Recent Reading

I don’t travel very often, and I don’t use my credit cards a lot, so I haven’t paid much attention to rewards point or miles accumulating on my accounts. Recently, rather to my surprise, I found emails from three cards in my in box offering gift cards for my points. Two of them offered Amazon cards, so I now have a nice chunk of credit there to make those Daily Deal and Big Deal emails even more tempting. And yesterday, while looking for something else in my wallet, I found that B&N card from Christmas that still has sixty dollars or so on it. We all know what this means: more books for the ever-expanding To Be Read shelves. Meanwhile, I’ve taken a few more off that list.

Gone TropicalGone Tropical, by Robena Grant, is a romantic suspense story set on the north coast (make that the northeast coast—I just checked my forty-five-year old atlas, practically an historic document by now, but I’m pretty sure Cairns, Cooktown, and Laura haven’t moved in the interim) of Australia, in the sparsely populated rain forest country. American Amy Helms is on the trail of the embezzling ex-husband she has been tracking for years, only slightly hindered by Jake Turner, the private investigator her father has hired to keep an eye on her. Soon they join forces (when Jake realizes there’s no way Amy’s going to wait patiently in Sydney. Or Cairns. Or anywhere else), and discover that Amy’s ex has stumbled into something a lot more dangerous than his typical con game. Throw in Australian friends and allies, a snake in the room Amy and Jake’s cover story forces them to share, and a cyclone named Robert, and you have an action-packed romantic adventure.

I’ve been reading Joan Hess’ Claire Malloy mysteries since the first one, Strangled Prose, came out in 1986. Murder As a Second LangMurder As a Second Languageuage is the nineteenth in the series, but fortunately Claire and her teenage daughter Caron have aged only a few years. Claire’s circumstances have changed, though. The early books revolved around her bookstore in Farberville, Arkansas, and the local college, but now that Claire has married the deputy police chief, hired a bored graduate student to run the Book Depot, and moved into her dream house, she’s looking for something to do. Caron’s summer plans drag Claire into volunteering at the Farberville Literacy Council, where she is quickly drawn into local intrigue and, of course, a murder. Hess’ books (her Maggody series is another old favorite of mine) combine mystery and humor and are always enjoyable.

Three PrincesI’m afraid I did not love Ramona Wheeler’s Three Princes as much as I had hoped to. Although it started with the alternate nineteenth-century political intrigue I expected, that plot line soon dwindled away as the main characters set off on a trip across the Atlantic, from Egypt to the Incan Empire in Peru, on board a fascinatingly human-powered airship called a Quetzal. The world building in the book is great: history changed when Caesar (why does it always take me three tries to spell Caesar correctly?) and Cleopatra settled down in Memphis to raise a family and rule an Empire. In the 1870s their descendants still rule much of the Old World, and the depiction of a relatively modern Egyptian Empire is well done. The rather bland (and flawless) characters and wandering plot, not so much.

It’s unfair to the author to complain about the things I wanted to find in the book but didn’t. I wanted to know more about the British Isle background of the main character, Lord Scott Oken, loyal Egyptian, descendant of Caesar; what’s going on in Britain, and why are Victoria and Albert ruling Osterreich from Vienna? What’s going on in North America? The obvious (to me, anyway) Aztec influence on the Incan Empire and language wasn’t explained until late in the book, with a throw-away line about a long ago merger between the Incans and the Aztecs, leaving Mayaland somewhere in the middle. I don’t know if Wheeler plans a sequel. Three Princes didn’t leave me with a burning desire to know what happens next to the characters, but I’d read another installment to find out what else is going on in their well-imagined world.

What have you been reading lately?

 

 

 

Speculative Fiction for History Buffs

Alternate History is one of my favorite subgenres. When I searched for “alternate history romance” I was given a long list of steampunk romances, but that wasn’t what I was looking for. I vaguely remembered coming across a couple of genuine alternate history based romances, and between Google and one of those trivia files in the back of my mind I tracked them down, two long-out-of-print novels by Maura Seger: Fortune’s Tide (1990), set in a world where the American Revolution failed, and Perchance to Dream (1989) in which the Confederate States were victorious. Apparently that subgenre never took off, alas.

But the idea of alternate history has always been popular over on the science fiction shelves, although such stories don’t usually have a lot to do with science. Steampunk certainly presents an alternate Victorian world, but my suspicion is that it’s based more on technology and society than on history. I haven’t read enough steampunk to be sure, but I plan to remedy that. (In my spare time.)

I do have several favorite alternate history novels on my keeper shelves (and on my To Be Read stacks). Such stories generally have a point of change, sometimes called a hinge, some specific event that changes the course of history from what we know to what the author imagines. Some are straight history, while some add a fantasy or science fiction element.

Harry Harrison went way back in time for his hinge, setting the trilogy West of Eden, West of EdenWinter in Eden, and Return to Eden (1984-1988) in a world in which the cataclysm that ended the age of dinosaurs 65 million years ago never happened, leading to conflict between the highly evolved dinosaur civilization and the rising Ice Age human race. Geeks like me will also enjoy the appendix detailing the biology, culture and language of the dinosaurs. And who can resist domesticated mammoths?

