Books I Have Loved 2016

2016 reading.png

Many of these are not newly published, so apologies if everything on here is old news to you! I don’t know what to say about this eclectic mess, or what it says about me. I can’t pick an absolute favorite as I liked each of these for different reasons. Here they are by month read, with a couple of “cheats” over the border of one month to the next for books that I liked better than anything else I read in the following month. Also discovered that I have a lot of “lost” books on my Kindle. For example Luther Siler’s Benevolence Archives, of which I loved the sample and even meant to recommend to a friend, got lost or it would most likely be on this list. I must make a TBR list, and learn to make Kindle collections. And read Benevolence Archives soon, before it gets lost once again in my massive TBR!

January
The Sorcerer’s Garden by D.Wallace Peach

February
How To Be A Tudor by Ruth Goodman

March
The Next Thing On My List by Jill Smolinski

April
Power of the Matchmaker by Karey White

May
Far West: The Diary of Eleanor Higgins by Linell Jepson

June
You Learn by Living: Eleven Keys for a More Fulfilling Life by Eleanor Roosevelt

July
The Mini Farming Handbook by Brett L Markham

August
The Vampire’s Mail Order Bride by Kristen Painter

September
Miss Landon and Aubranael by Charlotte E. English

October
Through Streets Broad and Narrow by Gemma Jackson

November
The Grief Recovery Handbook by John W. James and Russell Friedman

December
Tools of Titans by Timothy Ferriss

Your Slip is Showing

I just abandoned a Historical Romance novel set in the mid-1800s because of its underwear. In some cases of underwear missteps, I’ll limp on if the underwear is the only problematic part of the story. But one of the things that I’ve noticed is that if the underwear is a problem, there are almost inevitably other flaws that will render the book unreadable for me.

1830s gown

Woman’s 1830s sleeve plumper, muslin dress and straw bonnet, via Wikimedia Commons

Here’s the thing about Historical Romance. It has to walk a fine line between authenticity and fantasy to work as a story that ‘s going to entertain a modern reader. A lot of Historical Romance depends on characters behaving badly (for their time). That’s part of the fun, really. Will they get caught alone in the summerhouse? Will he be forced to offer marriage because her maid found those racy notes and gave them to her father? Will she fend off his advances, or find a way to encourage him?

So why the big deal about underwear? Clothing, even intimate clothing that most people don’t see, shapes not only our figures but our behavior. If you consider the photo, there is no way a woman is going to be that particular shape unless she’s wearing underwear that makes her that shape. The clothing will dictate a great deal of her body language by the movements it allows and disallows.

In the novel in question, the heroine decides to go underwear free at the suggestion of her suitor. It’s a character motivation breaking moment. No lady in straitened circumstances would risk sweating all over one of her few good gowns in an age where laundry was difficult even with a dedicated lady’s maid. Also, even if you ignore the impossibilities of fit, which the author tries to hand-wave away with a reference to the heroine’s preternaturally small waist, everybody at dinner would know. Her bodice would be lumpy and strange, her skirts and sleeves wouldn’t hang correctly. Sweat stains generated by the summer heat referred to in the story would spread on the “thin, sensuous, delicate silk” like the frustrated tears of costume junkies on our modern paper tissues.

You could argue that I’m just grumpy, and these sorts of missteps don’t bother that many readers. Do a little internet searching on the subject and you will find that grumpy historical readers are legion. It’s lazy not to do your research. You might think that you might deserve a free pass because you think the rest of your book is so sexy and so good, you don’t and it isn’t.

If you want to write a story with a heroine who daringly goes to dinner with no underwear, pick a time period (there are LOTS AND LOTS) when that would actually be physically possible. Otherwise, your heroine is nothing but a hot mess inside and out.

Vivian Roycroft: A Different Sort of Perfect

roycroftA few reviewers on Amazon have dubbed this “Master and Commander meets Jane Austen”.  It’s very much more “Master and Commander” than “Jane Austen”, for all that it’s a romance set in the Regency period. It’s definitely a romance, but it’s not a steamy, tumultuous, emotionally stormy book, not even by Jane Austen standards. The falling in love happens sotto voce, in the thoughts and observations of the characters, not played out on the main deck.

