Saturday, March 28, 2015

What Will Get You Published? Story!

Excellent advice by the famous Bernard Cornwell to the first-time historical novelist:

"The most important thing, the all important thing, is to get the story right. Write, rewrite, rewrite again, and do not worry about anything except story. It is story, story, story. That is your business. Your job is not to educate readers on the finer points of Elizabethan diplomacy or Napoleonic warfare, your job is to divert and amuse people who have had a hard day at work. What will get you published? Not style, not research, but story."

This is a good reminder for me as an aspiring novelist. I may have this fabulously researched piece of history, but if I do an info-dump without weaving it into the story, it's no good. Better to have a strong story that's light on history, rather than to have a mediocre story bogged down by heavy research. It's not simply good enough to get the historical details right—make no mistake, they have to be right—but it's important to know which details are pertinent to the story and how to minimally employ them. History in service of a good story, that is a historical novel; not the other way around.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Picture Day Friday: Oldest Cookbook c. 1750 BCE

The world's oldest cookbook is on a clay tablet from Babylonia c. 1750 BCE. The Akkadian cuneiform writing system was so complex that it's the general consensus that only scribes could read it. So, this tablet wouldn't be a household commodity and was probably written to preserve typical Mesopotamian cooking examples for posterity.

Given that the recipes call for rare ingredients, this book probably represents cuisine for royalty. The Mesopotamians were great record keepers. So daily foodstuff purchases by the middle and lower classes are available as are vocabulary lists for foodstuffs. So the supposition of this clay tablet as representative of haut cuisine is borne out.

From the Yale Library site: "This tablet includes 25 recipes for stews, 21 are meat stews and 4 are vegetable stews. The recipes list the ingredients and the order in which they should be added, but does not give measures or cooking time - they were clearly meant only for experienced chefs."

Friday, March 20, 2015

Picture Day Friday: Romance Publishers Built Book Forts

The romance book publishers on February 27 decided to build book forts and tweeted them. First out of the gate was Avon, HarperCollins. They inspired the rest of the publishers, and a battle ensued.

Avon's was more of a palisade than a fort, in my opinion.

To combat that, St. Martin's Press built a throne.

Harlequin decided to up the ante on Avon's palisade with a solid wall.

Then came Kensington to conquer them all with a fortress.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Picture Day Friday: Ibn Battuta's Medieval Travels

Ibn Battuta (1304–1377) was a great medieval Muslim explorer from Tangier, Morocco. He is largely considered as one of the greatest travelers of all time. Over a period of thirty years, he visited North Africa, the Horn of Africa, West Africa, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, South Asia, Central Asia, Southeast Asia, and China.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

P.D. James: In Memoriam

Right Honorable Phyllis Dorothy, Baroness James of Holland Park, died in her home in Oxford, England on Thursday, November 27 at the age of 94. Ever since that day, I've been meaning to write about my love of James and her books, but for some reason kept putting it off. My March has opened up with open blog spots, so here goes.

James was the person who introduced me to the world of British classic crime stories. I can't remember now which one I picked up first, but I do remember falling in love with her elegant prose, her erudite references, her characterization, attention to detail, and her intricate plotting. Every book I read of hers has never failed to renew my enjoyment in her writing. I enjoyed the energy of her Dalgliesh series more than her Cordelia ones, so I was glad to see the latter a short-lived series. Adam Dalgliesh, the poet scholar and Scotland Yard sleuth, will forever be remembered as an expert policeman and crime solver. His love life, will he / won't he, was the tension that ran through the series.

I was at loose ends after that, till I discovered Josephine Tey, Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh, and Dorothy Sayers. And also Elizabeth George and Deborah Crombie, modern authors writing in the similar police procedural style. I gave romantic suspense a try, cozy mysteries, thriller mysteries, and hardboiled American detective stories all a try, but I keep on

Since that first public library James discovery, for months, I read nothing else but James. Then I followed it up with her memoirs and then her musing on detective fiction. Recently, I was among the few who enjoyed her Death Comes to Pemberley. While I loved her mysteries, it were her memoirs, Time to be in Earnest that really made me like her as a person. It's a day-by-day (sort of) accounting of her activities, which act as jumping off points for a discussion on diverse issues.

In her book on detective fiction, James dismisses the boundaries between literary fiction and genre fiction. "And it is surely the power to create this sense of place and to make it as real to the reader as is his own living room—and then to people it with characters who are suffering men and women, not stereotypes to be knocked down like dummies in the final chapter—that gives any mystery writer the claim to be regarded as a serious novelist."

In James's work, a murder story is not merely a well-plotted tale. Murder is the start of the exploration of the minds and the hearts of her characters and the emotions it arouses in them. It explorers what makes her characters human—their foibles, their peccadilloes, their joys, their fears, their sorrows—and when life is shattered, these rise to the surface as never before.

In an interview she said of her detective Dalgliesh: "From the first I was aiming at credibility," she told the Guardian newspaper. "I thought, amateurs don’t really have the resources to investigate a murder. I must have a professional. And I couldn’t have a woman because there were no women in the detective force then. I simply produced the kind of hero I’d like to read about: courageous but not foolhardy, compassionate but not sentimental. I thought if I got fed up or bored with this man, the readers would too."

In her real life, she had to deal with a mentally ill husband, while holding down high-profile civil service jobs, raising her two daughters, and doing all the work that involves running every aspect of a household. In addition to this, in her early forties, she started writing. How in the world, did she find the energy and the courage to write Cover Her Face, her first book? Amazing woman, amazing writer, and I mourn her passing.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Picture Day Friday: Heddal Stave Church of Norway

Heddal Stave Church of Notodden, Telemark is the largest stave church in Norway. It is also a living church and has been in continuous use since it was first built in 1200.

