Wednesday, August 31, 2011

I'm a cover quote!

Last year Isabel Cooper asked me to read her upcoming debut romance with a view to providing a cover quote. I was happy to do so, and even happier to discover that No Proper Lady is well worth recommending.

The image I was able to download isn't big enough for you to see it, but I'm right there on the bottom of the cover, telling you this book contains "high-stakes magical adventure with wonderful characters and a sexy romance."

It's a time travel story where a woman from a post-apocalyptic future goes back to the Victorian era to try to prevent the events that set the apocalypse in motion, and what I especially appreciated about it is that the fantasy elements were just as strong and well-developed as the romance ones. But if you don't want to take my word for it, Publishers Weekly agrees, and RT Book Reviews gave it 4.5 stars.

No Proper Lady officially releases tomorrow, but it looks like the print version is already shipping.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

My next book!

I'm delighted to report that Carina is acquiring my next book. Title and release date remain TBD, but it's a historical romance with a (fictional) British general for a hero. The hero and heroine, Jack and Elizabeth, marry in 1804 to fulfill a deathbed promise and are soon separated by the demands of his military career. By the time they're reunited in early 1815, they've accumulated a long list of grievances against each other and wish they'd never married. Just as they're beginning to make their own peace, Jack is called back to war when Napoleon returns to power--only this time Elizabeth has no intention of remaining quietly behind in England.

In other words, I'm writing a Waterloo story. I think every Regency writer, at least those of us with even the tiniest degree of interest in the military side of the era, has one in her, and this is mine. Or possibly just my first.

The book will probably come out in late 2012. I wish I wasn't looking at such a long gap between releases, but my pinched nerve slowed me down a lot for six months or so. Now, well, to use the cliche, it is what it is. Assuming the date holds, at least I won't have a calendar year without a release in it.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Weekend cooking, GrillFail edition

This week's Saturday cooking day happened on Sunday, since we had Mariners tickets Saturday evening. And it was far from a culinary triumph. Let's just say I haven't mastered the art of the grill yet.

(No pictures until I replace my stolen Mac and can easily synch them from my phone again.)

I decided it was time I tried something other than steaks or boneless chicken and settled on turkey burgers. Mark Bittman had a column on grilling a couple years back, and one of his suggestions was to add flavor to turkey burgers by mixing in cooked, crumbled bacon.

That sounded tasty. While my bacon crisped, I did a google search to figure out how long to cook the burgers (burgers not being something I do often enough to have a gut feel, especially with not-beef where it's riskier to go rare). One recipe I found suggested adding various ingredients for flavor and moisture, notably mayo, mustard, and worcestershire sauce. "Why not?" I thought. "More moisture and flavor is a good thing, right?"

Well, yeah, except when they're so moist they fall into pieces, as I discovered halfway through the cooking process when I attempted to flip them. Normally I give up and order pizza at this point, but last night I decided to salvage instead. I brought the sloppy burgers inside and made...turkey-bacon sloppy joes. Which weren't half bad, really. All that flavoring and moisture that made my burgers fall apart created a reasonably tasty sandwich filling.

Undaunted, I tried grilling marshmallows for s'mores by suspending them on the same contraption we use to make kebabs. Disaster was narrowly averted when I checked them after 5 minutes and found them about to droop off the skewers. I managed to rescue them, but they were just gooey and warm, not hot enough to melt the chocolate, so they didn't taste like proper s'mores. I think to make it work you'd have to stand over the grill rotating like you do when roasting marshmallows over a campfire, and for that I'd want a far longer skewer.

Friday, August 26, 2011

What a week (with three Public Service Annoucements)

I don't think I've EVER been quite so glad to see Friday get here.

Monday during the day I had an appointment with a neurosurgeon as part of the ongoing hand-neck-shoulder saga. (My orthopedist wanted me to see him about possibly getting a steroid injection for my pinched nerve.) I wasn't crazy about him, since he was obviously of the Me Doctor, You Patient school that gives you minimal information. He examined me, clucked thoughtfully, and referred me for an MRI on Tuesday and a follow-up visit Thursday, refusing to speculate on my likely prognosis or treatment options. But the very speed with which they got me scheduled made me a little nervous, along with the thoughtful clucking.

