Monday, October 19, 2015

"Darling Beast", by Elizabeth Hoyt

Darling Beast (Maiden Lane, #7)
Don't judge this one by its cover!
Darling Beast by Elizabeth Hoyt
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I'm not a big romance reader, but I enjoy the occasional indulgence of one the same way I do the occasional rich, chocolaty dessert. Well, if it's it's good, anyway. If it doesn't grab me then I'm not shy about quitting a few chapters or pages in. I had the opportunity to pick up a copy of "Darling Beast", a charming historical romance, directly from the author this past weekend at the 2015 Emerald City Writers Conference. Ms. Hoyt is a hoot, and we spent a few happy moments commiserating about costuming in historical TV and film.

Having now read the book, it's obvious that she has put in the time doing research on the material and social culture of 1740s England, where the novel is set. All the historical research in the world won't help if the story is clunky or boring, however. I'm pleased to say that in this case the research is coupled with likable, interesting characters, an intriguing setting, and a bit of mystery to solve.

Oh, and there's just enough steaminess to keep a person warm on a cool Fall evening. Maybe enough that at a few points it felt like TMI time, but then I'm happy with "less is more". That said, although there are some HBO-worthy moments of passion, I never felt uncomfortable enough to skim and "get on with the story". Perhaps it was the grounded presentation of the lead characters, warts and all, with attendant touches of humor, that kept me engrossed even in their most private moments. Whatever the reason, I ended up binge reading the 321 pages, winding it up around 0300 and wondering where the time had gone.

This never happens to me with a romance. Well, hardly ever. Not only that, but I'm excited to get my hands on the next one in the series, and not just because it features a former Captain of Dragoons from this novel whom I found just as intriguing as this one's male lead. (clunky sentence penalty)

Anyway: If I chose to I could probably find something to nitpick about, but it would be infinitesimally minor. I think this is worth anybody's time. I'd love to see this as a film, as the setting(s) would lend themselves to a lush cinematic treatment, and the characters are varied and unique. Two thumbs up!

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Thursday, September 03, 2015

Start of Autumn

Autumn is just about here, and it's not fooling around. We could here it roaring in the distance this last Saturday, when a sudden storm blew in with gusts in the 50 mph range. It's been so bone dry, with only a couple of real rains all summer, that the Puget Sound area looks more like southeast Oregon than its usual perpetually verdant self. The trees, in an act of self preservation, went into drought crisis mode and shunted what little moisture they had to their trunks. This left the branches dry...and brittle. You can guess what happened when that gale blew in.

We were across the bay in Port Gamble on Saturday, where History Pundit Spouse was giving his Historical Firearms talk at their first annual Steampunk Festival. It's a perfect place for something like that, it being a mid-19th century logging mill town frozen in time, one of the last real mill (company owned) towns in the country. Our "lecture hall" was the parlor of the Walker-Ames mansion, a magnificent pile in need of restoration but still in good enough shape for the occasional ghost walk or Steampunk convention. As I ran the Power Point for Gordon, I could look over his shoulder and see huge swells rolling northward up the bay, driven by the constant south wind. The power only flickered once (yay!) during the talk, in the wake of a massive gust that shook the house, and caused the projector to re-boot, but we made it.

A spot of tea sounded delightful, so we packed up our gear and repaired across the street to meet friends at the Tea Shop...and the whole town went down. The thoughtful chef bagged up some scones, jam, cream and lemon curd for us to take home. Stopping to chat with the fabricator of a spectacular Steampunk armored car, we snapped some photos and then noticed the power was it was back to the tea shop for us! Many goodies and a veritable cask of Monkey Snow Plum tea later, we finally turned home.

The many, many downed trees and large branches we passed did not bode well, and sure enough our power was out when we pulled in to ye farm. Our one mechanical clock indicated it had gone out at almost precisely noon, which was about when we'd felt that giant gust across the bay in Port Gamble. We heat with wood, a stove we can cook on if necessary and the weather's cold enough to warrant stoking it, we have plenty of oil lamps and candles, but what we do not have is a water tower or hand pump for the well. When the power's out, we have no water. Luckily it was raining and the rain buckets and barrels were full, but it's still a pain when you're trying to get water to horses, chickens, and, most importantly, the toilet.

