Showing posts with label historical. Show all posts
Showing posts with label historical. Show all posts

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

The Moonlit Road and Other Ghost and Horror Stories by Ambrose Bierce


Rating: WARTY!

This was a very slim and very uninteresting volume. I am sure it would have been quite the ticket in the later eighteen hundreds, when Bierce was at his most prolific (not that these particular stories were published in Bierce's lifetime, but by today's standards, they leave a lot to be desired and I cannot recommend them.

I didn't read them all because they were not interesting to me, but the ones I did read all seemed to be the same story redressed with a few changed details and trotted out as something new. One trick pony describes it well, I think. There were too many of them which were rooted in darkness and icy chills blowing hither and thither, and on purportedly scary footsteps, strange marital discord, vague descriptions of bad things happening, and one line conclusions. It really became too tedious to read them after the first three or so.

I found myself skimming a couple more and gave up on it as a bad job about half way through. Maybe other readers will have a different experience, but this was definitely not for me, despite my liking An Occurrence at Owl Creek, which was why I picked this up in the first place. Ambrose Bierce disappeared in Mexico in 1914 whilst covering the revolution there, and was never seen or heard from again. I think his own story told as fiction would be a lot more interesting than this collection was!

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Daughter of Winter by Pat Lowery Collins


Rating: WARTY!

This book might appeal to the intended age range, but for me it was poorly done, and makes American Indians look like antiquated idiots. That said, it was set in 1849, when everyone by today's standards seems antiquated, but the story itself simply made no sense.

Addie is twelve, and lives in Essex, Massachusetts, where shipbuilding is the line of work every boy wants to get into. Girls have no choice about their lives, and this never changes for Addie. Her father took off to join the California gold rush and almost as soon as he's gone, her mother and infant brother take sick with "the flux" and both die. This is where we join the story.

With Anna fearful of being sent into servitude, so she conceals her family's death and steals a coffin for burying them, from the local undertaker. This is the first problem because this is not an insubstantial theft, and had it been investigated, which it undoubtedly would have been, it would have led directly to the girl who dragged the pine box to her home, yet she gets away with it!

Unfortunately, her continued rejection of the town's people's offers to come visit her mother eventually reveals the truth. Rather than stick around, Addie flees into the woods, looking for 'Nokummus' (the Wampanoag word for grandmother, aka Nokomes), an American India woman who offered to help Addie, but who singularly fails.

As it turns out, Nokummus is quite literally Addie's grandmother, but we have to wade through countless tedious pages as Addie flees home in mid winter, camps out in a lean-to near a shipyard, and all but freezes and starves despite her supposedly having experience camping with her father. I can;t help but ask, since Nokummus was known in Essex and several people knew she was Addie's grandmother, what the hell was the whole story about? Why did this woman not come and live with Addie so everything was okay?

Rather than help her granddaughter, this clueless, selfish, dangerous woman left Addie to her own devices until she was almost dead, then "rescued" her and took her off to a deserted island just off shore, apparently for no other reason than to have Addie find her daughter's grave. Nokummus had thirteen years to find that grave! What the hell was she doing in all that time? Sitting on her idle ass, doubtlessly.

She takes Addie in (and I mean that in every conceivable sense), and poisons her by feeding her some bark gruel so Addie vomits profusely, then hallucinates, and finally and wakes up after a two-day bender deludedly thinking she's communed with the spirits. After this, Nokummus finally lets Addie return home, and moves in with her! The selfish bitch couldn't have done this in the first place and gone on this grave-search next summer? What a bunch of pinto dung!

Nothing is resolved. Addie never moves to the Wampanoag tribal lands and becomes their powwaw. Her father doesn't even return by the end of the novel so all the 'waiting, hoping. crying' for him is a complete red herring. Her best friend John proves himself as big of a jackass as the school bully who picks on Addie because she's a 'halfbreed' and justice is never served on that dick, but John is just as bad save for being more subtle in his prejudices and dick-ness and he gets no comeuppance either so I guess that's fair. The story is a mess and not eve a hot mess since it's set in winter. I think it stunk, and I cannot recommend it.






Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë


Rating: WORTHY!

Ti was a long listen on audiobook, and some parts of it were frankly tedious, but overall the majority of it was a very worthy read (or listen in this case). The novel runs to some 400 pages and was originally published as three volumes, which was the done thing at the time it was written. I really enjoyed the movie starring Charlotte Gainsbourg and William Hurt, and the reader of this novel, Josephine Bailey, did a first class job, actually sounding rather like Gainsbourg, which for me made it perfect.

The basic story is no doubt well-known, but briefly: Jane Eyre is an orphan who is sent to live with her uncle on her mother's side after both her parents die. Her uncle dies, her aunt is mean and treats Jane like dirt. Considered to be a problematic child and a liar, she's passed off to Lowood school lorded over by a tyrannical clergyman, but Jane excels there and eventually becomes a teacher.

When her mentor and favorite teacher dies, Jane elects to move into the role of a governess for the daughter, Adela, of Edward Fairfax Rochester. The two grow fond of each other and eventually plan on marrying, but Jane discovers that Rochester has a wife - who is insane, but kept at the house (and not very securely evidently). Jane leaves Rochester and briefly falls on hard times, but eventually discovers she has inherited money from an uncle she knew nothing about for the longest time. She is now financially independent, and learning that Rochester's home has suffered a fire, and he has fallen on hard times, she returns to him and the two of them live out their lives together.

I have to say that Jane has way more forgiveness in her than is healthy for her. Rochester's behavior was inexcusable. He outright lied to her after she had showed him nothing but consideration, kindness, and love. He treated her with hardly more regard than did Lowood school when she first arrived. It made no sense that she went back to him, but this was a nineteenth century novel and this is the way they were written.

That said I liked the story overall, although some parts were hard to listen to because of the cruelty, but Josephine bailey;s voice really did a wonderful job and kept me engaged even when the writing became a bit bogged-down in what was evidently Brontë's idea of romantic banter. I recommend this as a worthy listen!


Friday, October 6, 2017

The Hollywood Daughter by Kate Alcott


Rating: WARTY!

This was another audiobook experiment. It sounded interesting from the blurb: a girl who idolizes Ingrid Bergman growing up in the era of McCarthyism, and from a cloying Catholic background, discovers, hey, guess what? No body is perfect!

Things start coming apart in her perfect life when her idiot parents decide she's subject to bad influences at her prestigious Hollywood school and hypocritically send her to a Catholic girl's school where she's going to be brainwashed that there's a loving, long-suffering god who quite cheerfully condemns people who piss him off to hellish suffering for all eternity. Yep.

Her father is a Hollywood publicist who happens to be in charge of Bergman's account, so when it comes to light that she's having an affair with Italian director Roberto Rossellini, and later is having a child by him, the witch-hunt starts, aided and abetted by this same Catholic church which on the one had teaches people to love their neighbor and turn the other cheek, but on the other slaps people it dislikes in the face with a tirade of abuse, recrimination, and rejection. They still do this today. Hypocrites.

The truth is that this 'scandal lasted only four years and Bergman was working for Hollywood studios again. Just four year after that she was presenting an academy award in Hollywood, so this 'end of the world' scenario in which Jessica - the first person narrator - is wallowing is a bit overdone.

Worse than that, it makes Jessica look like a moron that she is so slow to see consequences of actions and how things will play out, despite spending some considerable time with her new best friend at the Catholic school, who knows precisely how things will pan out and spends their friendship trying to educate Jessica, who never seems to learn to shed her blinkers.

I started out not being sure, then starting to like it, then going off it, then warming to it, then completely going off it at about the halfway point when it became clear that Jessica was an idiot and showed no sign of improvement. It;s yet another first person fail, and worse than this, the story is framed as a flashback so the entire story is a flashback apart form current day (that is current day int he story) bookends. I do no like first person, and I do not like flashbacks, so this was a double fail for me, although Erin Spencer did a decent job reading it.

There were some serious writing issues for a seasoned author or a professional editor to let slip by. I read at one point that Jessica was perusing an "Article entitled..." No! There was no entitlement here. The article was titled not entitled! At another point she wrote: "verdant green lawn." Since 'verdant' means green grass, it's tautologous and a good author should know this. 'Verdant lawn' works, as does 'green lawn', but not both! The part of the story where Jessica is required to see Sister Theresa, the head of her school, is larded with heavy-handed foreshadowing. I expect better form an experienced writer.

Jessica wasn't really a likeable person. I read at one point: "he was a year younger and an inch shorter" which made her sound arrogant, elitist, and bigoted. How appalling is it that she should think like this? Too appalling for me. I didn't want to read any more about her, because I didn't care how her life turned out.


