Tuesday, September 2, 2014

2014 Reading, Books 91-93

91) 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed by Eric H. Cline

A more accurate title for this book would be ~1200-1150 B.C.: The Decades Civilization Collapsed in the Near East, but that's not half as eye-catching, so I don't blame the author for picking a specific, non-round-numbered year.

I was vaguely aware before reading this book that many of the great societies of the ancient world collapsed, or at least went into severe decline, a bit over a thousand years ago, and that a couple of centuries went by before you started to see the rise of Classical Greece, Persia, and the like. What I hadn't realized is how interconnected the empires of the Late Bronze Age, ~1500-1200 B.C., really were, nor how close to simultaneous their decline was.

Down through the years researchers have looked for a single cause for the collapse--famine caused by climate change, earthquakes, invaders, etc.--but Cline posits that it was a perfect storm of all those things plus a few other factors, and that the societies in question were sufficiently interconnected as trading and diplomatic partners, especially when it came to such key resources as bronze, tin, and even grain, that once one society collapsed, the others fell like dominoes.

If you're interested in ancient history, you'll enjoy this book. If not, it's probably a bit too dry to spark such an interest.

92) How the Scots Invented the Modern World by Arthur Herman

A history of the Scots of the 18th and 19th centuries, focusing heavily on the Scottish Enlightenment and its lasting contributions to to philosophy, economics, political science, medicine, architecture, and the like, but also ranging into such topics as the Scottish military tradition and its importance to the British army, along with the foundational role of Scots--Highland, Lowland, and Ulster/Scots-Irish alike--in America, Canada, and Australia. Definitely an interesting read, and while I would've said I knew a great deal about both Scotland and the British 18th and 19th centuries, it exposed some gaps in my knowledge of their intersection. Definitely a time and place I'd like to explore further.

93) The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang & Sonny Liew

I borrowed this graphic novel from my daughter because I've enjoyed other Gene Luen Yang works. It's a superhero origin story with a twist--Yang and Liew took a short-lived comic from the 40's about a superhero called the Green Turtle whose Chinese-American creator supposedly wanted to portray as Asian and whose publishers supposedly wouldn't allow it. So we never quite saw the Green Turtle's face.

Fast forward 70 years or so, and Yang and Liew portray the Green Turtle as emphatically Asian--the son of Chinese immigrants growing up in an alterna-San Francisco--and have all kinds of fun with classic superhero origin tropes. It's playful without ever descending to parody, and I enjoyed it a lot.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Happy Labor Day (and Happy Second New Year)!

Happy Labor Day to my American readers, and I hope you're having a relaxing weekend as you prepare to head into the fall season.

To me, September has always felt more like the start of a new year than January, no matter what the calendar, not to mention my own January 1 birthday, tells me. I was a student for seventeen years, after all, for most of my working life my day job has been in academia, and now I have a fifth grade daughter. So September is all about new beginnings.

It just so happens that this year it's fresh start time for me, too. I spent June and July up to my ears in edits for my January release, Freedom to Love. It was far more intense a process than editing usually is for me after the editorial team and I agreed that the book would be better if I took some of the events I'd been planning to use in its sequel and made them part of this book's ending. The manuscript grew a good 20,000 words longer, and by the time I'd turned the almost-final manuscript in about a month ago, I needed a break, so I took most of August off from writing and the business aspects of my writing career.

So today I'm starting a brand new manuscript, in a brand-new-to-me genre, contemporary romance. I've been saying jokingly for years that I'm going to write a series about small-town girls who moved to the big city for work and DON'T go back to their hometowns only to realize they never should've left and their high school sweetheart was the only man for them after all. Since every time I mention the idea, I get a chorus of "Do it!" from friends, I decided to make that my project for the next two months.

That's right, two months. I'm going to try to complete my rough draft by 10/31. I'm trying out Book in a Month, only stretched over two months because I also have to get ready for my November and January releases and avoid over-stressing my still-fragile neck and shoulder. Assuming it goes well, I'll do the same thing in November and December for Freedom to Love's sequel and have two manuscripts to edit and submit come early 2015.

I'll keep you all posted on how it goes. Good luck with your own fall projects!

Sunday, August 24, 2014

2014 Reading, Books 88-90

88) What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami

My husband recommended this book to me. It's about both distance running--a new obsession of his--and writing--my own obsession and vocation. As such it's something of a meditation on the focus and perseverance it takes to finish a marathon (or a novel) and then keep doing it again and again, and it's also a book about finding a way to keep pursuing such grueling and challenging passions as one ages--something of increasing interest to me now that I'm having to acknowledge that whether I like it or not, I am getting to be middle-aged, and I have to listen to my body's limits.