Apparently around 500,000 people were without power in the area. Yeah, Fall is pretty much here. It took three days and a couple of phone calls to get our power restored. Having no electricity delayed our already bumped episode of the History Files podcast. It also meant I wasn't able to start the detox/cleanse/healing diet I'd been longing to start the minute PAX was done, but it wasn't exactly a crisis.

The weather, despite the occasional thunderstorm, is actually pretty mild right now. I love this time of year and always have. I love going barefoot in warm weather, but I also love pulling on fluffy socks and wearing lots of loose layers. Fall means notebooks, pencils, art supplies, new clothes... ok, those are childhood happy memories, but Fall still means the smell of maple leaves, wood smoke, seeing your breath in the morning air, birthdays (for me and my sister), and the thrill of coming up with a costume for Halloween. The cats are growing their winter coats and are already starting to look fuzzy instead of svelte and shiny. The chickens are slowing down their laying, and the grass is greening back up after looking like the Sahara for months. I have a pile of apples to process in the kitchen, blackberries in the freezer to make something with, and the squash will be ready to start eating soon. I love this time of year.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Last Days of Summer

It's the middle of August here in the Pacific Northwest, the East side of Puget Sound, to be exact. This afternoon around 5:30 I stepped outside to give the chickens some scraps, and instead of a blast of heat at the end of a blindingly sunny Summer day, I was met with a soft, barely cool breeze. What a difference from the years I spent in Northern California, where I pretty much just hid for six months of the year until the heat wave passed. Right now in Stockton and L.A. and Sacramento people are cranking their air conditioners day and night, while up here we manage to keep things under control with an "open windows at night, closed and shuttered during the day" policy. Usually this means just closing up whichever side of the house is in sun at the moment, and leaving the other sides open to the breeze, unless it gets over 80 F at which point I batten the hatches and turn on a couple of ceiling fans.

As a native-born Washingtonian, this is a time of year I loathed in California. After months of unbearable heat which never seemed to abate, I was ready to jump in front of a bus by August, knowing that the worst was far from over and probably wouldn't be until darned near Halloween. As a little kid growing up near Seattle, my memories of Halloween involved much whining about having to wear a coat over my costume to go trick-or-treating. Now I'm just grateful that I'm back where Autumn actually means "cooler weather", and "back to school" clothes involved new sweaters, wool skirts, courderoy pants, and a new coat of some kind. Ordering socks and sweaters from the Sears catalog was an end-of-Summer ritual that heralded both the advents of the school and Holiday seasons, as well as in our household both my and my sister's October birthdays.

The landscape, especially this year with the crazy dry weather, is scorched and brown, but the daytime high temperatures are manageable for even this heat weenie. The breeze even at midday is refreshing. The sun is setting at a more reasonable hour. The leaves on the maple trees are browning early because of our unseasonably hot and dry Summer, which adds to a feeling that Fall is just around the corner. The apple tree is full, and it's just about time to get picking before the crows get into their annual "take just one big bite out of each apple" routine. Time to fill the kitchen with the smell of apples and cinnamon. Extra perk of not being a little kid anymore: I don't have to wear a coat over my Halloween costume if I don't want to.

Friday, April 03, 2015

The Cross

It's (non-Orthodox) Easter this Sunday, and Ravi Zacharias' short essay on the cross and what it represents is worth a few minutes of your time.
There is...(a)...word we often hear when we are in the throes of indescribable pain, the word, “excruciating.” That, too, derives from the Latin and means “out of the cross.” Across time and human experience, the historical event of the Cross intersects time and space and speaks to the deepest hurts of the human heart.
But we live with more than pain and suffering. We also live with deep hungers within the human heart, such as the hunger for truth, for justice, forgiveness, and peace. As I see it, there is only one place in the world where these hungers converge: it is in the Cross of Christ, where perfect peace and perfect justice became united in one death on a Friday afternoon.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

"The Spook Lights Affair: Carpenter & Quincannon #2", by Marcia Muller and Bill Pronzini

