Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Favorite Reads of 2013

Rather than trying to narrow my favorite books from 2013 down to a top 10, I went back through my reading log and asked which books had made a lasting impression on me. Here's what I came up with. 18 books in all, listed in the order I read them. I've included the year of publication in parentheses, since I don't necessarily nor even usually read books the year they come out.

Julie's Wolf Pack, by Jean Craighead George (1997). Middle grade/YA fiction mostly from the POV of wolves, and so incredibly absorbing and moving.

Libriomancer, by Jim C. Hines (2012). Contemporary-set fantasy where books are the source of magic.

A Year of Biblical Womanhood, by Rachel Held Evans (2012). Wherein Evans shows just how selective anyone who claims to interpret the Bible literally actually is by trying to live out its commands to women exactly.

Miss Jacobson's Journey, by Carola Dunn (1992). Traditional Regency romance (i.e. "sweet," though I hate that word for most anything other than dessert or a baby) with a very non-traditional heroine and setting.

Whose Names are Unknown, by Sanora Babb (written in 1939, published 2004). An account of the Dust Bowl, published decades after it was written because at the time Random House, which had acquired the manuscript, decided there was no room in the market for another book on the same theme as The Grapes of Wrath.

The Antidote, by Oliver Burkeman (2012). Wherein the key to happiness is to stop working so hard at being happy. I need to re-read this one...

Things I Can't Forget, by Miranda Kenneally (2013). YA romance in which a very good, very religious girl learns to be less hard on herself and others. I could relate since I pretty much was the heroine back in the day.

Bloodlands, by Timothy Snyder (2012). The horrors of WWII as experienced by the civilian population, both Jewish and Gentile, of Eastern Europe. A depressing read, but I'm glad I know more of that history than I did before.

Help, Thanks, Wow, by Anne Lamott (2012). On praying for help and with gratitude an appreciation for the wonders of the world.

Sacred Games, by Gary Corby (2013). My favorite entry to date in this mystery series set in Ancient Greece.

The Ides of April, by Lindsey Davis (2013). More historical mystery. I'm not yet as enamored of Flavia Albia as I am of her adoptive papa Marcus Didius Falco, but I'm willing to be won over.

Lawrence in Arabia, by Timothy Johnson (2013). Or, how the European powers planted the seeds of a century of conflict in the Middle East in jockeying for short-term advantage in WWI.

Discount Armageddon, by Seanan McGuire (2012). The most all-around fun book I read all year.

Blood of Tyrants, by Naomi Novik (2013). Left me waiting with bated breath for the next (and I believe final) book in the series.

The Black Count, by Tom Reiss (2012). A black general in Revolutionary France! And despite my extensive knowledge of the era, I'd never heard of him before.

This Wicked Gift, by Courtney Milan (2009). Milan's debut release, a Christmas historical romance novella with non-aristocratic characters.

Fangirl, by Rainbow Rowell (2013). Among other things, a lovely valentine to fandom and what it brings to readers' and writers' lives.

Cracking Up, by Kimberlee Conway Ireton (2013). A memoir on parenthood, anxiety, postpartum depression, and stubborn faith.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Twelve Days of Christmas Past

Christmas is over...or is it? Traditionally, the Christmas season actually runs through Epiphany on January 6--hence, the Twelve Days of Christmas.

If you're glad to have the hectic round of cooking and shopping over, but would like to savor the spirit of the season a little longer, you can now pick up my time travel novelette Christmas Past as part of a four-story anthology, Twelve Days of Christmas Past, which also includes stories by Rebecca Thomas and Emily Larkin. It's only $2.99 and is available at:

Barnes & Noble
All Romance eBooks

Sunday, December 29, 2013

2013 Reading, Books 112-115

I'm closing out 2013 with a bang, as I expect 2 of the 4 books I've finished in the last week or so to make my Best Reads of the Year list.

112) Fangirl, by Rainbow Rowell.

This book got such good buzz online that I almost expected to be disappointed by it, but I wasn't, not at all. It's a beautifully written YA coming of age novel with a good helping of romance. The heroine is a college freshman whose identical twin doesn't want to room with her and in general thinks it's high time they struck out on their own as individuals. Cath, who has intense social anxiety, struggles to cope, and we watch a year in her life as she figures it out and comes to terms with her thorny, dysfunctional-to-say-the-least family history.

The title references the fact Cath is an obsessive fan and fanfic writer within the fictional Simon Snow fandom (think Harry Potter, pretty much), and one of the best aspects of the book, IMHO, is how accurately and lovingly Rowell portrays what it's like to be part of fandom. And, best of all, she allows Cath to build a happy collegiate life and find a voice for original fiction without having to leave fandom and fanfic behind. She can still look forward to the 8th and final Simon Snow book's debut. She can still finish her slashy version of Book 8. It's such a treat to see an author understand and respect that.

113) The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, by Jennifer 8. Lee.

More a series of essays than a single unified narrative, this book looks at Chinese food and restaurants, especially in their Americanized form. (Fortune cookies and General Tso's Chicken? Not things you'd find in China.) I almost wish it had been two books, one light-hearted culinary history and a second serious look at the life of Chinese men and women working abroad in the restaurant industry, especially illegal immigrants.

114) Cracking Up: A Postpartum Faith Crisis, by Kimberlee Conway Ireton.

Full disclosure: the author is a friend of mine, or at least a friendly acquaintance, though we've lost touch since I stopped going to the same church as she does. I was a very distant observer of some of the events in this memoir, though by that point my family and I were already starting to drift out of the congregation. (Long story, and nothing to do with this book--suffice it to say I revisited my faith after my mother passed away, and ended up on a path that took me to the Episcopal Church.)

As the mother of two young children and a debut author of a struggling book, Kimberlee found herself pregnant with twins and overwhelmed with the changes coming into her life. She takes the reader along with her on a rawly honest journey through an often difficult pregnancy, one twin's stay in the NICU, and the first six months of the boys' lives as she struggles with often crippling anxiety and severe postpartum depression it took her a long time to recognize for what it was.

It's an excellent read, and one I'd recommend to anyone who's struggled with anxiety or depression, especially Christians, since so much of Kimberlee's struggle is about hanging onto God and staying grounded in her faith. And hers is a very rare book I'd recommend equally to my Baptist high school classmates and my fellow Episcopalians--the faith and doubts expressed in this book are of a kind any of us in Christianity's very big tent can relate to.

115) Fortune's Pawn, by Rachel Bach.

I picked up this book because it was described as a cross between Firefly and the Vorkosigan Saga. This intrigued me because as different as Whedon and Bujold are in many aspects, there's a certain je ne sais quoi about their work, the way the communities they create feel so multi-dimensional and tangible that Serenity and her crew and the Vorkosigan family and their friends and allies on Barrayar are almost as real to me as my own family, friends, and coworkers. I don't know what it says about me, but one of the things I love most in fiction is being able to acquire new imaginary friends, especially when they come in whole imaginary communities. There's something about that sense that if I found myself at a party at Vorkosigan House, I'd feel right at home

So. A chapter or two in to Fortune's Pawn, I was ready to set it aside, because it didn't remind me of Whedon and Bujold at all. But I've been trying to give books a longer chance lately. I'll still set a book down for awkward, inept writing or if I can tell right away I'm not going to click with the plot or characters. But I have a feeling I've been missing some good stories for not giving myself a chance to adjust to a new author's voice or to accept that a book wasn't what I was expecting and give it a chance to succeed on its own terms.

In this case, I'm very glad I gave the book another chance. I remembered that Firefly and the early Vorkosigan books are both about space mercenaries, as is Fortune's Pawn, so I stopped hoping to find another set of imaginary friends and read it as a space opera adventure story. Taken on those terms, it's a cracking good read. Devi is an excellent kick-ass heroine, ambitious and straightforward, the world-building feels well thought out, the plot rolls along at a relentless pace, and the ending left me with just the right number of questions that I'm looking forward to the sequel, which is due out in February.