A stave church is a medieval wooden building once common in northwestern Europe. The name derives from the post and lintel construction structure of the buildings, a type of timber framing with the load-bearing posts called stav in modern Norwegian. The stave design are descended from the post design and palisade design of churches. At one point, closer to 2000 such stave churches were built in Norway alone. The numbers elsewhere in Scandinavia are unknown.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Books I Read in February

I carefully planned February's reading so I could place holds at my library for the books and have the books show up on time. Luckily, I was successful. March, on the other hand, is looking iffy. My place in the various queues is dismally distant from the top.

This month, I had stellar nonfiction and poetry reads but so-so fiction ones. (Don't ask how many times I listened to the poetry audio.)

North & South by Elizabeth Gaskell
Categories: literary fiction, victorian, big fat book
Diversity: written in the mid-nineteenth century

Commentary: Recommended by Miss Bates and Sunita. I finally finished reading this book from last month. It was so much better than the miniseries, Richard HAWT Armitage notwithstanding. The romance was muted and that allowed the class and culture differences to stand out more starkly and vividly. I especially enjoyed reading the religious discussions (that Rohan Maitzen mentioned in the comments here), the business discussions including the ones about the rights of workers to unionize and strike as opposed to masters' rights, and seeing Margaret's relationships with her parents and her aunt's family and her role in the presence of these people. Gaskell's language is beautiful and accessible. In spite of its length, it's a fast-paced novel, and Gaskell's writing was a joy to read.

Despite this tale being largely Margaret's, I found her to be dimmed/diminished as a character. She suffers, she endures, she does not rebuke, rage, sob uncontrollably, etc. From the story, I gather that this bland calmness was (Gaskell's or a Victorian notion (yes?) of) a desired quality in a young woman. Such a woman was admirable.

Personally, while I found it admirable most of the times, I found it exasperating at times, too. I found that Margaret's romance lay gasping for breath for so long because of her inability to correct Le Big Mis (a standard romantic plot device). What were puzzling were the two times Margaret showed some spirit that were contrary to the desired biddable acquiescence that characterized her personality otherwise. Both times were when she so abruptly, curtly, without much thought or consideration, and with considerable sense of self-consequence and pride repudiated Lennox's and Thornton's marriage offers. She was spirited at the two times that served her the least. She who prided herself on being thoughtful of everyone was thoughtless of those whom she hurt so much. She did regret hurting Thornton, but I feel that was more because she realized that she returned his feelings; on Lennox she dwelt not at all.

An aside: Gaskell's prejudice against the Irish, which was unfortunately par for the course for the times, still gave me pause.

To Wed a Stranger by Edith Layton
Categories: romance, regency

Commentary: Read with SonomaLass, Willaful, Meoskop, SusieFelber, DougalGodfrey, JanetNorCal. Layton's writing was superb as always and beautiful at times. Annabelle's and Miles's slow build-up of romance was very well done. However, all throughout the book, I felt that there was too much navel-gazing going on. The story might've worked better in the shorter, traditional category length thereby cutting down on the repetitive nature of the introspection. Layton does category masterfully well. I enjoyed Miles's character for the most part. It was Annabelle who made me sigh. She was by turns spoilt and annoying, and kind and understanding. The story plot hinged on her looks and the emotions it engendered in every character around her, including Miles. It was interesting for me to see how everyone pivoted around this plot point.

Classic Love Poems read by Richard Armitage
Categories: poetry
Diversity: audiobook

Commentary: Recommended by SmartBitches. Richard Armitage reading love poetry. Need I say more? Collective swoon, everyone! Memorable collection of poems, 80% of which I had studied in school, and so I listened with twice the pleasure: nostalgia combined with Armitage's voice and diction. Shakespeare, George Eliot, Lord Alfred Tennyson, Andrew Marvell, John Keats, Robert Browning, Christopher Marlowe, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, e.e. cummings, Lord Byron, and Ralph Waldo Emerson among others.

The Art Forger by B.A. Shapiro
Categories: literary fiction
Diversity: very minor gay & poc characters

Commentary: Recommended by Pamela Badass Romance (here) and WA State Senator Pramila Jaypal. The background to this mystery story is the real-life Gardner Museum heist. I greatly enjoyed learning all the painting details. I know very little about working in oils and certainly nothing about copying and forging works of art. So learning all of that was a big draw for me with this book. I greatly enjoyed the side story of the founder of the Gardner museum and her "relationship" with Edgar Degas. All these painterly sections were the best parts of the book. The last quarter was exciting. Stuff was happening faster and on multiple levels. It was fun to read despite the mystery elements being obvious due to clumsy, heavy-handed foreshadowing.

Where the book fell flat for me was with the two protagonists. They were meh—marginally annoying at times, boring at others, but oh, they were industrious, which is always a pleasure to read. The problems began when they were on the page together. There was no chemistry between them, even though we're told that they're hot for each other and they have a lot of marvelous sex. There was no charm, no romance, no respect for each other, except towards the end when he professes concern for her. All we know is that she has distrusted him through most of the book, even when she was sleeping with him. Begs the question, why in the world did she begin sleeping with him? Beats me. His declaration of love also comes out of nowhere. Wut?! Guess my background in the rom world means I expect a very minor but well-defined romantic arc. If the story has a romance, it better be plotted well.

