifying, and I cared about what happened to the characters even though the writing is a little more lush than I'm used to in a contemporary setting. As best as I can tell, the book isn't available for purchase now because the author asked for her rights back due to some problems at her publisher, and I wish her all the best in finding a new home for her work, because I want to find out what happens to Kendis and Christopher next.

Marriage and Other Acts of Charity, by Kate Braestrup, is the second memoir/book of spiritual wisdom by this Unitarian minister who serves as chaplain to the Maine Warden Service. (In other words, she provides spiritual support when the wardens are involved in search-and-rescue missions, much like a hospital chaplain but with more varied scenery.) Here she talks about love and marriage, and the risk of love in a world where all marriages end–it's just that the successful ones end with one of the parties dead. Which sounds morbid, but it isn't really–at least not much.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Her Grace, the Duchess of Pedantry

One summer evening at a Mariners game, I pointed out an error on the scoreboard display. I think it was a misplaced apostrophe or something. Mr. Fraser said something like, "Well spotted, Lady Pedantic." I replied, "That's Her Grace, the Duchess of Pedantry to you."

I know I can be a bit over-pedantic as a reader. I have no patience whatsoever for major historical errors--e.g. Europeans eating New World food in stories set well before they stumbled across the Americas. And don't get me started on the time I tried to read a baseball-themed book where the author evidently didn't understand how a starting rotation works.

I can be picky about much smaller things, too. I never name names, because I figure it's bad karma. Nobody is a perfect researcher. I'm sure I make my share of inadvertent mistakes, so I'm not going to sit around smugly pointing out those of others all over Twitter or Amazon reviews. But I've set aside many a book after 2 or 3 subtle errors in the first few pages because I've lost trust in the author and her story's world.

I'm not consistent, however. Recently I read two books that made horse errors. The first one was fairly subtle, but the equestrian world was a major part of the setting. The other was HUGE, but the horses' presence was incidental.

With the first book, I paused for a few seconds and thought, "Aw, man, she should've caught that." But the writing was strong overall, I liked the heroine, and I was so caught up in the plot there was no way I was going to stop reading just because she'd missed a small, breed-specific detail.

With the second, I was already annoyed with the hero for being melodramatic and self-absorbed and wondering how the author was going to stretch what to my eyes was a simplistic conflict out for another 40,000 words or so. So the horse error was the last straw, and I was glad to have a good excuse to stop reading.

Shorter Duchess of Pedantry: If you want me to finish your book, don't make errors of fact in the first few pages, before I'm properly hooked. Once you make me care what happens to your characters, I'll forgive you anything short of potatoes in ancient Rome or machine guns at Waterloo.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

52 Cookbooks - Week 2, The Bread Bible

I admit I gulped when I saw what the random draw had selected for this week's cookbook: The Bread Bible, by Rose Levy Beranbaum. Mr. Fraser selected it, not I, and I had too much going on this week to want to make a first attempt at yeast breads. And frankly, learning to bake my own bread is nowhere on my bucket list. (What is? Well, among other things, I want to see Paris and Rome, read War and Peace, ride well enough to at least go on a trail ride or two, and fence well enough to enter whatever low-level competitions there are for people my age. All I need is world enough and time.)

Anyway, fortunately for me the book had a whole chapter on quick breads, and I tried two recipes. The first, corn muffins, was an obvious choice, since I had stone-ground cornmeal on hand from the attempt at fritters last week. They're made with a little sugar and a lot of sour cream, and they turned out pretty tasty.

However, I don't think they'll supplant good ol' Jiffy corn muffins among my go-to side dishes. They're better, but not quite enough so to justify the extra effort to make them. Plus, Miss Fraser will eat the Jiffy muffins, but she turned up her nose at the gritty texture these got from the stone-ground cornmeal.

For dessert we had chocolate bread, which was a huge success. The recipe suggested including chocolate chips, but I left them out. As much as I like chocolate, I tend to find double- and triple-chocolate desserts kinda overkill. When I make this again--as I surely will, probably for holiday care packages--I think I'll try white chocolate or butterscotch chips. Or, even better, PECANS. Nom nom nom...