And, you know, that's probably all the Twitter recommender meant. "Like stories about space mercenaries like Mal Reynolds or Miles Vorkosigan? Give this one a try!" Which is always a challenge with "Like X? Try Y!" recs--you have to figure out what it is the other reader/viewer likes about X, and whether it's the same thing you get out of it. Like, I thought about recommending Cracking Up to Anne Lamott readers, because Kimberlee also writes about motherhood with wry honesty and humor, not to mention struggling to be a writer in the face of doubt and failure and clinging to faith by one's fingernails. But I'm wary of doing so, because Lamott has such a distinctive voice, and she's Christian left while Kimberlee is more Christian center. I don't want to disappoint anyone by recommending something a book doesn't deliver, you know?

Saturday, December 21, 2013

2013 Reading, Books 109-111

109) Through the Evil Days, by Julia Spencer-Fleming.

After two and a half years, finally another entry in one of my favorite mystery series. I loved it, and was especially impressed how Spencer-Fleming switched POVs among five or six characters without ever tempting me to skip ahead to the next section featuring my favorites. (I tend to do that with George RR Martin, and with Herman Wouk's Winds of War and War and Remembrance it was years before I went back and read all the stuff about the Pacific theater of the war, I was so much more interested in Natalie Jastrow and whether she survived than any of that submarine and battleship stuff.) That said, she ended on ANOTHER cliffhanger, and how many more years will I have to wait before I know if Clare's, um, how to say this without being spoilery, health situation works out OK?

110) Od Magic, by Patricia McKillip.

This is a lushly lyrical fantasy--really MORE lush and lyrical than my usual reading taste that follows several characters through a crisis in how their kingdom manages magic. It's not a big, epic war and/or quest fantasy (which I confess to a certain partiality for), nor does it focus tightly enough on any one character that I connected to the story as much as I like, but I'm glad I read it nonetheless, variety being good for the brain and imagination IMHO.

111) Oh Myyy! There Goes the Internet, by George Takei.

A light, fun look at George Takei's current life as an unlikely septuagenarian internet celebrity. It was the perfect relaxing read for a day when I was home with a bad shoulder and feeling sorry for myself, but it's not pure fluff. Takei doesn't hide his activist side WRT gay rights or building awareness of Japanese-American internment during WWII, and he also has some good thoughts on Facebook and Twitter for those of us who use social media for publicity.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

TBR Challenge - Holiday Romance

'Tis the season, so this month's TBR challenge theme is Holiday Reads.

I chose This Wicked Gift, Courtney Milan's debut release and part of the 2009 HQN holiday anthology The Heart of Christmas. I bought it shortly after release because I'd heard so many wonderful things about Milan--including raves from a friend who finished second to her in an unpublished contest, then judged her entry in another contest and said she no longer had the slightest regrets about coming in second because Milan's writing was just that awesome.

And yet somehow I didn't get around to reading the novella until this year despite having read others of her books and completely agreeing that she is Just That Awesome. I'm not sure why, except that every time I looked at the anthology on my Kindle, it didn't happen to be the holiday season and I decided to save it for later.

Well, "later" finally came. I read the novella during a quiet evening on our Thanksgiving trip to Oklahoma (yes, I read my December TBR challenge book in November--I had lots of reading time for a change that week, and I knew my first half of December would be insane). It's brilliant. The anthology is worth the purchase price for that story alone, IMHO. It's such a rare treat to read a Regency with non-aristocratic characters, for one thing, and the writing and characterization are a pleasure for readers like me who live for smooth, skilled prose and characters who feel human and three-dimensional. Strong, strong recommend.

Much as I've enjoyed doing the TBR Challenge this year, I've decided not to join again for 2014. Looking back over my reading journal for this year, I decided I want 2014 to be more spontaneous. Somehow the instant I need to read a book, whether for a challenge like this, judging the Ritas, or for research, it becomes homework. And I'm enough of a Muggle version of Hermione Granger that I like homework in moderation, but for the past couple years I feel like I've been missing the joy of grabbing a book just because it's what happens to strike my fancy at that moment.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

So, Susanna, are you ever going to write a novel again?

Several years ago, I decided it was high time I teach myself to write novellas. The shorter length didn't come naturally to me. The very first manuscript I ever finished, a chaste Regency in the heroine's first person POV that eventually morphed into my second published book, A Marriage of Inconvenience, clocked in at 150,000 words. Even in my newbie state I understood that was far too long to sell, so I ruthlessly trimmed it down to 100K. Which my brain apparently decided was the One True Length, because without me especially trying, every single novel I've written since has been somewhere in the 90-100K range, at least on first draft.

But I'm not the world's fastest writer, to put it mildly, and it occurred to me that if only I could intersperse my novels with novellas, I could build up my backlist a lot faster. However, it took me three discarded novellas before I managed to finish one. You see, with those failed novellas, I wasn't so much writing ideas that naturally belonged in a shorter form as novel ideas I found interesting, but not necessarily 100,000 words worth of interesting. Recipe for failure, that.

I then focused my mind on what made a workable novella-length romance. I thought of a couple who already knew each other, forced by circumstances to marry immediately, and wrote A Dream Defiant. I brainstormed a Christmas story covering less than 24 hours and ending with a Happily For Now (with strong possibility for Happily Ever After) instead of one of those baby epilogues I'm sappy enough to be fond of, and wrote Christmas Past. And I thought of a pair of star-crossed lovers reunited at Christmas and wrote my 2014 holiday release (title TBD).

Now, the most common criticism I've seen in reviews for both A Dream Defiant and Christmas Past is that readers thought there was too much story there for the brief page count. Without going into lengthy engagement with said reviews, I'll just say that I can see the readers' points in both cases. I've often had the same reaction to other authors' novellas as a reader. However, I do plan to keep writing novellas and trying to master the art of making a love story feel real, lasting, and weighty in 40,000 words or less.

That said, I didn't set out to release three novellas in a row--it just kinda worked out that way. And I'm delighted to announce that I've just sold another NOVEL to Carina Press. It's a sequel to A Dream Defiant, working title My Lady Defiant (though that could change). It stars Henry Farlow (whom readers of A Dream Defiant may recall as Elijah's officer friend who gives Elijah work on the side as a clerk to help conceal what modern readers will recognize as dyslexia), who is wounded at the Battle of New Orleans. He wanders off the battlefield in a daze, gets lost...and is rescued by Therese Bondurant, a femme de couleur libre struggling to keep her inheritance despite the fact her feckless planter father never got around to updating his will to align with American law. A few days later Henry gets to repay the favor by rescuing Therese and her half-sister and brother--but under circumstances that force them to flee for their lives.

That's all I'll say for now, since we're still over a year out from my release date (which is TBD, but most likely early 2015). I still need to finish writing the thing! But it is, indeed, a novel, and one I hope you'll enjoy once it reaches virtual shelves.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

I'm a Fresh Pick!

Last night I got a happy surprise in my inbox--Christmas Past is the Fresh Pick for today over at Fresh Fiction! Thanks to all the readers who selected it.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Random Cookbook of the Week - Old-School Comfort Food

I've fallen behind on blogging this month, but I'll try to catch up--between my blog tour posts for Christmas Past and having my usual round of holiday events front-loaded in the first half of December, I've been unusually busy.

Anyway, the last time I had time to give myself a random cookbook challenge, I drew Iron Chef Alex Guarnaschelli's Old-School Comfort Food and chose to make her...

