As one rabid Georgette Heyer fan to another, I'm sure you'll agree that we can't go home again to Regency England often enough. Here's a couple of time machines set on one-way, non-stop...
Miss Sarah Tolerance elopes with her brother’s fencing instructor from Regency England to the continent, and when he dies returns home. Cast off by her family, she determines to make her way in the world without falling into prostitution, the usual fallback of the Fallen Woman, and instead sets herself up as an Agent of Inquiry. Setting, plot and especially character are all excellent in Point of Honor and Petty Treason by Madeleine E. Robins. Trust me, you will believe a woman can be a PI in England in 1810.
What if the Napoleonic Wars had been fought with dragons? That's Naomi Novik's thesis in Her Majesty’s Dragon and its four sequels, in which swashbuckling action mix seamlessly with serious themes like class conflict and slavery. My favorite in the series, Empire of Ivory, turns history on its head by providing Africa with a capable, charismatic leader determined to unite the continent against slavery. Imagine if that had happened in real life. Novik's 19th century British dialogue and mastery of nautical detail are absolutely convincing. A thumpin' good read. [Note: And as I post this I discover to my great joy the sixth in the series, Tongue of Serpents, comes out in July!]
Big. Fat. Spoiler. Alert. Don't read any more until you've read the book.
If I may speak of this from a personal perspective, I have done the same thing with the Kate Shugak series that Jim Butcher has now done in Changes. I took her job away, albeit off stage, I killed her lover, I burned down her house. But in Changes Butcher does it all in one book, in 438 pages he strips Harry to the bone, divesting him of every possession, including his own soul. And then on the last page, he kills him.
Except the oncoming train tells me he hasn't. And also because I went hotfoot to his website to be reassured that Butcher is still saying there are twenty books in the series and this is only number 12.
My heart failed me too many times to mention, in steadily increasing palpitations. When Harry's office exploded, not so much, he hadn't been there in a while. When the Blue Beetle got squished beyond all hope of resurrection. When his house burned down and took his lab with it. When he broke his back. When he slaughtered the Winter Knight, I actually cried out "No, Harry, no!" What will Mab do to him? It's all very well for Ebenezer (Harry's grandfather! It all makes so much more sense now! Jesus, how far ahead does Butcher plot out these novels?) to say that Harry will always be able to choose, but Harry sold himself to Mab in exchange for healing and power, and he killed, deliberately, to get them. That's a bill I'm not sure he can pay.
When Butters got shot.
And then Harry kills Susan, the one woman he has ever loved, to save their daughter and put an end to the Red Court.
He gives Harry a daughter, and then he takes her away.
And then that horrible, wonderful bait-and-switch with Karrin at the end.
There are so many great, great scenes, but let me just single out a few.
The Grey Council arriving in the nick of time, when we finally get to see Blackstaff at work. "I got another one."
Karrin with Fidelacchius.
The great rif on the Fellowship of the Ring. (I will say I knew Martin was the rift within the lute, he was too impervious to injury. I did not see coming what the soul gaze he exchanges with Harry at the end reveals. But of course it fits, perfectly.)
The best part of this book is that Butcher waited this long to write it, to give us 11 previous chapters in Harry's life, giving us that much lead time to become completely invested in his character. We feel every hit Harry takes like it's aimed at us personally.
Incredibly well done, and leaving the reader wondering how the hell Harry's going to come back from this, and if he'll still be our Harry when he does. What a great place to leave us. Bravo!!
I’m not a soldier, I’m not a politician, so the best I can do when we go to war is read about it. Lately that’s been Charlie Wilson’s War by George Crile, The Dark Side by Jane Mayer, and The Forever War by Dexter Filkins.