Not a photogenic dessert, at least not in my amateur-with-an-iPhone hands, but rich and buttery and altogether delicious.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Weekly book post, 10-11-11

This week I've been plugging away at a biography of Tecumseh as part of my research, but I also found time to finish two Regency romances. I'd describe both as traditional, but with big twists.

Pembroke Park, by Michelle Martin, is a lesbian Regency. One of the heroines, Diana, is fully aware of her orientation and as out as one could safely be in Regency England (i.e. not very, but she's cheerfully unconventional, and has enough money and rank that she can get by with it), while the other, Joanna, whose life is more hemmed in by traditional social restrictions, only knows she's never felt passion for any of her male suitors, including her deceased husband, whom she was fond of. It's a sweet and often poignant story, and I was willing to cut Martin a certain amount of slack on errors WRT forms of address and points of law, because she wrote it back in 1986, before such details were just a Google search away.

Mr. Bishop and the Actress, by Janet Mullany, is a romance between an estate steward (i.e. an upper servant) and an actress/courtesan who, at thirty, is trying to go respectable. Told in alternating first person POV, it's a fun romp.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Snoopy and my writing dreams

Lately Miss Fraser and I have been reading Peanuts together as her bedtime story, thereby revisiting one of my own childhood favorites, and I realized this was my first glimpse of the writer's life.

In a weird way, a cartoon beagle with a typewriter made me understand as a very little kid that somewhere there was a person behind every single book I read, and that someday I might be an author myself--if I was willing to tough it out and deal with rejection along the way.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

52 Cookbooks - Week One, Inn at the Crossroads

Last week I was staring at our cookbook shelf, wishing I had more time to cook. Our combined cookbook collection takes up almost as much shelf space as the Napoleonic Wars section of my research library (which I wish I had more time to read. Idly I wondered just how many there were, and counted 51. "That's one cookbook shy of being a blog series," thought I. When I remembered that the bloggers behind Inn at the Crossroads had just gotten a book deal, for a cookbook I'll inevitably buy once it's out, I realized I had one per week after all.

I decided to make a numbered list of cookbooks. Every week as I work on the grocery list, I choose a random cookbook and make at least one recipe from it. I have to cook from whatever book spits out, with two exceptions: I won't grill when it's cold or rainy, and I won't bake in my no-AC kitchen when it's hot. It should be fun just because it's such a crazy mix--I've got aspirational ones like the Les Halles and French Laundry cookbooks, local collections from various places my family and I have lived, older books I inherited from my mother, including a 1951 Joy of Cooking, and everything in between.

The first cookbook randomly chosen happened to be the one that's still a blog--Inn at the Crossroads, where Sariann and Chelsea strive to bring to life the food of George RR Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire with a mix of medieval and modern recipes.

I was insufficiently ambitious to attempt Honey Spiced Locusts or Wintercake (though the latter looks yummy), but in a burst of energy I decided to make a whole meal from the blog, not one but three recipes.

For my main course I chose White Beans and Bacon, the medieval version, because Amazon Fresh wasn't carrying the curly endive for the modern recipe last week. It was ridiculously simple and wholly rich and delicious. IMHO it only works if you use a good, thick-cut bacon. I used the Organic Prairie brand, which I like even though I roll my eyes forever at the name, and it would've been even more awesome if I'd had any Skagit River Ranch bacon from my local farmers market.

On the side I served Corn Fritters. Not sure what went wrong, but these were as much a failure as the beans and bacon were a success. All doughy and gritty. Maybe I made them too thick and large? At least the bean recipe is a keeper, and simple enough for a weeknight meal (though I probably shouldn't let myself have that much bacon VERY often).

For dessert, and to represent the fruit and vegetable group in the night's meal, I made the medieval version of Poached Pears from Highgarden. Also a failure, but one I'm much more likely to attempt again, because I know exactly what I did wrong. In my zeal not to overcook the pears, I undercooked them by a MILE, so the result was not so much poached pears as hard, warmed pears in a tasty wine sauce. So I'd like to try again, maybe around Thanksgiving or Christmas. Because did I mention the tasty wine sauce?