Thursday, October 5, 2017

The Polar Adventures of a Rich American Dame: A Life of Louise Arner Boyd by Joanna Kafarowski


Rating: WARTY!

This is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

I requested this thinking it would be engrossing and entertaining, as well as educational, but I had too many issues with it to classify it as a worthy read. Some of the problems were with the formatting, but most were in the writing.

While on the one hand I can appreciate a story of a woman who flouted the accepted conventions of her day and organized her own voyages, this book didn't really focus on anything she discovered or opened up so much as it told a story of a spoiled rich girl spending her money on personal interests. It made her sound completely unappealing to me, and the science was not really well-represented. Indeed, it was well described by one observation about a passenger on one of Boyd's voyages, and one which was quoted without comment from the author: "I'll wager she will see more than any of your scientists with their noses to the ground." This rather sums up the scientific perspective of this entire book.

Yes, she collected botanical specimens, but she apparently did a poor job of that, at least to begin with, and yes, she photographed her travels extensively and also filmed some of it, which was new for the time period, but I did not get any sense from this book of Louise Boyd really achieving anything significant (other than being a woman doing things women were not well-known for back then - and there's a caveat to that, as I shall discuss shortly). On top of this she did things which to me personally were obnoxious, such as mass slaughtering of polar bears, which are a vulnerable species at high risk of becoming endangered today, as well as wantonly killing other animals. I know mind-sets were different back then, and I know that explorers were known for hunting to replenish rations, but the delight this author seems to take in describing the endless slaughter of Polar bears frankly made me sick.

I read at one point, "The Ribadavias were amazed by the courage Louise had displayed and the vigour with which she participated in hunting the polar bear. She may have been a sophisticated socialite, but she was no shrinking violet." Seriously? There really was no hunting. They would see some wild bear roaming the ice or swimming in the ocean, and stand there and shoot it. There was nothing difficult about it. Nothing heroic, nothing brave. It was cruel. The first bear she shot took three bullets to kill (assuming it actually was killed at that point) and then it was dragged back to the boat and hung up with a rope around its neck so this brave and intrepid explorer could have her picture taken next to the bear, its tongue lolling out of its slack mouth. It was disgusting. There was nothing heroic here, only that which was cowardly and shameful.

The relish with which these 'hunts' were described, and described repeatedly by this author, was honestly sickening. I read, "hunting parties were a favourite pastime" and "Louise and the Count and Countess were enlivened by the prospect of sport and more mighty polar bears fell to their guns" and "Miss Boyd returned with the pelts of twenty-nine polar bears, six of which she shot in one day." This is something to be proud of? Wantonly slaughtering 29 bears when one was far more than enough?

The only suffering the author describes is that of the people. I read at one point, "Every year, seal hunters ... get trapped in the ice. Some are able to free themselves, but many are lost. If the crew is able to free the ship, it is only after great effort and much terrible suffering." Yeah? Well you know, that's what they get for hunting seals! I have no sympathy for them. The animals suffered too.

Some of the writing seemed amateurish, such as when I read, "After the tragic death of her husband." All deaths are tragic! Even someone who dies on death row was a child at one point who might have had a different life (and death) from the one they ended with. It's tragic that they didn't, but it's also asinine to describe it as a 'tragic death'. 'Death' by itself is sufficient, or at least come up with a new adjective, instead of parroting the one every media outlet trots out mindlessly when describing a death.

Another thing which detracted strongly from Boyd's achievements, such as they were, was when it came to hiring people for the voyages. Everyone she hired was a man! The only women who came along - and those were few and far between - were the wives of the men who came along!

I understand that there were few women back then in the kinds of professions which were sought-after for these expeditions, but even when Boyd had a chance to hire one (a female botanist who wrote to Boyd and said she would be thrilled to join her on a future expedition), she went for a man instead. This hardly recommends her as a champion of female emancipation. Indeed, it makes her a hypocrite. I understand that the author had no influence over Boyd's choices by any means, but the fact that this author never even raised this as an issue is inexcusable.

The formatting of the book was as expected in Amazon's crappy Kindle app. In addition to text not being formatted as well as it ought, which I expect from Amazon, their crappy Kindle app literally shredded the pictures. I saw this on my phone, where I read most of this book, but I also checked it out on an iPad, and it was just as bad there, too, with the images fractured in the same way. The larger ones were sliced into several pieces and in some very odd shapes.

I have no idea what algorithm Amazon uses to do this but it needs to fix it. At least on the iPad I could enlarge the pictures. The same app on my phone, where the ability to enlarge pictures would have been far more useful, did not permit it. The picture captions were so poorly done that it was hard to separate them from the text of the book. I highly recommend not issuing books in Kindle format if you want the integrity of the book to be preserved.

Amazon is rolling in money and has had years to fix these issues,yet we still get garbage. The chapter index did not work: for example, you could not tap on a chapter in the contents, and go to the chapter, which made a contents list thoroughly pointless. The funny thing is that the link to the prologue worked. I tapped on it and it went to an index in the back of the book! LOL! it was a good thing too - I never read prologues! They're antiquated.

Why it should be the case in an ebook that links are non-existent or do not work, I don't know. I had the impression that this was written as a print book and no one really cared about the e-version of it, although as I said, this was an advance review copy so maybe these issues will all be fixed by the time it's published....

Overall, I cannot recommend this book as a worthy read. There were too many problems with it of one sort or another and it did the subject few favors. But then perhaps she deserves few.


Tuesday, October 3, 2017

The Lido Girls by Allie Burns


Rating: WORTHY!

This is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

This novel was a delight. Rooted in real history, it takes a slightly whimsical and largely fictional turn, pursuing two women to the fictional English resort of St Darlestone, where they try to figure out what to do with their lives. Each has their own cross to bear and they each deal with it in different ways. You can read an interesting mini-biography of the real Prunella Stack here. It's as brief as the shorts these girls wore, but it moves just like the shorts: actively and with purpose! Prunella is a bit like the tornado in Wizard of Oz. She doesn't have a lot to do with the bulk of this story, but without her, the story would not have happened in the first place!

On the fictional side of things, Natalie Flacker seems a bit rebellious and lackadaisical to be a vice principal in a prestigious girls' school, but it seems she was sheltered by the principal. Now that her mentor is retiring die to ill-health, Natalie's future seems a bit uncertain. It becomes downright lost when she's photographed attending a women's physical fitness convention - and one which is frowned upon by the male-dominated society in which Natalie moves. She is soon out of a job, and for want of something better to do, she decides to summer at St Darlestone with her dearest friend Delphi.

Their prime goal is to secure useful employment, which might be a bit hard to come by since Natalie can't exactly ask for a glowing reference from her last employer. Delphi is game, but suffers from some sort of catatonia or fatigue, and is often invalided by it. Fortunately Delphi's brother Jack is at the resort, working at the Lido swimming pool where one of the summer highlights is a beauty pageant.

I know, I took a vow never to read another novel with a main character named Jack in it because it's the most over-used go-to name in the entire history of literature, and I'm sick of it. I'm sick of authors over-using the name, hence my vow, yet here I am reading one! In my own defense, I didn't know this one would be hi-Jack-ed until I started it. On top of that, a beauty pageant? Fortunately, that's not the most important thing going on here! There's a much better story being told of friendship and perseverance, and this made all the difference for me.

Natalie's life seems to be falling apart at the seams at first, with Delphi growing increasingly distant and her own hopes of employment seemingly limited, but she perseveres and makes friends and eventually manages to earn a decent living, but even as she does so and grows closer to Jack, Delphi seems to be growing ever further from her.

The best thing about this novel is that it was warm and sweet, and completely unpredictable; just when you thought it would go one way it went another and this was the main reason I enjoyed it so much because it did exactly what I love authors for doing: it wandered off the beaten track into new territory, and I was happy to follow because that made it so much more interesting. I have no time for cookie cutter novels with everyone jumping on the successful author's bandwagon and trying to clone her or his best seller. I much prefer authors who carve their own path, and this one did exactly that, and it was the better for it.

This was an advance review copy as I mentioned so there were some minor issues with it, which I imagine will be fixed before the finished version this the shelves (or whatever the e-version of shelves is!). At one point I read, "with curls as luscious as Ginger Rogers'..." This should have read "Rogers's" since her name isn't a plural! Another one was a minor pet peeve of mine: " the poisonous snake at her feet." Snakes tend not to be poisonous - you can eat one with no ill effect, but they can be venomous!

