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...

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


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

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

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!

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Upon awakening, I found this from the Emerald Isle

And of course, I was both flattered and more than a little guilt-stricken that my coauthor, Heather Hiestand, wasn't mentioned. But I did like that this was the first thing I saw in the morning!

Available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Apple, digital and print!

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Book log 26: Agnes and the Hitman

by Jennifer Crusie and Bob Mayer

This is yet another book that was purchased ages ago and never read at the time, but now, since I decided to use it for a workshop I'm presenting online for voice and style, I finally got around to reading it. And I was reminded once more that there's a reason why Crusie and Mayer are both New York Times best-selling authors, because by golly, they can spin a yarn. 

And Crusie has that irresistible, easy, smooth patter of voice and dialogue and she can make me laugh. I have said on occasion that I have no sense of humor (and Jacquie Rogers thinks this is uproarious when I say so), but the thing is, when it comes to language, I have no sense of humor. When it comes to stupidity I have no sense of humor. When it comes to poor writing, I really have no sense of humor. But Crusie manages to make me yelp with amusement, with unexpected bits and even bits that I can see coming, all with impeccable grammar. Mayer, writing adventure and men's fiction, writes plot-driven fiction, so he really drives story.

Agnes and the Hitman was written with Crusie and Mayer writing in particular POVs and then working on each other's work, so by the time they were done, voice was distinctive and yet smooth, the story not being hamstrung by opposing voices. I read Crusie and Mayer's first cowritten book, Don't Look Down, so I knew basically what to expect. (That was a book I also enjoyed, but the misspelling of a super-heroine's name in it? What the hell ever happened to editing, I ask you?!) But after reading this book, I think I'll have to make a point of reading Mayer's work alone. Although I'm not big on men's adventure books (comic books don't count), clearly he's good enough that he's going to make his readers happy, no matter what they opened that particular book to read.

Anyway, about Agnes and the Hitman. The heroine is a food columnist with anger issues (and a police record: assault with a deadly frying pan)(not just once, mind you, so she's essentially a serial frying pan assaulter) and the hero is an assassin who gets a call from his sole relative after many years to come back to town to protect a little girl. But it's not a little girl, it turns out. And she can pretty much take care of herself.

There are some books you read and you can guess what's coming in the long run, and some you can't, and some there's a combination of both. This is one of those books you find yourself swept up into the story, the details, and the characters, both major and minor, and you can't quite see the details coming together the way they do, and that's always a pleasure. 

And the funniest thing? As I was reading the last of this book, enjoying myself thoroughly, the final paragraph had a familiar pacing to it. And I realized it echoed the final paragraph of another of my favorite books, a fantasy in that case—and it turns out, something else I'm using for that workshop. What are the odds? (Okay, pretty good. But it was still as amusing as Agnes and the Hitman was!)

COMING UP: Believe it or not, Cujo. Good gravy, Cujo.