Sunday, December 30, 2012

Emperor's Soul

Brandon Sanderson's The Emperor's Soul is a slim but engrossing fantasy novella keyed on a unique magic system involving stamps. Forgers can rewrite an object's past, transforming a simple vase into an ornate one instead.  Resealers can heal the body to its former health, while Bloodsealers can track people through their blood. 

Shai is a Forger, a con artist and thief. When Shai is caught in the act, she is offered an opportunity, instead of execution. Emperor Ashravan has been assassinated. While the resealers can heal his physical body, they cannot recover his mind. Shai is charged with the impossible task of Forging a new soul for the Emperor. Confined in a small room, Shai works against the clock to create the unthinkable all the while challenged and bribed by advisers that want to maintain their political status.

 If one was gifted with artistic talent, why would one choose the life of art of forgery and crime instead?  What is the nature of the soul and do all objects have them? Is the best way to fool someone through honesty? Those are some of the questions raised by Emperor's Soul. 

Since it's a short novella, we don't delve too heavily into Shai's backstory. For a female character, it's a relief to have such an uncomplicated story. No one forced Shai into this life. She willingly sought out of the rigorous Forgery apprenticeship. She is calculating and quick to size up an opportunity. She's a thief and an unrepentant one. She loves the thrill of the life. But that she's created the ultimate out for herself in the form of that "normal" Essence Mark suggests she has considered another quieter life. Could she ever go through with it? Forgery and magic seem ingrained in her soul and psyche. Once in that life, it'd be hard to leave.

Gaotona is an Arbiter, a loyal advisor to Emperor Ashravan. He is presented as the disapproving grandfather type, both to Ashravan and Shai. He expects better of people.  He sees true talent and artistry in what Shai does. He cannot understand why she wastes that as a Forgery. But his other role provides a stronger counterpoint to Shai. Forgery is seen as a kind of blasphemy and abomination. Gaotona's struggle to understand how Forgery works allows Sanderson to show readers the intricacies of his magic system, how it works and how it can't. His fellow arbiter Frava doesn't want to understand how it works; she's quite willing to eliminate Shai at the first opportunity if she can still achieve her ends.

Showing how Forgery works also allows the more intriguing questions about the soul. The work to rebuild Ashravan's soul is long and arduous, fraught with decisions. Why does someone like a certain color? Why would someone want to be an Emperor? But it's not just people. Even inanimate objects receive attention, providing some of the liveliest debates. Do objects have souls? How do they regard themselves? While locked in her room, Shai Forges her surroundings into more comfortable ones. She isn't changing their nature as much as allowing them to shine. Instead of being allowed to crumble, an object is Forged to be found and cared for properly. Her jailers see it as frivolous waste of precious time, but it also points out the differences in Shai's attitudes compared to them. They'd never considered the potential in these artifacts until she's Forged them. 

In a way, Emperor's Soul reads very much like a bottle episode, because the majority of the novella takes place in the confines of Shai's room. People come and go, but Shai is stuck inside. Shai still shows how she can still manipulate people. She uncovers their weaknesses and secrets, even how to ultimately win over Gaotona in her escape. 

Sanderson talks about the writing of the novella in the Writing Excuses podcast. The podcast includes some mild spoilers on some plot points. The biggest question mark for me was the scene near the end where Shai uses the Essence Marks to escape. That action scene felt very strange after pages of this scholarly and thoughtful fantasy story. What annoyed me a little was the stereotypical "every Asian character is a martial artist" issue. But I agreed in principle with Sanderson that with his setup, her escape could not be an easy one. I do wish Shai could have managed it in some other way, but it's a minor quibble.

Overall I enjoyed Brandon Sanderson's Emperor's Soul. I liked the unusual magic system and the questions it raised about art and the soul. Shai was a likeable character and I was rooting for her throughout. I'm still plowing through Elantris, so this was the first of Sanderson's works I've finished.

(Emperor's Soul is available as a trade paperback from Tachyon Publications and also as an ebook or Audible audiobook.)

Saturday, December 29, 2012

New Year, New Book Challenges

So 2012 is nearly over and it's time to reflect on the year. I've really enjoyed having these challenges/read-a-longs to nudge me into reading things I wouldn't ordinarily read. Or maybe get around to that pile. I set out to read a bit more and surprised myself by doing just that. I signed up for Goodreads' Reading Challenge to read 30 books and managed to read 42! I also successfully climbed Pike's Peak for the 2012 Mt TBR Reading Challenge but couldn't quite move on to Mt Vancouver. So of course for this year's challenge I signed up for the Mt Blanc level of 24 books, just to challenge myself further. I don't have a list for that... yet.