Since my blog is more about writing than anything else, I have to point out that there were some unintentional writing issues such as where I read, "...swimming alone might be a reckless thing to do, but the pull was too strong." I think that could have been better worded (the attraction was too strong, maybe), since 'the pull was too strong" might be conflated with an undertow or a riptide in the water. Again, it's a minor issue but these things are worth expending some thought on if you're all about your writing.

There were also some formatting issues as usual with the crappy Kindle App that Amazon uses. Sometimes the next line would not be indented, particularly if it was a single line, and at one point I read "The redhead was busy devouring..." but the word 'The' was on the next line, superimposed over the first word on that line! This has nothing to do with authorship or writing, just with Amazon having a substandard format for ebooks.

But these were minor issue and inconsequential given that the book itself was so good, so I fully recommend this as a worthy read.


And I Darken by Kiersten White


Rating: WORTHY!

Errata:
P89 "...staunch the flow..."! No, it's stanch the flow.
p100 "There was more silk and gold in this single room than in the whole caste at Tigoviste." I think she meant castle!

This book plays rather fast and loose with history but tells a thoroughly engaging story about two children of Vlad Dracul. One of them was a real historical son named Radu the Fair, in this novel known only as Radu, although he is described as being very appealing to women. Vlad also had a daughter named Alexandra. In 1442, he was required by the Sultan to leave two sons as hostages. in this story however, Vlad leaves one son - Radu - and his daughter, who is renamed Lada Dragwlya here.

Radu is gay and resentful of his father for neglecting and diminishing him. He ends up befriending the sultan's heir, Mehmed, and falling in love with him, although Mehmed is clueless as to Radu's feelings and certainly gives no indication that he shares any of them. Mehmed himself starts falling for Lada, but while Lada befriends the young heir, unlike Radu, she has no interest in living in the country she's held hostage by, or in adopting it's Islamic religion. Radu on the other hand embraces it all and is devoted to his religion and to Mehmed.

What Lada is interested in is being self-sufficient and reliant on no one. She eventually manages to ingratiate herself with the Janissaries, the mercenaries the Sultanate employs to guard the Sultan and fight the Sultan's battles. They were Europe's first standing army since the Romans. Lada trains hard and becomes a fearless and skilled fighter who few can outmatch. She is, while detesting her captivity and virtual imprisonment, fiercely loyal to Mehmed herself and saves his life more than once. This makes for an interesting triangle, and the complexity and ever-shifting boundaries and perspectives is a lesson to all young adult writers in how to write a realistic triangle (if you must do a triangle).

I noticed some reviewers did not like Radu or Lada. I guess Radu wasn't manly enough for them, and they disliked Lada in particular because she was so fierce and vicious. I recommend these people read about Vlad Tepid instead of Vlad Tepes and family, because clearly a strong female character isn't what they're interested in. Me, I loved Lada warts and all, because I understood exactly where she was coming from. And you know what, there were real life female warriors throughout history who were like her more or less, so she isn't unrealistic at all. I'd sorry such readers want a truly tamed, neutered, domesticated, and lifeless Barbie doll to stand in for a woman, but that's not the kind of woman I want to read about - or to write about!

The book is quite long (some 470 pages) and I normally have no interest in reading books this long about this sort of period in history, yet this one drew me in from the start, and made for an engrossing and entertaining read. I do not know if I want to continue reading it though. By that I mean that this is the first volume of The Conqueror's Saga. I typically do not like series and I flatly refuse to read books which are part of a series described by the words 'saga', 'chronicle', 'cycle' and the like. I only read this because I thought it was a stand-alone, so while I may continue this series, I am not sure I want to at this point. I was satisfied by this first volume, and my fear is that reading another will sour it for me!

That said, this particular volume was a worthy read and I recommend it. I do plan on writing a sequel to it which I shall call And I Coordination....


Friday, September 22, 2017

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen


Rating: WORTHY!

Jane Austen is batting a .6 with me at this stage. I really liked Pride and Prejudice, not so much Emma or Sense and Sensibility, but then I enjoyed Lady Susan and I loved Northanger Abbey! What a lot of people do not seem to get about this novel is that Jane wrote it when she was just 28, and still very much a playful youngster in many ways. It was her first real novel that we know of, but it was put aside as she worked on others. Though she began re-writing it later in life when she was more than a decade older, she died before she could finish it.

The story revolves around Catherine Morland, in her late teens, and fortunate enough to be invited on a trip to Bath (evidently one of Austen's favorite locales) by the Allen family. It's there that she meets two men, the thoroughly detestable James Thorpe, and the delightful Henry Tilney. While Thorpe pursues the naïvely oblivious Catherine, she finds herself very interested in Henry and his sister Eleanor.

In parallel, James has a sister Isabella. They are the children of Mrs Allen's school friend Mrs Thorpe, and Catherine feels quite happy to be befriended by Isabella who seems to be interested in Catherine's brother John - that is until she discovers he has no money when she, like Lucy Steele in Sense and Sensibility, transfers her affection to the older brother - in this case, of Henry Tilney. Captain Tilney, not to be confused with his father, General Tilney, is only interested in bedding Isabella, who is in the final analysis every bit the ingénue that Catherine is. Once he's had his wicked way with the girl, she is of no further interest to him whatsoever.

Meanwhile, Catherine manages to get an invitation to Northanger, the Tilney residence. Catherine is a huge fan of Gothic novels, and Ann Radcliffe's potboiler, The Mysteries of Udolpho is mentioned often. Arriving at Northanger, she is expecting a haunted castle with secret passages, but everything turns out to be mundane - the locked chest contains nothing more exciting than a shopping list, and General Tilney did not murder his wife.

Henry Tilney is a lot less miffed with Catherine in the book than he was depicted as being in the 2007 movie starring the exquisite Felicity Jones and the exemplary JJ Feild, but as also in the movie, the novel depicts a lighter, happier time with General Tilney absent, but when he returns, he makes Eleanor kick Catherine out the next morning to travel home the seventy miles alone, which was shocking and even scandalous for the time, but by this time Catherine has matured enough that she's equal to the burden.

It turns out that the thoroughly James Thorpe (much roe so in the novel than in the movie), who had been unreasonably assuming Catherine would marry him, only to be set straight by her, has lied to General Tilney about her, and whereas the latter had been led initially to believe that she was all-but an heiress, he now believes her to be pretty much a pauper and a liar.

Henry bless him, defies his father and makes sure that Catherine knows (as does Darcy with Lizzie!), that his affections have not changed which (as was the case with Lizzie). This pleases Catherine immensely. Despite initially cutting-off his son, General Tilney later relents, especially when he realizes that Catherine has been misrepresented by Thorpe.

There are a lot of parallels in this book with the later-written Pride and Prejudice. You can see them in the dissolute soldier (Captain Tiney v. Wickham), the rich suitor (Tilney v Darcy), the break and remake between the two lovers, the frivolous young girls (Isabella v. Lydia) and so on. Maybe Northanger Abbey is, in a way, a dry-run for the later and better loved novel, but I think that Northanger Abbey stands on its own. I liked it because it seems to reveal a younger and more delightfully playful author than do her later works. I dearly wish there had been more novels from Austen from this era. She could have shown today's YA authors a thing or two, but I shall be content with this on treasure.


Friday, September 15, 2017

Emma by Jane Austen


Rating: WARTY!

Emma Woodhouse is a meddling little bitch. I did not like her. This is the second Austen novel where I feel the screen writer (Douglas McGrath) did a better job than did Austen in presenting this story. The 1996 movie starring Gwyneth Paltrow was enjoyable because of that screenplay, but also because of Paltrow's portrayal, which was every bit as exquisite as Jennifer Ehle's 1995 portrayal of Lizzie Bennet in the definitive TV series Pride and Prejudice. This novel was short of that by a long chalk, particularly since the book itself was way too long. Austen needed an editor. I can't help but wonder how many trees have died over the years to keep this book in print. Was it worth those deaths?

Emma claims false credit for getting Miss Taylor and Mr Weston together as the novel begins. She wants all the kudos for it, but they would more than likely have got together anyway, with or without her help. The village was small, so it's not like they would never have met, but this isn't the problem. The problem is that, smug with her 'success', Emma then scouts around for her next project and lights upon poor Harriet Smith. Harriet has her sights on a farmer by the name of Richard Martin, but Emma considers him to be of the yeomanry, and mistakenly elevates Harriet to the gentry in her blinkered vision of Harriet's blighted future.

It was all about snobbery and class back then, and being trapped in one's station. It is shamefully like that today in many ways, but back then it was a rigid code, with penalties for falling afoul of it. Emma is of the highest station - a big fish in a small pond - and her thirty thousand pounds makes Fitzwilliam Darcy look impoverished. Of course, his income was yearly, and Emma's was a one-time settlement, but it was nevertheless all hers from the outset. That amount today would be over two million pounds or over three million dollars. And what did Emma do with it? She occasionally took a basket to the Bates's? What a charity she was!