That night I came home from work, planning to cook dinner, do some housework in preparation for my mother-in-law coming to visit next week, and write. But then I spotted a carry-on suitcase that had been in a corner of our bedroom lying in the hall, thought, "That's weird," and went to have a look...only to discover we'd had a break-in. The thieves took almost all our electronics--my iMac, three laptops, both our Kindles, our Wii, Mr. Fraser's digital camera, and Miss Fraser's DS--along with a silver ring designed to look like an ancient Celtic torc (not worth a lot, but high sentimental value for me, and as best as I can tell no longer available), and, to add insult to injury, a handful of Canadian change, maybe $5 worth, from atop a dresser. See, our change jar was full last weekend, so we took it to one of those change counter machines you see in grocery stores, which of course returned all the Canadian money that had got mixed in from when we've gone up to BC for a weekend. I was going to start a separate jar, figuring next time one of us is up there we'd have enough CAD$ for a couple of donuts at Tim Horton's or something, but no more!

Tuesday I was scrambling to come up with as many receipts as I could for all the stolen items for our insurance report, and I had my MRI, which seemed to go smoothly. I left work with a list of plans for when I got home--only to step on a honeybee while picking Miss Fraser up from day camp. (Open-toed sandals, grassy lawn with blooming clover, OUCH.) It hurt too much for me to drive, so Mr. Fraser had to come get us both, and I spent all evening with my foot propped up on ice.

Wednesday I got a call from the neurosurgeon, very hush-voiced and mysterious, telling me there was something concerning on my MRI, and they were going to set me up to see a neurologist. They'd found one who was happy to see me the very next day, though I might need to be patient and wait at his clinic, since he was squeezing me in. He said there were 5 things it could be, and 4 of them were pretty benign, but the other one...less so. I eventually forced him to tell me that the less benign option was MS, but that I shouldn't worry or look things up on the internet and just see the neurologist tomorrow like a good girl. (He didn't SAY "like a good girl" but the tone was there.)

IMHO, that call would've made the calmest person in the world anxious. And I am NOT the calmest person in the world.

This post is getting long, so I'll just say I spent a harrowing 24 hours until I saw the neurologist, who was able to assure me I don't have MS. When I apologized for being such an anxious patient, he didn't quite criticize his colleague, but made it clear what I should've been told on Wednesday was more like, "There's nothing in your MRI that indicates a need for surgery, so we're sending you to a neurologist for follow-up instead. It just so happens Dr. So-and-So has an opening tomorrow, so you might as well take advantage of it if that works with your schedule. And, oh, there was a shadow on your MRI that's probably just an artifact of your breathing or swallowing at the wrong moment, but he may do a few additional tests for due diligence."

Oh, and based on his examination (lots of reflex checks and a nerve study) he thinks I had a pinched nerve that's now healed, and my lingering symptoms are muscle and ligament damage that should heal with time, patience, continued PT and therapeutic massage, and diligent attention to posture and ergonomics for, oh, the rest of my life. So that's good news.

Anyway, what's the use of a Week From Hell if you don't come through it with wisdom to share with your tribe? So here are my PSAs for the good of the order:

PSA the First: Save receipts and serial numbers for all your valuables in a centralized, easy-to-locate place. This will make you, your police officer, and your insurance agent happy. I think I'm going to scan everything and store it on Dropbox next time.

PSA the Second: If you get stung by a honeybee, pull the stinger out RIGHT AWAY. I would've probably suffered less pain Tuesday and would have a smaller welt on my foot even now if I hadn't waited 10-15 minutes because I didn't want to touch it.

PSA the Third: Neck MRIs are prone to weird shadows and false positive results. Don't let yourself panic over one, no matter how mysterious and hush-voiced your doctor insists on being.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Saturday cooking, 8-20-11

No pictures with this week's Saturday cooking post. I took them, but my iPhone died this morning. The Apple Store replaced it, since it was still under warranty, but there was nothing I could do about restoring anything I'd done after the last time I synched the phone earlier this month.

It got up to 85 yesterday, which in Seattle passes for a heat wave, so I cooked on the grill again. I chose a recipe for grilled steak with tomatoes and scallions from an old issue of Everyday Food. Very simple--just flat-iron steaks, seasoned with salt and pepper and cooked on high for 4 minutes on each side, along with cherry tomatoes and scallions cooked at the same time in a grill basket, then seasoned with balsamic vinegar. My only change was adding a handful of chanterelle mushrooms picked up at the farmers market that morning.

It was pretty good. Neither Mr. Fraser nor I loved the grilled vegetables, though I liked the flavor of the chanterelles and scallions. For dessert we had angel food cake (bought at the store--I'm not that much of a baker and no way was I going to add heat to our AC-less kitchen to bake a cake), topped with a mix of strawberries and blackberries from the farmers market. Good stuff.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Quick notes on two weeks of summer reading

Here's what I've been reading lately, over half of it on the plane to and from Pennsylvania this week.