Charlie Wilson’s War I can best describe as a tale of Robin Hood and his merry men, a bunch of Washington D.C. true believers who never got over the Vietnam War, robbing the federal government to give to what they called the Afghan freedom fighters virtually unlimited funds and war materiel to boot the Soviet’s invading army back across their own border. It is a very entertaining read, it’s well written and incredibly well researched, but reading now what happened then through the prism of current events, I’m left with a feeling of incredulity at the display of hubris on the part of Charlie and his merry men. I have also lost any faith I ever had in the oversight capability of Congress.
A much darker read is Jane Mayer’s The Dark Side, a painstaking and just amazingly detailed account of how extreme rendition (in English, kidnapping) and extreme interrogation (in English, torture) came to be public policy in the current administration. I can't say you'll enjoy reading this book, but it's a book that should be read, at the very least as a cautionary tale as to just how far things can go wrong when nobody's watching. It is reassuring to report that there are heroes, like David Brant, the head of NCIS, Alberto Mora, Counsel to the US Navy, the FBI agents who refused to have anything to do with the torture, and all those administration attorneys who, while they were hired because they had the correct conservative credentials nevertheless knew that kidnapping and torture are wrong, unconstitutional and unAmerican, and who fought the good fight against this program, some of them from the beginning, and some of whom were fired or forced to quit because of it.
The Forever War was written by Dexter Filkins, a New York Times reporter who has been on the ground in Afghanistan and in Iraq from the beginning, and whose prose never once gets in the way of the story he tells. Listen to this: “Sometimes I would walk into the newsroom that we had set up in the New York Times bureau in Baghdad, and I’d find our Iraqi employees gathered round the television watching a torture video. You could buy them in the bazaars in Baghdad; they were left over from Saddam’s time.” This book is as close to Iraq as you can get without being shot at, and that's okay with me.
Write Every Day Conference Oklahoma Writers Federation 2010 Conference Keynote speech on Online Marketing Campaigns for Books When Dan Case invited me to give the keynote address at this year’s OWFI conference, he told me the typical OWFI audience wants to hear “how the keynote speaker got here.” I’m tempted to say “American Airlines” and…
Scriptorus interruptus. So, my agent put me in touch with an editor in the UK, one Jane Johnson, who is an author in her own right. Jane very kindly offered to read what I had written so far of Silk and Song, and cast her pearls of wisdom before this humble writing swine. (That would…
Today it’s autobiographies, the story of a life from the first-person viewpoint of its main subject. There is no story like an eyewitness story--ask any cop.
First up, The Egg and I by Betty MacDonald. The author of the beloved Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle children’s books marries and moves to a chicken ranch on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington state in the 1930s. She is not a happy farmer, and she writes of everything and everyone from Stove to goeducks to the indigenous population both white and Indian with fearless sensibility and a hilarious eye for detail. This was a book written before the invention of political correctness, and it’s worth reading alone for her ruthless depiction of her neighbors, Ma and Pa Kettle. Yes, the Ma and Pa Kettle movies starring Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray were inspired by this book.
At the same time MacDonald was hating chicken farming in the US, Nevil Shute was building a dirigible in England. Before he wrote the post-apocalyptic classic On the Beach and the Australian romance A Town like Alice, Shute was an engineer working at the cutting edge of aviation. In Slide Rule, among other things, he tells the story of the British government sponsoring the simultaneous building of two dirigibles, one by private industry and one by government subsidy. The results are exactly what you might expect. A, you should pardon the pun, riveting read.
While MacDonald was coping with chickens and Shute was building zeppelins, Bill Mauldin was growing up in Arizona. You’ll remember Bill Mauldin for his iconic Willie and Joe cartoons, those two American GI’s slogging through the European mud of World War II. Many of those cartoons are reprinted in Mauldin’s autobiography, The Brass Ring, a grunt's-eye view of war. Mauldin’s prose style is as descriptive as his drawings. The interview with General George S. Patton, and Patton’s pit bull, is priceless.