Everyone who is even mildly interested knows how this story goes. Emma talks Harriet out of marrying Martin, but in the end, she does anyway. Emma tries to palm her off on Elton and then when she thinks that Harriet has set her sights on George Knightley, she becomes peevish. She runs into criticism from Knightley for her meddling, and particularly for her insulting treatment of Miss Bates. In the end, Knightley and Woodhouse form a more perfect union. They were a good match because although Knightley sends the Bates's apples, he really isn't any more giving than is Emma when it comes to charitable works. Neither of them actually does a lick of work, and though Emma is kind to her father, who is a whiny pain in the ass and far more objectionable than ever the talkative Miss Bates is, she could do a lot better with her money and her endless free time.

The characters would have been fine for a work of fiction if the story had not been so rambling and tediously long. I recommend watching the movie, and skipping the book.


Sunday, September 3, 2017

One for Sorrow by Mary Downing Hahn


Rating: WARTY!

Erratum:
"I didn't want to your friend..." To be or not to be?! That is the question! I think it should have been "to be your friend."

This is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

I really wanted to like this book but I could not. It was so negatively-written and it went on and on for so very long, with an unremitting aura of sadness and defeat about it, that I do not think it appropriate for the middle-grade audience for which it appears to have been written. It seems more like a young-adult novel, but it's not a good recommendation even for that group. I think if it had been about half- or two-thirds the length, and had some upbeats added here and there to leaven a dour, unremitting funereal drumbeat of poison and tragedy, it would have been much improved. As it was, it made the 1998 movie Heathers look like a Care Bears story, and that is really too much.

There were two main characters: Annie and Elsie, and there was very little to like about either of them. Annie was glommed onto by Elsie when she changed her school. Elsie is thoroughly unlikable from start to finish and her behavior seems to make little sense at times. Se literally had no saving graces whatsoever.

We get hints here and there of a sad past, but this is never shared with the reader, which I think was a mistake since it left us with no choice but to assume that Elsie was simply a liar on top of all her other defects, but even had it been true, and even had it been a thoroughly tragic past, it would have failed to make her any more likable because she was more caricature than character.

Annie was a different kettle of go-fish and was portrayed as the victim (and not in a good way) throughout this whole story. She never learned anything, never changed, never grew, and never improved. She did not make things happen; she had things happen to her and did not even react to them except to let them carry her away in the Elsie tide, and she never even tried to swim against the current. Such a helpless maiden-in-distress was she that she had to be rescued in the end in a way which was telegraphed from way ahead of the event. She was such a limp worthless character that it was impossible to like her either.

The story is one of relentless bullying, brutality and cruelty, and all of this is from the hands of these young girls, who seem wholly out of character for the era in which they are depicted. Rosie and her allies detest Elsie, and it's not unjustified. They start hating Annie because Elsie has 'captured' her first, but when Annie sees how awful Elsie is, she sides with the other girls, and rightly so. I'm sorry, but it's impossible to feel any sort of sympathy for Elsie.

The sad thing is that despite all this abuse going on, not one single adult ever steps up to enforce discipline, not even Annie's parents. The adults are so bland and vaguely constructed that there is no difference between any of them and for all they contribute, they could have been dispensed with completely and the story would have remained largely unchanged.

What happens is that, since this is set in the 1918-1919 era of the flu pandemic, Elsie dies, and comes back to haunt Annie, making her do vengeful things which eventually land her in a home that is one step shy of an asylum. Elsie follows her there, making her situation worse, but no matter what Annie does, Elie's behavior never changes. It makes no sense! Not that Annie really does anything save whine about her lot in life, and since this is written in first person, it makes for a very tedious read. I kept on reading in hopes of a turn-around or at least an improvement, but there was none to be found here.

Annie is a completely unmotivated character who is blown about in Elsie's wind. At the risk of a spoiler, she is not the only one affected by Elsie, but we learn of this only in a passing sentence or two at the end. I think the story would have been immeasurably improved if the other stories had been told, but this monotonous focus on Annie and Elsie, which essentially goes nowhere for three hundred pages, is too much. Everything is resolved in the end, but there is no build up to it. It takes place literally in the space of a half-dozen pages at the end and so is rather abrupt. perhaps the author herself grew tired of how this was dragging itself out?

There was a good story to be told here, but we did no get it. The author found the root of this story in something her own mother, who lived through the pandemic, told her about how she and some friends would 'pay their respects' at wakes (which were held in family homes back then) so they could grab some free drinks and food, but they were scared out of this behavior when they attended one at which they soon learned that the deceased's body was that of a schoolmate of theirs: a girl they did not know had died. There is a different, interesting story right there to tell, but again that's not the one we got.

Everything is spaced out in this book, including the text and margins. If the margins had been smaller, and the lines of print slightly closer together the book could have been maybe fifty or more pages shorter and a few trees saved. Again, that's not what we got. Once more I have to beg a publisher to consider what they are doing to the trees when they format a book as liberally as this. There are better ways. In an ebook, which is what I got for this review, there are no trees harmed, of course, but a longer book still takes more transmission time over the Internet and that requires the use of more energy, so again, a longer book is less kind to the environment.

I wish the author all the best, but I cannot recommend this read.






Saturday, September 2, 2017

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen


Rating: WORTHY!

I think this is the best of Austen's efforts, and I recommend it.

Gutenberg has a free ebook of this novel. This is my second time through it, but this time it was by means of an audiobook I got from my trusty local library. I was less pleased listening to someone else read it, and I confess a bit surprised by how much prose there was between conversations. When one thinks of Austen one thinks of amusing observations and retorts, but sometimes I think I've been spoiled by seeing excellent TV productions of these stories. Austen does include a lot of (sometimes tedious) exposition, but it can also be amusing.

Mrs Bennet is perennially trying to find husbands for her five daughters, from oldest to youngest: Jane, Elizabeth (Lizzie), Mary, Catherine (Kitty), and Lydia. The story is special in that it is 200 years old and so is quite different from modern novels in outlook, and different again from American novels since it's British. It is an historical novel written contemporarily and therefore is as authentic as it gets! A lot of modern writers, especially in the YA field, could learn a lot from reading it - and internalizing the lessons here. 'Tis a pity that more do not.

I have to reiterate that Austen fanatics tend to forget what a life of privilege most characters in her stories lead. They are rich even though they often plead poverty (Bennets, I'm looking at you!). They are spoiled by having servants run around after them. They live in better homes than most people have even today, and they lead a life of the idle rich. In short, it's snobbery and privilege, and we're supposed to overlook all of that and enjoy the romance!

For me the romance is soiled by the grotesque inequality and entitlement. Would not Fitzwilliam Darcy have been that much more heroic had he been shown to do far more for the impoverished and needy than ever he was inclined to do here? Yes, he rescued Lizzie's family from the scandal brought on it by Wickham, but he did it for selfish reasons. He would have been more heroic had he challenged Wickham to a duel after the SoB tried to seduce his sister, and shot the jerk. His behavior seems almost cowardly here, and Wickham never does get a come-uppance.

That said, I did enjoy this story as it was, for what it was and for when it was (quite literally) penned. Austen often has a (perhaps unintentional) turn of humor that I find delightful, as in chapter 17 where she has Jane and Elizabeth secretly discussing Wickham's revelations regarding Darcy, from which they're disturbed by Bingley's arrival with an invitation to the ball which he had promised Lydia he should hold:

The two young ladies were summoned from the shrubbery, where this conversation passed, by the arrival of the very persons of whom they had been speaking;
Austen seems overly enamored of shrubbery in this story!

Austen also seems inconsistent in how she uses the indefinite article before an aspirate. She writes 'a husband', but 'an hope'. This may be less interesting to others than it is to me, because to me it's yet another reason to take interest in more antiquated writing styles, especially when found in the form of fiction. This antiquity of style is one of the charms of such novels. I almost end up feeling as though I'm a better person, and certainly I feel that I'm better equipped as a writer for having an acquaintanceship with such work.

The novel suggests a closer friendship between Jane and Bingley's two sisters than either the 1995 movie or the 2005 movie would have you believe. The novel also indicates that Elizabeth's first two dances with Collins were much more embarrassing than they were depicted as being in the 1995 movie ('mortification' is the term Austen uses, followed by 'ecstasy' as the dances are over and Elizabeth is released!). The 2005 movie shows no problem there at all.