Mom's Meatloaf

- 2 tsp canola oil, plus more if needed
- 2 small yellow onions, minced (about 1 cup)
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- Kosher salt
- 1 lb ground beef
- 3/4 lb ground pork
- 1 tsp hot paprika
- 1 tsp black pepper
- 1 c. plus 2 T plain dried bread crumbs, plus more if needed
- 2/3 c. ketchup, plus more for brushing
- 1 c. sour cream
- 1 medium bunch curly parsley, leaves chopped (1/4 c.)
- 1 medium bunch fresh tarragon, leaves chopped
- 3 large eggs, lightly beaten, plus another as needed

1. Preheat the oven to 400 F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

2. Make the meatloaf mix: In a medium skillet, heat the canola oil over medium heat. Add the onions and garlic, season with salt, and cook, stirring from time to time, until translucent, 3-5 minutes. Scrape into a blow and set aside to cool. Reserve the pan; do not wipe it out.

3. Put the beef and pork in a large bowl and gently knead them together with their hands. Spread the meat out on the bottom and sides of the bowl and season with 2 tsp salt. Add the paprika, pepper, bread crumbs, ketchup, sour cream, parsley, tarragon, the onion mixture, and 3 eggs. Mix to blend.

4. Taste test: Heat the skillet over medium heat. If there isn't a sufficient layer of fat left in the pan, add a little more oil. When the pan is hot, lower the heat and add a small piece of the meatloaf mixture. Cook until cooked through, 1-2 minutes per side. Remove from the pan and taste. If too moist, add more bread crumbs. If too dry, add another egg.

5. Cook the meatloaf: Mold the meat mixture into the shape of a rectangular loaf pan, roughly 9 x 5 inches, and place it on the parchment-lined baking sheet. The meat will feel slightly wet. It should form into a ball but still stick to your hands slightly. Bake for 15 minutes.

6. Brush the meatloaf with additional ketchup and lower the oven temperature to 350 F. Bake until the meat is firm when touched or when it has an internal temperature of 150 F, 30-35 minutes more. Remove from the oven, pour off any excess grease, and allow the meatloaf to rest for 10-15 minutes before slicing and serving. Brush again with ketchup, if desired.

For the most part this cookbook lives up to its name. Unlike some of the chef cookbooks I own, there's almost nothing in here that a reasonably good home cook like myself would feel intimidated to attempt, and none of the ingredients are so exotic I'd have a hard time obtaining them. (Keep in mind that I live in Seattle, though, with all the culinary benefits of a big, diverse coastal city. Still, I bet I could find what I needed to make 90% of these recipes, including the one above, in any average American grocery store.)

This meatloaf recipe was certainly straightforward and easy to make, albeit time-consuming enough to be a weekend-only venture. That said, it makes a large batch and I bet it would freeze well. It's tasty in a soothing, comfort food way--great for the cold dark days of fall and winter. 

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

2013 Reading, Books 103-108

I spent much of November in something of a reading drought, but managed to break it over Thanksgiving week. We visited my in-laws in Tulsa, so I had the whole week off work with two long flights on either end--perfect reading time!

103) Women in English Society 1500-1800, Mary Prior (ed.).

My next randomly chosen research selection, this one had less to do with the world I write about than I expected because it would've been bettered titled Women in English Society 1500-1700. Only one of the chapters had much to say about the 18th century. (My books are set in the opening decades of the 19th century, but the Regency has more in common with the Georgian 18th century than the Victorian heart of the 19th.) That said, it was informative and interesting in a dry, academic sort of way. I was particularly intrigued by the chapter on Tudor bishops' wives, because I so take for granted the respected role of a Protestant pastor's wife that I'd never properly considered how unprecedented and even scandalous married clergy would've seemed to the people of England just after the break with Rome.

104) The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo, by Tom Reiss.

The fascinating biography of Thomas-Alexandre Dumas (father of the famous author), son of a French marquis and a Haitian slave, brought to France as a teenager by his father a few years prior to the French Revolution. He enlisted in the cavalry as a common soldier, but after the Revolution he rose to the rank of General D'Armee. Toussaint Louverture held the same rank, but the next black officer to hold an equivalent rank in a western army? Colin Powell.

He died relatively young, in 1806. Still, I'm surprised that with my years of reading about his era I'd never heard of him before. Partly that's because my focus is more on later parts of the Napoleonic Wars, but I've read about the invasion of Egypt and the Italian campaigns he was involved in without encountering him, either. Turns out Dumas, who held strong republican beliefs, didn't like Napoleon, who returned the contempt with interest...and when it was in Napoleon's interest to curry favor with slaveholders and reinstate racist laws, there wasn't a place for a commander like Alex Dumas. Hence his small place in the history books...

105) 250 Things You Should Know About Writing, by Chuck Wendig.

I enjoy Wendig's blog and Twitter commentary on writing and writers, and this short book was a good set of quick reminders about various aspects of the fiction-writing process. I expect to refer to the character and plotting sections in the future.

106) Eat, Play, Lust, by Tawna Fenske.

Another very short read (do you sense a theme here?), a fun quick romance where a yoga instructor heroine with food issues begins a promising relationship with a chef who helps her enjoy the pleasures of food along with other pleasures of the flesh.

107) This Wicked Gift, by Courtney Milan.

For my last read in my romance TBR challenge for 2013--theme, holiday reads--I read Courtney Milan's first published work. More detailed post to come later in the month.

108) Game Change, by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin.

Gossipy account of the 2008 election. In political terms that now feels like ancient history, but reading it brought back some of the intensity of living through it. Confirmed and intensified my already emphatic opinion that the Democrats dodged a major bullet by not nominating John Edwards. And I like Hillary and am ready to support her if she runs in 2016, but she'd sure better pick a better team to run her campaign.

Monday, December 2, 2013

More on my blog tour...

Click here for all the stops on my blog tour, and enter to win a chance at a $50 gift card to your choice of Amazon or Barnes & Noble!

Blog Tour kicks off today!

Just a very quick post to announce that the blog tour for Christmas Past officially kicks off today with an interview at Roxanne's Realm.

There'll be more to come on this blog this week--what I read over Thanksgiving, my latest random cookbook of the week, and my thoughts on my beloved Auburn Tigers' defeat of Bama and how their turnaround season inspires me as a writer...but for now it's Monday morning, and I've got a day job to get to. Have a great week!

Monday, November 25, 2013

Happy Thanksgiving, and my new release!

This blog is taking the rest of Thanksgiving week off, so here's a quick note to wish my fellow Americans a happy, peaceful, and delicious celebration and everyone else a good last week of November!

Also, today is the release day for Christmas Past, my time travel holiday story from Entangled Ever After.

Time-traveling PhD student Sydney Dahlquist’s first mission sounded simple enough—spend two weeks in December 1810 collecting blood samples from the sick and wounded of Wellington’s army, then go home to modern-day Seattle and Christmas with her family. But when her time machine breaks, stranding her in the past, she must decide whether to sacrifice herself to protect the timeline or to build a new life—and embrace a new love—two centuries before her time.

Rifle captain Miles Griffin has been fascinated by the tall, beautiful “Mrs. Sydney” from the day he met her caring for wounded soldiers. When he stumbles upon her time travel secret on Christmas Eve, he vows to do whatever it takes to seduce her into making her home in his present—by his side.

It's a quick read, clocking in at around 13,000 words, so if you're looking for a fun story to fit into your busy holiday schedule, I hope you'll give it a try!

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

TBR Challenge Fail!

My attempt to meet this month's theme of an inescapably hyped book met with failure as I discovered, yet again, that even well-written and well-regarded small-town contemporaries rarely work for me. (I won't name the hyped book in question because I'm absolutely convinced it's a good book that just slammed into a severe case of book-reader mismatch with me. I think I've finally learned to stop even attempting this subgenre.) I then tried a few other books from the TBR pile that didn't meet the theme and finally settled on one that I'm enjoying, More Than a Governess by Sarah Mallory, but due to a packed schedule I haven't had time to finish it yet.

