Monday, August 21, 2017

Mondays Need a Good Book: STRANGE THE DREAMER

Strange the Dreamer (Strange the Dreamer, #1)

The dream chooses the dreamer, not the other way around—and Lazlo Strange, war orphan and junior librarian, has always feared that his dream chose poorly. Since he was five years old he’s been obsessed with the mythic lost city of Weep, but it would take someone bolder than he to cross half the world in search of it. Then a stunning opportunity presents itself, in the person of a hero called the Godslayer and a band of legendary warriors, and he has to seize his chance or lose his dream forever.

What happened in Weep two hundred years ago to cut it off from the rest of the world? What exactly did the Godslayer slay that went by the name of god? And what is the mysterious problem he now seeks help in solving?

The answers await in Weep, but so do more mysteries—including the blue-skinned goddess who appears in Lazlo’s dreams. How did he dream her before he knew she existed? And if all the gods are dead, why does she seem so real?

Welcome to Weep.

I loved everything about this book. The characters, particularly Lazlo, are so endearing and complex and GOOD (as in good people, not well-drawn characters). I love rooting for people worth rooting for. The world is absolutely amazing. The story is fascinating and unexpected. I did foresee the two main twists at the end, but I enjoyed the journey to them nonetheless. This had all the wonder and delight of an excellent fantasy.

And Laini Taylor's writing. WOW. Every word she writes is lush--perfectly chosen and immersive.

In all honesty, hold your horses! I thought this was a standalone, and I'm not sure I can wait until the sequel comes out. I'm dying to read it. But if you're more patient than I (not hard), grab it. It's everything I love about fantasy.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Mondays Need a Good Book: BLOOD ROSE REBELLION

Blood Rose Rebellion (Blood Rose Rebellion, #1) 

THE BLURB: Sixteen-year-old Anna Arden is barred from society by a defect of blood. Though her family is part of the Luminate, powerful users of magic, she is Barren, unable to perform the simplest spells. Anna would do anything to belong. But her fate takes another course when, after inadvertently breaking her sister’s debutante spell—an important chance for a highborn young woman to show her prowess with magic—Anna finds herself exiled to her family’s once powerful but now crumbling native Hungary.

Her life might well be over.

In Hungary, Anna discovers that nothing is quite as it seems. Not the people around her, from her aloof cousin Noémi to the fierce and handsome Romani Gábor. Not the society she’s known all her life, for discontent with the Luminate is sweeping the land. And not her lack of magic. Isolated from the only world she cares about, Anna still can’t seem to stop herself from breaking spells.

As rebellion spreads across the region, Anna’s unique ability becomes the catalyst everyone is seeking. In the company of nobles, revolutionaries, and Romanies, Anna must choose: deny her unique power and cling to the life she’s always wanted, or embrace her ability and change that world forever.

THE SCOOP: I adored two things about this book. One was how the author created a magic system and wove it into Victorian British life--so creative and interesting, with a great voice that reminded me of Georgette Heyer's tone (I have NO HIGHER PRAISE).  I also adored the Hungarian setting. It gave dimension to the plot and helped the story take unexpected turns that felt in keeping with the place.

THE VERDICT: Read it fast, fast, fast, before the sequel comes out! Look at all that gold.35386010

Friday, August 11, 2017

Caught My Fancy Friday: Maurice Utrillo's NOTRE DAME

I fell in love with this painting of Notre Dame by Maurice Utrillo. I'd like it in my house. I'd like to be in Paris. The end.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Mondays Need a Good Book: FIRST CLASS MURDER

First Class Murder (Murder Most Unladylike Mysteries, #3) 

THE BLURB:Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong are taking a holiday through Europe on the world-famous Orient Express. From the moment the girls step aboard, it's clear that each of their fellow first-class passengers has something to hide. Even more intriguing: rumour has it that there is a spy in their midst.

Then, during dinner, there is a bloodcurdling scream from inside one of the cabins. When the door is broken down, a passenger is found murdered, her stunning ruby necklace gone. But the killer is nowhere to be seen - almost as if they had vanished into thin air.

Daisy and Hazel are faced with their first ever locked-room mystery - and with competition from several other sleuths, who are just as determined to crack the case as they are.

THE SCOOP: I was late discovering this BEYOND CHARMING set of mysteries. An alpha British girl and a quiet girl from Hong Kong form a detective club at their boarding school and solve murders.

This one charmed the socks off me. It takes place on the Orient Express--and the author says it's an homage to Murder on the Orient Express, one of her favorite mysteries--and mine. It's middle grade, which is about the level of gore Agatha Christie used, and about my own comfort level. 

