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.