I did, however, come up with an idea for a contemporary romance! Girl grows up in small town, then moves to a big city for college--probably Philadelphia or Seattle, in the interests of Writing What I Know--and sticks around after graduation. Her career is off to a good start, in a field that satisfies her wallet, mind, and soul. She doesn't give much thought to her high school sweetheart until he contacts her on Facebook--he's going to be in Philly/Seattle soon. In the serious version of the story, his mom is sick and needs treatment at one of the world-class medical centers these major cities have to offer. In the lighter version, he's there for a conference or something. Either way, he wants to see her. She's curious enough to agree to meet, and turns out the chemistry is still there. She introduces him to the wonders the big city has to offer--food! culture! diversity! big time sports! freedom from busybodies! plenty of community if you know how to find it! He's tempted to ask her to come back to the small town with him, but he ultimately realizes she's made the right choice for her, and that he can and will find a way to make his career work in the city so they can be together. With, you know, more plot and conflict, but you get the picture.

I know, it'd probably never sell, and my writer's heart is with historical and historical fantasy anyway. But if anyone knows of a book that follows this pattern, please please tell me what it is so I can read it right away.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Random Cookbook of the Week - Mariners Cookie Book

For a couple of years at the turn of this century, back when the Mariners were a good baseball team, the Mariners Wives put together an annual cookbook to raise money for worthy local causes. 2002's entry was The Cookie Book.

Each player and his family and a good chunk of the coaches, front office, and broadcast team provided a recipe. The result is like any other community collection cookbook, just with better photography and production values than most of the ilk. Most of the recipes were familiar to me from my lifetime of bake sales and potlucks, and I chose to try one my mom used to make all the time:

Chocolate "No Bake" Cookies
(Submitted by RH pitcher James Baldwin, now retired from the MLB and serving as pitching coach at a North Carolina high school. His son, who looks maybe 10 in the photo in the cookbook, was drafted by the Dodgers in 2010.)

1/4 cup margarine (I used butter)
2 c. granulated sugar
1/2 c. milk
3 T cocoa
1 t vanilla extract
1/2 c. peanut butter
3 c. quick oats

In a medium saucepan mix margarine, sugar, milk, and cocoa and bring to a boil. Stir constantly. Boil for one minute. Remove from heat. Add vanilla and peanut butter. Mix well. Add oatmeal and mix well. Drop by the spoonful onto waxed paper. Cool. Makes 3 dozen.

Simple, tasty, and nostalgic, at least for me. And my coworkers mowed through them in a hurry when I brought them in to the office Tuesday. 

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

2013 Reading, Books 100-102

My reading pace has slowed down with the fall, but I'm finally past the century mark!

100) Avatar: The Last Airbender: The Search, Part 3, by Gene Luen Yang, Michael Dante, Bryan Konietzko, Dave Marshall (Editor).

The biggest mystery left open at the end of the original Avatar: the Last Airbender series was the fate of Zuko's mother. It was SUCH a mystery, and speculated about SO much by fans of the show, that its ultimate resolution in this graphic novel series was all but doomed to disappointment. And...I was a little disappointed. I'm glad her story wasn't as dark as it could be, but the resolution felt almost too easy--except for the part where there was no sign of resolution for Azula's character. But maybe there will be another series that redeems her, or at least reveals her eventual fate.

Non-Avatar viewers, I'm sorry for all the random babble, but this is the kind of story you'd only be into if you know the series backwards and forwards.

Incidentally, when I went to Amazon for the link, I saw that the book has an average rating of 2 stars. At first I thought, "Wow, people must've been SERIOUSLY disappointed with the ending," but it turned out lots of people who preordered the Kindle version got an entirely different book delivered. Which...that's extremely annoying, but is the star system really the right way to deliver that message? It seems to me the rating is about the quality of the product, and that it's not fair to the creators to have their rating dragged down because Amazon bollixed its delivery. That said, as an author I'm not without bias in how I evaluate rating systems, their purpose, and their effects.

101) Blood of Tyrants, by Naomi Novik.

Eighth in what apparently will be a nine-book series. I raced through it breathlessly in two days. It's always good to see Temeraire again, and I was fascinated to see how Novik kept the general outline of Napoleon's Russian campaign while working in both sides' dragon armies. It was also cool to finally meet American dragons, though I did question her world-building a bit. We've seen all along that dragons in the non-European world are better treated than the Aerial Corps of the European powers (at least before Temeraire and Lien came along), and I can sort of buy that even by the early 19th century the British wouldn't have a clear understanding of how the draconic and human communities coexisted in, say, Africa or East Asia. But since it's clear America's colonial history played out at least somewhat similar to that of the real world (albeit clearly with Native Americans maintaining more power and autonomy because of their alliance with American dragons), I can't see why Britain and France couldn't have learned to treat dragons better from their experiences here.

But that's nitpicking, and I do love this series. I'm only annoyed at Novik for ending on such a cliffhanger! I hope Book 9 won't be too long in coming.

Incidentally, isn't that a beautiful cover?

102) French Napoleonic Infantry Tactics 1792-1815, by Paddy Griffith.

I realized early on upon starting to draft my current work-in-progress, which is set during the French invasion of Russia in 1812, that due to my relative lack of knowledge about the French army compared to the British army of the same era, I'm floundering for humanizing details of my French military characters' lives. So I've set my manuscript aside for the time being and am giving myself a crash course on all things French and Napoleonic. This particular book is as basic a survey as you could find, but it busts some of the myths about the French army (they did not inevitably attack in column rather than line!), and gives me a sense of what my French hero would've experienced serving during the heights of the Grande Armee's glory 1805-07 and how much it had gone downhill by 1812.

Monday, November 11, 2013

For Veteran's Day...

In honor of all who served and in hopes of lasting peace, I'll let some of the most famous words written during WWI speak for themselves:

In Flanders Fields
by John McRae

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
      Between the crosses, row on row,
   That mark our place; and in the sky
   The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
   Loved and were loved, and now we lie
         In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
   The torch; be yours to hold it high.
   If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
         In Flanders fields.

And, because I can never read it without tears, Kemal Ataturk's memorial to the ANZACs at Gallipoli:

Heroes who shed their blood and lost their lives! You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours. You, the mothers, who sent their sons from far away countries wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Random Cookbook Catch-up: West Point Officers Wives' Club Cookbook and the Gourmet Cookie Book

Two weeks' worth of random cookbook goodness!

From the West Point Officers Wives' Club Cookbook:

Simply Elegant Chicken

- boneless chicken breasts (1 or 2 per person)
- 1 pt sour cream (2 T per breast)
- 1/2 bag Pepperidge Farm stuffing mix (I used a box of Stove Top)
- 2 T butter

Place chicken in baking dish, side by side. Spread sour cream on top of chicken. Sprinkle all thickly with stuffing directly from the package. Dot with butter. Bake, uncovered, at 350 F for 45 minutes.

I thought it looked too dry, so I added some chicken broth. And I'm not sure I'd call this recipe elegant, but it's most certainly simple. As such, it made a nice, easy dinner for a chilly fall evening.

And, from the Gourmet Cookie Book, a recipe from December 1951:

Navettes Sucrees (Sugar Shuttles)

Sift 1 c. sifted all purpose flour, 1/4 c. sugar, and 1/4 tsp salt into a bowl. Add 1/4 c. soft butter, 2 egg yolks, and 1 tsp vanilla and knead until the dough is well blended. Chill it in the refrigerator for 2 hours.

Divide the dough into portions the size of a small walnut. Roll each piece of dough with the palm of the hand on a lightly floured board to give it the shape of a small sewing-machine shuttle. Dip each in egg white and roll in granulated sugar. Bake on a lightly buttered baking sheet in a moderate oven (350F) for about 8 minutes, or until the little cookies are lightly browned.