Here's what it looked like. You'll note mine is nowhere near as pretty as Sariann and Chelsea's:

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Weekly book post

Now that I'm settling in to my new day job, I've decided to shoot for three blog posts per week, on Sundays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays. The Sunday post will be whatever is on my mind, usually writing or research-related, or a guest post. Thursdays will be food and cooking, as I try to work my way through at least one new recipe from every cookbook I own. And Tuesdays will be my reading updates.

So, here's what I've read since the last time I blogged my reading. It's a bit heavy on the nonfiction and research books, partly because I'm working out my hero's backstory of service in and around Upper Canada during the War of 1812 and partly because my library holds list suddenly spat out a pile of nonfiction all at once.

1) The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict, by Donald Hickey

A fairly in-depth history. It focuses on the American point-of-view but was still useful for giving me an overview of how the war played out. At the risk of letting my contemporary political views show a bit, the War of 1812 comes across as depressingly reminiscent of the Iraq War in some ways--the party in power pulled the country into it for rather dubious reasons and damned anyone who disagreed as traitors, for example.

2) Crown and Calumet: British-Indian Relations, 1783-1815, by Colin Calloway

As the title says, a book all about relations between the British and Native Americans from the end of the American Revolution through the War of 1812. Fascinating, at least for me, because it's an aspect of Native American history I'd never run across before.

3) Love Story, by Jennifer Echols

A YA romance where the hero and heroine work out their feelings for each other and complex history together over the course of a writing seminar as college freshmen. I enjoyed it, as I always do Echols' books, though I have to admit I would've liked to see a longer last chapter or an epilogue or something just to sort of enjoy the couple together after all they went through to get there.

4) This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, by Drew Gilpin Faust

I was lucky enough to take Drew Faust's class on the American South 1607-1861 lo these many years ago as a Penn undergrad, so when I saw this book mentioned on a blog (more than likely Ta-Nehisi Coates' place), I sought it out. It's a depressing read--naturally, since it's a book about death--but I couldn't put it down all the same. It's about how the massive carnage of the Civil War changed how Americans related to war deaths in particular and mortality in general. One of the many things that struck me was that in the 19th century, a dead soldier's family wouldn't have found any consolation in hearing that their son/husband/brother died so suddenly that he didn't have time to suffer. Instead, they valued the "Good Death," wherein the dying person knows what's happening, accepts it with a show of faith and resignation (so consoling to the family as reassurance they'll see him again in heaven), and passes on loving messages and words of wisdom for those left behind. So when soldiers did die instantly, their friends would write their families these reassuring messages about how Joe saw this coming, he had a premonition and was perfectly resigned to the possibility and had been living a good and prayerful life, and so on.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Welcome, Rose Lerner!

Rose Lerner and I met in 2004, long before either of us were published, at the Emerald City Writers Conference. Over the years we've become critique partners and good friends, and I'm delighted to welcome her here today to talk about her new release, A Lily Among Thorns. I first read this book years ago for critique, and it's one of my favorite historical romances EVER. Solomon and Serena are such wonderful, well-developed characters, and I love how they play against the usual romance stereotypes. Today Rose is answering my questions about her books, not to mention Avatar: the Last Airbender (one of our current favorite shows), and giving away a copy of A Lily Among Thorns to one reader who comments by midnight on Monday.

I know you do extensive research for each of your books. What was your favorite part of your research for A Lily Among Thorns?

Probably the research on London. During the Regency, the divide between London and the rest of England was really marked, kind of like the way we conceptualize New York City versus small-town America. It's not just based on the reality of those places, it's symbolic. (Anyone else tune in for the first episode of Hart of Dixie?)

Most aristocrats of the time had a foot in both places, because they spent the Season in London and the rest of the year at their country estates. But Solomon and Serena, my hero and heroine, both work for businesses that are based in London. They're Londoners year-round. That means something important about their self-images and about how others see them. Plus, Serena has strong ties to the seedier side of London life. So I wanted the feel to be right.

