Wednesday, March 27, 2013

2013 Reading, Books 28-30

28) Sidelines, by Lois McMaster Bujold.

Last week was an exhausting week in a stressful month--and, in probably not unrelated news, a week of both writer's block and reading drought. Reading this collection of essays, talks, blog posts, etc. by one of my favorite authors helped me break out of both problems. The short pieces on already-familiar works held my attention, and Bujold's thoughts on writing helped me look at my WIP with a new eye.

29) Riders of the Purple Sage, by Zane Grey.

I don't consider myself a fan of Westerns, and I've read very little in the genre. But some readers whose taste I trust mentioned this as an interesting book, so I gave it a try.'s interesting. It has a lush, old-fashioned style that kept me at something of a distance from the characters and their story. Though I'm not sure "old-fashioned" is the best way to describe it--I mean, Jane Austen wrote a good century earlier, and I never feel distanced from HER characters, nor do I from LM Montgomery's, who was a contemporary of Grey's. Anyway, Riders of the Purple Sage was interesting as an artifact of its time and a classic of its genre, but I'm not champing at the bit to read more like it.

30) Avatar: The Last Airbender - The Search, Part 1, by Gene Luen Yang, Michael Dante DiMartino, Bryan Konietzko, Gurihiru, Dave Marshall.

First volume in a new series of graphic novels set between Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra, and promising to solve the biggest mystery in the series--the fate of Zuko's mother. I enjoyed it and can hardly wait for the next volume in July...but mainly I'm dying to find other readers who've finished it so I can talk about the big wham reveal/cliffhanger on the last page and what it means for Zuko and the Fire Nation. (I'm torn between, "Wow, that explains so much," and "Wow, what a cop-out," and I can't decide whether I like the message of the story and Zuko's Hero's Journey better or worse with the new information in hand.)

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

2013 TBR Challenge - Hot Under Pressure

March's theme for the 2013 TBR Challenge was Series Catch-Up, an appealing one for me because I do tend to hoard books in romance series I enjoy against reading droughts, long flights, etc.--any situation where I know I'll want a reliably good book. So I wasn't lacking for choices for this one.

(In other genres, I'm a lot more likely to inhale a new book in a series within days or even hours of its release because the previous volume probably ended on a cliffhanger, or at least with tons of unanswered questions that have been bugging me for months or YEARS. Since romances have to at least feature a happy ending for that book's central characters, there's less of that "FINALLY a new book, must read NOW!" stress.)

Anyway, this month my selection was...

23) Hot Under Pressure, by Louisa Edwards.

This book is the third in a trilogy about restaurant teams competing in a Rising Star Chef competition.

I don't read a lot of contemporary romance, in large part because so much of the subgenre runs to hymns to the glories of small town life. I grew up in a small town. I went to college in Philadelphia and have settled down to live my adult life in Seattle. Never, in all the times I've gone back to my hometown, have I felt the slightest hunger to hook up with an old flame or to turn my back on my empty urban existence for the authentic community of people I'm probably some kind of distant cousin to, what with Great-Great-Granddaddy Stone's 17 children who married into practically every family in the southeast corner of our county. I can relate to Barrayar and Narnia and Terre d'Ange and any number of invented fantastical worlds. To small town romances, not so much.

Which is a big reason why one of my few contemporary romance autobuy authors is Louisa Edwards. Her stories of love among young, elite chefs are hymns to the glories of city life, of how found family can be even more important than the one you were born into. And, they're about food and cooking, which is close behind books and history on my personal obsessions list. Hot Under Pressure is a worthy final installment to the Rising Star Chef series. It's a second chance story about a couple who married very young, only to be driven apart by tragedy...until a decade or so later they find themselves competing against each other in the finals, representing their New York and San Francisco restaurants.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Five favorite books you've (probably) never heard of

A couple of weeks back, fellow Carina author Veronica Scott challenged me to a Five Favorite Books meme. Since I find it all but impossible to narrow it down to just five for all time out of all the books I've ever read, I toyed with various ways to limit the list. Five Favorite Historical Romances. Five Favorite Non-Historical Romances. Five Favorite Classics. Five Favorite Kids' Books. Five Favorite Research Sources. Etc. (And now that I think about it, I can do just that for future posts, whenever I'm stuck for something to blog about. Win!)