1. Linnets and Valerians, by Elizabeth Goudge
Genre: Children's fantasy
Format/source: trade paperback, library

A lovely classic children's fantasy, lyrical and wry, that deserves to be better known. I discovered its existence through this review at, and recommend it for anyone who hasn't let being a grown-up stop them from reading the likes of LM Montgomery and CS Lewis. Not two authors I usually compare, but this book reminded me of both.

2. Bossypants, by Tina Fey
Genre: Humor/memoir
Format/source: hardcover, library

Snarkily hilarious memoir of Tina Fey's life and career, including her stints at Second City Improv and SNL as well as her work on 30 Rock and the whole Sarah Palin thing.

3. The Viscount's Betrothal, by Louise Allen
Genre: Historical romance (Regency)
Format/source: mass market paperback, library

A tender Ugly Duckling romance that mostly adheres to the traditional Regency pattern, though it's a relatively recent release from the Harlequin Historical line.

4. Hillel: If Not Now, When? by Joseph Telushkin
Genre: Nonfiction (Jewish theology & practice)
Format/source: Kindle, purchased

An examination of the views and philosophy of one of the most influential rabbis in the history of Judaism. The book was written primarily for a Jewish audience, but I found it interesting to read from outside the tradition, both because I'm fascinated by religion in general and for the light it sheds on my own religious background (since Hillel was a near-contemporary of Jesus).

5. Short Straw Bride, by Dallas Schulze
Genre: Historical romance (Western)
Format/source: Kindle, purchased

A 1990's historical romance, re-released as part of Harlequin's effort to digitize its backlist. (Something I'm all for, whether it's publishers or individual authors behind the effort. More books available for the reader, and the author gets royalties for the sale, unlike if you tracked the title down through a UBS.) It's a fun Western historical, something of a riff on Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. I was a bit put off by the very physical fight the hero and heroine have in the middle of the book, but the fact that it's a mutual fight started by the heroine kept it from coming across as abusive--I just feared for the crockery and the spines of the books in their house whenever they happen to fight in the future!

6. Bumped, by Megan McCafferty
Genre: YA (near-future dystopia)
Format/source: library, hardcover

In this take on dystopian near-future-fic, 75% or so of the population is afflicted with a virus that renders them sterile by the time they're 18 or 20, and efforts to preserve eggs and sperm for later use also fail. So to survive, the species needs teen pregnancy, and bright, attractive girls are in high demand as surrogates. As an aside, I wonder what it says about now vs. my teen years in the 80's that there are so many dystopian YA novels? Yes, this is a stressful time to live through, but I grew up worrying about WWIII, and to the best of my knowledge the YA books that weren't straightforward romances or whatever ran to "my girlfriend is dying of cancer." (I never read those.)

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Why I'd make a lousy book reviewer

...aside from the whole Being An Author Myself thing, of course, which adds a certain awkwardness all its own. Give a poor ranking to someone who outsells you and it looks like sour grapes. Do the same once you're an established big name and if you're not careful you could come across as an arrogant jerk. Some authors are reviewers and manage the two hats well, of course, but I don't see myself becoming one.

You see, my internal grading system is something like A-B-Did Not Finish. But with nuance:

I love this book/series so much I immediately buy the author's entire backlist, no matter the cost, no matter the effort in tracking it down. I haunt the web for details about the author's next release. I babble about the author and book(s) incessantly to anyone who'll listen. F'rex, I haven't actually accosted strangers on the street to ask them if they've made Miles Vorkosigan their personal Vor-lord and savior, but the temptation is there.

I fell in love with this book, but in a less intense way than with an A+. I'll seek out the author's backlist, but at a leisurely pace, maybe a book every month or two, and I'll preorder his/her future work.

I like this book a lot, but it doesn't quite have that certain something that's going to make me remember it forever and go to it when I need a comfort book to re-read. I plan to read the author's backlist/future releases, but there's not the same sense of urgency for more as with an A+ or A book--I'll just remember the author as someone who gave me a good experience once and can probably be counted on to do so again.

This book charmed me but didn't wow me, and I noticed a few flaws--little plot holes, occasional awkward word choices, etc. I'll probably give the author another chance. Or maybe it's an author who's delivered higher-grade books for me before, but this entry feels just a little off her game somehow.

I enjoyed this book while I was reading it, but a month from now I'll have nearly forgotten it.

This book had noticeable flaws, but I cared enough about the characters to keep going till the end. But I probably won't read anything else by the author unless a future book gets rave reviews from a friend or reviewer I trust.