The Regency Underworld by Donald A. Low, Black London by Gretchen Gerzina, Strangers: Homosexual Love in the Nineteenth Century by Graham Robb, and Immigration, ethnicity, and racism in Britain 1815-1945 were all great resources for me.

What was the hardest part?

A forged marriage certificate is an important plot point in the book. My protagonists can't find a reliable way to prove it's forged, so they decide an annulment is the simplest way to go. But annulments were hard to get! Society valued the security of marriage very, very highly and made it very difficult to invalidate.

I've read over and over that you could get an annulment if a marriage wasn't consummated, but it's just not true. The truth is that you could get an annulment if the husband was permanently impotent--and there was a hard-to-fake test to prove it. Using a false name was not, in and of itself, grounds for annulment, and neither was being underage. Mistaken identity (twinswap, anyone?) was a pretty safe bet but irrelevant to my book. Coercion and fraud were grounds for annulment but what exactly constituted coercion and fraud were interpreted differently by different judges, and in all cases interpreted fairly narrowly. I tore my hair out over this stuff!

I love that LAT has such a unique title. Why did you choose it?

I like using quotes for my titles. They carry a lot of associations and meanings with them, and that really appeals to me. My first book was called In for a Penny from the saying, "In for a penny, in for a pound," which worked a few different ways with the story, and my WIP is tentatively titled Sweet Disorder, from a poem by Herrick.

"As the lily among thorns, so is my love among the daughters" is a quote from the Song of Solomon. (And I'd like to thank Alyssa Everett for convincing me to keep the title in that form. I was originally planning a play on words that would have been a big mistake.)

What I like about the title is that it speaks to how Serena misreads situations because of her own fears. She sees Solomon's faith as a threat to their relationship, because a respectable Christian could never accept someone with her past and reputation. But to him, his religion also means the love expressed by the Song of Songs. It's about doing the right thing, but it's also about reconciliation and forgiveness.

She also sees herself as a cold, prickly person who can't help hurting the people around her--a thorn among lilies. But Solomon helps her see the truth: she's a lily among thorns, a vulnerable young woman who's managed to survive and even do well, despite danger and challenges on all sides.

Your heroes tend to be "betas." Did you set out to write betas on purpose, since they're so rare in the genre, or is that just the kind of hero your muse delivers to you? Can you see yourself writing an alpha hero someday? (Not an alpHOLE, of course ;-)  )

Hmm, it's tricky. In the case of Solomon, I definitely did it on purpose. There was a very particular type of alpha hero that was popular in Regencies when I started writing Lily. He was beautiful and fashionable and snarky and he showed absolutely no emotion. He had two tells: going a shade whiter under his tan, and a muscle working in his jaw. That was it. His mother could die in front of him and maybe he'd go all out and do both.

The heroine in these books was usually very innocent and very emotionally open. She won the hero over by giving him the unconditional, almost unshockable acceptance he'd never gotten from anyone else in his life. And I wanted to see what that dynamic, specifically, would look like if you switched the genders.

In general, it's a little more complicated. I think in romance, sometimes "alpha" is equated with "strong." But when you get right down to it, it's just a personality type. To me, alpha means natural leader, someone who in any given situation will be calling the shots. Beta means someone who can stand back and give someone else their full support. Both of those are great things! They take different kinds of strength, that's all, and are conducive to different kinds of weakness. And I wish there was more of both available. I have a lot of love to give!

My very favorite type of hero is a combination, really. To me, Nev (the hero of In for a Penny) is a...well, I guess the kinky term would be "switch." I don't know if there's a romance term. He's the leader of his group of friends. People on his estate naturally like him and look up to him. When he needs to take control of a room, he can. But he's willing to step back and let Penelope be in charge when he thinks it makes sense.

My favorite flavor of alpha is so alpha he hasn't got anything to prove. Half the time he doesn't have to make you do what he says, because he can make you want to do what he says. He can even let you run things for a while and still know he's in charge, really. SEE: Captain Kirk. He can turn command over to Spock without thinking much of it--but that's his ship, Mister, and it always will be.