But for this challenge I decided to do Five Favorite Books You've (Probably) Never Heard Of. OK, it's not like I'm the only literary omnivore out there, so you may have heard of some of them. But if anyone else out there has read and loved all these books, you're my long-lost sister or brother, and I want to compare libraries with you next time I'm stuck for what to read next.

1) In This House of Brede, by Rumer Godden.

I'm a married Episcopalian romance novelist, so you wouldn't expect me to be the target market for a book about a woman who leaves behind a high-powered career (at least, by 1950's standards) in her 40's to become a Benedictine nun. But this is a gorgeously written book whose characters and their community spring to life on the page. I've re-read it more times than I can count, and I expect to go back to it again and again in the years to come.

2) The Jennie trilogy, by Elisabeth Ogilvie.

This trilogy, sadly, is out-of-print and unavailable as e-books, but there seem to be plenty of affordable used copies on Amazon. I read and adored the first two books from my hometown library when I was in high school and later picked up the whole trilogy at a library book sale. 

If you like my books (and maybe you do, since you're reading my blog!), there's a good chance you'll like these, even though they're historical fiction with romantic elements rather than romance. They're Regency in time period but not in tone, the heroine is gentry rather than aristocratic, and the hero...well, I'm not going to give you spoilers! The first book is largely set in Scotland, and Scottish culture pervades all three. 

3) Wellington: The Years of the Sword, by Elizabeth Longford. 

My favorite Wellington biography. (Between being a military history geek and research I did for the alternative history that's my book-under-the-bed, I own several. I know. I'm quite aware what a big geek I am.) It's a beautifully written, human portrait of a fascinating man.

4) The Old Buzzard Had It Coming, by Donis Casey.

This one you can buy for your Kindle or Nook, and right now it's only $0.99 as an e-book! First in a mystery series set in rural Oklahoma in the early 20th century, with an amateur sleuth who's the mother of nine children on a farm. It sounds too unlikely to work, but IMHO it does. The voice is lovely, with lots of historical detail and texture.

5) Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales, by Nathan Hale (and yes, that's his real name).

Donner Dinner Party (available for preorder)

These fall into the select category of books Miss Fraser and I love equally, though at age 8 she's the one in their target market. They're graphic novels about American history, with the conceit that Nathan Hale (the spy one, not the author) as he's about to be hanged is taken up into a history book, where he sees what's to come for the new nation. With his newfound knowledge, he delays his execution by telling stories to his hangman and the British officer there to supervise. They're equal parts hilarious and historical. I'm not sure I'd recommend them if you don't have a kid (or niece, nephew, grandchild, etc.) to share them with, but if you do, buy them now.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

2013 Reading, Books 25-27

I'm overdue to respond to Veronica Scott's tagging me for a Five Favorite Books post, but it'll have to wait until I a) finalize and submit a manuscript that's due on Friday and b) write my next Risky Regencies post, also due on Friday.

Meanwhile, I've managed to squeeze in a few reading hours--nonfiction, because that's what my library holds list has been hitting me with of late:

25) Rick Steves' Portugal.

As with other travel books I'm counting toward my total this year, I didn't read this one cover to cover. I figure I'll have about a week, maybe a little less, for Portugal on my big 2015 trip, and that I'll therefore have to focus on Lisbon, Porto, and the Douro Valley, so those are the parts I read about in detail. Rick Steves was my go-to writer for figuring out where to visit in Britain and Ireland the year I lived in England, mostly because he assume you're not rich (correct!) and therefore provides a lot of budget options, and also because he's thorough without being encyclopedic. Anyway, I now feel like I know where to begin planning the Portuguese leg of the trip, which is all I need two years in advance. Once it's six months away I'll buy the most current guidebooks and start booking hotels.

26) The Wild Life of Our Bodies, by Rob Dunn.

A wide-ranging survey of the current state of the science about how humans evolved as part of an ecology that still impacts us today--from the more-or-less beneficial bacteria that live in our guts to having a fear response more suited to our ancestral status as prey than to our current role as ultimate apex predator to the speculative, but suggestive, theory that the reasons humans, along with other African primates, see so very well and in such a wide, discerning range of color relative to most mammals is that the African forest where those primates evolved teemed with a wide variety of poisonous snakes. (Sounds wacky, I know, but think about it--unlike, say, a lion or leopard that you might smell or hear coming from a distance, the primary defense against snakes is being able to see them in time. And the primates with the best color vision are the ones from the snakiest environments--there are no poisonous snakes native to Madagascar, for example, and lemurs have poor color vision compared to primates from the African mainland.)

