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!