I also vowed to spread my reading wings out a little and read some classics. The Classics Club challenge is perfect for that, because you can set up a list to tackle, but you have five years to finish. I spent some time thinking about these. Some are ones I've always meant to read and some I've always felt bad about not reading... it'll be interesting to see how far I get into this challenge. I'm already signed up for Unputdownables' Persuasion Read-a-long to start me off.

So here is my list:

1    Bram Stoker - Dracula
2    Henry James - Portrait of a Lady
3    Edith Wharton - House of Mirth
4    Edith Wharton - Age of Innocence
5    Edith Wharton - The Buccaneers
6    Charlotte Brontë - Jane Eyre
7    Charlotte Brontë - Villette
8    Edmund Spenser - The Faerie Queene
9    Virgil - Aeneid
10    Homer - The Iliad
11    Homer - The Odyssey
12    Emily Brontë - Wuthering Heights
13    Pierre Choderlos de Laclos - Les Liaisons Dangereuses
14    Jules Verne - Around the World in Eighty Days
15    Charles Dickens - Bleak House
16    Mary Shelley - Frankenstein
17    Wilkie Collins - The Moonstone
18    Wilkie Collins - The Woman in White
19    Jane Austen - Pride and Prejudice
20    Jane Austen - Mansfield Park
21    Jane Austen - Northanger Abbey
22    Jane Austen - Persuasion
23    Sir Arthur Conan Doyle - Complete Sherlock Holmes
24    Sir Thomas Malory - Morte D’Arthur
25    JRR Tolkien - The Hobbit
26    Elizabeth Gaskell - Wives and Daughters
27    Elizabeth Gaskell - North and South
28    Daphne Du Maurier - Rebecca
29    L. Frank Baum - Wonderful Wizard of Oz
30    Lewis Carroll - Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
31    Lewis Carroll - Through the Looking Glass
32    TH White - Sword in the Stone
33    Flappers and Philosophers - F Scott Fitzgerald
34    William Butler Yeats - Complete Poems
35    Alfred Lord Tennyson - Idylls of the King
36    Chretien de Troyes - Arthurian Romances
37    Leo Tolstoy - War and Peace
38    Leo Tolstoy - Anna Karenina
39    Thomas Hardy - Return of the Native
40    HG Wells - Invisible Man
41    John Milton - Paradise Lost
42    Arabian Nights
43    Oscar Wilde – The Picture of Dorian Gray
44    Herodotus - Histories
45    Thucydides - History of the Peloponnesian War
46    Hesiod – Works and Days and Theogeny
47    Emily Dickinson - Complete Poems
48    Edgar Rice Burroughs - John Carter of Mars
49    Anthony Hope - The Prisoner of Zenda
50    Anthony Hope - Rupert of Hentzau
51    Niccolo Machiavelli - The Prince
52    Charles Dickens - A Christmas Carol

Goal for completion date: January 2018

Bolded books have been finished.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

One More Page & Alma Katsu

I love bookstores. Whenever I go on trips, I am quick to check to see if there are any bookstores in town worth checking out. So I was delighted when I heard a new independent bookstore had opened locally, One More Page Books. The bookstore hosts a number of author events and reading groups; they also carry a unique array of chocolate and wine.

The six block walk from the Metro is accurate but it's a winding trip through some of Arlington/Falls Church's residential streets. Fortunately there are also bus routes that run fairly very close. That proved useful tonight. The June weather was hot and humid beyond belief, so walking was out of the question.

So I went to Alma Katsu's book launch for The Reckoning, the second book in her Taker Trilogy. I'd heard about the books from following the bookstore owner's twitter feed. The beautiful covers intrigued me enough to learn more about the books. I think I was one of the few at the signing that had not read the first one already though.

Alma Katsu was a delight, though. A petite woman, she worked in intelligence for thirty years before making the break to a full time writer. Rather than doing a reading, Katsu told us what the last year has been like since her first book came out. Her third book is actually due at the same time her second one is being released, so I can only imagine the planning and coordination involved. Some of it sounded like a cautionary tale to go with the old "So you wanna be a writer?" question. She made the comparison of feelings towards a first book as similar to a first child; for the first, you have great plans, everything will be coordinated and planned. By the time the second one has rolled around, you’re just ready to get on with it and you have no delusions whatsoever.