89) A Fighting Chance by Elizabeth Warren

So, I read this book. To say what I thought of it would be to get more political than I like to do on my author blog, especially because I wouldn't be able to resist talking about the 2016 election...so let's just not go there.

90) The Spirit Ring by Lois McMaster Bujold

This is one of Bujold's earliest works, and probably her least-known book. I've had sitting on my TBR shelf for ages but just never quite got around to reading it, because no one was telling me, "OMG you must read this!" the way they did with the Vorkosigan Saga or her more recent fantasy novels.

While it's not her best work--she's definitely an author whose work improved over time--I'm very glad I read it. My favorite kind of fantasy reads like historical fiction, but with a few twists to keep it from being tethered to what actually happened, whether it's something like Naomi Novik where it's our world, but with dragons, or more like Jacqueline Carey or Guy Gavriel Kay where the map is the same but the names are changed. This is the first time--the story is set in a recognizable Renaissance Italy, only one with magic, in its more benign forms sanctioned by the Catholic church and society as a whole. But of course magic isn't always benign...

Definitely an enjoyable read, and one with a nice romantic subplot for its young protagonists.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

2014 Reading, Books 85-87

85) Six Amendments: How and Why We Should Change the Constitution by John Paul Stevens

Wherein retired Supreme Court Justice Stevens reviews what's broken in the American political system from his unique judicial perspective and proposes some constitutional remedies--e.g. undoing Citizens United, classing the death penalty as cruel and unusual punishment, and finding a way to limit gerrymandering. While I don't disagree with any of his ideas, I found the book dry going at times. And, I sadly doubt there are enough people with the power and will to make a difference who'll listen to him.

86) White Stallion of Lipizza by Marguerite Henry

I started this book a time or two as a child but never got through it. It had nothing to do with racehorses, after all, unlike my favorite Henrys, King of the Wind and Black Gold. Now I want to go back and re-read those books with an adult's eyes, because this isn't just a horse book--it's a book about dedicating yourself to an art and a craft, to creating beauty for its own sake, to perseverance, to keeping alive your culture's best traditions.

87) The Regency Underworld by Donald A. Low

A readable introduction to crime and punishment in Regency England, with a heavy focus on London.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Random Cookbook of the Week: Old-Fashioned Bread Omelet from More With Less

After a somewhat crazy summer with writing and editing deadlines, I'm starting to settle into a more normal schedule again...which means I have time again to challenge myself to cook a new recipe from a randomly selected cookbook from the 64 (yes, 64!) currently on my bookshelf.

This week I drew the More With Less Cookbook, one I also cooked from on my previous version of this challenge. That time it was winter, so I made a nice hearty lentil-sausage soup--which wasn't venturing far out of my comfort zone, since this cookbook is my go-to source for lentil dishes.

But this time I tried something I've never attempted before: an omelet. (I know, I know. I developed a taste for eggs relatively late in life, so I'm just now developing my cooking techniques for them.)

Old-Fashioned Bread Omelet

Combine and soak 15 minutes:
 - 1 c. bread cubes (I used fancy-schmancy farmers market organic white sandwich bread)
 - 1/2 c. milk

Preheat oven to 325 F.

Combine in bowl:
 - 4 eggs, beaten
 - 1/4 c grated cheese (I used medium cheddar)
 - 1/2 t. salt
 - bread and milk mixture
 - (I also added a bit of freshly ground pepper because this cookbook runs bland)

Heat in skillet:
 - 1 T margarine (I used butter because it tastes better AND is healthier)

Pour in egg mixture and cook over medium heat without stirring, about five minutes. When browned underneath, place pan in oven for 10 minutes to finish cooking on top. Turn out onto hot platter, folding omelet in half.

Note that this assumes you have an oven-safe frying pan. If all of yours have plastic handles, this recipe will be right out for you. We have a nice set of stainless steel, picked up at a bargain because it had been the store's display set, which I love for having a sort of double robustness--you can cook almost anything in them AND throw them in the dishwasher. Way too many quality pots and pans aren't dishwasher safe, IMHO. Just because I'm something of a foodie doesn't mean I have all the time in the world at my disposal, nor that I enjoy the cleaning up part of the process.