There were a couple disquieting moments in the book. I realized that there was only one very minor POC character, and I discovered that because her skin color was mentioned. Otherwise, the assumption was Caucasian even in a city like Boston. The other disquieting moment was when the protagonist was honored with gallery shows in London and Tokyo, but: "One at the Royal Academy of Arts in London and the other at a Tokyo gallery whose name I can't pronounce." She's being honored there. Get it right! This prejudice here on display is clearly the author's.

Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion
Categories: nonfiction collection of essays

Commentary: Last year, I read The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion, and I came away awed by her writing and my emotional journey as a result of reading it. So I was eager this year to delve into more of her writings. I picked up Slouching, because it is universally acclaimed as a modern classic by one of the finest journalists. It is said to perfectly capture the mood of 1960s America with an incisive look at contemporary American life—within and without—then.

The section of the book that most interested me was what she titled Personals, and covered essays: "On Keeping a Notebook," "On Self-Respect," "On Morality," "On Going Home," and "I Can't Get That Monster Out of My Mind." I loved reading about her keeping a daily notebook. After all, it's a topic near and dear to my heart. Much more on this section is my April TBR Reading commentary.

At the end of her introduction, Didion has a cautionary note for anyone who hangs around writers. "Writers are always selling somebody out." In other words, don't forget that their presence runs counter to your best interests. How's that for neurosis? (I'm only an aspiring one, so I'm harmless, I hasten to assure you.)

Didion's distinctive voice shines through every sentence as does her spare style. As I read, I saw her in my mind's eye and I heard her voice in my head (from that one talk I attended a while back).

I had a tough time with this book despite how much I loved it. Paradoxical, right? It reminded me of Sunita's comment on Liz McCausland's blog: "...when I read disproportionately in a genre [...] the opening pages are familiar enough in style and approach that it's like a warm blanket. When a book is outside my default reading zone [...] it takes longer. And some books just take longer to engage you anyway."

Belle: The Slave Daughter and the Lord Chief Justice by Paula Byrne
Categories: nonfiction, georgian, history
Diversity: African slaves and African-British characters

Commentary: I loved the movie Belle when I saw it recently, so I was eager to read this companion guide to the history behind the movie. What could've been a dry recitation of facts was brought to life by Byrne getting out of the way and allowing the reader to see the characters and their actions and the events that happened to them so vividly. A superb piece of narrative nonfiction writing. (Writers: This is an excellent book on Georgian research to have.)

A portrait painted in the late 18th century at Kenwood House showed two beautiful, happy, young girls, one Caucasian and one African, on par. It was unheard of during those times that the African girl was not shown subordinate to the Caucasian one. The Caucasian girl was Lady Elizabeth and the African girl was Dido Elizabeth Belle, both British, half-cousins by blood, and adopted children of the Earl of Mansfield, Lord Chief Justice. Very scant details are known about Dido's birth—she was the issue of the union between Lord Mansfield's nephew and a slave woman under his command. As the book distinctly shows, wherever history fell short, the film industry took over and in nuanced details painted in Dido's story. Some history was bent to serve the story, especially Mansfield's rulings in conjunction with the abolition of slavery on English soil and the start of worldwide abolition by the British. The book is a fascinating account of real-life events depicted with formidable research skills.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Picture Day Friday: Iceland's Peat Turf Church

This turf church in Hofskirkja is one of Iceland's last surviving wood and peat churches. Those mounds around the church are centuries-old graves.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Reading in 2014: A Detailed Analysis

For a few years now, I have been collecting data on the books I read and then analyzing the information I have collected at the end of the year. Over the years, I have curated the list of questions you'll see below. In 2013, I put together a spreadsheet that allowed me to record even more information: book title, author, star rating, category and sub category, publisher, publication date, which month I read it, whether I owned it or borrowed it, whether I was re-reading it, and if someone recommended it. In 2014, I added the following information: number of pages and format.

For a complete list of my books, go HERE. Without further ado, here are the stats...

How many books did you read in total?

88: an average of one book every four days. I read 173 books in 2010, 144 books in 2011, 148 in 2012, and 109 books in 2013. The number of books has been steadily going down as I move away from reading only romance

What was the average star rating?

3.943 (where ratings were from 1 to 5, with 0 for DNF (didn't finish)). The large number of re-reads and books by trusted recommendations are most likely responsible for this. Number of books and star ratings: 5 stars (49), 4 stars (12), 3 stars (13), 2 stars (7), 1 star (0), DNF (7)

How many works of fiction and how many non-fiction?

Nonfiction & Poetry: 12, Fiction: 76, a ratio of 1:6.
In 2010, the ratio was 1:57; in 2011, it was 1:15; in 2012, it was 1:18; and in 2013, it was 1:15

How many books by male versus female authors did you read?

Male: 11, Female: 77. Male authors read were 12.5% of the total.
In 2010, the number was 3% of the total; in 2011, it was 5%; in 2012, it was 7%; and in 2013, it was 5%.
Last year, all books by male authors were nonfiction; this year, it was a mix of nonfiction and fiction

How much romance versus all other genres?

28 non-romance vs. 60 romance, which is 68% romance of the total number of books read.
All the non-romance books were in the following categories: children's and young adult fiction, literary fiction, mystery, poetry, and non-fiction.
In 2010, I read more than 85% romance, 79% in 2011, 82% in 2012, and 88% in 2013

What were the categories of the books and how many books did you read in each category?

Medieval (1), Tudor (1), Georgian (1), Regency (49), Victorian (6), Edwardian (1), Western (1), Contemporary (3), Mystery (4), Fantasy (1), Women's Fiction (1), Literary Fiction (6), Children's & Young Adult (3), Novellas (1), Poetry (3), Memoirs (3), and General Nonfiction (7)

How many books did you read each month?

