Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Book log 33: Heart Fire


HEART FIRE
by Robin D. Owens
I remember when Owens introduced her Heart series, way at the beginning of the current paranormal romance subgenre. I loved Heart Mate. It was unique, it was cute (of course, if I weren’t a cat person, I’m sure I would have been less enraptured—but even if you were a dog person, you would have found it charming), and best of all, I COULDN’T PREDICT WHAT WAS GOING TO HAPPEN NEXT. (This is a rare and wonderful trait. That’s the problem with too much fiction: too easy to figure out. And the unpredictability of the best fiction or any writing in general is a precious thing indeed.)

And that was a long, long time ago (okay, a couple of decades, but for a lot of people that would be a long, long time ago)(yes, yes, when dinosaurs ruled the Earth and all that). Since then, Owens has written 13 or 14 books in the series, one an anthology of Celtan stories, including how the travelers made their way to the planet they settled on. Owens has managed to expand and deepen the history, culture, and society of the Celtans, before they arrived on the planet (they started on Earth, you see)(but that would have been a long time after the dinosaurs ruled the…sorry, I’m getting off the topic).

In the past few stories, Owens has been delving into the topic of lesser-known religions and lower-stratum society sorts, even a cult and killers. In Heart Fire, we have an architect entrusted to the construction of a temple for a religion not of Druidic origins (calling themselves “Cross Folk” or “Intersection of Hope,” so it was interesting to see how the author described this religion), a Druidic priestess who suffered from a mob protesting alternate religions, including being hunted and burned out of her home, bigotry, ambition, and family. That last is a prevalent theme in Owens’ books, but the others are relatively new, and while she’s struggling to work them into the parlance of this paranormal romance, she is comfortable in the world and culture she’s created in Celta, and is doing an excellent job of expanding on them.

COMING UP: If I can figure out how to access it, I have a book on Greek fire waiting for me!

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Book log 32: Belle: The Slave Daughter and the Lord Chief Justice


BELLE: THE SLAVE DAUGHTER AND THE LORD CHIEF JUSTICE
by Paula Byrne
The painting at the center of the story I remember having seen many years ago. It always struck me as looking oddly anachronistic, with the traditional portrait of the placid white young woman but with the mischievous, exotic one smiling at the artist, almost winking in a pact between her and the viewer. It didn’t hurt that she looked a lot like Nichelle Nichols, and as a Star Trek fan since the original series debuted, that always stayed with me. Was it something that someone had mocked up, taking something from that time and adding the Nichelle-alike? And can you see Lt. Uhura in that outfit?

Now, many years later, when the movie came out and the flurry about the portrait got attention, I knew I had to do some reading. I have yet to see the movie (because somehow it’s less convenient to see a movie, taking two hours, than to read a book, taking a bit longer), but I read the book that came out with the movie. It didn’t surprise me, sadly, that beyond the sketchy basics of who the Nichelle-alike was—her name was Dido Elizabeth Belle—and some of her origins, there was little information about her, but the world in which she was born and lived and died was an interesting time filled with turmoil, leading to the abolition of slavery in Britain, many decades before the Civil War in the United States forced Britain’s off-shoot to do the same. (And of course, there are those who say it never happened, but I won’t get into that.)

But who the young woman’s guardian was—and he was her guardian, entrusted to him by her father, John Lindsay, later admiral of the British navy—is beyond question: William Murray, Earl of Mansfield, lord chief justice, high muckety muck of the British judicial system, world-renowned expert on maritime law and all-around smart and thoughtful guy. With his wife, Mansfield raised Dido and her cousin Elizabeth (a family name—did you guess?) together, and later in his life, Dido acted as his secretary. Her later years—such as they were, since she married after the death of her guardian, had a few children, and died in her early 40s. Her resting place is uncertain, and since the cemetery she is thought to have been buried was moved, her remains are really lost to the ages. But Mansfield made sure she had money of her own, both during her life and after his, and so, after her death, her husband became a man of means and leisure—from her money. The injustice of that is twofold, but nothing new in any society.

Dido was a source of great curiosity in London society, not only because of her family background (in a time when the children of captured slaves would have been sluffed off or even killed, if not outright but of neglect, her father chose to recognize her, going so far as to entrust her care to a man of great note in society and politics) but her personality. With the exception of the questionable comments of an American, a Loyalist, living in exile in London at the time, she was known for her intelligence, beauty, and personality. This book gives us an idea of who she may have been. We’ll never know for sure, but we do get an idea of the times and the people in it.