So, anyway, this isn't the prettiest thing I've ever cooked, not by a long shot. It fell apart when I tried to fold it:

But it was quite amazingly tasty in a comfort-food sort of way. The bread gave it sort of a savory French toast effect. I'm sure you could vary the flavor considerably depending on what type of bread and/or cheese you chose. The cheddar didn't impart a very strong flavor, which was fine by me, but if you like your cheeses cheesy, you'll probably want a sharp cheddar or other strong hard cheese.

I think using good white bread was the right choice. Poor-quality white bread wouldn't have soaked up the egg and milk while still maintaining its breadly integrity the way this did, and a whole wheat, sourdough, rye, or whatever would've overwhelmed the delicate flavor of the eggs. (Sheesh. I sound like a judge on Iron Chef or Chopped.)

You can barely see it in the picture, but I accompanied the omelet with quick-cooked chard flavored with garlic, salt, pepper, and white balsamic vinegar. The combo worked, but really I think just about any bright, strong flavor would pair well with the omelet, not least such traditional breakfast goodies as bacon, ham, and fresh fruit.

I'm sure I'll make this again. It's quick, simple, nutritious, and tasty all at once.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

2014 Reading, Books 79-84

79) Avatar: The Last Airbender - The Rift Part 2 by Gene Luen Yang

The latest graphic novel showcasing the further adventures of Aang, Katara, Sokka, Toph, and Zuko (though Zuko has so far been absent from this trilogy). Deeply interesting if you're a fan of Avatar and The Legend of Korra, but would undoubtably be baffling if you aren't.

80) Thank You For Your Service by David Finkel

A harrowing, heartbreaking book following several soldiers who served multiple deployments in Iraq as they struggle to reintegrate into society and cope with PTSD, traumatic brain injury, and their impacts on their families and futures. I'm glad I read it, though a big part of me hated it.

81) The Improbable Primate by Clive Finlayson

A quick read, though I wouldn't recommend it if you haven't read anything else on the current state of the science with respect to human evolution since it assumes a certain familiarity with major fossil finds and the various theories about humanity's spread across Africa, Eurasia, and Australia. Finlayson's main focus is on our species' preference for environments combining access to fresh water, some trees and/or rocks/caves, and some open space, and how the most successful early humans were those who developed lighter builds and longer limbs for covering longer distances between water sources. I'm not sure I agree with all his theories, but he raises some interesting points. He takes what I believe is the unusual view of seeing every hominid from Homo erectus on as the same species. I'll admit my gut reaction is, "But we can't be the same species as H. erectus. They had TINY LITTLE BRAINS."

82) The Rise of Rome by Anthony Everitt

A history of Rome from its legendary foundations to the fall of the Republic. I think it would be good for a reader unfamiliar with the history in question (though it would help to have a broad sense of the course of ancient history). I found it a useful refresher on what I learned from listening to the early sections of Mike Duncan's wonderful History of Rome podcast.

83) The Little Girl Who Fought the Great Depression by John F. Kasson

This one is more interesting than I expected, really. It's a blend of celebrity biography and social history of the Depression and Shirley Temple's impact as the biggest child celebrity of the age by far. To me the most interesting chapter was the one about Bill "Bojangles" Robinson and the complex racial issues of his career and his dances with blonde little Shirley.

84) Written in My Own Heart's Blood by Diana Gabaldon

If I had to describe this book in one word, I'd choose "rambly." If you've been following the series, enjoy Gabaldon's voice, and are interested in the doings of the extended and often interwoven Fraser, Mackenzie, and Grey families, you will happily plow through this book (as I did). If not...give the first book a try and see if you want to keep going from there. This is NOT a series you'd want to start in the middle. In some ways I wish these books had more focus...OTOH, there's something to be said for a good chatty ramble through characters' lives.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Cover for A Christmas Reunion

I promised you one more Christmas-related post for this hot July week, and here it is! My 2014 holiday novella, A Christmas Reunion, now has a cover:

Isn't it pretty? I think it perfectly captures the emotion of the story, which is all about star-crossed lovers reuniting at Christmas just a week before she's supposed to marry another man.

(Incidentally, my first thought on receiving a new cover is always, ALWAYS, "But that's not what they look like!" Which I've accepted will inevitably be the case--it's not like I can draw more than stick figures myself, so I can't show you what the characters look like in my head. And in cases where they closely resemble some celebrity, it's not like, say, Cam Newton is going to take time off from his lucrative day job as an NFL quarterback or Tom Hiddleston from his as a major actor to, like, pose for my covers, so unless they have a double out there in the romance novel cover photo modeling industry, still not gonna happen. In this case the characters are pretty close, though in my head the heroine has lighter, redder hair.)