THE VERDICT: A delightful series! My 11-year-old son was desperate to read the others after reading this one.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Caught My Fancy Friday: Aveiro, Portugal's Blue Tile

A few years ago, I tagged along with my baby sister while she gave a paper at an academic conference in Aveiro, Portugal (at a university where students wore robes like Harry Potter!). We learned that Aveiro is called the Venice of Portugal, and I took a cruise on its canals--twice.

Spoiler alert: the canal is short and ends in a salt production facility.

But I really loved the town. Since the buildings are exposed to so much humidity and salt water, many of them are covered in blue tiles. I adore the combo of practicality and drop-dead gorgeousness. Behold!
 Even the inside of its train station used these blue tiles. I love it.

These are the types of details I love writers to include in their fantasy worlds. Not just the products of an amazing imagination, but with a dash of practicality thrown in. That's probably the mom in me! But I think the inhabitants of fantasy worlds probably need to consider humidity and sea air when building their ocean-side cities, too.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Mondays Need a Good Book: THE SMOKE HUNTER

 The Smoke Hunter

THE BLURB: "London, 1898. Archivist Eleanora Mallory discovers a map to a legendary city . But is it the key to unravelling an ancient mystery or a clever hoax?

"Compelled to find out, Ellie journeys to Central America - with a merciless enemy hot on her heels.

"In a race to uncover the map's secret first, Ellie is forced to partner with maverick archaeologist Adam Bates, a man she's not sure she can trust. Together, they venture into an uncharted wilderness alive with smoke and shadows, where an even greater danger awaits them.

"For what lies there whispering to be unearthed has the power to bring the world to its knees."

THE SCOOP: This book is charming and delightful--and it's not even YA! It's like a mash-up of the best parts of Romancing the Stone, Indiana Jones, and the Amelia Peabody books. The adventure is smart and fresh, I love enemies-to-friends romances, and the heroine is feisty, smart, and swashbuckling. I want ten more like this ASAP.

THE VERDICT: Take this on vacation. You're welcome.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Caught My Fancy Friday: Keys

I love keys. These are from two different museum collections--one in the Netherlands and one in France. Aren't they darling? Aren't you DYING to know what they unlocked? I'm pretty sure treasure would have to lie behind any door these keys opened.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Mondays Need a Good Book: THE HATE U GIVE

 The Hate U Give

THE BLURB: "Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter moves between two worlds: the poor neighborhood where she lives and the fancy suburban prep school she attends. The uneasy balance between these worlds is shattered when Starr witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend Khalil at the hands of a police officer. Khalil was unarmed.

"Soon afterward, his death is a national headline. Some are calling him a thug, maybe even a drug dealer and a gangbanger. Protesters are taking to the streets in Khalil's name. Some cops and the local drug lord try to intimidate Starr and her family. What everyone wants to know is: what really went down that night? And the only person alive who can answer that is Starr.

"But what Starr does or does not say could upend her community. It could also endanger her life."

THE SCOOP: Here's the main thing--it's kept me thinking for months. Here's a few other things:
  • The author's voice is out-of-this-world perfect.
  • I felt like I was immersed in a foreign culture in my own country. The vocabulary, the families, the religion, the food, the interactions between friends, the relationships with the police and teachers and parents.
  • She shows the good and the bad of that culture with unflinching honesty.
  • It brings the Black Lives Matter movement to heart-breaking life.
  • Parts of it made me cringe, but I think that was the intent.
THE VERDICT: I wouldn't recommend this book to a really young teen. There's a lot of language and some sexual content. However, there's also a moving confrontation with a social issue at the forefront of many teens' lives, and I'm not sure it could have been done without the language. This book is a wonderful, page-turning, make-me-think-er. Read it and let's chat, please.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Caught My Fancy Friday: Peterhof, GOLD AND SPARKLY

Peter the Great (like every other eighteenth-century monarch with delusions of grandeur) visited Versailles and wanted his own. And in typical Peter the Great fashion, his version was bigger and better. The statues were not gold-leafed during his time, but it is an improvement I can definitely get behind. SPARKLE, STATUES, SPARKLE.

He designed Peterhof to be approached from the sea. This sea channel below leads straight from the gulf to the Grand Palace. They often held boat parades in the sea (Peter's navy was stationed at an island within sight) that ended with boats floating up the sea channel.

This sculpture above of Samson conquering a lion in hand-to-hand combat wasn't added until shortly after Peter's death, but it represents Russia (Samson) conquering Sweden (lion on the Swedish coat of arms) in the Great Northern War (which they won on St. Samson's Day).

I really love the checkerboard floors all over Peterhof.

You can see the Grand Cascade flowing down from the Grand Palace right behind these two grand teenagers.

Those arches mark the entrance(s) to the Grotto . . . one of my favorite parts of Peterhof.

 Grottos! Fountains! Golden buttocks! No sign of the crowds clogging up the gardens!