In “A Different Sort of Perfect”, Roycroft takes a very common Romance novel trope, the female stowaway, and then proceeds to write an entirely unexpected story that seems at least in part based on the premise of what would really happen if. . . Of course it’s a fantasy. There’s no “rocks fall, everybody dies” scenarios of “woman gets thrown into brig and put off at first available port” or “pirates live up to their name and unspeakable things happen”.

What does happen is where the “Master and Commander” part comes in. Roycroft presents a naval world that actually makes sense. She blends her stowaway and the inevitable stowaway/captain romance into that world in a way that seems much more believable than the more usual stowaway romances.

The heroine has the strongest character arc, growing and changing in a manner similar to a midshipman in one of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey Martin novels while never masquerading or becoming a boy herself. I love the way she grows from spoiled, unrealistic, and willful into a confident woman who realizes her own worth and capabilities, and who has compassion for others.

If you like shipboard romances, give this thing a try. There will be no skinny-dipping in moonlit tropical bays, no captain’s cabins the size of luxury hotel suites complete with bathtubs, and no stolen kisses in the rigging, but there will be a very engaging story with characters both main and secondary that will quickly seem like friends.

Review: No Time to Cry by Stasia Morineaux

No Time to Cry

by Stasia Morineaux

This book has a really grabby opener– it starts right bang on the action with no fooling around with scene setting or back story. Sometimes I find that disorienting. Here I found it engaging and suitable for the story, which follows the story of a *very* disoriented protagonist, Isabelle, as she navigates her new life-after-life career as an escort for recently deceased souls.

Suddenly Isabelle is catapulted into an unfamiliar world of hard to pronounce Celtic myth and legend, and her ability to fit in will determine whether she gets to keep her new life or not.  The reader, like Isabelle, has a lot to learn about the inhabitants and workings of this Celtic afterlife world. Fortunately the author has provided us with a glossary and a pronunciation guide!

Stylistically, it’s as if Chick Lit and High Celtic Fantasy had a love child. There have been other books that attempt a similar mash up and some that are quite successful, like Dead is the New Black. I think No Time to Cry is an even more ambitious mashup since it doesn’t just add supernatural elements to the modern world, but instead introduces us to a whole new mythology.

There’s a lot going on in this book. Mistaken and secret identities, behind the scenes plots and subterfuges, hidden enemies and secret allies, unknown powers, romantic subplots. It’s all a bit much to resolve in one novel so of course it doesn’t, ending instead with a cliff hanger guaranteed to have readers anxiously biting their nails in anticipation of the next book. Coping with cliffhanger endings and waiting for book releases are not strengths of mine, so I finished with a bit of pouting and foot stamping.

If you enjoyed the TV series Dead Like Me and/or Lost Girl, you’ll like this book. There seems to be quite a bit of angels and reapers type stuff around these days. No Time to Cry is a unique, well written, contender in this growing paranormal sub-genre. I lucked into a reveiwer’s copy, you can snatch up your own for only 99 cents right now on Amazon.

G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra

On Monday we went to G.I. Joe Rise of Cobra, which may only be beaten by "Tokoyo Gore Police" as the worst movie I've seen in a very long time. I was absolutely addicted to the 80s G.I. Joe cartoon. G.I. Joe the cartoon and comic had capable, complex women characters. Very few action adventure movies or series treat their women as well as G.I. Joe. This movie pooped all over that as well as being deadly dull in other areas. If your plot depends on your leading man being indecisive and unable to do his duty and you're making an action movie, you are in deep, deep trouble. We like the sensitive mens, but we don't like the sensitive mens who are so sensitive that they don't do what they must to save their comrades and not commit dereliction of duty. Plus. Too many explosions. Never thought you'd hear me say that, but really it is possible to blow too much shit up and "G.I. Joe Rise of Cobra" went there.