Lastly I recommend Riding Rockets by Mike Mullane, an astronaut veteran of three shuttle flights. Funny, candid, detailed, with an easy prose style, Mullane has opinions about the shuttle program, NASA bureaucracy and the exploration of space, and he knows how to use them. He was a friend of fellow astronaut Judith Resnik, who died on Challenger, and he writes honestly about the pain of that loss. He is also very frank about the unpaid service of astronauts’ wives, and you will end this book thinking his own should be canonized. Riding Rockets is the best book by an astronaut since Michael Collins’ Carrying the Fire. Reading both back to back is a full history of the US astronaut corps.
Hard to believe, but T. Jefferson Parker just wrote a book better than Silent Joe. I hate him so much.
Iron River is the third in Parker's Charlie Hood series, which began with L.A. Outlaws and continued with The Renegades. One of the things I like about Jeff's Charlie Hood novels is that he lets Charlie have a past. I like a series that doesn't dismiss what came before, where the characters remember their own history. I do, why shouldn't they? And even if he did kill off my favorite character in the very first book, I'm willing to forgive Jeff anything for the recurring totem of this series, which is, believe me or believe me not, the actual head of Mexican American heartless killer or Robin Hood (pick one) Joaquin Murietta, which floats in a large, liquid-filled glass jar and is handed down to Murietta descendants, who appear as major characters in the Hood novels.
Iron River is about an almost biblical battle between beleaguered US law enforcement agents and seemingly invulnerable and unstoppable Mexican drug lords, with two actual battle scenes that will have you on the edge of your seat. The first one occurs early on, California/ATF cops against drug dealers, at night, across the border in a Mexican countryside where they have to watch out for rattlesnakes as they're sneaking up on the hacienda while trying not to be skewered on the cactus. The bad guys have flame throwers. No lie. Later on there is a scene where our heroes ride into a village that is reminiscent of one of the early Man With No Name films. (In my imagination Charlie's starting to look a little like Clint Eastwood.)
Later, Parker carries on the good-vs.-evil theme when Charlie has a close encounter with someone who may be the devil (I'm sure he is, but Charlie is unconvinced.). The devil even has a handmaiden. Later still, I was horrified when I realized I wanted the gunsmith to get away, just another example of Parker's great characterization: I'm rooting for all the wrong people. That will pull you up with a jolt.
Great characterization, epic plot and as always that wonderful Parker ability to put you right down in the southern California countryside, recoiling from the cholla spines. Jeff never fails to remind me how glad I am to live in Alaska. I'll take a grizzly bear over a rattlesnake any day.
I didn’t used to be that big with the fantasy, because after Oz, Middle Earth and Hogwarts, what was there?
Well, how about Chicago? Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden advertises in the present-day Chicago Yellow Pages under “W.” You know, for Wizard. He's got a skull named Bob as a sidekick, werewolves and a Knight Templar with a magical sword for backup, the White Council and The Red Court of vampires both on his ass, the Wizard Enforcer for a godfather and a real live fairy for a godmother. Butcher's almost got me believing in magic, these books are that good. Dead Beat, the seventh in the series, is still my favorite, but you should begin with the first, Storm Front.
It's been a long time since a book kept me up all night, and then I get four in a row, George R.R. Martin's A Game of Thrones and its three sequels. Instant addiction, that's what these books are, a mesmerizing epic fantasy of the family Winterfell, with marvelous characterizations (in particular the two girls, Arya and Daenerys, and the dwarf lord Tyrion), and a plot with more twists and turns than a sidewinder. There is love and lust, loyalty and betrayal, noble houses rise and kings fall, and let's not forget the creepiest boogeymen ever, known simply as "the Others." A wonderfully realized world, I can't wait to get back to it.
The Dragon and the George by Gordon R. Dickson is a great sword-and-sorcery novel featuring the valiant Jim Eckhert, whose love Angie is aported (not teleported, no, no) by mad scientist Grottwold into an alternate universe peopled by knights, dragons and really big rats. What's a hero to do? Why, go immediately to her rescue, only, of course, you guessed it, something goes ever so slightly wrong, and...but you should read it for yourself. The crankiest wizard of all time, one S. Carolinus, and then there is the Accounting Department.
