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.