Jan (11), Feb (9), Mar (15), Apr (6), May (9), Jun (7), Jul (9), Aug (6), Sept (5), Oct (6), Nov (3), Dec (2)

Did you mostly buy, borrow, or re-read?

Public Library: 22, New: 26, Personal Library: 40. I read new books and re-read old ones roughly equally. I bought more books this year than last year, but far less than previous years

How many books did you read in the different formats?

Mass market paperback (56), trade paperback (15), hardcover (13), folio (3), audio (1)

Did you read books in any genres new to you?

Manga, fantasy

Which publishers' books did you read the most?

Fawcett (21), Signet (11), Avon (6), Bantam(5)

How many self-published books did you read?


Which were the oldest and newest books, by pub date?

"The Prophet" by Kahlil Gibran (Sep 1923) and "Rogue Spy" by Joanna Bourne (Nov 2014)

Which were the longest and shortest book titles?

Longest Book Title: "The Ultimate Guide to Dorothy Dunnett's The Game of Kings: An illustrated, encyclopedic resource of translations and historical, literary, ... in the order in which they appear in the book" by Laura Caine Ramsey

Shortest Book Titles: "Escape" by Joan Smith, "Douglas" by Grace Burrows, "Venetia" by Georgette Heyer, "Longbourn" by Jo Baker, "Silkworm" by Robert Galbraith, "Devilish" by Jo Beverley

Which were the longest and shortest books?

"The Game of Kings" by Dorothy Dunnett (543 pages) and "Women Who Dared" by Evelyn Beilenson & Lois Kaufman (80 pages)

Who were the most-read authors of the year?

Joan Smith (12), Joan Wolf (6), Michelle Martin (5), and Loretta Chase (5)

Which of the authors who were new to you in 2014 would you read in 2015?

Dorothy Dunnett, Rick Riordan, Molly O'Keefe

Any books in translation?


Which was your top favorite book?

"The Game of Kings" by Dorothy Dunnett—it's one of the finest examples of historical fiction

Which was your surprise favorite book and why?

"Titan's Curse" by Rick Riordan, a middle-grade novel. I was surprised by the complex world-building, which remained true to the historical facts of the relevant time period.

How many books did you read due to someone’s recommendation?

I read 21 books on recommendations from friends: jobev, sunita_p, liz_mc2, kaetrin67, simhedges, younglibrarian, Wee1, dougalgodfrey, __marijana_, janga724, mirandaneville, jobourne, superwendy, janetnorcal, redrobinreader

Which book would you not have read unless recommended by someone?

"The Game of Kings" by Dorothy Dunnett. It is a Big Fat Book, and I wouldn't have had the courage to approach it if it hadn't been highly recommended by many people

Did you read any books you have always been meaning to read?

"The Year of Magical Thinking" by Joan Didion, "The Prophet" by Kahlil Gibran, "Stradivari's Genius" by Toby Faber

Which books that you read in 2014 do you think you will re-read in 2015?

Books by Joan Wolf, Joan Smith, Michelle Martin, Georgette Heyer, and Dorothy Dunnett

Which authors do you predict you will glom in 2015?

Dorothy Dunnett's Lymond Chronicles and re-reads of Georgette Heyer and Laura Kinsale

Which types of books would you like to read more of?

LitFic, books by male authors, British police procedurals, poetry, and nonfiction. My list for 2015 is already long; it might very well take me into December

What information are you missing in your data collection for 2014 that you'd like to add to 2015?

A review of a sentence or a few words

Friday, February 20, 2015

Picture Day Friday: St. John's Gospel from 8th C.

A copy of St. John's Gospel buried with St. Cuthbert in the eighth century with the earliest known Western binding.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

2015 TBR Reading Challenge: The Alchemyst by Michael Scott

2015 TBR Reading Challenge
Book: The Alchemyst: The Secrets of The Immortal Nicholas Flamel by Michael Scott
My Categories: children's, fantasy, male author
Wendy Crutcher's Category: Recommended Read

This is another middle grade book that my daughter recommended I read. After my success with The Titan's Curse by Rick Riordan, I was willing to take her suggestion without hassling her with reluctance. Another stellar read, and now my daughter's two for two with her recommendations.

I admit to a slow start to this book, until I stopped seeing this as a lame adult book and looked at it as the middle-grade novel it is. Then the pace picked up right away, and it was exciting. There's a lot of historical truth to the story. It's well-researched for the knowns and very well-imagined for the unknowns. I found myself staying up late towards the end to finish it.

Twin fifteen-year-olds Sophie and Josh Newman are working summer jobs in San Francisco at a coffee shop and a bookshop, respectively. Josh's boss is Nicholas Fleming, but in truth, he's an alchemist, Nicholas Flamel, who's been alive since 1330. His wife Perry (aka Perenelle) is older than him, but neither look a day over fifty.

Historical Note: There's an Auberge Nicholas Flamel in Paris that's been around for six hundred years where a real-life Nicholas Flamel lived and worked and was famous for alchemy. Paris's 4th Arrondissement boasts the rue Nicholas Flamel and the rue Perenelle. Flamel was said to have died in 1418, but later when his tomb was broken into, they found it to be empty and rumors of his immortality took flight.

In Scott's book, Flamel is indeed immortal and the reason behind it is the secret recipe in the Codex Book of Abraham the Mage, which he carries with him everywhere. Flamel's past catches up to him in the form of Dr. John Dee, once his student, then his enemy.