I wore capris and tennis shoes, to my everlasting chagrin. But I was very comfy, okay? This is another angle of the Grand Cascade in front of the Grand Palace.

And the grounds. Can you believe how GREEN they are? Lush, rich, manicured mazes, wild forests, paths wide enough for carriages to hurtle down . . . 

Even the fountains that weren't gilded enchant me. This one is called the Chessboard Fountain, and it's guarded by dragons:

Monday, July 17, 2017


THE BLURB: "In September 1941, Adolf Hitler’s Wehrmacht surrounded Leningrad in what was to become one of the longest and most destructive sieges in Western history—almost three years of bombardment and starvation that culminated in the harsh winter of 1943–1944. More than a million citizens perished. Survivors recall corpses littering the frozen streets, their relatives having neither the means nor the strength to bury them. Residents burned books, furniture, and floorboards to keep warm; they ate family pets and—eventually—one another to stay alive. Trapped between the Nazi invading force and the Soviet government itself was composer Dmitri Shostakovich, who would write a symphony that roused, rallied, eulogized, and commemorated his fellow citizens—the Leningrad Symphony, which came to occupy a surprising place of prominence in the eventual Allied victory.

"This is the true story of a city under siege: the triumph of bravery and defiance in the face of terrifying odds. It is also a look at the power—and layered meaning—of music in beleaguered lives."

THE SCOOP: I spent a semester abroad in St. Petersburg with a babushka who lived through the siege of Leningrad. I remember seeing signs at every bathroom that anyone who survived the siege was exempt from paying to use it (and probably other things, but bathrooms were always on my mind!).

The siege fascinates me.

And this was the best book I've ever read on it.
It discusses Shostakovich's career ebbing and flowing with the rise of Communism, Stalin, the war, and beyond. I read so many interesting details I'd never heard before. His pictures are amazing. I've heard of Stalin blotting people out of pictures but never seen it before. 

This isn't from the book, but here's an example:

Image result for stalin editing photos

I loved how MT Anderson ties in the symphony with the human spirit and the will to rise above our circumstances. My favorite bit is his retelling of the meeting between the German assigned to starve the Leningraders out and the Russian who fed them. Both agreed the whole city should have been dead based on calories--but not once their spirit was factored in.

THE VERDICT: I loved this book. It's thick and meaty, and perhaps best read a chapter at a time instead of in one gulp. The story is about a city that *almost* starved to death, so don't expect light and fluffy. But you can be awed at human endurance and the power of music and determination.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Caught My Fancy Friday: Achors Away!

I can read ten descriptions of, well, anything without appreciating its true size until I lay eyes on it. I read quite a bit about ships while researching my poisoner-in-Peter-the-Great's-court manuscript, but I never appreciated how MASSIVE they were until I saw some of their bits and pieces. This is the anchor from one of the ships in Peter's navy. Take a glance at those doorways in the background for scale.


Monday, July 10, 2017

Mondays Need a Good Book: BORN TO TREASON

THE BLURB: "Joan Pryce is not only a Catholic during the English Reformation but also Welsh, and comes from a family of proud revolutionaries. But when a small act of defiance entangles her in a deadly conspiracy, a single misstep may lead her straight to the gallows. Now, Joan must navigate a twisting path that could cost her life, her freedom, and her chance of finding love."

THE SCOOP: I loved, loved, loved this book set in Wales under Mary, Queen of Scots and Queen Elizabeth. The main character is a practicing Catholic who hides her faith and helps others escape persecution and death--and she's betrothed to a man who turns Catholics in. 

The history in this book is pitch-perfect (I heard that the author did her master's thesis on this time period), and the details are woven into the story perfectly. I was completely immersed in this world.

This book's language was like poetry. In fact, I bought an ebook with funky formatting, and after one page, I thought I'd purchased a book in verse, and I was ready to stop reading (I know, I know, it's embarrassing, but sometimes I just can't handle poetry). But I couldn't stop reading despite the funky formatting. The language is just too lovely, and, combined with a story tackling faith and love and belief--WOW. It's a jewel of a book. 

THE VERDICT: Pick it up when you have time to savor lovely language and immerse yourself in philosophical dilemmas. You won't be sorry. 

Friday, July 7, 2017

Caught My Fancy Friday: The Grotto at Peterhof

The grotto at Peter the Great's summer estate, Peterhof, is delightful. For one thing, it's cool and damp, and summer days even at that latitude are too hot for me. For another thing, LOOK at the texture of this ceiling:

                                  Tell me you don't want to run your hands over those rocks . . .

or stare at the nooks with golden statues and running fountains:

The grotto is full of twists, turns, and staircases. STAIRCASES underneath the ground, leading to the pipes and waterworks that power the estate's fountains.

This sadly dark picture shows some of the pipes they've used at Peterhof over the years. They started out with hollowed out logs for wooden pipes but found they decayed alarmingly fast.