This novel was not originally intended to have the title 'Pride and Prejudice', it was to have been titled 'First Impressions', but two other works with that title had been published quite recently as Austen was revising her work, so she changed it to what is in my opinion a far better title. It's hard to see this novel under it's original name!

one of the reasons I enjoy this novel is that I am familiar with many of the places mentioned, not only from having been there but also from having lived here! On her trip with the Gardiners to Derbyshire, a county in which I was born and raised Mrs Gardiner's home village of Lambton is mentioned. There is at least two Lambtons in England but neither is in Derbyshire.

One of them is famous for being the home of the Lambton Worm, an ancient legend from which Bram Stoker took his inspiration for his The Lair of the White Worm. Wikipedia informs us that the home of Fitzwilliam Darcy was modeled on Chatsworth House, a beautiful place not far from my home town. It was this very house which was used (for exteriors only) in the 2005 movie.

Austen also has Lizzie refer to other places with which I'm very familiar: Dovedale to which I've also been several times, the Peak District, and finally, my own home town, Matlock (yes, just like the TV show, but we had it first!) which is part of the Peak District.

I think of the two movies, the better one for this portion is the 2005 version, even though it strays way beyond the bounds of canon. In it, a scene was added where Lizzie is looking at some truly amazing sculptures, one of which is a bust of Darcy. Yes, Virginia, men had busts back then, and proud of them they were, too! A non-canonical scene was also added where Lizzie is attracted by some beautiful piano-playing and finds herself watching Georgiana, without knowing who she is. Darcy suddenly walks into he scene and hugs her. He sees Lizzie, who runs, evidently thinking this is Darcy's girlfriend!

There is no scene where Darcy takes a swim in this book, FYI! And there was far more detail than ever I was interested in hearing at the end of this novel, so while I still recommend reading this or another of Austen's works for their authentic period detail, and for Austen's occasional humorous and charming turn of phrases, I have to say that I'm not overwhelmed by her overall talent as a writer. But, overall, I'm quite prepared to declare it a worthy read!


Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen


Rating: WARTY!

In which Emma Thompson proves to be a better writer than Jane Austen!

I was disappointed in this. Donada Peters reading voice did not help, but it was the story itself which did not hold my interest.

When Henry Dashwood dies, Norland Park devolves upon his son John, meaning that his new wife, and their three daughters, Elinor, Marianne, and Margaret, are homeless. Henry had requested that John would take care of his second wife and their family, but he and his wife Fanny soon talk themselves out of giving them anything worth the name.

Fortunately, Elinor's frantic letter-writing campaign scores them a nice home: Barton Cottage, although ti is significant come-down from Norland, it is still a better home than most people can have even today! It's close by the coast in Devonshire, and is loaned to them by their cousin, Sir John Middleton, who with his wife, prove to be jovial, slightly meddlesome, but good-hearted benefactors.

Austen fanatics tend to forget what a life of privilege most characters in her stories lead. They are rich even though they often plead poverty. They are spoiled by having servants run around after them. They live in better homes than most people have even today, and they lead a life of the idle rich. In short, it's snobbery and privilege, and we're supposed to overlook all of that and enjoy the romance! For me the romance is soiled by the grotesque inequality and entitlement.

The Dashwood family is invited to dine with the Middletons often. Through this acquaintanceship, they meet the solid Colonel Brandon, who develops a soft spot for Marianne though she is literally half his age, but her incipient affections are soon lost to Brandon when John Willoughby, a rake and a cad, and dash it all, a bounder, I tell you!, comes into her life, the raffish hero after her sprained ankle.

The couple's conduct is barely this side of scandalous, and the two elder females in the Dashwood household soon suspect that there is a secret engagement in play until Willoughby is forced to leave the district suddenly, and from that point on seems to have forgotten Marianne's very existence.

Into Elinor's life comes Edward Ferrars, bound, it would seem, for the church. She develops a friendship and feelings for him only to have those dashed when Anne and Lucy Steele, cousins of Lady Middleton, arrive, and Lucy confides in Elinor of a secret engagement to Edward. Once again, hopes are dashed (come on, it's about the Dashwoods! what did you expect?) and the man disappears from the woman's life.

On a trip to London, Marianne improperly begins importuning Willoughy with a series of letters, but he ignores all her missives until finally he sends her a curt note returning her lock of hair. An accidental meeting at a ball reveals why: he is engaged to be married to a woman of wealth and substance. He took money over love. As is the wont in these stories, this is all it takes for Marianne to become deathly ill! Clearly the rejection virus has taken her by storm. Cytokine storm no doubt!

The redoubtable Brandon once again mans-up to expose Willoughby's unsavory character (his aunt has disinherited him after the discovery that he had impregnated and then abandoned Miss Williams, Brandon's teen ward). Meanwhile, the idiot Edward will not break-off his engagement to Lucy Steel even under threat of disinheritance and is consequently disinherited. His brother Robert takes his money and his fiancee, and so Edward is left free to be with Elinor. Marianne conveniently falls in love with Brandon, and all is well.

Yeah, it was like that. I think this one is the worst of Austen's efforts, so I cannot recommend it.


Friday, August 18, 2017

The Indigo Girl by Natasha Boyd


Rating: WARTY!

This is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

Other than the language being rather too modern, there was nothing overtly wrong with the technical writing of this story other than the usual issues with Amazon's crappy Kindle app mangling the formatting. Publishers need to quit using Kindle format and go with Nook format or with PDF. I detest Microsoft but even Word format is better than Kindle.

My problem with it was the introduction of a farcical and completely fictional relationship with a slave. That sounds racist on the face of it and I certainly do not feel qualified to compete with the President on that score, but this story was set in 1739 in South Carolina (just five hundred miles from the source of presidential shame!), so hopefully you can see the problems arising already.

The problem isn’t even the relationship with the slave per se, but the fact that this story is about a real-life person who had no such relationship. To put it baldly, the author is lying to us about what this woman did. I know, all authors of fiction are liars! It’s at the very heart of what such writers do, but here, there is no reason at all to justify willfully entering this pitfall, and there are clear and valid reasons to avoid it.

Elizabeth Lucas, who went by Eliza, and later by Eliza Lucas Pinckney, was a far-sighted, pioneering, and successful businesswoman who succeeded when it was almost entirely unknown for a woman, and especially not a teenager, to be in charge of not one, but three plantations, let alone flourish in those circumstances.

Eliza did marry someone she loved, yet this author cheapens even that real romance by putting it on the back burner while she turns her main character into a sleazy stalker, chasing a guy named (when she knew him as a child) Benoit Fortune, and then by Ben Cromwell as a grown man. The "relationship" ends not when Eliza starts acting in character, but only when the author kills off Ben (based on a real historical event when a slave drowns after a boat sinks).

This whole affair simply defies credibility not only from what this author herself writes, but from what I’ve read about the real Eliza. To suggest that she would have behaved in this way towards any man - regardless of who he was and whether he was black or white or anywhere in between - is farcical. Way to besmirch an upstanding woman with a storied list of accomplishments!

It beggars belief that a female author would do this to a female character, but it happens all the time in YA literature, and here it is again. In making this grave mistake, the author cheapens a very real life which needs no ornamentation to be outstanding, yet in true tradition amongst young adult authors, we have yet another main female character being hobbled in fiction with the asinine "need" to be validated by a man. Eliza Lucas deserves a far better tribute than to have her entire life wiped out like this and that’s why I do not consider this novel to be a worthy read.

The story is arguably racist too, since of the three people who betray Eliza (yet more fiction it has to be said), two of them are black, and both of those were deliberately invented as far as I could tell, purely for the sake of having them betray Eliza!

The real life Eliza was sixteen when her father (in the British Army and with ambitions of becoming governor) returned to Antigua, where Eliza was born. Since Eliza’s mother was rather sickly (in more ways than one as depicted here), and since he had no older male children, he left the rest of his family behind in South Carolina, with Eliza in charge of his holdings, and she did a sterling job.

When other planters were focused on rice (this was before cotton became a staple - ironically it was the year Eliza died, 1793, that the cotton gin was invented and cotton replaced both rice and indigo as the 'slave crop' of choice), Eliza recalled the indigo plants of her childhood years. Obtaining seeds (and later producing her own seed crop) and experimenting over the next several years, she and her enslaved workers succeeded in showing that indigo could be produced at a profit. From there on out, production and sales sky-rocketed. Until those cotton-pickin' bales killed it all.

Eliza married her neighbor Charles Pinckney when his own wife died, not caring that he was several years older than she. This was the real romance, and they raised children together, descendants of whom live on today. That’s the real story and why the author felt that real and true story lacking, to the point where she needed to screw it up 'Mandingo style' remains a mystery. I’d recommend reading a biography rather than this disrespectful, sensationalist, and insulting fiction which I cannot recommend.