Historical Note: John Dee was a brilliant magician and spy from the court of Queen Elizabeth I. He signed his coded messages "007". (I am not making this up.) The "00" represented the eyes of the queen and the symbol that looked like a "7" was Dee's personal mark.

In Scott's book, Dee is a magician of immense power. He's also immortal, though how he becomes so is not explained (well, at least not in this first book of the series.)

There is this concept in the story that before the age of humans, ten thousand years ago, on the island of Atlantis, there lived the First Generation of Elders. This included goddesses Bastet, Hekate, Morrigan, the Witch of Endor, and others. Two thousand years ago, came the Next Generation of Elders, such as Scathach, the warrior. However, some of the elders have turned over to evil and become the Dark Elders. They want to wipe out the humans from the planet. Bastet and the Morrigan are among these Dark Elders, and their human stooge who can facilitate this is Dee. That is how he came to be Flamel's enemy. He wants the Codex that Flamel so zealously guards. The Codex contains many codes and secrets, besides the immortality recipe, which would enable the Dark Elders to gain supremacy.

As the story opens, Josh is working for Flamel and Sophie is in the coffee shop across from the street of the bookshop. Dee, along with three mud Golems, pays a visit to Flamel. Much magic gets thrown around using their respective auras, which have fragrances. Dee's has a rotten eggs smell, Flamel's a minty smell. The end result of this is that Dee snatches Perenelle and all but the last two pages of the Codex and hies off to his superiors. En route, he realizes that he's missing the crucial last two pages. And so begins the adventure.

In the meantime, our intrepid trio have met up with Scathach the warrior, who lives in a dojo in SF's Chinatown. Rats, who pose as seeing eyes for Dee, trail them to Scathach's doorstep and attempt to attack. The foursome fight free with fifteen-year-old Josh with a driver's permit, not license, at the wheel of an SUV and head over to the Golden Gate Bridge. Dee summons the Morrigan's crows to attack. Flamel, in turn, summons the wind to drive away the crows. The foursome escape to the safety of Hekate's Shadowrealm.

A shadowrealm is a place normally where humans cannot enter, or if they do, they're irretrievably changed. There, Hekate discovers that all is not normal with Sophie and Josh. Josh has a pure gold aura and Sophie a pure silver one. This rare purity means that if they're awakened to their full magic potential, they would become very powerful.

While Hekate is debating the pros and cons of awakening the twins, the Morrigan has summoned the help of Bastet and her cats. As Bastet starts making her way up north from LA, Hekate succeeds in awakening Sophie, but she has no time to awaken Josh.

The battle between the Elders, their warriors, Dee with his Excalibur sword — this story is a mashup of all kinds of mythologies, so why not Arthur, too? — Flamel, Scathach, and the twins is of epic proportions (and exciting to read. I couldn't read it fast enough.) This is the first time, Sophie gets a taste of the power she wields. Of course, Perenelle hasn't been lying dormant. She's a magician of note, too, and channels herself into Sophie during the battle and at various times to exchange messages with Flamel.

As Hekate and her ruined Shadowrealm are dying a fast death, our foursome break free with Josh at the wheel of a Hummer this time and head south to Ojai, CA and to Endor. There she helps train Sophie in understanding all the history and struggles and powers of being an Elder and how to cope with the ultra sensitivity of her senses that being awakened means.

In the meantime, Josh is afraid of who Sophie's become and jealous, too. Also, Dee has discovered that Josh has a pure gold aura and remains unawakened. He pushes the Morrigan into agreeing to awaken Josh and bring him over to the dark side. So off he goes to Ojai to capture Josh. But he is thwarted in his endeavor, despite his brilliant magic that brings all the centuries-old skeletons to life to fight for him. The foursome step through a leygate in Endor's shop and step into Paris. The shop blows up, sparing Endor, but possibly killing Dee. That last part is made to seem probable, but not a hundred percent possible.

And that's the fabulous story. There are five other books in this series that I hope to pick up soon.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Picture Day Friday: Inverary Castle, Argyll, Scotland

Inveraray Castle is the ancestral home of the Duke of Argyll and Chief of the Clan Campbell and an iconic attraction on the west coast of Scotland. Go to the castle site to see more information on how to get there, where to stay, and what you'll see once you get there.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Best Books of 2014

Image copyrighted by Keira Soleore This is a long post, so be prepared. There were many books which fell in my five-star bucket this year. I'm detailing a few of them here.

Like last year, this year, too, was marked by a number of re-reads. So this year, my list had a mix of books new to me and old favorites. I borrowed most of the new-to-me books from the library, thus continuing on with last year's resolution to not buy too many books. What was unusual for me was the low number of books that I read that were published in 2014.

The best book of the year for me, hands down, was The Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett (Vintage, Apr-97). I read it twice and listened to the audiobook. I also read its companion guide The Ultimate Guide to Dorothy Dunnett's The Game of Kings by Laura Ramsey (Self-pub, Jan-13). I charted my multi-month reading progress of the book via monthly posts. If you want to read the updates, start HERE at the last post with links to all the rest of them.

I continued with my spate of reading traditional Regency romances. I re-read and re-loved my four Michelle Martins: Hampshire Hoyden (Fawcett, Jun-93), The Mad Miss Mathley (Fawcett, Aug-95), The Butler Who Laughed(Fawcett, May-97), and The Adventurers (Fawcett, Sep-96). They are true traditional Regencies with clever dialogue, nuanced and in-depth character development, developing romantic interest, only kissing, and wit.