One thing Alma Katsu talked about that surprised me was quitting the day job. Most writers I know caution against that idea completely. Her publisher/editor reacted to that decision with "Uh, okay, right, hope it works for you." Honestly I would be a little nervous about that prospect, too. But she had good reasons why it made sense. As she pointed out, working for the Alphabets (i.e. CIA, NSA, etc) includes a lot of very strict non-disclosure statements and rules about interacting with the media. That doesn't translate very well for publishing purposes, especially for interviews. But she also added it took some adjusting to life outside those confines. Her schedule now is a far cry from a normal eight hour day, sometimes coming up for air in the middle of the day, before working late into the evening.

The funniest story came from a book trip overseas. Katsu has been fortunate to have her books already translated into several languages already, including Spanish, Polish, and Italian. Her Italian publishers brought her over for a few days. She’d thought it’d be the usual "meet and greet" when it was a steady block of interviews, including having her picture taken by several paparazzi. (That they could have gotten photos from her website apparently hadn’t occurred to anyone.) So she had these photo shoots with these typical older Italian photographers that didn’t speak English very well and mostly suggested poses with gestures and such. Katsu demonstrated some of them and they were the silliest of silly. What was funnier was when she received the links for the photos later and saw they’d done photos for most of the major authors that went through from Salmon Rushdie to Isabel Allende – all making the exact same quirky set of poses.

The One More Page’s owner was celebrating her birthday, so there was cake! Both a small ice cream cake before the signing and a large sheet cake with the Reckoning cover on it for afterwards. They also had a choice of Spanish sparkling wine and a Zinfandel/Shiraz blend.

The signing line was growing longer and longer as I was leaving. I was delighted to meet Alma Katsu and get my books signed, but also needed to head for home. I will caution people, if they want to browse at length, check their schedule on the website to make sure there isn’t an event. It is a smallish shop, so they have to move some shelving and block other sections to make enough space, so some places are hard to access. The store does offer a free frequent buyer program and will special order/ preorder books for you.

Honestly I love the bookstore. It’s a great alternate option to have available, even if I can’t get to it regularly.

Halfway up Pike's Peak

I've stalled a bit on my TBR challenge to be honest. I'd blame those dratted library books, because they’re so distracting. I seem to be stuck midway through several likely suspects. So I'm huddled in a nice section of the mountain, taking a break before tackling the next round. I am pleased, though, that I discovered the Goodreads' Mt TBR Reading Group for sharing our experiences/war stories/book discoveries.

The current list:
Strong Poison
In the Garden of Iden
Staying Dead
Dagger Magic
Blue Bloods
Affinity Bridge

1. Tell us how many miles you've made it up your mountain (# of books read).

I've finished seven books in my TBR Challenge, only three since the last update. To try my hand at the weird math, Pike's Peak is 14,115 feet. I've completed 7/12 books or 58% of my goal. That means that I'm 5,928 feet up currently. (Did I do that right? I'm lousy at math.) Oh, I do hope I brought enough supplies...

2. Compose a poem using the titles from your list (lower case words are what I added):

In the Garden of Iden
Staying Dead
is a
Blue Bloods

B. Who has been your favorite character so far and why?

I could be obvious and say Lord Peter Wimsey, but to choose from the last three books I read, I'd say Lawrence van Alen in the Blue Bloods series. He first appears in Masquerade and I liked how De La Cruz played with the usual expectations of vampire lore and changed it around a little with Lawrence's abilities. Lawrence is old and frankly set in his habits. He has certain expectations of how people should act that are rather contrary to the current crop. He makes for a different kind of contrast. I would have loved to have seen Lawrence in his prime, rather than as a fairly broken spirit.

C. Have any of the books surprised you -- if so in what way? (not as good as anticipated? unexpected ending? Best thing you've read all year?)

Dagger Magic surprised me in a bad way. I reread the earlier Adept books leading up to that one and they weren't stellar but they were good for they were. At Dagger Magic, all the charm and energy seemed to have disappeared, along with the copyediting. It wound up being a slough to get through. I still have Death of an Adept left in my TBR shelf and I'm not all that keen to get to it.