Back to the women. Scarlett can still take down the bad guys with or without her nifty crossbow, but she needs rescuing by the boys and is turned into a love interest for Ripcord. Ripcord and Scarlett are cute as a couple, but please do not be making Scarlett into someone who needs to be rescued by her one true love. And it would have been nice if they hadn't turned Scarlett, originally a complex character who had a complex relationship with Snake Eyes, into some kind of sad little genius person with emotional development issues. Why couldn't she have had a complex and authentic relationship with Ripcord if they were going to pair her off with someone new? Bleh, I say. Blech.

The Baroness is reduced from her awesomely complex moral ambiguity to a mind-controlled love interest for Our Hero. The mind control thing existed in the cartoon/comic, but had a different flavor. The Baroness seemed totally happy COMMANDING COBRA (instead of being rescued from teh evul by her once true love) even when she wasn't all jacked up on mind control chip. Really, this turning capable women into love interests in remakes and re-imaginings needs to stop. What's next, a remake of "Courage Under Fire" in which the brave Karen is simply working to save her boyfriend and doesn't die after all, but is instead rescued by said boyfriend at a later moment?

Cover Girl is transformed from awesome tank jockey into an Aide de Camp who gets killed fairly early. We're missing Lady J., Jinx and Snake Eye's pet wolf (I'm not sure the wolf was a girl, but really, I'm in a totally pissy mood about this movie, so where's Snakey's wolf? Huh? Huh!!) and pretty much every other female character. Because an action movie only needs a couple, right?

There will be sequels. Sigh.

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Arranged

Arranged is a little indie movie you probably haven't heard of. It's the story of Rochel and Nasirah, two young Brooklyn schoolteachers who are about to enter into arranged marriages. Rochel is an Orthodox Jew, Nasirah is Muslim. Their shared difficulties with dealing with the demands of their families and cultures in the 21st century is portrayed in a thoughtful and non-judgmental way. It's interesting insight into two American subcultures into which most of us never get a meaningful glimpse.

There's a great Review of it at Jewish Week: The Sheitel and the Hjab

I'm probably setting my feminist and liberal friends' teeth on edge. First homeschooling apologia and then movies sympathetic to patriarchal cultures.

I am of two minds on the headscarf thing. On one hand, I think that veils are a despicable symbol of female submission. On the other, having worn headrails continuously in SCA persona, I know that there's a subtle strength there that we modern females have no access to. For a Muslim or Orthodox woman to wear such things in the US today takes a great strength of character. It does annoy me when it's portrayed as modesty. There is nothing modest or humble about marking oneself in such a noticeable way. But it is a great show of pride in one's traditions, and I do respect that aspect of it a lot.

Arranged marriages, well, Ick. I wouldn't presume to try to arrange marriages for my children when they were of age, but with over half of all American marriages ending in divorce I feel we have got no moral ground to speak from

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Neil Gaiman’s Graveyard Book

The Graveyard Book
Neil Gaiman

A riff off of Rudyard Kipling's Jungle Book, this is a middle grade reader sort of book that I really enjoyed. It doesn't have the torturous language or moralism of Kipling's 1897 book, but it does have the structure: stories within a story building up to the finale. Parts of the story seem to have been kept deliberately shallow. It may be that I don't judge the audience very well; since the Girl Unit isn't home I don't have her opinion to help guide me. As an adult reader I found myself thinking that he hadn't gone into more detail with one thing or another because its a middle grade reader. A middle grade reader might notice the lack of detail and feel talked down to, though.

Looking at the (very few in number) poor reviews on Amazon.com (I like to see what people didn't like about books that I like, I find it educational), the things that other people seemed to find most upsetting was a middle grade reader starting with a bloody murder and the supposed lack of happy ending. The ending is not unhappy and ends very much like Jungle Book. The story has ended well, but the boy's story is in many ways just beginning. We don't really need to know what happened to him after this. Chances are he finished growing up, became a tax accountant and now has 3 kids, a dog and an odd penchant for ouija boards.

The whole "how dare he start a book for children with murder?" crowd simply mystifies me. I've no clue what they've been reading or what reality they've been living in, but golly, everything from Snow White on up has that sort of stuff. Unless you're going to keep your kids reading Teddy Ruxpin flip out books for their entire lives, they *are* going to come across some unhappy scenes in literature.

If you don't mind reading middle grade readers, I highly recommend Graveyard Book to anyone.

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