Peshawar LancersS.M. Stirling’s The Peshawar Lancers (2001) is set in twenty-first century India, now the seat of the British Empire, after a disastrous fall of comets in the 1870s destroyed much of Europe, changed the planet’s climate, and brought technological advance to a standstill. The book includes a set of fascinating appendices on history, technology and language. Stirling, a prolific author, has also written other alternate histories, including the dark and violent Domination series and two enjoyable novels based on Venus (The Sky People, 2006) and Mars (In the Courts of the Crimson Kings, 2008) as the inhabitable planets they were imagined to be a century ago.

Lord DarcyRandall Garrett’s Lord Darcy novels (written in the 1960s and collected in one volume in 2002) have a big fantasy element (think CSI with magical technicians), but the world is the twentieth century as it might have been if King Richard the Lionheart had stayed home where he belonged, changing the course of British history with a long and successful reign. Lord Darcy himself has no magical Talent; he is a criminal investigator with a sorcerer assistant. Together they solve cases in tales full of in-jokes and references that will delight any mystery fan.

Jo Walton’s Small Change trilogy (Farthing, Ha’penny, and Half a Crown, 2006-2008)Farthing describes a world in which Britain made peace with Germany before WWII began, leading to a very different and dark mid-century. The books are mystery/thrillers tied together by a police detective with deep secrets of his own.

Harry Turtledove is the acknowledged master of alternate history, writing dozens of novels, many in long series, about everything from the survival of the Byzantine Empire to an alien invasion changing the course of the Second World War. Two on my shelf are Guns of the South (1992), in which time-travelers provide the Confederacy with AK-47s, and Ruled Britannia (2002), in which the Spanish Armada has conquered England, and Shakespeare is writing a play about King Philip. Turtledove has written something for everyone who loves history.

I could go on. And on. When I was planning this post I found a notice of a new book, Three Princes, by Ramona Wheeler, a novel of nineteenth century intrigue in a world dominated by the Egyptian and Incan Empires. How could I resist that? Hence a trip to the bookstore (I bought a steampunk romance, too, as long as I was there.)

Sharing these books makes me want to read them again–that’s why they live on my keeper shelves. And while I’m at it, maybe I should take a shot at writing an alternate history romance. Heaven knows I’m becoming an expert at writing in subgenres no one knows how to sell.

For even more ideas, visit this list of The Most Unusual Alternate History Novels Ever Published.

Book Shopping, Again

To no one’s surprise, I’ve bought a few more books than I’ve managed to read in the last few weeks.  A couple of weeks ago I headed over to the Local Barnes & Noble to pick up a book I’d seen mentioned on a site I enjoy, io9.com.  I was Three Princesresearching an article on alternate history at the time, and Ramona Wheeler’s Three Princes, a tale of 19th century intrigue in a world ruled by the Egyptian Empire sounded like just the sort of book I love.  As long as I was there, with a gift card in my wallet, I also bought Gossamer Wing, a steampunk romance by Delphine Dryden, which I’d seen on another blog I follow (Paranormal Unbound).

Yesterday I stopped at the local Half-Price Books, not looking for anything in particular.  I picked up Marie Brennan’s A Natural History of Dragons (because, well, dragons!) from the New BestsellerA Natural History of Dragons rack.  It isn’t new (the hard cover edition was released last year), just new in trade paperback, and the cover grabbed me, as did a quick look at the back blurb and the preface.  Then I wandered back through the science fiction racks and made two (possibly contradictory) decisions.  I bought a paper copy of Hugh Howey’s Wool, which I already have on my Kindle but would prefer to read on paper (the book is highly recommended by my friend Colleen Thompson), and I rejected an older paperback copy of an alternate history novel because the print was small and cramped and I know I can get it in digital format and increase the type size.

Then I went back to Barnes & Noble to look for a new book by another friend, Sharon Sala.  I have been looking forward The Curl Up and Dyeto reading The Curl Up and Dye, and I have a companion novella, Color Me Bad, waiting on my Kindle.

Of course I have also been feeding my Kindle faster than I read the books that pile up on it, too.  In the last month or so I have downloaded three Daily Deals: Why Shoot a Butler? by Georgette Heyer, Artifact by Gigi Pandian, and Bride of the Rat God by Barbara Hambly.  I try to restrain myself on the Daily Deals, and I think three in the last month is pretty restrained.  I also bought a few by writer friends: Up to the Challenge by Terri Osburn, Archer’s Sin by Amy Raby, and Draw Me In and What’s Yours is Mine by Talia Quinn.

Currently I’m reading three books, in my usual scattered fashion.  Three Princes is proving to be every bit as good as I had hoped.  The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend, by Glenn Frankel, is a fascinating work about the background and making of the famous movie.  I bought this book some time ago, after reading a review in the Houston Chronicle, but just opened it to read this weekend.  I’m having trouble putting it down.

Bride of the Rat GodAnd on my Kindle, I’m halfway through Bride of the Rat God.  I’d read several chapters before I realized that I’d read the book before, back in 1994 when it first came out (I could confirm this thanks to a slightly OCD compulsion to keep all those lists of books I’ve read on my computer–the lists actually predate the first computer by several years, and I must have typed them in after the fact).  Clearly the setting, Hollywood in the 1920s, is just as appealing twenty years later (and wonderfully described), but I’m sorry I no longer have the paperback copy, if only for its delightfully pulpy cover.