D. Bonus question: What am I reading now from the TBR pile?

I did manage to read a few chapters of Seanan McGuire’s An Artificial Night today. I’m hoping that will spur me on to finish that for book #8.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Armchair BEA recap - Better late than never?

For the second year, I joined the ArmchairBEA (#armchairbea) twitter parties. Over 600 book bloggers signed up for the Armchair BEA event; I had to adjust the refresh rate several times to allow tweetchat to keep up with the conversation.

Like last year, the topics ranged far and wide. Fifty Shades of Grey was the "controversial" topic du jour, but I had the impression most book bloggers were tired of hearing about it by now. We discussed whether we are attracted to pretty covers and whether it bothered us when publishers changed formats or trade dress for series. We discussed which books and genres we were drawn now compared to when we were younger. Strangely I had an easier identifying what influenced me as a child than guide me now as an adult. I read so widely it's hard to pin down what influences me. I can point to which topics or books influenced certain writing projects, but not necessarily my professional or personal life.

But blogging wasn't far from our discussion either. Everyone traded their tips and advice for social media and interacting with publishers and authors. The conversation made me look critically at what I've done or not. I realized I'm a bit of social wallflower when it comes to book blogging standards. I have twitter/tumblr/pinterest/etc but I’ve never integrated them or made them part of my book blog. I'm horrible about replying to comments on my blog, unless there's a direct question. I enjoy twitter's give and take, especially being able to let an author know I’ve enjoyed their book. But I’m always worried I put off the non-comics/non-geeky crowd with my usual topics.

What I enjoyed about the twitter parties was seeing the range of the responses and usually the emotion they conveyed. One thing was quite clear: book bloggers are very particular about their books and their habits. I also really appreciated interacting with new people outside the comics blogging sphere. Sometimes you need to gain some perspective, especially when you’re feeling tapped out.

Every time I hear that reading is dead, I think about the e-readers I've seen crop up on my Metro commute. And most iPads I've seen have been used for reading, whether books, comics or magazines. Libraries are struggling to keep up with the demand for e-books. And then I look at the strong book blogging community and the countless readathons/readalongs/challenges I can’t keep up with. I remember all the young girls in line for the YA event a few months back, happily clutching their books and discussing their favorites at length. Booksellers, yes, are having troubles, it's true, but I don’t see reading losing any steam any time soon.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Stopping for tea on Pike's Peak

"Well, none of us can do more than our best, and it is very necessary to have Faith. That moves mountains, we are told."

"Then for Heaven’s sake lay in a good stock of it," said Wimsey gloomily, "because as far as I can see, this job is like shifting the Himalayas and the Alps, with a touch of frosty Caucasus and a touch of the Rockies thrown in."

-- Dorothy L Sayers, Strong Poison

A quarter of the way into the Mount TBR Reading Challenge, I'm rather pleased with my progress so far. I signed up for Pike's Peak level which meant reading 12 books from my TBR. Since January, I have read four, including several that have lingered on the TBR shelf for far longer than I care to admit.

The books in question:

Dorothy L. Sayers, Strong Poison
Kage Baker, In the Garden of Iden
Laura Anne Gilman, Staying Dead
Katherine Kurtz & Deborah Turner Harris, Dagger Magic

Of the four, finishing the Sayers book really stunned me. I've tried to read her for years, but have always tripped up on her language and her Latin quotations. Maybe it was rewatching the old PBS Mystery! Adaptation fairly recently, but the book went much faster this time, once I was past the opening court scene. Gaudy Night has keeping Strong Poison company on my bookshelf for nearly as long, so it might be good to give it another go.

That leaves me with eight more books to manage between now and the end of the year, a respectable amount for my reading habits.

See, here's the thing, dear Readers, I know how I read. There will be the shiny and new. There will always be something that just came out that has captured my attention or something my friends keep talking about, so I get curious. That's why I made my Goodreads goal larger than my TBR one. (For the record, I've managed 11 books for the Goodreads reading challenge so far, far more than I anticipated, even without those Kurtz & Harris Adept series re-reads before Dagger Magic.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Cov Ops 101: How to Survive Being Surrounded by Teenagers

The Operative attended a book signing on Tuesday evening at the Bethesda Library in Bethesda, Maryland. The authors were Ally Carter, senior agent in charge of chronicling the Gallagher Girls adventures and the Heist Society books, and Rachel Hawkins, Alabama-born author of the Hex Hall series. Both series were quite popular and heavily read in the coveted teenage girls demographic.