Friday, August 11, 2017

Superhero Comics by Christopher Gavaler


Rating: WARTY!

This is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

I have to thank the author for his hard work because Ii think you would have to work really hard to make a book about comics as dry, dense and, in parts, as tedious as this one was. There were some bright spots in it, and while I admit I'm a proponent of inline references, when there are so many, and so densely-packed as to make a reader lose track of what he's reading, that, for me, is a problem. The book was the antithesis of a comic book - dry, verbose, and nary an image in it, but perhaps the worst problem with it was that it told us nothing we did not already know, at least in the general if not the particular. And most of the references were to works of others, so this has already been reported. Little if any of it was original research.

I appreciated that the book covered racism which is still rampant in comic books even today, misogyny which is even more rampant, and homophobia, which arguably is more prevalent than is superhero chauvinism, but I felt the work was very patchy. For example, the overview of World War Two comic books, which was quite well done, constantly referred the reader back to real world events, whereas the entire section covering gender issues by contrast made no almost references to real world events other than the comic book code.

There was one particularly interesting incident when we were referred to an excellent article by by Teresa Jusino, titled "Dear Marvel: Stop Sexualizing Female Teenage Characters Like Riri Williams" which appeared online in The Mary Sue. The article was great, and I realize that the writer of an article in a situation like this it has no control over what ads appear on the page where her article appears, but The Mary Sue sure does. Pot, meet kettle! One ad titillatingly invited people who had finished this article to "check out what Tiger Woods's ex looks like now." Another, which advised us to "do denim different" featured a guy facing the camera and a girl with her butt towards it, posing very much in emulation of the way comic book females are sexually depicted, butt sticking out to the voyeur, and deferring to the masculine guy. Who cares about her face, right, much less her mind!

Due to the flowing nature of ads online these days, the rotation means you may not see these ads when you look at that page, but I can pretty much guarantee you will see something equally hypocritical. When I went back just now, there was a different foot-of-page ad which suggested rather salaciously, "Nancy McKeon gave the crew more than expected." A refresh of the page gave an ad which had nothing to do with clothes or women's accessories or 'how good she looks now'. No, it was about a game you can play that allows you to follow your city through history. No problem, right? Wrong! The problem was that it showed a young girl playing the game wearing what was barely more than a long T-shirt, her thighs exposed.

In short, the problem isn't the comic books, it's society. Comic books are a mere reflection of that, Cure society and the comic book problem will go away, I guarantee it, but you will not exorcise the comic book problem while it's run by adolescent white males (regardless of their chronological age), who embody societal sentiments which are pressed on them from an early age, and the problem in the comics (and in the movies, and on TV, and in non-graphic literature, and in sports, and in the military, and in businesses, and in religion) will continue unabated as long as no one in power is seeking to change the way women and people of color are viewed and treated in society at large.

The problem was made quite clear by the response by the artist who drew the offending cover and who saw nothing wrong with hypersexualizing a fifteen year old girl: J Scott Campbell who I shall personally boycott from this day forward because he is proudly part of the problem. Also part of the problem is that this book reported his response, but made no condemnation of it. I honestly feel that a female author might have had more to say on the subject.

This lack of commentary was even more evident when I read, "Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson’s 2007 The Boys expands the critique to the genre as a whole, presenting all male superheroes, even a version of Superman, as endemic rapists." There was no comment from the author on this nor evidence presented in support or denial of the claim. It was like the author was simply reporting what others have said, yet was indifferent to what he was reporting. he offered no opinion of his own, not even analysis of others' claims. I don't buy the genderist claim that "all men are closet rapists" bullshit, and I resent the implication.

Whether comic book 'heroes' might be in such a category and what it says about the people who write their stories, is a different kettle of fiction, and an issue which could have been explored to some profit. Personally, I think James Bond as depicted by Ian Fleming was a shoo-in for membership of that club (and take 'club' to mean any variety). Even some of the movies, particularly Goldfinger, were traveling the same shameful path, but this author let it go without a word. This convinced me that he was simply and coldly reporting, and had no wish to get his hands dirty, which begs the obvious question: if he cares so little about what he's writing, then why should I care at all?

So there are abundant articles which complain about the hypersexualization of comic-book female characters, but nothing to suggest where this all comes from. An article by Laura Hudson in Comics Alliance online, makes the same mistake. It's a good article, but it once again misses the point. The Big Sexy Problem with Superheroines and Their 'Liberated Sexuality'. At least this page contained no suggestive ads (not when I read it!), but nearly all of the ads on that page, whether for comic books or other items, featured women. Yes! Woman sell, and this is part of the problem: a problem the size of which Laura Hudson and Comics Alliance have not yet begun to address I'm sorry to report.

The fact that this book did not raise these issues bothered me, but even this was not the biggest problem with it. I would like it to have been, but this was not the book's focus. The focus was on how the comic books have changed though, and been influenced by history, and how they're tied to society (at least during WW2!), and many comic book characters were mentioned, but for a book focused on comic books, there was curiously not one single instance of any one of these characters who were mentioned actually illustrated in the book! A book about graphic novels which contains no graphics?!

Nor was there any sequence showing how characters had been masculinized or sexualized over the history of the comic. There was one chapter of a comic book I had never heard of, depicted in black and white towards the end, and there was an ungodly long spread detailing how comic book panels are laid out - with illustrations! I failed to see the point of that since anyone who has read more than one comic is quite aware of it. There was nothing about the characters themselves in terms of how they looked or how they had changed. I felt this was a sorry omission. Yes, you can find most of them online, but it's a pain to have to stop reading and go look for characters you have never heard of so you call illustrate for yourself the point the author thinks he's making; and good luck finding the exact picture to which he's referring unless you're prepared to make a detailed and lengthy search in many cases.

I read at one point of a cover where a female character towered over two main male characters and I could not find that one, but I found many comic book covers where one cover character towers over others and so in this case, I failed to see the point the author was trying to make because there apparently was not one!

So overall, a disappointing read and not at all what I had hoped for, much less expected. I think I shall in future avoid pseudo-scholarly commentaries on comics and simply read the comics! As long as they're not illustrated by J Scott Campbell or others like him! I wish the author all the best, but I cannot recommend this one.


Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Love and Other Consolation Prizes by Jamie Ford


Rating: WORTHY!

This is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher

Jamie Ford's novel ought to be required reading for any YA author who is thinking (god forbid) of including a love triangle in their story. This is a tour-de-force of how to do it right if you must do it! Not that this is a YA novel by any means. This is a novel for grown-ups who appreciate intelligent and beautifully-written stories.

It was a charming historical story of an immigrant to North America, coming from a tragically impoverished background in China. It begins in about as depressing a manner as is possible, with a wretchedly poor and starving Chinese mother forced to suffocate her baby daughter and leave her son, appropriately named Yung (although in Chinese the name means brave or perpetual, both appropriate to the character), in a cemetery, for pick-up by an "importer" who transports Chinese children to the US and delivers them into servitude.

The story is told from two alternating perspectives, book-ended by world fairs, Both perspectives are held by the same person, who goes by Ernest despite this not being remotely like his Chinese name, which he takes as his surname, modifying it to Young. The 1902-1911 portion covers his early days traveling to the US and settling in Seattle, and the 1962 portion covers his twilight years where the love of his life is suffering senile dementia evidently brought on by a misspent youth. Here he is married with two intriguing daughters who are leading their own full lives. One of them is a reporter who is interested in his story, and it is this link which keeps us tied to his origins in the US.

I kept reading in reviews written by others that this is based on a true story, but no one goes into any detail as to exactly what it is that's true, so it felt like these reviews were merely parroting what others had written! Here, for the first time, it can be publicly revealed! The truth is that I can find no reference to the truth or consequences of this story on the author's blog which is, I am sorry to report, far more interested in promoting the book than in conveying anything of interest about its historicity, nor is there anything in the book itself to indicate what might have inspired it.

According to http://old.seattletimes.com/html/television/2010080063_kcts17.html there actually was a baby exhibition and one infant, apparently named Ernest, was offered in a raffle, but no one claimed the winning ticket, so the story of an eleven-year-old being raffled to a whore-house while very loosely rooted in real events, seems to be pure fiction.

The 'Author's Note' (which I typically never read anyway) in my ebook copy was blank, so it was of no use in illuminating the 'based on a true story angle'. This web page https://www.seattlemet.com/articles/2010/1/29/red-light-history-0210" reveals some details of Seattle's intriguing red light history, but in it, the Tenderloin seems to be the name of a district rather than the name of a specific house as is depicted in the book.