COMING UP: I have something waiting for me at the library!

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Book log 31: A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century


by Barbara W. Tuchman

Years ago (when the Earth was young and so forth), I wandered into a store across the street from the World Trade Centers (so you know this was a long time ago) that was closing down. It wasn't a bookstore, but one of those mixed-offering stores that also had books. It was part of a chain that no longer exists, if that makes a difference to you. Anyway, many things were getting sold off, obviously, but I was most drawn to the book section. I spent most of my lunch hour there seeing what they had, and ended up with half a dozen volumes. One of these was another Tuchman book, The Guns of August.

Which I never got around to reading, of course, and it's still in waiting somewhere in my bookshelves to be unearthed and actually cracked open. But a historian like Tuchman always comes up when you're looking for something historical, and sooner or later, gasp! You actually hunt down a book and--you know--OPEN it. It happened to be A Distant Mirror, because inspiration I was seeking needed to be in a form of history from long ago, when the English we speak wasn't quite the same and in fact probably wouldn't have been intelligible, certainly not to most Americans.

Anyway, it was like opening Pandora's box, I tell you. There was a rush of detail and description and a flood of personalities and WOW. I knew nothing about France of that particular time, except for the occasional references I found in other things. I had read previously that France was the center of the universe in many ways at the time, but it wasn't until I started to read this work by Tuchman that I understood exactly what that meant. This work reminded me that it was one thing to know and another to REALLY comprehend. 

After viewing life through A Distant Mirror (yes, I think it's a requirement to use a pun this way with a title like this), I have a need to see the lands of Coucy. And if you ever block out a chunk of time to read this book, you will too.

COMING UP: Oh, so many choices, so little time, and more!

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Book log 30: His Road Home


I don't know why this is coming up as unreadable, but I persevere...

BOOK LOG 30: HIS ROAD HOME
by Anna Richland
I vaguely remembered Anna Richland talking about the setup of this story on a panel or something ages ago, but I had forgotten about it until I received an advanced reading copy of this short story (or is it a novella?). And it was wonderful. First of all, I thought Richland was writing about immortal Vikings, so when this story turned out to be about a coworker of one of those Vikings and what happens after he suffers a grievous injury after he steps on a land mine, it was a surprise. His path crosses with a marine biologist who grew up in the same small town, and the story is about the way they grow to learn about each other during a cross-country journey back home. Holiday stories can be annoying and cloying, but this was just right. Thank you, Anna!



COMING UP: Oh, so many choices, so little time, and more!

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

BOOK LOG 29: A SPY AMONG FRIENDS


A SPY AMONG FRIENDS: KIM PHILBY AND THE GREAT BETRAYAL
by Ben Macintyre
While the topic of espionage has been in the public eye and imagination for many years, I only got interested in it when we went to a traveling exhibit about spies at a local museum. While I can’t even pretend to understand what goes through the mind of someone who decides to do the spy thing, either against one’s own country or against another, we’ve been exposed to many different variations on the topic in the past fifty years, seeing the exhibit was certainly an eye-opener, as was this book.

Considering the stakes, the idea that spies were basically recruited because they had the right upper-crust background was horrifying, considering how in-bred and moronic the upper-crust and monied tend to be, no matter where you are (because I am not being politic here, I will not name names). But then I remembered reading about the Great Game back in the 19th century, and before that, about Benedict Arnold and his decision and miserable life afterward (not that I have an opinion or anything—but if what I’ve read is correct, his life wasn’t a great one in Britain), and clearly there are many reasons to do it, ranging from money to revenge to plain stupidity and it’s all been going on for as long as there have been people. The very term “tattletale” from our childhood says that informing on others is something that’s both encouraged and disapproved of, depending on which side of the telling you’re on.

As I read this book, memories of the exhibit came back vividly, with the devices used in World War II, vaguely reminiscent of various things seen in movies or read about in books or even spoofed in TV shows like GET SMART. When the Spy Museum in Washington DC first opened, I remember reading that various things that the producers in that show gave even the CIA itself some ideas of what to try, thus fiction giving color to reality.