I re-read and re-loved trads from last year: The London Season by Joan Wolf (Signet, Jan-86), Imprudent Lady by Joan Smith (Fawcett, Sep-78), Lord Richard's Daughter by Joan Wolf (Signet, Jul-83), Escapade by Joan Smith (Fawcett, Jan-77), Knaves' Wager by Loretta Chase (Avon, Aug-91), Talk of the Town by Joan Smith (Fawcett, Jan-79), Fool's Masquerade by Joan Wolf (Signet, Aug-84), A Double Deception by Joan Wolf (Signet, Oct-83), A Grand Design by Emma Jensen (Signet, Nov-00), and The Rebellious Wife by Joan Wolf (Signet, Feb-84).

The annual re-read of Devilish by Jo Beverley was superb as always. Rothgar's story never gets old and tired. It's fresh every single time. This is a story that was written in 2000, but it doesn't feel dated or following some romance conventions of the 2000s—it's timeless.

I went through my annual re-read of Joanna Bourne's spy romances set in France and England, in particular The Spymaster's Lady (Berkley, Jan-08) and Black Hawk (Berkley, Nov-11), as I was preparing for this post about her new book Rogue Spy (Berkley, Nov-14).

Another series I love is C.S. Harris's St. Cyr Regency mysteries. This year's book Why Kings Confess (NAL, Mar-14) was no exception. Her characterization and period feel are among the finest I have seen in a historical mystery or a historical fiction book.

The leisurely exploration of Barbara O'Neal's women's fiction makes for a riveting read for me every year. Talk about nuances! Even her nuances have nuances. I really enjoy the luxury of time and space that her books encompass. All You Can Eat Buffet (Bantam, Mar-14) was this year's book.

Fool Me Twice (Pocket, Apr-14), Meredith Duran's Victorian romance, is topping many Best Of lists this year. It had a few problematic elements for me: the hero's extreme possessiveness, his violent behavior towards the heroine, and his need to have her submit to him (not verbalized but in his thoughts). However, I felt that Duran's skill is such that she handled it all superbly and I bought into the redemption of the hero and the culmination of the story's romantic arc. An aside: Isn't that a gorgeous cover? I want to eat it.

Anyone who's read Richard Lederer knows he's laugh-out-loud hilarious. His Word Wizard: Super Bloopers, Rich Reflections, and Other Acts of Word Magic (St. Martin, Apr-06) was predictably good entertainment. As I talked more about it here, he's very entertaining in person, too. His books reflect his personality.

Poetry by Robert Frost never fails to stir me. I have been reading him since middle school, and I've been lucky to have had great English teachers who sustained and deepened my interest in poetry. This love of poetry emboldened me to give philosophical prose poetry by Kahlil Gibran a try. I talked about The Prophet (Knopf, Sep-23) more HERE. I came out of that experience greatly affected. I doubt I fully understood it all. It's going to require multiple re-visits.

My first introduction to Joan Didion was through a talk she gave at our local symphony hall. I knew her by reputation but hadn't read any of her articles or books. I was fascinated by the political talk she gave with her grasp of the details and complexities. So when I heard about The Year of Magical Thinking (Knopf, Oct-05), I knew I had to give it a try. Great, great look at the year following the death of her beloved husband. Her straightforward spare prose highlights the beauty of what she's saying very effectively.

In a complete departure from the seriousness of the above books, came these two: a middle-grade fantasy Titan's Curse (Hyperion, Jan-07) by Rick Riordan and memoir Taking the Lead (William Morrow, Aug-14) by Dancing with the Stars professional dancer Derek Hough. While Hough's memoir tries to be serious, its anecdotal nature gives it a more entertaining spin than a philosophical one. Riordan's aim is pure delightful transportation. I thoroughly enjoyed my daughter's recommendation.

I greatly enjoyed Courtney Milan's Suffragette's Scandal (Self-pub, Jul-14), a smart, sophisticated historical. Disclaimer: I worked with Courtney on editing the book.

And that's a wrap! My entire list of 88 books is available for you to look at, if you so wish.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Romance Conference at the Library of Congress

"What Is Love? Romance Fiction in the Digital Age," an international, multimedia conference, will be hosted by the Library of Congress's Center for the Book on February 10 and 11, 2015.

The conference is free and open to the public and is being sponsored by Harlequin. Additional support is being provided by the Popular Romance Project, created by the Center for New History and Media at George Mason University; the Nora Roberts Foundation; the Romance Writers of America; and Berkley/NAL.

The conference agenda will include panels moderated by Pam Regis, professor of English at McDaniel College and president of the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance; Bill Gleason of Princeton University; Mary Bly of Fordham University (who writes as Eloisa James); and Riptide editorial director Sarah S.G. Frantz. Special author appearances include New York Times best-selling authors Robyn Carr and Brenda Jackson. The Popular Romance Project, led by Laurie Kahn of Blueberry Hill Productions, will include the feature-length documentary film "Love Between the Covers," as directed by Kahn.

Details about the panels and talks are HERE.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Picture Day Friday: Three Orders of Medieval Society

Medieval writers described their society as having three orders: the cleric, the knight, and the peasant—those who prayed, those who fought, and those who labored. Image courtesy of Medieval Manuscripts, tweeting about the British Library's marvelous medieval manuscripts. Their blog is located here.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

10 Category Reading Challenge of 2014

The original 10-10 challenge was to read 10 books in 10 categories by October 10, 2010. I modified that to: read any number of books in 10 categories, other than romance, by December 31 to finish the challenge. Also the overarching aim was to reduce the TBR mountain. The challenge has worked so well for me for the past few years that I've decided to keep it going every year.