So my best guess (and this is only a guess) is that the truth of the story lies in that it depicts real events (such as world fairs and morality battles), but that none of the details of the Tenderloin (as a bordello), or Ernest, or Fahn or Maisie are true in the sense that they tell any real and specific person's story.

They are true in that god-awful things happened to people in those neighborhoods, but quite honestly this story rather whitewashes the sordid side of a working girl's life in depicting the elegant and refined 'House of Flora' while sweeping under the carpet the bleeding raw open nerveiendings of most imported children's truth in the prostitution business (and it was, and still is, a big business). It also makes no mention either, focused as it is on the Asian-American experience, of the American Indians who were also there.

That said, it does tell a fine tale of how some things might have been for those who got lucky. Ernest is raffled off from his orphanage and ends up at Madam Flora's Tenderloin house of pleasure, where heartbreakingly young prostitutes, most of whom we never get to know, are taught refinement and who 'come out' on their sixteenth birthday, their virginity sold to the highest bidder, whereinafter they take their place as a regular "Gibson Girl" purveying their skills to whichever rich and influential men select them for the night. There may well have been houses of this nature, but my guess is they were few and far between if they existed at all, and most of them were like the one we hear all-too-briefly about from one of the female characters.

But for this novel, that's not the point. The story is about one such fictional house where Ernest, for the first time in his life, paradoxically finds happiness and a family in the good-natured people who live and work there. He makes two close friends: the tomboyish Maisie, and the exotic Fahn, neither of whom is yet 'out'.

The trio bond charmingly, and despite the immorality pervading their every waking moment, they remain innocent between themselves, with nothing more than a stolen first kiss to count as a sin. Since we know from the 1962 portion of the story, that Ernest ends up with one of them, the question, and the author hides it well (or at least he did from me!), is which one, and what happens to the other one. I normally dislike flashbacks, but here they worked perfectly, and were integrated exceedingly-well with what I considered to be the main story set back at the turn of the century.

Since my blog is primarily about writing, I have to say that the writing in general here was very good - well-done and engrossing. There were some parts where it seemed to bog down a little, but overall it was great. I noticed only one or two writing oddities. The first was this phrase: "decked out in a dark black suit" I guess dark black is really black! LOL! "Decked out in a dark gray suit" would have sounded better, but that's a very minor quibble. The only other thing was that author seemed too enamored of this word form, because there were two other instances which felt wrong to me, where the word 'deckled' put in an appearance.

This actually is a word. A deckle is a book press used in hand-made books, and by association has come to describe the rough edge of the open side of the book. I hate those, as it happens because it makes it hard to turn the pages, but the author uses this word in the form of something being 'deckled' with lights and this seemed entirely wrong to me. Decked would have made more sense, or if he'd used deckled to describe the rough ocean surface rather than the lights on the boats floating on it, it would have made more sense. He uses the same word again when he writes, "fairy lights that deckled the storefronts." I think this was wrong, too, and arguably more wrong than the boat lights, but like I said, it's a minor quibble that reasonable people can disagree on if they wish!

That aside, I really liked this book - the way it was written, the pacing, the story, the relationships and the characters. No book is perfect by any means (especially not my own), but you really can't expect a better read than this, told elegantly, paced well, organized beautifully, and with a bitter-sweet tale to tell of a world where women are commodities and rich men can buy pretty much anything they want and it's considered normal, but sometimes if you want something enough, and you are willing to truly love it and bide your time, perhaps you can get it without your acquisition being sordid and demeaning and with it bringing you the Earth instead of costing it to you. I recommend it as a highly worthy read.


Death Comes to Pemberley by PD James


Rating: WARTY!

Written as a rather presumptuous sequel to Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice (which originally had the title "First Impressions"), this audiobook fell flat for me. I was not too keen on the reader, Rosalyn Landor's voice. Although it wasn't awful, it just never felt right, but much worse than this is that this novel felt nothing like an Austen novel.

Perhaps James never intended it to emulate Austen at all, but even so, it felt like she wasn't really trying. It felt like she had this idea for a crime set in nine-teeth century England and, realizing it wasn't very good, decided to usurp Austen's cachet to sell it. She certainly didn' usurp anything else of Austen's. Virtually the entire book was tedious exposition, There was none of Austen's wit and humor, none of her trenchant observation oe social commentary, and wher were her conversations? Nowhere! I don't believe Darcy and Darcy (nee Bennet) had more than half a dozen words to exchange with each other in any conversation. And what about sex? Austen's works were filled with naked, rampant, explicit, life-shattering, illicit passion, but here there was not a whit of it!

One of those assertions in that last paragraph might be a gross exaggeration. But then so was this entire novel.

I guess marriage really changed Elizabeth and Fitzwilliam, because they were nothing like the characters Austen created. In 1803, they have two sons (of course - why would we ever want to see the kind of daughter Elizabeth's genes could produce and her nurturing raise?). The Darcy's are readying for their annual ball when Wickham and Lydia show up for no rational reason since they're never welcome at Pemberley although they do visit Jane and Charles who live next door (in an English country gentleman sense, that is). This seems to have changed from when Charles chose to live near to Meryton. If there was an explanation for this, I missed it.

James evidently thinks Austen fans are morons because she pads her novel hugely with infodumps taken bodily from Pride and Prejudice - and curiously form other Austen novels. She also seems to think her readers need a crash course in nineteenth century English law, because we get more of these dull and lifeless areas of knowledge than ever we do of interactions between Lizzie and Fitzie, which is what I assume most readers were looking for. No one cares about Wickham and only a moron would believe he is the guilty party in a story like this.

The plot has Lydia arriving in hysterics declaring her beloved Wickham, now a national war hero having excelled himself at shooting the Irish, but unable to hold down a job upon being demobbed, to be dead! It's a lie! A damnable lie, madam, and a slanderous one at that! George isn't dead, but his army buddy is, and George, in most un-George-like fashion, seems to have implicated himself in the crime. The rest of the book takes an unconscionably long time to actually deliberate over the crime, although perhaps deliberate is an appropriate word to describe the plodding tone.

The ridiculous book blurb on Goodreads (and such are one reason I no-longer post reviews there) claims: "Conjuring the world of Elizabeth Bennet and Mark Darcy." Who the frack is Mark Darcy?! The librarians (so-called) on Goodreads are utterly useless and should be summarily fired. Wickham would do a better job, believe me. The blurb also claims that it is "combining the trappings of Regency British society" Hello? The Regency period was when the Prince Regent (who would become George 4th) took over from his addled dad, which was from about 1811 until 1820 when Geo 3.0 died. 1803 was squarely in the Georgian period, morons. Fire those libelousarians!

I am done with this warty novel. It SUCKED, and will never read anything else by PD James. As one review of the TV series put it, the only crime here was one against decent literature! Oh, and Will Bidwell did it. If James had had the courage to have Lydia commit the crime, then I might have rated this a worthy story despite its flaws, but James is quite clearly not a good enough writer to attempt something like that. Do yourself a favor and watch the TV show instead. It will not, I guarantee, be as good as the classic Ehle-Firth masterpiece, but it might give you the fix you crave. I haven't seen it but I've heard better things about it than I have about the novel which inspired it.


Friday, August 4, 2017

The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan


Rating: WARTY!

This fiftieth anniversary edition was not impressive to me. It was larded with prologue and afterword and introduction, all of which I ignored as usual. I had heard of Anna Quindlen, but not of Gail Collins. They're both journalists just like Friedan, so this was hardly a broad spectrum we got on it anyway.

I prefer to focus on the actual body of the text, and that was rather too verbose. I had to keep reminding myself that this was fifty years out of date and things have changed dramatically, but even with that in mind, it was hard to find very many diamonds in the slag. Friedan seemed not content to raise an issue and cite a few examples and let it go; she had to keep slamming the reader with stories which sounded, after the first couple, to be very much the same thing over and over again - which in itself validates what she was saying, but quickly became tedious with all those repetitive details!

I readily admit that my frustration with much of this book may well be that we are, at least theoretically, much more enlightened now than we were then, and so it felt like flogging a dead horse, but that horse is still a nightmare for far too many women, so this is about the only remaining reason I can think of for reading this - that we do not forget how bad things were, and in not forgetting, we ensure they never happen again. That and its historical value. These beefs with the text are not to say that Friedan did not have a point. She did, but I found her text dense and obscure - more like a litany of complaint (if valid complaint) than anything which offered hope of a real solution, but that said, a solution can only arise after the problem has been identified.