The Operative left a full half hour early, assuming extra time on the DC Metro and that her navigational skills would be graded on a severe curve. It was, after all, in Maryland, a strange and foreign land to a Virginia native. (The White Flint incident has not been expunged from the official record just yet.) The Operative arrived to discover that the entire room at the Bethesda Library was packed. She wound up standing in the back, listening to the question and answer session for nearly thirty to forty minutes. Some questions were directed to Carter and some to Hawkins or both.

After the Q&A session was concluded, the two authors signed books for over an hour. Politics and Prose had all their books on sale, including the two newest hardcovers, Spellbound and Out of Sight, Out of Mind. Two teenage girls showed up in full Gallagher Girl uniforms and posed for photos.

The Operative has discovered that writing these Covert Operations reports is not all it’s cracked up to be. Paperwork won’t kill you. Not being able to use proper pronouns will.

Some other pieces of intel I picked up:

There is one more Gallagher Girl book planned. Carter is working on the third Heist Society book now, although it’s currently untitled. She did share the fact that the covers to the Heist Society books always show the reflections of whatever is being stolen, whether art or jewels. The third cover will feature Hale. So is Katarina helping steal some part of Hale’s life back? Is she after some elusive item in Hale’s family collections? Or is she somehow going to find the answer to those dratted W.Ws?

The Hex Hall books are concluded after three books, but there’s a spinoff series planned. The new leading character will be introduced in that third book and Hawkins said if you read the book, you’d have a pretty good guess at that character’s identity. The girls behind me were all Hex Hall fans and had all found the third book that had just been released. They were all enthusiastic readers with clear favorites. One girl was eagerly waiting for the Hunger Games movie, more so than the author event. The girls in front of me were already absorbed in reading “Out of Sight, Out of Mind” while waiting in line.

Cross Your Heart and Hope to Spy was Carter’s hardest book to write, because although she had a general premise about Gallagher Girls meeting the Blackthornes, she didn’t have a plot. Hawkins initially thought a sequel was hardest to write, until she had to follow it up with the third. Her scientific (and presumably geeky) husband pointed out she didn’t have enough big explosions and stuff going bad; she needed “Empire Strikes Back” level of bad things going wrong. The problem was after you’ve burned everything down, what the hell do you do next?

Researching the Gallagher Girls, Carter sings the praises of the local Spy Museum and its helpful website with book suggestions. Did you know we have the largest per capita of spies in the DC area? Yeah, not really news. The Spy Museum loved showing her around and making suggestions, too. The initial inspiration for the series was watching a random episode of “Alias” and thinking for some reason there was a boarding school of female spies. When she realized there wasn’t one, she decided to write it.

Also asked why she picked Virginia and Maine for her locations for the Gallagher Girl books. Carter is from Oklahoma, which is fairly young territory by American standards. She wanted someplace with deep roots in history and could logically have a large house from the Civil War era. With CIA located in Langley, Virginia, the choice seemed logical to Carter to keep it close.

The cover model for the Gallagher Girl is actually not one girl, but several, and the publishers have Photoshopped/cropped accordingly to keep up the image. The original sadly had to give up modeling because she needed to get her grades up.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Helene Hanff Appreciation Post

"Gentleman: your ad in the Saturday Review of Literature says you specialize in out-of-print books."

I stumbled upon Helene Hanff completely by chance. I was channel surfing the movie channels and stumbled upon the 1987 movie of "84, Charing Cross Road" starring Anne Bancroft and Sir Anthony Hopkins. I was enchanted by this simple story of an American writer corresponding with her favorite London bookstore. In between requests for books, the correspondence included commentary on their lives from post-war food rationing to pleas for the continued strength of the Brooklyn Dodgers. But there were also this unmistakable love of books and reading that I couldn't ignore.

As with most adaptations, readers are often left wondering how much was in the original material and how much was in screenplay, so I was delighted to see Hanff’s wit and style and intelligence appear verbatim in her letters. Here was this brassy smart-mouthed lush of a writer inquiring about John Donne and Samuel Pepys. When referred to as "Madam" in the early letters to Marks & Co, Hanff pithily adds as a postscript: "I hope madam doesn’t mean over there what it does here." That pretty much set the tone for the rest.