Unfortunately this year, I read in only eight of the ten categories I had set out to read. The categories I missed were Parenting and Organization (self help).

Detective, Mystery, Suspense, Crime, Thriller
—"Murder at Hatfield House" by Amanda Carmack
—"Why Kings Confess" by C.S. Harris
—"The Cuckoo's Calling" by Robert Galbraith
—"Silkworm" by Robert Galbraith

Children's & Young Adult
—"Into the Woods: Warriors: Tigerstar & Sasha" by Erin Hunter
—"Molly Moon's Incredible Book of Hypnotism" by Georgia Byng
—"The Titan's Curse" by Rick Riordan
—"The Bubble Collector" by Vikram Madan

Literary Fiction
—"Einstein's Dreams" by Alan Lightman
—"Pride & Prejudice: the movie adaptation" by Deborah Moggach
—"The Foundling" by Georgette Heyer
—"All You Can Dream Buffet" by Barbara O'Neal
—"Longbourn" by Jo Baker
—"The Game of Kings" by Dorothy Dunnett

—"The Prophet" by Kahlil Gibran
—"Robert Frost" edited by Gary D. Schmidt
—"The Bubble Collector" by Vikram Madan

Biographies & Memoirs
—"Weathering Winter: A Gardener's Daybook" by Carl Klaus
—"The Year of Magical Thinking" by Joan Didion
—"Taking the Lead: Lessons from a Life in Motion" by Derek Hough

General Nonfiction
—"Stradivari's Genius" by Toby Faber
—"From Bath With Love" by Bob Croxford

—"Word Wizard: Super Bloopers, Rich Reflections, and Other Acts of Word Magic" by Richard Lederer
—"MFA vs NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction" edited by Chad Harbach

—"Women Who Dared" by Evelyn Beilenson & Lois Kaufman
—"The Girls' Book of Wisdom" edited by Catherine Dee
—"The Prophet" by Kahlil Gibran



Tuesday, February 3, 2015

2014 TBR Reading Challenge Forced Unusual Choices

When I accepted Wendy Crutcher's 2014 TBR Challenge way back in December 2013, I warned her then that my goal was simply to use the prod of accountability to read a non-romance (key!) book every month from my TBR bookshelf, i.e., published before 2014, and comment on it on this blog.

At the beginning of every year, I do a detailed analysis post of my reading of the previous year. What I have noticed year after year is how little I read outside the romance genre. So I started using a couple different reading challenges to diversify my reading. I have discovered that I have sloooooowly started making progress in the right direction. This year, I stepped it up and took on Wendy's challenge as further incentive.

Technically, this is way off base, since the challenge is primarily to read broadly in the romance genre. Here were Wendy's categories:

  • Jan 15: We Love Short Shorts! (Short stories, Novellas, category romance)
  • Feb 19: Series Catch-Up (pick a book from a series you're behind on)
  • Mar 19: New-To-You Author (an author you've never read before)
  • Apr 16: Contemporary romance
  • May 21: More Than One (An author who has more than one book in your TBR pile)
  • Jun 18: Romance Classics (classic book, classic author, classic trope/theme, etc.)
  • Jul 16: Lovely RITA (past RITA winners or nominees)
  • Aug 20: Luscious Love Scenes (erotic romance, erotica, a sensual read)
  • Sep 17: Recommended read (a book recommended to you by someone)
  • Oct 15: Paranormal or Romantic Suspense
  • Nov 19: Historical romance
  • Dec 17: Holiday themes (Christmas, Thanksgiving, Valentine's Day, it's all good!)

  • Wendy took pity on me and my ginormous TBR, and voilĂ , here's the list of books I read:

  • "Einstein's Dreams" by Alan Lightman (blog Jan 15)
  • "Women Who Dared" by Evelyn Beilenson & Lois Kaufman (blog Feb 19)
  • "Weathering Winter: A Gardener's Daybook" by Carl Klaus (blog Mar 19)
  • "Pride & Prejudice: the movie adaptation" by Deborah Moggach (blog Apr 16)
  • "The Prophet" by Kahlil Gibran (blog May 21)
  • "The Girls' Book of Wisdom" edited by Catherine Dee (blog Jun 18)
  • "Word Wizard: Super Bloopers, Rich Reflections, and Other Acts of Word Magic" by Richard Lederer (blog Jul 16)
  • "The Year of Magical Thinking" by Joan Didion (blog Aug 20)
  • "From Bath With Love" by Bob Croxford (blog Sep 17)
  • "The Titan's Curse" by Rick Riordan (blog Oct 15)
  • "Robert Frost" edited by Gary D. Schmidt (blog Nov 19)
  • "Stradivari's Genius" by Toby Faber (blog Dec 17)

  • Monday, February 2, 2015

    Complete List of Books I Read in 2014

    Here are the links to the books I read in 2014. Lists 1-5 are pieces of one chronological list of 87 books of my Excel spreadsheet. Click on each image to read it.

    List 1

    List 2

    List 3

    List 4

    List 5

    Friday, January 30, 2015

    Picture Day Friday: A Tour of the Regency Town House

    A detailed room-by-room tour of a Regency town house is located here. The picture below is a cross-section of a typical house built in Brunswick Square to the tune of 3000-5000 pounds (in Regency money) with a like outlay for furnishing the interior. (For comparison purposes, servants' wages in those days were 10-65 pounds per year.)