The cookbook helpfully notes that the cookies should be shaped into cylinders about 2.5 inches long and 1/2 inch thick.

These turned out nicely, sort of a mini sugar cookie, crisp on the outside and doughy on the inside, and they're very easy to make.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

2013 Reading, Books 97-99

97) Deadly Heat, by "Richard Castle."

This series continues to be enjoyable meta-fun for fans of the Castle TV series, though I doubt I'd find it particularly interesting if I didn't watch the show. This particular entry got a little convoluted for my taste, but it was still a quick, entertaining read.

98) Pauline Bonaparte: Venus of Empire, by Flora Fraser.

My research book collection, purchased to aid me in my fiction-writing career, fills a tall bookshelf and spills onto a second one. This would all be very well were it not for the fact I've only read maybe half of its contents. It's not that I don't spend a lot of time researching my manuscripts--I do. It's just that I'm greedy when it comes to used bookstores, bargain book catalogs, and the like, and I'll pick up anything even vaguely related to something I might want to write about someday. The new acquisitions get alphabetized neatly by subject, then all but forgotten about, given how busy I am.

Only lately I've been working out three times a week in front of my main research bookshelf, which happens to be right next to the computer I'm using to stream exercise videos. And all those unread research books are TAUNTING me, I swear. So one evening after my workout I made a quick list, divided into six loose subject categories, of my research TBR pile, leaving out books that aren't really designed to be read, like map collections, who's who lists, and the like. I plan to draw random books from each list, rotating through the subject divisions for variety's sake, until I've either made it through the collection or given up and accepted the lack of world enough and time to Read All the Books. While I'm shooting for two books a month, it isn't a hard and fast schedule, since some of these books are far longer and denser than others.

My first unread research book turned out to be a quick read. Pauline Bonaparte would've fit right in to a certain niche of modern celebrity culture. If she hadn't been Napoleon's sister she would've lived and died in obscurity, not having any particular greatness, intelligence, or accomplishments in her own right. But she was extremely beautiful by the neoclassical standard of her day, not to mention as well-connected as it was possible to be while her brother's power lasted. And for the most part she was just a shrewd, selfish party girl. Today she'd be all over People and Us Weekly, being famous for being famous.

I don't think I would've liked her even a tiny bit, but her life was a window into the upper echelons of Napoleonic society, and who knows when that might come in handy as I write?

99) Midnight Blue-Light Special, by Seanan McGuire.

I loved the first book in this series so much I didn't wait long to read the next one. This one expands the focus a bit away from Verity alone to include more about her family and the paranormal community of New York, especially her adopted cousin Sarah, who looks human but isn't. I enjoyed it, though I missed All Verity All the Time, and my anticipation of the next book in the series is muted a little now that I've learned the focus is to shift from her to her brother, whom we haven't met on the page yet.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Announcing Christmas Past!

I can at last announce that I have a novella coming out from Entangled Publishing for the 2013 holiday season, now available for preorder from Amazon. Christmas Past will be released on November 25, just in time for the holiday season.

Time-traveling PhD student Sydney Dahlquist’s first mission sounded simple enough—spend two weeks in December 1810 collecting blood samples from the sick and wounded of Wellington’s army, then go home to modern-day Seattle and Christmas with her family. But when her time machine breaks, stranding her in the past, she must decide whether to sacrifice herself to protect the timeline or to build a new life—and embrace a new love—two centuries before her time.

Rifle captain Miles Griffin has been fascinated by the tall, beautiful “Mrs. Sydney” from the day he met her caring for wounded soldiers. When he stumbles upon her time travel secret on Christmas Eve, he vows to do whatever it takes to seduce her into making her home in his present—by his side.

I had fun writing this story because as a historical author I rarely get the chance to write about anything to do with my everyday life. My home city of Seattle wasn't even founded until 40 years or so after the time period my stories are set in. But for Christmas Past I was able to write a heroine from Seattle who'd desperately love to go back to my cloudy city and a 21st-century life not entirely unlike my own. Also, she's a PhD student in a world where time travel exists and is primarily used for academic research. My day job is in research administration, so I enjoyed the world building of figuring out how universities and research institute would manage and regulate time travel--though I promise that the inner workings of the temporal review board and the fierce competition for limited grant dollars in historical epidemiology are only hinted at on the page!

Christmas Past is a short work, only 13,000 words, which Wikipedia informs me is sometimes termed a novelette. In other words, it's bite-sized, designed to be read in one sitting--perfect for this busy season while you're waiting for your pies to bake or on a quick flight home for the holidays. (Though if your flight takes you across a continent or an ocean, I do have longer books available!) In any case, I hope you enjoy my first venture out of the strictly historical!

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Random Cookbook of the Week - the Minimalist Cooks at Home

This week I drew one of Mark Bittman's earlier cookbooks, published in 1999, The Minimalist Cooks at Home. It's simple, quick cooking without relying on a lot of shortcuts or prepared ingredients, and for the most part I've had good luck with the recipes, though to my taste Bittman underseasons things a bit. I have to use a LOT of salt and pepper, and often increase other spices and herbs, to get the flavor I want.

Prosciutto Soup

- 3 T extra virgin olive oil
- 1/4 lb prosciutto, in 1 chunk or slice
- 4 garlic cloves
- 1 medium onion
- 1/2 lb greens, such as spinach or kale
- 3/4 c small pasta, such as orzo or small shells
- salt and freshly ground black pepper

1. Set 6 cups water to boil. Put 2 T of the olive oil in the bottom of a medium saucepan and turn the heat to medium. Chop the prosciutto into 1/4-inch or smaller cubes and add to the oil. Brown, stirring occasionally, for about 5 minutes, while you prepare the garlic, onion, and greens.

2. Peel the garlic and chop it roughly or leave it whole. Peel and chop the onion. Wash and chop the greens into bite-sized pieces.

3. When the prosciutto has browned, add the garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, until it begins to color, about 2 minutes. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until it becomes translucent, 2 or 3 minutes. Add the greens and stir, then add the 6 cups boiling water. Stir in the pasta and a good sprinkling of salt and pepper; adjust the heat so the mixture simmers.

4. When the pasta is done, taste and add more salt and pepper if necessary. Drizzle with the remaining olive oil and serve.

This is pretty tasty. Not the best soup I've ever had, but a good quick recipe, and the thick chunks of prosciutto and garlic give it a nice, robust flavor.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

2013 Reading, Books 94-96

94) Discount Armageddon, by Seanan McGuire.

Wow, that was fun. Not to mention smart, sexy, hilarious, and adventurous, and generally everything you'd look for in the best kind of escapist read. If you like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, read this book. Though McGuire has her own strong voice, there's a similar sensibility at work.

For the rest of my reading in the past ten days or so, I went with nonfiction of the "We're doomed! DOOMED, I say!" variety:

95) The Attacking Ocean: The Past, Present, and Future of Rising Sea Levels, by Brian Fagan.

This book started out fascinating, with an account of how various ancient civilizations interacted with their shifting rivers and coastlines, and then turned depressing as it reached the modern era, where population growth crowds more and more people against coasts where rising sea levels lead to increased floods and deadly storm surges. I happened to read this during the waning days of the government shutdown, when it honestly looked my country was going to default on its debts and drag the world economy down with it for no good reason, which made it extra depressing. I try to feel optimistic about the world I'm bequeathing to my daughter, but sometimes it's hard.

96) Full Rip 9.0: The Next Big Earthquake in the Pacific Northwest, by Sandi Doughton.

I meant to go with something nice and light for my next book, but somehow ended up with "Oh God, Oh God, we're all gonna die," Local Edition. (It's due back at the library in a few days, so I needed to get to it.)