Now they use regular old metal pipes to pump water throughout the gardens' fountains.

Down in the bowels of the grotto. Isn't it delightfully creepy? Do you wish they hadn't built quite so many staircases and pathways to keep visitors safe? I mean, I'd never go down there without them, but it would be much more atmospheric.

And yet. AND YET. Despite the gloom, the damp, and the creepy factor, the grotto was a popular spot for ballroom dancing for centuries.See the remains of sculptural decorations on the left here? Can't you just hear the string quartet striking up a minuet?

Outside the grotto, when the fountains were turned off, ballets were performed, dances were held, and fireworks were fired off. These paintings from the nineteenth century show some of those treats.

                                  This checkerboard floor is where ballets were danced:

 Peter stuffed his grotto (and his estate) with trick fountains. Here's a fun one: every now and then, an absolute deluge of water dumps down right outside this door. It reminds me of modern pool jungle gyms with their dump buckets, but exciting, because you might have been wearing a ball gown and a towering wig!

Thursday, February 16, 2017

My favs: blogs about writing

I've followed lots of writing blogs over the years, and these are the ones with staying power, for me:

Craft blogs:
I like Thinking through Our Fingers for two reasons. One is that the posts are interesting and shine a light on smaller aspects of craft (I especially enjoyed today's post about research in historical fantasy). The other is that they have a rotating cast of authors. They write often enough that I get acquainted with their voices and stories, but there's enough variety to appeal to lots of different writers.
I started reading Mary Kole's blog back when she was a literary agent (she freelance edits now). I like her no-nonsense style and the examples she includes of good and better techniques.
This one's kind of a cheat, because it's a writing podcast I enjoy hosted by Brandon Sanderson, Howard Taylor, Dan Wells, and Mary Robinette Kowal. I usually listen to new episodes while lifting weights at the gym, but I also visit the website every now and then to track down an older episode. I just searched their website yesterday for podcasts on "Endings" because I've written seven different endings for my current WIP. It needs an eighth. At least.

Business blogs:
Janet Reid is a hilarious literary agent who maintains a shark-like image online. I like her cut-the-crap style, the way she defends aspiring writers instead of treating them like nuisances, and how she shares insight into the business of agenting and publishing. I've learned tons from her.
I don't usually click through to read comments (or comment myself), so a lot of former agent Nathan Bransford's posts that are simply questions don't entice me. But he does a great feature called "This Week in Books" that rounds up news in publishing. It's a great overview of hot topics in the biz.

For querying:
I found my agent using the free database available at Query Tracker, so I'm biased--but it's wonderful. WONDERFUL.
Hands down, the best resource for stalking--ahem, researching--agents. It rounds up online resources and gives an overview of what agents are looking for. They also spotlight new releases, and I've found many great books thanks to that feature.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Books from 2016

I read lots of great books last year. I always do, because if I don't like something, I stop reading. Life is too short for books that don't intrigue me!

I logged 121 books and 47,093 pages on Goodreads in 2016, which is typical for me. I got my first smartphone for Christmas 2015, and I was afraid I'd quit reading once I had time-wasters at my fingertips.

A few wonderful discoveries from 2016:
  • Did everyone else know there's a thing of Regency novels with magic? I love Georgette Heyer with such a deep and abiding passion that I seldom read other Regency romances. But add a little magic, and I'm hooked. My favorite series last year was Mary Robinette Kowal's Glamourist Histories--I especially loved that it follows a married couple through the ups and downs of their relationship.
  • Jack Reacher? Yeah, somehow I missed both those movies and all the books. I discovered these when I was laid low with a multitude of germs over the holidays, and thank goodness! I enjoy thrillers, I like people on the run, and I found these plots interesting and creative. And I really love finding an author with a bazillion books for me to read.
  • Middle grade is not typically my favorite, but I love sharing great reads with my boys. Summerlost by Allie Condie and Circus Mirandus by Cassie Beasley blew us all away (also, we love Hamilton).
  • HISTORICAL FANTASY IS, AS EVER, EVERYTHING. This genre gets more exiting every year! Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo, Like a River Glorious by Rae Carson, My Lady Jane by the funniest coauthors I can imagine, Rebel of the Sands by Alwyn Hamilton, The Girl from Everywhere by Heidi Heilig, Strands of Blonde and Gold by Jane Nickerson, The Crown's Game by Evelyn Skye, Burning Glass by Katie Purdie. FIVE STARS TO ALL OF IT, ALL THE TIME.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Peter the Great Tease

Peter the Great loved pranks and stocked his bigger-n-better version of Versailles, Peterhof, with trick fountains. Here's one in the front of the grotto. He'd leave a bowl of fresh fruit in the middle, and anyone who tried to reach for it would get soaked.