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 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.