And my favorite flavor of beta will shut you down in a heartbeat if he doesn't trust you or like how you're doing things. I think what people miss, with the idea of betas, is that a beta chooses who to give his loyalty to. He doesn't just roll over for anyone that walks in off the street! And he can take all that energy that he would have put into maintaining his personal control over situations, and put it somewhere else.

SEE: Mr. Spock. He's got no interest in running the Enterprise. He loves being a Science Officer, and he's perfectly content to let Kirk have the responsibility, the credit, and the glory. That doesn't mean he can't 1) beat Kirk in a fight or 2) beat Kirk in an argument, if he thinks it's necessary. But most of the time, he doesn't.

Two different personality types in a mutually beneficial and emotionally satisfying relationship based on affection and trust. Beautiful!

Again, this doesn't mean I don't love lots of types of heroes, including the stiff-upper-lip alpha with a jaw square enough to draw a blueprint off of. Can I see myself writing an alpha? Definitely. In fact, I've got a plot bunny for a high-performing, alpha revenue officer right now! I don't know when I'll get around to his story, but hopefully soon.

What are you working on now?

I'm almost done with a draft of a book about the 1812 Parliamentary general election. By the local rules of her town, the middle-class heroine's husband would be eligible for a vote...if she were married. (Yes, this is historically plausible!) The younger-son-of-an-earl hero is sent to the town to find the heroine a husband, but as we all can see coming a mile off, he falls in love with her himself!

It's not sold yet so I don't actually know yet if it will be my next book out, but believe me, when I know, I'll tell everyone who will listen!

(Had to throw in an Avatar question!) I know Azula is your favorite, but what about the Gaang? Aang, Katara, Sokka, Toph, or Zuko?

Speaking of things we could all see coming a mile off, definitely Zuko. I love how cranky and angry he is. I love how he's staked his identity on living up to his father's standards even though those standards have never done anything but humiliate him and devalue who he really is. I love how he's not very good at things and compensates by trying way too hard and taking everything way too seriously. I love how dramatic he is about everything. I love that it seems perfectly reasonable to him that after his uncle refuses to blast him with lightning, he should go stand on a mountaintop in a storm screaming at Nature to do it instead. I just want to give him a hug and a towel and say, "You're getting all wet, sweetie, maybe you should take a nap instead."

But really, I could go on for that long about every single person in the Gaang. Avatar is one of the very best shows I've seen for just really consistent, sharply drawn, endearing characterization.

Thanks for stopping by, Rose! By the way, the Kindle edition of her 2010 release, In For a Penny, is on sale for $3.79 through 10/3.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

A mind full of new things

I survived my first week at my new job. It's going pretty well so far, but the nature of the work is such that I'll have little weekday daytime internet access. So I won't be spending as much time in the Twitterverse and blogosphere as I've been used to doing.

I'm also in deep research mode for my 2012 novel. For reasons that would take too long to go into here, my editor asked me to change my hero's background from service in India and then in the Peninsular War to the War of 1812. Which is fine, except for the tiny obstacle that until the last ten days or so ago I knew next to nothing about the conflict in question. Seriously, if you'd asked me what I knew about it, I would've said something along the lines of, "I think it was mostly about impressment of American citizens into the British navy. Oh, and Francis Scott Key wrote 'The Star-Spangled Banner' while watching the bombardment of Fort McHenry, the British burned the White House, and Andrew Jackson won the Battle of New Orleans, which was fought after the peace treaty was signed, only of course no one could've known because there hadn't been enough time for the news to cross the Atlantic." In other words, not nearly enough to give my hero a proper backstory.