I moved to Seattle from the all but seismically dormant eastern half of the country in 1999 (grew up in Alabama, spent a good chunk of my 20's in Philadelphia), and experienced my first earthquake, the 6.8 Nisqually quake, in early 2001. It was scary, for sure, but did relatively light damage for its magnitude because its epicenter was so deep. We get that type of high-6/low-7 magnitude quake every few decades here, and up until very recently scientists thought that was the worst the Northwest had to worry about.

But then scientists started noticing signs of violent coastal upheaval (sand layers carried far inland by a tsunami, "ghost forests" of trees that had clearly been killed together when the ground beneath them heaved) and paying attention to Native American oral histories that hinted at a massive quake and flooding less than ten generations back. Eventually they used tree-ring analysis of the ghost forests to show that the trees had died between the 1699 and 1700 growing seasons, and found a record of an "orphan tsunami" that struck Japan on January 26, 1700. Between the local evidence in the landscape and the size of the tsunami that made it all the way across the Pacific, the 1700 quake is estimated as between 8.7 and 9.2. Very comparable to the 2011 Tohoku quake, in other words. Evidence suggests major subduction zone quakes of this type every 200-500 years.

To add to the fun, scientists also observed evidence of shallow faults all around the region, including the Seattle Fault, which cuts right through the south end of the city. These faults slip very rarely--the last Seattle Fault quake was over 1000 years ago--but are capable of producing a 7.0 or so that would do far more damage than our "usual" sort-of-big ones because it's a shallow fault. Think something similar to the 1995 Kobe quake.

So, the Northwest's worst-case scenarios are pretty damn bad. A repeat of the 1700 quake and tsunami would probably have a lower death toll than Tohoku because our coastal population density is lower, but it could easily rival the 1900 Galveston Hurricane for the deadliest natural disaster to strike the US--and it's by no means certain Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver wouldn't sustain severe damage of their own from the distant, sustained shake of a 9.0 off the coast. When our cities were built, no one even knew such disasters were a possibility, and as a region we're less prepared than Japan, either in terms of building codes or public awareness and education. But living in Seattle as I do, the Seattle Fault is my true doomsday scenario. We are SO not ready for a Kobe-equivalent quake here.

Still, this book didn't depress me as much as my last read, I think because it's such a local disaster. Even living here, I'm less spooked by "The Northwest could be DOOMED!" than "Mankind could be DOOMED, and it's our own short-sighted, over-populating, carbon-emitting fault!" After all, we're at least trying to understand the seismic hazards and mitigate them. I hope I never live to see either of our Really Truly Big Ones--not least because of the non-zero chance I wouldn't live to see anything AFTER that!--but if I do, I'll get through and rebuild. Like people do.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

2013 TBR Challenge - Scoundrel

I read Warrior, the first book in this series, ages and ages ago, and bought the whole series as a "boxed" set when it was on sale for Kindle, again quite awhile back. And I've been hoarding it ever since, as I often do with books I know I'll enjoy, but where the author didn't leave me with a strong enough cliffhanger that I have to read the newest book the nanosecond it comes out. (I'm looking at you, Diana Gabaldon, for leaving poor Jem Mackenzie literally in the dark! And you too, George RR Martin, not to name any names lest I spoil TV viewers, but that last major character maybe-death!) Having a few hoarded books gives me a sense of security that I'll never be trapped on a long flight or, worse, holed up in an airport under a weather delay and lack for something entertaining to read.

Anyway, Archer's Blades of the Rose series is fantasy romance with steampunk elements, set in an alternate late 19th century where magic exists and the Blades of the Rose fight to ensure that each nation gets to keep their own magical legacy against the Heirs of Albion, who want to control all the world's magic so the sun will really REALLY never set on the British Empire. They're sort of Indiana Jones with lots of sexytimes--rollicking swashbucklers where good is good, evil is evil, and the characters hurtle from one death-defying adventure to the next.

I picked up Scoundrel now because the October theme for the 2013 Romance TBR Challenge is Paranormal Romance. I didn't like it quite so much as Warrior because of the different hero archetypes involved--Warrior's hero is a rough-around-the-edges soldier who falls for a highborn woman, which I love. (Mmm, Sharpe!) Bennett Day in Scoundrel is more your typical romance novel womanizing rogue, which is much less a fantasy of mine. That said, I loved the heroine, and the swashbuckling was dandy. And speaking of dandies, I'm looking forward to Catullus Graves' story in Stranger. He's the inventor of all the handy gadgets the Blades team uses, and he's a black Briton, which draws my interest since two of my own most recent manuscripts have featured black British characters.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Random Cookbook of the Week - 1951 Joy of Cooking

My mom married my dad in 1952. (I was their late-edition surprise oopsie Gen-X child born in 1971--I have three Baby Boomer brothers.) She received a 1951 Joy of Cooking for a wedding present, one that six decades on bears the stains of long use, especially in the pie and candy sections. It's one of several "family" books she gave me during her last illness, along with a few other cookbooks, my father's and grandfather's Bibles, and a 100-year-old speller with my great-uncle's name penciled on the inside cover.

The 1951 Joy is an intriguing mix of the timeless and the very much of its era. My chosen recipe fell into the latter category, but made for a good dinner for a fall evening nonetheless:

Pork Chops Baked in Sour Cream
4 servings

Prepare for cooking:
- 4 loin pork chops 1/2 inch thick

Dredge them with:
- Seasoned flour

Insert in each chop:
- 1 clove

Brown them lightly in a little hot pork fat or lard. (I used a tablespoon of butter, because, this being 2013, I don't have a canister of lard by the stove like my mom used to before she and Dad got put on low cholesterol diets.) Place them in a baking dish. Combine, heat, and pour over them:

- 1/2 c. water
- 1/2 bay leaf
- 2 T vinegar (I used white wine vinegar)
- 1 T sugar
- 1/2 c. sour cream

Cover the dish. Bake the chops in a moderate oven (350 F) for about 1 hour.

The pork chops came out tasty enough, and the sour cream sauce made a nice gravy, but it was a little sweet for my taste. I'll probably make it again, since it was so simple and such a nice cool-weather dish, only I'll omit the sugar and brown some mushrooms, capers, and garlic or shallot along with the pork chops.

Monday, October 14, 2013

2013 Reading, Books 91-93

91) Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys from the Girls in America, by Jo B. Paoletti

My daughter, age 9, is a tomboy, as I myself was at her age. Given the enormous strides women have made toward fuller equality and success in traditionally male professions, it's startling how much more gendered clothes and toys are now than during my 1970's and 80's childhood. Photos of me show a kid in the same reds, oranges, greens, and yellows boys were wearing, and while boys played with GI Joe toys and girls played with dolls (I didn't--I preferred toy horses), things like blocks, Lincoln Logs, and Legos weren't gendered. Now girl clothes run heavily to pink and ruffled, and toys are gendered as can be. I'm proud to say Miss Fraser scorns these trends, and will proclaim that everyone should play with, wear, and watch whatever they like. But it's still tough to shop for her.

So this book caught my attention. It's a history of children's clothing from the late 19th century to the present--from the days when babies of both sexes wore the same white dresses and boys kept wearing skirts, albeit usually with masculine detailing, through their preschool years, to the unisex trends of the 60's and 70's, all the way up to how today's trends look to be a backlash against the unisex clothing today's generation of parents wore as children. Fascinating stuff--e.g. did you know in the early 20th century there was debate over which color belonged to each sex? Many were of the opinion blue was better for girls, being a delicate color associated with the Virgin Mary, while pink as a shade of red was the more manly color.

92) Winter Woman, by Jenna Kernan.

I've had this book on my TBR shelf for ages--it's part of my library's collection of donated paperbacks with a "please return when finished" sticker slapped on the cover...and I, um, kinda hoard them. (I also regularly donate boxes of books to be either sold at the Friends of the Library Book Sale or added to the return-when-finished collection, so hopefully it balances out.)