So. Those are the books I finish. Here's how I rank the ones I don't.

C (AKA Bored Now)
This book isn't terrible, and it's probably capably written and edited. But for whatever reason, a chapter or two in I don't care enough to keep reading. Maybe I've seen the plot trope driving the story a kajillion times, and nothing in the writing or characters gives it spark enough to make an old story seem new. Maybe the voice just doesn't work for me. So I set it aside because life is too short to read books I'm not excited about.

D (AKA Annoyed Now)
The writing is not just flat, but nails-on-a-chalkboard grating. Or the historical details are off enough to throw a history geek like me out of the story. (Or the sports details are off in a baseball or football story, or whatever. Basically, "I care enough about this topic to have made myself something of an expert on it. Why would I read a book about it by someone who evidently cares less than I do?") Or the characters feel like stereotypes.

F (AKA Offended Now)
Any or all of the following: Writer commits multiple and glaring grammatical errors. Historical details so off that anyone awake during high school history class would be thrown out of the story. Abusive "heroes" in romance. Characters aren't just stereotypes; they're racist, sexist, or otherwise bigoted stereotypes. (I'll make occasional allowances in older works, but that's too complicated a topic for this post.) Author clearly has political, cultural, or religious views in direct opposition to my own, and they're here to preach!

Obviously my grading scale wouldn't work if I were on the review team at, say, Dear Author or All About Romance. And now that I have books out there getting reviewed, I've had to learn that not everyone (really, not even most people) uses grades/stars like I do. Four stars can be keepers for some readers. Three stars don't necessarily mean I bored that reader, nor one that I offended her.

Incidentally, I'm probably going to keep blogging what I read each week--which is not quite the same as a review. Any book that makes my blog is a book I finished--which means I'd give it an A or a B. :-)

Friday, August 12, 2011

Sad news

I just found out that one of my dearest friends from college was killed in an accident early Thursday morning. We hadn't done a great job of keeping in touch since I moved to the West Coast. It had turned into one of those friendships where you occasionally talk on the phone or comment on each other's Facebook status, with regular promises to get together next time we were in the same corner of the country. But I'm still shocked and devastated. He's in most of my college memories, one way or the other, and this hurts.

I'm planning to try to fly back east for the funeral, and I doubt I'll be blogging again until the end of next week.

People, if you've got a friend you're thinking you should call or email eventually, or try to catch up with next time you're back in your old hometown, don't put if off. Life is just too damn short and uncertain.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Saturday cooking, 8-6-11

This Saturday I was neck-deep in editing a proposal for my latest historical romance (a Waterloo story!) to send to my editor, so I didn't go as elaborate with the cooking as last week. I did, however, try out our brand new grill, just installed on our brand new deck. I combined a couple of suggestions from Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything and marinated some boneless, skinless chicken breasts in sesame oil, soy sauce, and lime juice, then threw them on the grill. They came out looking like this:

Tasted almost as good as they looked, too, served with leftover rice from Friday's Thai take-out and broccoli and green beans cooked (and, frankly, slightly burned) in a grill basket.

I could get addicted to this grill business. At least for a simple cut of meat like this, it's so quick and easy, and easier to clean up than the same recipe broiled or sauteed.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Summer reading continues

I've slowed up a bit on summer reading for grown-ups, not to mention blog posting, because I've got a pair of deadlines, semi-self-imposed but important to me, this month. I'm pushing myself to write harder than I have since first developing my pinched nerve issues last November. So wish me health, and the sense to know just how much I can push myself before causing a serious setback.

But, I've still been reading. I never really stop. My latest three books:

1. The Domestic Servant Class in 18th Century England, by Jean Hecht
Genre: Nonfiction (history)
Format/source: hardcover, UW library

Purely a research rather than a leisure read, but an engaging one. (I find reading about the 18th century more useful to me as a Napoleonic/Regency writer than the 19th because most 19th century sources skew heavily Victorian. Many historians agree with me, for what it's worth, writing of a "long 18th century" spanning the period between the Glorious Revolution in 1688 and Waterloo in 1815.) It gave me a much better sense of why someone who had options might choose to go into service over what to my mind would be a much freer and therefore better way of life as an artisan or shopkeeper--namely good pay, job security that included food, clothing, and shelter, the chance to travel, and the fact that when I think ANYTHING would be better than servility, FREEEEEDOMMMM! etc., I'm projecting a bit too much of my own cultural biases onto a different place and time.