You'll never feel safe in the woods again after you read Bitten by Karen Armstrong. Although you might not care if you thought you might meet Clay in there. Yum. The best book in the werewolf subgenre of fantasy fiction, great characters and a great you-are-there world of werewolf society, such a small and exclusive club. Armstrong poses some nice moral conundrums as well--it's hard to reconcile Clay the love interest with Clay the supremely selfish guy who wanted Elena so bad he'd actually---but no, I'll give it away.
The original fairy tales were dark and terrifying. You know how Cinderella’s stepsisters made their feet fit into the glass slipper in the original story? They cut their toes off. In The Godmother, author Elizabeth Ann Scarborough hauls them into the present day, in Seattle of all places, where it turns out fairy tales are no less dark or less terrifying. All the usual suspects appear, Cinderella, Snow White, Hansel and Gretel, and through all their lives the guiding hand of the Godmother. Imaginative, well-crafted, and, well, enchanting.
Some fun links from my Facebook page this past week– On Monday I posted this photo of a scarf I knitted from Astrid Bear’s Clown Barf yarn.Mostly, I admit, so I could put the words “Clown Barf Scarf” together in a sentence. And then a bunch of people chastised me for knitting instead of writing.…
Specifically, Regency romances, that subgenre set in England between 1811 and 1820, when George III went mad and his son, the Prince Regent, later to become George IV, assumed the powers of the throne. These are the days of Napoleon, Wellington, and Waterloo, Beau Brummell, and dresses with waists so high women went in danger of their breasts falling out of their bodices.
It is also the time of (sound of trumpets here) Jane Austen, who wielded one of literature’s sharpest and wittiest pens. I heard someone say once that the saddest words in Pride and Prejudice are “the end.” What he said. The novel itself is always and ever your first stop, but Pride and Prejudice has also been made into film at least seven times. My favorite is the BBC series starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth, but my guilty pleasure is Bride and Prejudice, director Gurinder Chadha’s Bollywood musical based on the novel. It’s as funny and smart as the original novel, which is saying something, and I defy you not to get up and dance in your pyjamas to “No Life Without Wife."
That I lived when Georgette Heyer wrote is a gift for which I will be ever grateful. Start with The Unknown Ajax, with dueling valets Polyphant and Crimplesham and of course the incomparable Lady Aurelia, continue with Frederica and the only definition of romantic love that has ever made sense to me, and then for a change of pace read A Civil Contract, her most serious and I think her best novel. Sandringham, the British equivalent of West Point, used Heyer’s An Infamous Army to teach cadets about the battle of Waterloo, and I recommend reading the three books leading up to it, too: These Old Shades, The Devil’s Cub and Regency Buck. These are characters made of flesh and blood, this is dialogue sharp enough to cut yourself on, and these books are nothing less than a time machine that will transport you directly to Regency England. Accept no substitutes.
Well, okay, except for…
Jude Morgan’s novel Indiscretion is simply delightful, a book even Georgette Heyer would love. The plot is tried and true; the destitute Miss Caroline Fortune (a self-fullfilling name if there ever was one) accepts a position as paid companion to holy domestic terror Mrs. Catling, but this plot is elevated by a prose so delightful as to transcend the genre. Let the book fall open to any page and you are sure to encounter a paragraph you positively must reread, all the better to keep laughing, as on p. 33, "The Colonel, on his deathbed, urged me to retire to Bath when he was gone. I informed him that as I was neither decayed spinster, ambitious tradesman or disreputable fortune-hunter, I could not fall in with his wishes. He was not in a condition to laugh, but I flatter myself there was amusement in his respiration." This, this is how the thing is done. A must read for any Heyer or Jane Austen fan.