    The kitchens, wine cellar, scullery, butler's room, housekeeper's room, etc. were all in the basement. The ground floor comprised of a dining room, a Decker's room, which is a small staging area for keeping the food warm, and a parlor (also called a morning room or a breakfast room). In a small house, the parlor might also be the library. Halfway up the main staircase was a waiting room with an attached water closet. The first floor had two connecting drawing rooms. The ground floor and first floor rooms together made up the formal entertaining rooms of the house and were the most lavishly decorated. The bedrooms were on the second floor and the nursery and servants' rooms were on the third floor. The grooms and coachman slept above the mews (also called the stable block and coach house) in the back. The mews were separated from the main house by a garden. The front steps of the house leading down from the front door ended at street-level.

    According to The Regency Town House, "Architects and designers produced Pattern Books, containing all manner of designs, from whole houses to railings, cornices, mirrors and mouldings, wall coverings, curtains, and furniture. Lavishly illustrated magazines, such as Ackermann’s Repository of Arts monitored fashions from the continent and recommended suitable furnishings and how to arrange them in each room."

    Wednesday, January 28, 2015

    A Look at My Reading in January

    In my blogging goals at the beginning of the year, I had mentioned wanting to read less romance, more LitFic, more nonfic, more children's books, more poetry, and more diverse books. Here's how I did with January's reading.

    Flower in the Desert by Lavender Parker
    Categories: romance, american, contemporary, poc
    Diversity: Featured African-American and Native American protagonists. It was a self-published and in eBook format. I'm trying to become a little more adventurous by choosing self-published books, which largely come in eBook format, a format that I read extremely reluctantly.
    In a few words: Well-developed characters, plot, and narrative structures despite the short length; first half moved at a cracking pace and was beautiful; too much sex made plot lose pacing in the second half; story resolution was too quick. Overall, I enjoyed it. This was a community read book with @liz_mc2, @sonomalass, @_ridley_, and @meoskop.

    Flowers from the Storm by Laura Kinsale
    Categories: romance, regency, big fat book, religious
    Diversity: I enjoyed reading a big fat book last year and would like to read more in the longer length (>500 pages) this year. I don't read religious books or inspirational ones, since so far I've not been interested in either conversion themes or the influence personal faith has on the story (plot and characters). However, I read this book, and it was an eye-opening experience. (I mean, it's KINSALE, of course!) This book would not exist without the Quaker religion—it's in the threads that weave the fabric of the story—and I loved it. A five-star read.
    In a few words: Heartrending. I cried tears of sorrow and tenderness as I read it. The main characters were frustrating at times and sympathetic at others. Despite where each one came from, by the end, I completely believed in their HEA. Read with @__marijana_.

    Emily and the Dark Angel by Jo Beverley
    Categories: romance, traditional regency
    In a few words: Typical traditional Regency; would've liked to have seen more relationship development before declaration of love, but convincing HEA; lovable characters

    The Travelling Parsi by Kamal Sunavala
    Categories: nonfiction, literary fiction, memoir, anthology
    Diversity: Featured Parsi-Indian characters, including the narrator of the stories AKA the author. This is another self-published book in e- format.
    In a few words: Humor covered the gamut of funny, tedious, and mean-spirited; some vignettes were nonfiction but all dialog was made up, so a curious amalgam of nonfiction and fiction; all secondary characters sounded the same; loved this look into the Parsi-Indian culture; language tics were interesting. My detailed comments are here.

    Viscount Vagabond by Loretta Chase
    Categories: romance, traditional regency
    In a few words: Typical Chase with silliness, lightness, delightful characters and plot, and marvelous writing. Recommended by __marijana_.

    The One Skill: How Mastering the Art of Letting Go Will Change Your Life by Leo Babauta
    Categories: nonfiction, male author, life skills
    Diversity: Self-published in e- format by a male author.
    In a few words: Excellent meditation on how letting go of idealism in life about situations and people leads to a happier, calmer life. This was not a cerebral book, but rather a very practical how-to book. A five-star read. This is my March TBR Challenge book.

    The Recruit by Monica McCarty
    Categories: romance, medieval, Scotland
    In a few words: Very much a Highlander story with a well-developed warrior whose muscles had been described in detail many times; a delicate, sweet, beauteous woman; a rawr-mine with sex start to the romance, building up to jealous possessiveness; well-done love scenes, superb fight choreography, good research; McCarty is my go-to for a Highlander fix.

    The Writer's Life: Insights from The Right to Write by Julia Cameron
    Categories: nonfiction, writing
    In a few words: I picked up this book at the start of the year when I decided to start writing Morning Pages. It has been very helpful to read a few pages every now and then—it's a short book. Sometimes when I couldn't think of anything to write about, I picked a page from this book and "discussed" it. This is my May TBR Challenge book.

    The Alchemyst: The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel by Michael Scott
    Categories: children's, fantasy, male author
    Diversity: Book by male author
    In a few words: I admit to a slow start to this book, until I stopped seeing this as a lame adult book and looked at it as the middle-grade novel it is. Then the pace picked up right away. Lots of flashy magic, icky creatures, intrepid child heroes, wise adults, and just plain old-fashioned derring-do. Thoroughly enjoyed it. This is my February TBR Challenge book, recommended by my daughter.

    North & South by Elizabeth Gaskell
    Categories: literary fiction, victorian
    Diversity: Written in the mid-nineteenth century
    In a few words: I have loved the miniseries based on this book very much and so was eager to read the book. While the romance is of course there, the focus is more on the culture of the north and the details of Margaret's life. So the book fills in the gaps of the movie storyline marvelously well. In fact, since Netflix is about to lose its contract for the miniseries, I'm re-watching it and enjoying the duality of the experience. Book recommended by @miss_batesreads and Sunita.
    Status: Still reading...