Anyway, I decided it was high time I started weeding through my borrowed collection and returning them to the wild, so I grabbed this one, read the first few pages to see if it was any good, and was promptly hooked. It's a Western romance, but one set in the 1830's, before the heyday of the cowboy. The heroine is a widow who survived a winter alone in the Rockies (she and her husband were left behind by their missionary wagon train who promised to return for them, only everyone but her ultimately died), and the hero is a trapper. The book is an all-around good read--fast-paced, adventurous, and romantic.

I'd never heard of Kernan before, and since the romance writer community is a smallish world, I feared that meant she was no longer active. (This book is copyright 2003.) But when I googled her I discovered she's an active and prolific writer with a good-sized backlist for me to explore. Which is why libraries are good things for authors. I tried her because I'll grab pretty much anything that halfway appeals to me of the "please return when finished" rack, but I'll be buying her works in the future.

93) Scoundrel, by Zoe Archer.

For the 2013 TBR Challenge. Detailed post to follow.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Random Cookbook of the Week - A Feast of Ice and Fire

A Feast of Ice and Fire has its roots in the Inn at the Crossroads blog, and both are devoted to bringing the food from George R.R. Martin's books to life. The recipes are a mix of accessible and challenging, and of modern and historical--often the cookbook will offer two recipes for a dish mentioned in the books, one modern and one medieval (or sometimes Roman or Elizabethan). It has a handful of recipes I know I'm not brave enough to try--e.g. Honey-Spiced Locusts--and several I'd love to tackle but haven't yet had the time to attempt--Roman Honeyfingers, Quails Drowned in Butter, Medieval Pork Pie, etc.

But it's also packed with a surprising number of good everyday recipes. Modern Bean and Bacon Soup has become one of my go-to dinner recipes, for example, and I plan on making this week's choice again, too.

Almond Crusted Trout
Serves 2

1/2 c. fresh parsley, chopped
1/4 c. fresh dill, chopped
2 shallots, chopped
1/2 c. chopped or ground almonds
1 tsp salt
1/4 c. bread crumbs (I used panko)
4 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 c. lemon juice
1 egg
1/2 c. flour
2 small cleaned and gutted trout, or 4 trout fillets (I used fillets)

Heat a grill to low or preheat the oven to 275F. (I used the oven, because it's the rainy season now.)

Mix the herbs, shallots, almonds, salt, and bread crumbs together by hand or in a food processor. (food processor here) Add the garlic, lemon juice, and egg and mix until uniform in texture. Put the flour into a shallow bowl and dredge the fish in the flour. Gently pack the almond mixture inside and around the fish. Grill or bake for about 1 hour, or until the crust is just crispy and the fish is cooked through. Plate and serve.

Since I was using fillets instead of a whole fish, it only took about 20 minutes for the fish to cook through, by which point the crust wasn't anywhere close to crispy, so I turned the broiler on and stuck the fish under it for 5 minutes to give it some crunch.

The crust mixture is a perfect balance of flavors, IMHO. It doesn't have a strong almond flavor, but the fat and richness of the nuts seems to mellow and bind the bright flavors of the lemon and herbs, and they marry beautifully with the fish.

Incidentally, I'm still trying to acquire a taste for fish, and I was advised by other fish-averse folk to avoid trout. But I tried it one night when it was the special at Maple Leaf Grill, and it's my favorite fish. Turns out my problem with fish has at least as much to do with texture as flavor, and trout and salmon, though fishy-tasting, have a nice meaty texture. So give them a tasty sauce or crust so they don't scream FISH! and I'm a happy diner.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

A plea for fashion advice

I've been on Weight Watchers for almost a year now, and I've lost over 40 lbs, with another 20-25 to go. If and when I get to my goal weight, I mean to splurge on a top-quality tartan skirt, something that will last me years and years, thereby motivating me to STAY at goal weight so it will fit me for book signings and whenever else I want to rock the Scottish part of my heritage.

What I'd really like is something like this:

Or possibly something in a more kiltish cut, like this:

But even being at goal weight is not going to make me look like the bonnie lassie modeling those skirts, and I want to make sure whatever I choose works for me. And I tend to look best in pencil or otherwise straight skirts. So maybe what I really need is this:

So, fashionistas...help me out. My heart is with the first two choices, because they're more evocative of a kilt. And I'm hoping the flat front of the second option would give enough of a straight skirt look to be flattering for me. But would I be better off playing it safe with a straight skirt?

And, while I'm at it...

Fraser Modern?

or Fraser Ancient Hunting?

(Assume I'd being wearing this with a black, dark brown, or dark green sweater and some silver Celtic jewelry.)

Thursday, October 3, 2013

2013 Reading, Books 88-90

Still busy busy busy, but hopefully almost to the point where I can actually announce Good Writing News. Watch this space...

88. Weird Things Customers Say in Bookstores, by Jen Campbell.

Exactly what the title says it is, and hilarious, too.

89. A manuscript by my critique partner, Rose Lerner. Assuming her publisher accepts it, y'all may be able to read it in, oh, November 2014 or so. So for now I won't say anything other than that it's beautifully written and different. However, she does have a new release scheduled for March that I can highly recommend, too.

90. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, by Muriel Spark.

This isn't my usual type of book--I'm more about the smart genre fiction than Noted Works of Literature. But I heard an interesting discussion of the book on NPR, and I'm glad I gave it a try. I wouldn't say I enjoyed it, exactly, but it made me think. I'm not sure what to think of the book, or of Jean Brodie, but I expect I'll be turning it over in my mind for some time to come.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

2013 TBR Challenge - Sunrise Over Texas

September's theme for the 2013 TBR Challenge was Westerns, a romance subgenre that I rarely read. Much like with small-town contemporary romances, I have trouble connecting to the central fantasy. Being a city slicker is just too close to the core of my identity, I guess. (Mind you, I read plenty of rural, small-town, or otherwise isolated stories set outside of America. My baggage is strictly related to the urban-rural divide as it plays out in my own country. Which sounds odd, but I've met a British reader, currently living in London, who can enjoy small town settings in America, Australia, etc. but not villages in the British Isles, so I'm not completely unique.)

I do, however, have several Westerns on my Kindle, picked up as bargains or on a recommendation, so I didn't lack for choices for this month's theme. I picked Sunrise Over Texas, by MJ Fredrick. This historical romance set in the earliest days of American settlement in Texas was an emotional, compelling read in which both the hero and heroine have to overcome grief and past mistakes to move on with their lives, and I liked the fact that the heroine was in many ways the more dominant of the pair. Really, the hero was a beta type--the heroine was even a better shot than he was--which was unexpected and refreshing in any historical, and I suspect is even rarer in Westerns than, say, Regencies.

The story was gripping and gritty, especially the early sections where the hero and heroine are fighting to survive in an isolated environment. I don't know how accurate it was, since I'm far from being an expert on 1820's Texas. Recommended for readers looking for off-the-beaten-path historicals.

Full disclosure: This book was published by my publisher, Carina Press.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

2013 Reading - Books 85-87

85) Lawrence in Arabia, by Scott Anderson.

Even though it took me a week and a half to complete and was a bit of a slog at points, I'm glad I finished this history of WWI in the Middle East. It isn't exclusively about T.E. Lawrence, though his outsized personality carries the narrative--we follow a multinational assortment of historical figures all jockeying for power and influence as the Ottoman Empire loses control of the Arab world over the course of the war. The author at once raises some intriguing what-ifs that might've given us a better and more peaceful world even today while acknowledging that even a best-case scenario would've had its share of simmering sectarian tension.

86) Sunrise Over Texas, by M.J. Frederick.

For the 2013 romance TBR challenge. Detailed post to come next week.

87) Crucible of Gold, by Naomi Novik.