Anyway, this is a fascinating, thought-provoking book I'd recommend to anyone interested in evolutionary biology or ecology.

27) French by Heart, by Rebecca Ramsey.

This memoir of an American family spending four years in France after the husband gets a job there is fun, though I wish there'd been a bit less focus on one irascible neighbor with a heart of gold and a bit more, well, France.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

2013 Reading, Books 22-24

Incidentally, my random cooking posts are on a brief hiatus while I deal with writing commitments and deadlines. I expect to return to them sometime in April.

Three very distinct types of book this time out, all of which I enjoyed very much:

22) Whose Names Are Unknown, by Sanora Babb.

I heard about this book while watching Ken Burns' Dust Bowl documentary. It was originally written and accepted for publication in the 1930's, then rejected after The Grapes of Wrath came out because the acquiring editor figured there wasn't room for TWO Dust Bowl/Okie migrant stories. (Which is so laughably different from today's market, where every hit spawns a dozen imitators.)

I'm glad I read this book. It's more literary than my usual taste, but it has a kind of subtle, deceptively simple beauty, and it sort of rounded out my understanding of the Dust Bowl era, I think, in the way that good fiction can bring the past to life better than documentary alone.

23) Hot Under Pressure, by Louisa Edwards. My March entry for Wendy the Superlibrarian's TBR challenge, to be posted on in more detail on the 20th.

24) The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking, by Oliver Burkeman.

I am by nature, culture, and upbringing a goal-oriented person who hungers for certainty in life. So I struggle when my cherished certainties crumble in the face of reality, or when I fail to meet my goals--or even when I meet them, but the happiness I expected doesn't come as a sort of trophy. Lately I've been realizing that I get so busy striving that I forget to revel in the now. I tend to almost "marry" my goals, becoming so attached to even short-term, trivial plans that having them thrown awry, even for GOOD reasons (e.g. a sudden offer of babysitting from a friend enabling Mr Fraser and I to have a date night when I'd already planned out a quiet evening writing at home) is severely discombobulating.

I've been trying to learn to strike a balance between planning, making schedules, and setting goals--because if I didn't, I'd never finish books or learn new cooking techniques or meet deadlines--and being able to let go of those plans when circumstances warrant. I'm also trying to savor the moment more--the joy of a new story idea without dwelling on whether a publisher will buy it or how well it fits my career plan, the joy of creation in the kitchen without feeling like *I* am a failure if the the dish doesn't turn out well, etc. So this book hit home, with its examination of how self-help and positive thinking techniques often fail, but Stoicism, meditation, and generally accepting mortality, failure, and uncertainty paradoxically lead to a happier and even a more productive life.

There's even a chapter about that goal marriage habit I have, though the terminology is different. One of the examples cited was the catastrophic 1996 Everest expedition famously chronicled in Into Thin Air. A persuasive theory for why so many climbers died was that they were unable to turn back from the summit when common sense and their predetermined plans dictated doing so was that their goal of summiting had become too critical a part of their identity. I think that example is going to stick in my mind next time I have trouble letting go of a goal in the face of changing circumstances. If nothing else, it gives, "Is this hill worth dying on?" a whole new meaning.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

2013 Reading, Books 19-21

19) What's the Matter with White People? Why We Long for a Golden Age that Never Was, by Joan Walsh.

Basically, a history of American politics from the Kennedy years to the present, from a Democratic perspective, filtered through the author's urban Irish-American family and their experiences. I was surprised to see how much resonance there was with my own family, which is more Scots-Irish and rural Southern than anything else. And that's all I'll say on this one, lest I get more political than I like on my writer blog...

20) Book Which Shall Not Be Named #4. My final Rita contest entry for the year, and another strong one. I'll be rooting for it and #3 to show up in the finals.

21) France (Eyewitness Travel)

Because I really am that much of a planner, I'm already reading travel guides to prepare for my Summer 2015 trip. While I'm overwhelmed by how much there is to see in France--the only way to really make it work would be to move there for several years--I finished the book with a rough idea of where I'm going to go in the few weeks I have to devote to France, and what wonderful places will have to wait for some future visit. (Must arrange to be Healthy Old Lady in 25-30 years, so I can spend my retirement years puttering around Europe!)

While I didn't read this entire book in the sense of finishing every single page (no point in reading, say, long lists of hotel rooms for a trip that's still two years away, or spending much time on the sights of parts of France I know I can't fit in my itinerary), I'm counting it anyway.