But that’s fiction, and the story of Kim Philby is all too real. This was a story of friends betraying friends, of the “right people” deciding that whatever they did would be the right thing, even if it meant the tragic deaths of so many with their decisions. But their view was that those were pawns, and they were expendable, because they were not “their” kind—rich or of the right blood. It’s tempting to view espionage, in some way, as snobbery gone amok, but perhaps war is too—“you’re not my kind, and thus you are expendable.” Espionage and war.

COMING UP: Oh, so many choices, so little time, and more!

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Book log 28: Season of Storms


SEASON OF STORMS
by Susanna Kearsley
I don’t believe I’ve made any secret of my enthusiasm for Susanna Kearsley’s books. Years ago, I had a friend bring me one of her books from London, only to find out that her books weren’t available in the US, as frustrating a situation as finding out you can’t get Fortnum & Mason’s Queen Anne tea in this country any more. I still can’t get the tea, but at least her books can be bought here now! Season of Storms is something that Kearsley wrote twenty years ago, but only in the past few months, thanks to her US publisher, Sourcebooks, has it been available here. And because she chose not to update her older books, which she mentions in a foreword, there’s a faintly old-fashioned air to it, making it all the more Mary Stewart-ish. (In this book, email isn’t ubiquitous, so it is odd, but since the Italian countryside setting makes it all exotic and far, far away, it works. Think of how many times you’ve tried to use your cell and found out you had no reception, and that’s in an area with cell towers.)

Anyway, Kearsley’s newer books are more paranormal/historically based, while this is more romantic suspense, so yes, Stewart’s influence, as well as Daphne DuMaurier’s, is clear. In Season of Storms, a young actress gets the part of a lifetime as well as the trip of a lifetime, but quickly discovers that the play, referred to as the “unstageable play” (in contrast to Shakespeare’s “cursed play”), has a series of odd mysteries attendant. There’s a mysterious benefactor, characters with agendas of their own, etc. Like I said, both Stewart and DuMaurier are well-represented. I was particularly eager for this because I’d just spent a week rereading three books of Kearsley’s spanning a number of years both in book time and real time, with a character growing up from boyhood (Shadowy Horses) to hunky herohood (Firebird), with a stop in between (Winter Sea). This is heresy, but forget Outlander. This series made me want to see Scotland, and in particular Cruden Bay!

Same with Season of Storms. I always figured that the Italian countryside would be pretty, but I live in Washington state, so I’m used to pretty countryside outside the city. This made me want to see it. Curse you, Kearsley!

COMING UP: Oh, so many choices, so little time, and more!

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Book log 27: Cujo


CUJO
by Stephen King
I avoid horror for a simple reason. I terrify easily. (I also terrify easily, apparently, according to my hub, but that’s another topic.) I tried to read this book many decades ago, when I was traveling somewhere, and a coworker lent me his copy. I started to read it, understood why King was considered a master of the genre, and then put it away. And gave it back when I got back to work. My coworker chuckled, and that was that. Until now!

Well, I still had no intention of reading it, even after all these years, because I still terrify easily (both senses). But I was putting together an online workshop on voice and style, and I thought King would be a good example to look at, and this book in particular, because it takes something not mystical, not fantastical, just an everyday occurrence, really, and makes your everyday household pet something to look at nervously.

It should be noted that my last household pets passed away a few years ago, of cancer and old age. Their little ghosts have settled down, and with any luck their little souls are demanding food and attention in a worthy home, purring as they settle in as the cute little dictators they were in mine.

Anyway, here’s the thing about Stephen King’s work. The voice is workaday, almost conversational, nothing that stands out as being cutesy or histrionic or purplish. No, the voice would be easy to dismiss if that were the case. But in that way that the seemingly ordinary becomes extraordinary, he is the master of all he surveys because that seemingly ordinary voice and style is HOW he terrifies. King’s voice is a bit like those narrators in the scary theater TV programs, in which they speak of daily events, and then remind us that GEEZ LOUISE I’M GOING TO KEEP THE LIGHTS ON FOR A WHILE life can be surprising sometimes.

And it’s about a dog. Just a dog. A big, friendly, St. Bernard, a kid’s pet, a dog that should have been vaccinated. Poor, poor thing. At the end of the story, after the blood has been spilt and lives have been torn asunder, King reminds us that the dog was a faithful dog, who only wanted to be the best dog he could be for his people. But it just wasn’t in the cards for him.

Fortunately, the next book I have coming up is a historical romance. Without a rabid dog, I hope.

COMING UP: Oh, so many choices, so little time, and more!