Why, you may ask, do I know so much about the Napoleonic Wars and next to nothing about a war my own country actually fought in? Well, my dirty little secret is I started researching the military side of the era because I had a crush on this guy:

And the more I researched, the more I became an admirer of this genteman:

...neither of whom were at all involved in the War of 1812. Though the government did ask Wellington if he'd go in late 1814. He said, basically, that he had no objections to going, but he'd like to wait till spring in hopes of finishing business at the Congress of Vienna, and, besides, unless the British could reestablish naval superiority in the Great Lakes, another general and more soldiers wouldn't help all that much. There's probably a counterfactual or two to be had there--what if Wellington had been in command of the British forces at New Orleans? No WAY would he have attacked such a well-chosen and well-defended position. Half of Wellington's considerable battlefield genius was choosing his ground well, whether on offense or defense, and only giving battle when his forces were in a position to prevail. If Andrew Jackson never got the prestige he garnered at New Orleans, it's doubtful he would've been elected president, and American history would be much different. And if Wellington hadn't been at Waterloo, I still don't think Napoleon would've gotten to keep his throne--Europe was too united against him--but he probably would've lasted longer, and the different manner of his defeat would've reshaped European history.

So, yeah. You can probably already tell that, ten days of researching in, I've become fascinated by the War of 1812 in spite of myself. It really ought to be taught more thoroughly in schools--that bit I'd learned about American sailors getting impressed into the Royal Navy is a GROSS oversimplification of the causes of the war. It's really appalling how the then-ruling Democratic-Republican Party maneuvered the US into the war despite being ill-prepared for it, suppressed dissent, and somehow came out even MORE powerful and claiming victory despite the fact we were lucky to escape with a draw. I'm still no admirer of Andrew Jackson.

Mr. Fraser and therefore Miss Fraser are members of the Cherokee Nation, so Jackson was no friend of my family's ancestors. Of course, I'm definitely a Scots-Irish Southerner and almost certainly part Creek history is complicated. But when I think Jackson, I think Indian Removal and the Trail of Tears first.

I was quickly reminded that Tecumseh was also involved in the War of 1812, though, and I think my hero is going to meet him. Because Tecumseh was AWESOME.

I'm such a research geek. But it's so FUN.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Busy busy busy!

I've been quieter than usual both on this blog and online in general for the past week because I'm changing day jobs. My new job starts Monday. And I have a completely illogical superstition that if I ever have a wholly clean desk other than on my first or last day at a job, that job will disappear. Totally illogical--but so far I and my sloppy desks have avoided layoffs and downsizing, so why fix what ain't broke, you know? It couldn't be a combination of luck and skill; it's all down to the piles of paper and the inbox nowhere near zero! But as a result my last few days in a job are always a mad scramble to tie off loose ends and get paperwork properly filed. Lots of working late and coming home tired, very little blogging and tweeting. So I'll be back once I'm settled into my new job.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

What I've been reading lately

My library's summer reading challenge is over, but of course that doesn't mean I'll stop reading (though I probably won't try as hard as I did during the challenge to never read two books from the same genre in the same week, because sometimes I get in a mood where I only want nonfiction, or where nothing hits the spot like reading six trad Regencies in a row).

Anyway, here's my reading from the last week or so:

1) Rules of Attraction, by Simone Elkeles
Genre: YA romance

A sequel to 2010's Perfect Chemistry, also featuring a Mexican hero with gang ties he'd like to break and a privileged white girl heroine. A quick, page-turning read, and I liked how the hero and heroine sort of unpacked each other's protective layers to find the real person underneath.

2) You Are What You Speak, by Robert Lane Greene
Genre: Nonfiction (linguistics/history/current events)

I'll always pick up a book on linguistics, and I found this book especially interesting in discussing how language interacts with political identity, social class, and the like.

3) In the Garden of Beasts, by Erik Larson
Genre: Nonfiction (history)

Larson looks at Nazi Germany before WWII through the eyes of the American ambassador at the time (a history professor with no previous diplomatic experience) and his family. Reading it, I was for the first time able to do something with 1930's Germany I've been able to do fairly easily for other places and times--put myself in the place of people living through it who had no idea how it would turn out.

4) The Olympic Games: The First Thousand Years, by MI Finley & HW Pleket
Genre: Nonfiction (ancient history)

I've been renewing my interest in classical Greek history of late, hence this book. I liked it, but it'd be a bit dry for someone just starting to explore the period. If that's you, I'd suggest The Naked Olympics if you're interested in the early Games, or Persian Fire for the Greco-Persian Wars, or Lords of the Sea for the rise and fall of Athens.