The Spook Lights Affair (Carpenter and Quincannon, #2)The Spook Lights Affair by Marcia Muller
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It takes a solid grasp of a historical setting to impress me, and these authors do exactly that and more. Add to that a perplexing suicide/murder/or?, a hunt for missing Wells Fargo money, and assorted other mysteries that may or may not be related, and you have an interesting tour of 1895 San Francisco and environs. This is so nicely put-together that I wasn't even aware that I was reading the second in a series until I checked the cover/title about a third of the way in. The authors weave in 19th century idiom and conversational style without it seeming forced or flowery, the principal characters are believable and engaging, and the conclusion satisfying without being melodramatic. Good solid mystery writing in the vein of Conan Doyle meets Dorothy Sayers.

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"Rogue's Honor", by Brenda Hiatt

Rogue's Honor (The Saint Of Seven Dials, #1)Rogue's Honor by Brenda Hiatt
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this charming, and occasionally steamy, Regency romance as I'm a very tough audience when it comes to the romance genre and historicals in general. Nicely realized setting, interesting arcs for the characters, plenty of bumps in the road to happiness without being overly frustrating, and a satisfying set of conclusions that don't come off as contrived. I love a strong heroine and Pearl is stalwart without coming across as bitchy, in fact I would love to have had a girlfriend like her in my early twenties. Very minor "technical" issues with how horsemanship is presented; nothing egregious, just the same old misconceptions about use of reins and legs, and for all I know this was common equitation in the early 19th century. Again: very minor.

Don't let the "Dread Pirate Roberts" cover put you off. Looking forward to reading more by this author.

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Sunday, January 18, 2015

"The Banishment", by M.C. Beaton

The BanishmentThe Banishment by Marion Chesney
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Hunting around for an audio book on my library's web site, I stumbled upon this little gem. A big fan of Beaton's Hamish MacBeth series, I thought I'd give it a go. What a treasure! Beaton may have out-Regency'd Georgette Heyer. I would like to have been a bit more deeply "inside the head" of any of the POV characters, but this is a minor complaint. This would make a charming feature film to rival anything made from Austen's work in the last few decades. Thank goodness Beaton cranked out piles of historical romances before she made it big with MacBeth. I'm looking forward to exploring them all.

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Sunday, January 11, 2015

"A Heartless Design": why is this not alt-history?

A Heartless Design (Secrets of the Zodiac, #1)A Heartless Design by Elizabeth Cole

This may be a good story. I don't know, because I didn't make it past the first few pages. The cover is pretty and vaguely Regency despite the bad/21st century hair on the model (not the author's fault), so I was guessing this was a historical romance. After a few paragraphs I was confused and thought maybe this was supposed to be alt history or Steampunk, and since I was reading an e-version had to look up the blurb online. Nope. It's listed as a "Regency romance". What with there being a steel (sic) ship with a mechanical drive system powering a screw, and all of it designed by a woman in the first decade of the 19th century, I would not consider it historical. Iron (not steel) cladding wasn't used for another fifty years, not to mention steam propulsion. Hopefully Cole makes a big deal of the designer being female, because that would have been huge back then, too. I'm not saying there weren't women designing things in the early 19th century (Ada Lovelace!), but it was not commonplace and they would have had huge social and commercial obstacles to surmount. Anyway, I couldn't continue with that much askew right out of the gate.

I can't give it a serious rating of any kind since I didn't read it.

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Saturday, January 10, 2015

"The Martian", by Andy Weir: This is sci-fi

The MartianThe Martian by Andy Weir
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is sci-fi at its best. Utterly compelling, technologically interesting, populated with believable characters, and edge-of-your-seat thrilling. Truly awesome.

Yes, I liked it.

I've looked at a few one star reviews that complain about it being overly technical or bloated with "too much math". Folks, this is a gripping blow-by-blow story of an astronaut...stranded on Mars. What were you expecting? The sheer amount of research that went into writing this is mind-boggling on its own. If you don't like hard sci-fi, then this one is not for you. I myself hate math and I LOVE this book. I have nothing but admiration for the kind of brains it takes to do what this protagonist does. He's a true superhero and this is the kind of science fiction I adored as a kid. Two space thumbs up, Mr. Weir.

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