What surprised me in a way was that Helene and I are so complete opposites, reading wise. Hanff preferred non-fiction, biographies and memoirs. She never could "get interested in things that didn’t happen to people who never lived." She loved "i-was-there" type books. Now I love history, but I will happily disappear into someone's imaginary world, whether it's on a far-off planet or a magical kingdom or just a different time period. Our reading sensibilities couldn’t be more different and yet I could appreciate her thirst for knowledge.

I quickly acquired and read most of her other books. I didn't like "Duchess of Bloomsbury" nearly as much as "84, Charing Cross Road", such a jumbled hodge podge of a London travelogue. I adored "Underfoot in Show Business", chronologically Hanff's first book. "Underfoot" is love song to a New York and theater business that no longer exists. We meet Hanff's glamorous friend Maxine and learn how Hanff learned Greek and Latin and experience the Broadway opening of "Oklahoma!" But "Lord of the Rings" fans may cringe with envy when they learn Hanff was given the task of reading and summarizing the full trilogy as a script reader. As an author that famously hates novels and hates massive sagas even more, Hanff included "mental torture" as part of her invoice. Her employer paid it, fearing she'd never be heard from again.

"Q and I first met on a summer morning when I was eighteen, at the main branch of the Philadelphia Public library where I'd gone in search of a teacher; and took him home despite certain doubts about his fitness for the post."

What I always admired about Helene Hanff was her self-education. She could have simply given up when she left school, but instead she looked through all the available writing books at her local library to find the right teacher. In those stacks, Hanff stumbled upon Q, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, a Cambridge lecturer, writer, and anthologist. "Q's Legacy" talks more about how she approaches her new education by reading his lecture series. One slight problem: Quiller-Couch lectured at Cambridge and assumed that his students would have studied all the same classics he quoted. Hanff, of course, hadn't, so she’d read those books as well. This process opened up a whole world of English literature for Hanff in the bargain.

Hanff spent most of her adult life as a working writer. She wrote charming but plotless plays, magazine articles, children’s history books, and television scripts – any writing job that would pay the bills. Each time she became comfortable the bottom fell out. The television shows all moved to the West Coast or suddenly history wasn’t relevant anymore to young people. It didn’t matter. Hanff found a way to continue writing. She found ways to incorporate her love of literature and history into her scripts, even if she wasn’t writing the artful prose she imagined all those years ago in the Philadelphia library. But she was doing what she loved most. How many of us can claim that?

This was written in part as a response to Unputdownables' Resurrecting Underappreciated Writers -- a long-overdue post I needed to put into words. I've been a fan of Helene's for many many years. In retrospect, I wish I'd sent her just one letter before she died. I don't quite have her taste in antiquarian books, or even half her education (I'm still struggling with Q's "On the Art of Writing"), but I still appreciated her zeal for reading and writing and the sense of humor she brought to both. She wasn’t dry or ponderous, no matter how well-read she was. Like Q, Helene made an unusual mentor. Somehow I think she would have liked that symmetry.

Friday, January 6, 2012

January challenges

If 2011 was my year for getting back into reading in a big way, 2012 was a year for signing up for challenges.

I've signed up for the following:
MT TBR Reading Challenge - 12 books from my TBR pile
Vintage SF Reading challenge for January
2012 Goodreads Reading Challenge - 30 books

I'm also participating in Unputdownables' Great Gatsby read-a-long. The read-a-long just started with its opening post, so there's plenty of time to participate. It's a short book, less than 200 pages, compared to some hefty classics, so it's a nice approachable challenge. Unlike some people, I've never read it for school, so it's completely fresh for me. I've always been fascinated with the 1920s era, mostly image versus reality. My mother has always had a fondness for Fitzgerald and the Lost Generation, so maybe the interest has trickled down to me.

For the Vintage/TBR challenge, I'm working my way through "Pavane" by Keith Roberts, 1968 alternate history novel about a world where Elizabeth I was assassinated. The Catholic Church holds complete sway, controlling innovation and technology, so even in the 20th century, the technology level is closer to the 19th century, rougher-edged. Rumors and stories abound about the strange things living out on the heaths and moors. The novel is made up of a series of interlinked stories and the first "Lady Margaret" features a haulier on a steam engine. The dialect is a little hard sometimes and the place names are a mix of old English and Roman ones.

(Old Earth Books just reprinted "Pavane". Neil Gaiman Presents published an audiobook version a few months back as well.)