2. Lost in My Own Backyard, by Tim Cahill
Genre: Nonfiction (travel)
Format/source: Hardcover, library

This was recommended to me by the Seattle library's "your next five books" service, which gives you personalized, reader's advisory-type recommendations if you tell them a little about what you do and don't like. I mentioned Bill Bryson as a nonfiction favorite, so the librarian thought I might like Cahill's travel writing. He's not as funny and doesn't have as strong a voice as Bryson, but I enjoyed this book. It reminded me of a childhood trip to Yellowstone and made me want to go back.

3. The Masque of the Black Tulip, by Lauren Willig
Genre: Historical romance/chick lit/spy fiction
Format/source: hardcover, library

I read The Secret History of the Pink Carnation, first book in this series, ages ago, but the reader's advisory librarian reminded me of the series. (The rest of her romance recommendations didn't really work--I'd either already read the author and liked them but hadn't loved them enough to include on my list of favorites, or they were VERY old school. Like, rapist hero old school, you really thought a fan of Loretta Chase, Jo Beverley, Courtney Milan, and Rose Lerner would want to read THAT old school? Seriously, I think the romance side of their reader's advisory could use some work. Maybe I'll even mention it, politely, of course.)

But anyway, Black Tulip. Fun book. I definitely need to catch up on this series. In some ways they're not my usual thing, since my tastes skew realistic and even a bit gritty, while this series is frothy, deliberately OTT, and slyly anachronistic. I think it's the "deliberately" and "slyly" parts that make it work for me. I can tell Willig knows and loves her history and enjoys playing with it. Anachronisms and inaccuracies only bug me when I feel like the author doesn't know and/or doesn't care.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Saturday cooking

Some part of me still thinks I should put dinner on the table the way my mother always did. Not the same food. She was a product of her time and place, which meant she could bake like nobody's business but cooked vegetables until they were dead and--I still don't get this one--not only was she willing to eat instant mashed potatoes, she actually thought they tasted BETTER than the real thing.

But she cooked every night. And aside from that baffling fondness for instant mashed potatoes and the like, she didn't use a lot of convenience foods to get dinner on the table. She roasted beef, fried pork chops, stewed chicken and dumplings. She always had two or three vegetable side dishes, and at least once a week she made a homemade dessert.

She had time for this because she was a stay-at-home mom. I am not. I have a full-time job, plus all the hours I spend trying to build my writing career. Yet still I feel guilty for prepping spaghetti & (frozen) meatballs and (jarred) sauce with a bagged salad on the side, whipping up grilled cheese and opening a can of tomato soup, or just ordering a pizza.

Gradually I've realized that's silly. I'm busy. Those quick weeknight meals may not be nutritionally ideal, but most of them aren't all that bad. But I do love to cook, and I wish I got more use out of my cookbook shelf. I think I've got as many cookbooks as I do books on Wellington, Napoleon, and both their armies...which given my research book addiction is saying something. So I decided to make Saturdays my Real Cooking Days, the one day I'll spend hours in the kitchen and regularly try new recipes.

Here are this weekend's results:

I went to the University District Farmers Market Saturday morning. I resisted my usual urge to stock up for the whole week, which inevitably leads to beautiful produce going bad in my fridge when it turns out I actually don't feel like doing something with those collard greens on Wednesday evening. Instead I stuck to what I could use that day, including the bread, tomatoes, and basil...

...that formed the basis for this bruschetta (assisted by garlic, olive oil, and balsamic vinegar):

Then I finally made a recipe from Pig: King of the Southern Table, one of the cookbooks I got for Christmas this year. I chose a recipe for braised pork chops with port gravy since it looked pretty straightforward and was entirely a stovetop dish. I didn't want to run the oven much, since it was a warmish day and our kitchen has no AC. (This is Seattle. Most houses don't have AC--we're ahead of the game with a tiny window unit in the bedroom--and "warmish day" = 80F or so.) Here's how it looked, with a side of couscous:

It was, unfortunately, a bit bland, and the pork chops were dry despite my following the recipe pretty exactly and testing for doneness at the earliest suggested time. But the gravy was good, so I might try again, with thinner chops, triple the rosemary in the breading, and a far shorter cooking time.

Last but not least, I improvised a dessert out of french toast made from chocolate bread from the farmers market topped with sweetened blackberries and blueberries (they're the early end of the crop & were too tart to eat without sugar), and whipped cream. (Yes, whipped cream from a can, which is probably just as appalling as my mom's instant mashed potatoes, but we all have our shortcuts. Now you know one of mine.)

This was much the best of the meal to me. A little too breakfasty for dessert, but delicious all the same, and so simple to make.