The first book in this series, His Majesty's Dragon, is one of my favorite reads of all time, but I took a break from it after Victory of Eagles, for reasons that have more to do with me as with the book itself. You see, my proverbial Book Under the Bed (which of course does not live under an actual bed, not in 2013, but is instead a file on my hard drive and backed up to Dropbox that I get out and look at every year or two, because someday I mean to go back to it) is an alternative history/adventure story of the Napoleonic Era. And Victory of Eagles is the closest Novik's story comes to overlapping mine. Not in a way that would prevent me from publishing the Book Under the Bed--our approaches and plots are very different. No, it's more that I spent the entire read arguing with the book, particularly with her portrayal of Wellington. As those of you who've followed me around the blogosphere may know, I'm kinda fond of the Great Duke. As in, historical crush fond. He's one of the three protagonists of the BUtB, and while I hope my portrayal is true to the sarcastic, snobby, and all-around-difficult aspects of his personality, he also comes across as badass and awesomesauce (which I think is also justified by the historical record).

Which probably sounds a bit petty of me, to say I didn't like Victory as much as previous entries because I didn't like Novik's Wellington. But that's just the surface reaction. It's more that I find it weird and a little disconcerting to read anything too similar to what I'm writing--and when Victory came out, the BUtB was my beloved work-in-progress, which I was polishing for submission to editors and agents. I'm not one of those authors who can't read the same genre I write, but I find myself reading fewer Regencies now than before I started writing them. When I hear about a book that's very similar to something I'm writing or planning to write, I'm more likely to avoid it than read it--if it's too close to my approach, I worry about accidental influences, and if it's too different, I know I'll be too busy arguing with the story to really sink into it properly. With Victory, I think I had a weirdly strong reaction to the book because it was simultaneously too much like the BUtB and too different from it, unlike any book I've read before or since, so reading it induced a kind of mental whiplash.

Anyway, after reading a strong review of the latest book, I decided to go back to the series, and I'm glad I did. I got exasperated with Laurence a few times, but the dragon interactions were delightful, I liked seeing more of Emily Roland, who's always been one of my favorite secondary characters, and I was fascinated by how Novik developed an Incan society where the human population had been decimated by European diseases as in real history, but the Incan dragons had prevented European conquest. And...I certainly wasn't expecting that twist with the Incan empress. I can't wait to see what happens in the next book.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Still here...

I'm still here, just insanely busy, and hopefully with good news to announce soon. (That's publishing-related news. No babies or lottery wins or anything of the sort on the horizon.)

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

2013 Reading - Books 82-84

82) Cockpit Confidential, by Patrick Smith.

Patrick Smith is a commercial pilot and the author of the Ask the Pilot blog (formerly a column at salon.com). I've always been fascinated by his columns even though I'm not really a frequent flyer, typically flying 2-3 times a year for family, vacation, and writers' conferences. (I'm just frequent enough to get impatient when I'm stuck behind truly infrequent flyers who don't have the check-in and security line process down cold.) He's made me a much less nervous flyer--I finally believe that turbulence won't knock my plane out of the sky. Anyway, this book is much like his blog, informative and snarky, and I recommend it for anyone who'd like a behind-the-scenes look at air travel.

83) Defeat: Napoleon's Russian Campaign, by Philippe-Paul De Segur.

As I continue researching Napoleon's invasion of Russia for my next manuscript, I've moved on to campaign memoirs. This, written more than a decade after the fact by one of Napoleon's aides-de-camp from the campaign, is a fascinating and often horrifying read. It's a self-consciously literary saga of the Fall of the Hero, Occasioned by Hubris, but not made any less valuable as a primary source thereby--if anything, it's especially useful to see how the men of the Grande Armee made sense of their experiences, both at the time and in retrospect.

But what is up with that cover image? Would it have been so hard to find an image of a Napoleonic-era cannon?

84) Divergent, by Veronica Roth.

This seems to be the second-most popular dystopian YA series after The Hunger Games, and I picked it up out of curiosity after hearing about the upcoming movie. While I didn't completely buy into the concept of the faction-based social order (basically, your life is determined by whether you're more inclined to see courage, kindness, honesty, selflessness, or the pursuit of knowledge as the key virtue), I was able to accept the premise and let the story run with it, and me. It's compelling, and I've already put the second and upcoming third books in the series on my library holds list. That said, though I let my daughter read The Hunger Games and its sequels over the summer, I'm not going to tell her about these. It's not so much that they're more violent as that Tris feels less remorse about her kills than Katniss, and I'd rather my fourth grader stick to the latter as a role model for now.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Random Cookbook of the Week - Ad Hoc at Home

Last week's cookbook draw was Thomas Keller's Ad Hoc at Home, which is exactly the kind of cookbook you'd expect as a home cooking cookbook from a chef of Keller's level--i.e. a reasonably skilled and experienced home cook like me can make most of the recipes, but they're more labor-intensive and challenging than I have energy for on an ordinary weekday when I've already put in a full day at the day job and I still need to squeeze in an hour or two's writing time while also helping my daughter with her homework, packing her and my lunches for tomorrow, and hopefully at least having a conversation or two with my equally busy husband.

Still, it's a good cookbook, and the Potato Hash with Bacon and Melted Onions I made the last time it came up in my rotation is one of the most delicious things I've ever produced. Last week's effort didn't turn out so well, but I figure that's more my fault than the recipe's.

Marinated Skirt Steak

- 6 thyme sprigs
- 2 8-inch rosemary sprigs
- 4 small bay leaves
- 1 T. black peppercorns
- 5 garlic cloves, smashed, skin left on 
- 2 c. extra virgin olive oil

- 6 8-oz. trimmed outer skirt steaks
- kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- canola oil
- 2 T. unsalted butter
- 4 thyme sprigs
- 2 garlic cloves, smashed, skin left on

Combine the marinade ingredients in a medium saucepan and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Remove from the heat and let the marinade cool to room temperature.

Put steaks in dish or resealable plastic bag, add the marinade, and cover the dish or seal the bag. Marinate for at least four hours or up to a day in the refrigerator.

Remove the meat from the marinade and let sit at room temperature for about 30 minutes before cooking; discard the marinade. Dry the meat with paper towels. Season with salt and pepper.

Preheat the oven to 350 F. Set a roasting rack in a roasting pan. 

Heat some canola oil in a large frying pan over high heat. When it shimmers, add half the meat and quickly brown the first side. Turn the meat and, working quickly, add 1 T of the butter, 2 thyme sprigs, and 1 garlic clove and brown the meat on the second side, basting constantly; the entire cooking process should only take about 1 1/2 minutes. Transfer the meat to the rack and spoon the butter, garlic, and thyme over the top. Wipe the pan and repeat with the remaining steaks.

Transfer the baking sheet to the oven and cook for 8-10 minutes, or until the center of the meat registers about 125 F. Remove from the oven and let rest on the rack in a warm place for about 10 minutes for medium rare.

I think I erred in trusting the time in the recipe over my own instincts for when the steak was sufficiently seared. I think if I'd let it go 30-60 seconds longer, it would've gotten a nice char to go with just barely medium rare innards. (I do like my steaks on the bloody side.) As it was, it was a bit too mushy and soft altogether. That said, the marinade imparted a nice subtle but distinctive flavor.

I also tried the book's buttermilk biscuits recipe. I won't post it here, but suffice it to say I still haven't quite got the hang of biscuits. These turned out a bit like hockey pucks, but I think even if Keller himself had made them they wouldn't be the elusive high, light, and fluffy Southern-style biscuits like my mom used to make. Once I achieve those, I'll post the recipe for sure...and I've just discovered you can order White Lily flour on Amazon! Maybe good biscuits are within my grasp after all, since I'm given to understand that the Yankeefied flour my local grocery store carries is too hard for a Southern biscuit.