The worst part about this book for me though, was that it was so appallingly elitist. Friedan seems only to care about middle and upper class women like herself, and the 'great unwashed' be damned. Their experience - poor people who no doubt had both spouses working perforce - were largely ignored. Although I cannot pretend to speak for them (or I could but it would be fraudulent!), I rather suspect that spouses of color back in the fifties and sixties had little or nothing in their experience which they could employ to relate to the women on whom Friedan was so tightly focused, and this was despite Friedan frequently mentioning civil rights!

The book blurb, with laughable hyperbole, describes it as "Landmark, groundbreaking, classic" and no, it wasn't. It goes on to add, "these adjectives barely do justice to the pioneering vision and lasting impact of The Feminine Mystique. Published in 1963, it gave a pitch-perfect description of 'the problem that has no name'." I was surprised it did not mention the name Friedan gave it, but it's probably better that it didn't, since Friedan's title makes absolutely no sense. I remain unconvinced that she even knows what 'mystique' means (and no, it's not an X-Men character!). Her sobriquet made no sense to me and she never actually defined it, leaving it to the reader to distill some meaning from reading this five hundred page tome. Good luck with that.

Another group that Friedan ostracizes are those women who can both afford to and choose to stay home. This is a perfectly valid option, yet Friedan would rob women of it, becoming part of the problem by trying to dictate women's choices in the same way she was complaining men and society were doing! What a hypocrite. I read about half of this book and gave up on it. I can't recommend it because there are better books out there than this one, which in my opinion does not deserve the street cred it seems to have garnered for itself, and which I think it has accreted only because it was an early one and a high profile one, and not because it honestly left the home, got a job, an earned its status!



Thursday, August 3, 2017

Hell Hath No Fury: True Stories of Women at War from Antiquity to Iraq by Rosalind Miles, Robin Cross


Rating: WORTHY!

YA authors an graphic novel writers could learn a lot from an awesome book like this, about depicting strong female characters. Full of detail, it relates the stories of scores of women who were warriors, most of them in times when women were not considered capable or emotionally up to it, let alone being strong, independent and fierce.

Even with the detail it offers, it also includes references for further reading. The book is divided into sections for different types of female "soldier" in the broadest sense. It offers war leaders such as Cleopatra, Elizabeth I, and Margaret Thatcher, actual combatants such as Molly Pitcher, Lily Litvak, and Tammy Duckworth, spies like Belle Boyd, Virginia Hall, and Noor Inayat Khan, and reporters and propagandists such as Martha Gellhorn, Tokyo Rose, Anna Politkovskaya. It also has a section on women whom we in the west could not consider heroic: women suicide bombers, and despite the success (for their cause) of female suicide bombers, women in the Middle East are still in a fight for equality, respect, and fair treatment.

The accounts are a mix of general overarching stories supported by very many detailed accounts of individual women. There is a bias towards white western women, but then this is where the best documentation resides, and even there, some of it was biased against women or largely erased or considered not noteworthy! Women can't win no matter what color they are, but hopefully that's undergoing what will become a permanent change now.

Despite this there are many women of color included as well as rather obscure women where documentation could be found, and the stories cover ancient history (Greek and Roman) through modern (Iraq War). The authors are not afraid to tell it how it is even if it does not make the woman in question look exactly pristine. While there seems to be something of a bias in World War Two accounts to British and American women, and in more recent wars to American soldiers, there is something for everyone here, and it all goes to prove beyond any question that women are every bit the equal of men, no excuses, no qualifications, no more lies and bullshit.


Saturday, July 29, 2017

Glow by Megan E Bryant


Rating: WORTHY!

Megan Bryant seems to be something of a polymath in the novel world, not stuck-in-a-rut with any one audience or genre, but covering a variety of topics and age ranges, so I could identify with her somewhat on that score! I haven't read anything of hers before, but this young adult outing interested me, and I thank the publisher for a chance to read an advance review copy.

Glow is about this college student named - embarrassingly, she thinks - Jubilee, but who goes by Julie. Julie is a wannabe student, but she was forced to forgo her planned freshman year because her mother ran into some serious debts and Julie's college fund was sucked dry when she paid them off. On a scavenger shopping trip with her well-off friend, who seems to have more money than sense, Julie accidentally happens upon this cheap, but original painting at a second-hand store. The art speaks to her and it's cheap(!), so she buys it at the knock-down price.

At home that night, the painting almost knocks her down when she discovers that there's a second painting hidden beneath the first, and it's one which can only be seen when the lights are off, because it glows in the dark. She finds a second painting by the same artist, and that too, has the same feature. The image it shows though, is grotesque and disturbing, so she becomes obsessed with finding out who the artist is and what the hidden pictures mean.

Just as there are two paintings incorporated in each canvas, there are two stories in this novel. I liked the symmetry of that. The second story alternates with the first, and provides answers to questions asked in it. It takes place via letters written by a young woman in 1917 to her boyfriend who was in Europe fighting World War One.

It becomes obvious to the reader long before it does to Julie, just what has happened here, since it's pretty clear from these letters. The girl who painted the pictures was showing the world what the painting watch faces using radioactive materials would do to people. I actually figure out exactly who it was too, something I'm not normally able to do!

The people depicted in the paintings were those who became known as the 'radium girls' - people who became sick from exposure to radioactive materials long before anyone really knew, or cared, how dangerous these horrors we have exposed in our world truly are. Wikipedia contains the very photograph of the factory which gets a visit in the novel (a visit which technically could not have occurred, but I let that slide, too!).

The fact is that no story is perfect (not even mine, LOL!), and while this one had one or two issues, none of them was sufficient to make me dislike the story which I consider to be important. The first problem or me in a novel like this is first person voice. I have no idea why so many authors, particularly in the young-adult world, are so addicted to it, but it is a weak and problematic voice and in my opinion should be used only in extremis! Some authors can carry it though, and this author is evidently one of them, I'm happy to report, because it wasn't at all obnoxious, so that objection was assuaged here.

Another format I'm not enamored of is the epistolary one, and that's also employed here, but again this author brought it in as a way to introduce a second first person voice. While for me, two first person voices are usually two too many, I did appreciate the way she snuck this in under the radar (under most people's radars!) by having the letters be the medium by which the second voice was delivered. Superficially it worked, and again it was not nauseating for me to read. I was also glad it wasn't done with flashbacks which I also detest, but to me all of these methods are potential liabilities for a writer because they do serious harm to the realism and credibility of the story.

No one who is telling you a story of their personal adventure can recall every detail and relate it, including verbatim conversations, and this is one reason I dislike this particular voice so much: it's far too inauthentic for my taste. This was a problem in the epistolary portions because the writer didn't sound at all like someone who was writing in 1917! The language and tone were all wrong and the detailed conversations were too much, but as I said, it wasn't obnoxious, and fortunately, I enjoyed the story enough that I was willing to let this slide. You see? I told you you can get away with a lot of sins in a novel if you tell me a good story, and this author did.

There was romance, but again this author managed it well, and so she did not piss me off there, either! It's like she knew just how far to push things with me without tripping any triggers! I was tempted to think she reads my blog, but that's really too much of a stretch!

I have to say that the texting didn't work though. To be honest, I think this was more a result of Amazon's truly crappy Kindle app failing to reproduce the author's original layout, that ever it was the author's fault. We should, as a writing and publishing community, flatly refuse to publish any books in Kindle format until Amazon makes it as good as the Nook or PDF format, but that's just me.

The problem with the crappy Kindle migration is that the texts were not spaced properly, and so it was hard to tell who was saying what! I am, probably needless to say, not a fan of writers reproducing phone texts in novels. It inevitably sounds fake.

I think that too many writers think it's 'edgy' or 'now' or something, to reproduce texts, but I'd much rather they simply delivered the gist of the conversation than tried to recreate an actual detailed text exchange, because it rarely works. I can see where there might be reasons for doing that, but as a general rule, reading other people's texts, even fictional ones, is seriously boring and I think it's lazy on the part of a writer to write like that.

Rather than read:

  • You up for breakfast?
  • :)
  • where shall we meet?
  • Breakfast Nook?
  • Sounds good 2 me
  • Time?
  • 8?
  • K
  • K
or something like that, I'd much rather read, "He texted me about breakfast and we arranged to meet at the Breakfast nook at eight." I don't need to read the verbatim text, and I sure don't need to read one larded with symbols and abbreviations! Not that this was the case here, thankfully, because this author has caught up with the fact that modern phones fill in text for you, so you don't need to employ "abrvs"!

'
I have to say that Julie came across as a bit slow in solving this problem given her academic background (as indeed was her friend Lauren), but sometimes people are simply slow, and they don't always arrive as quickly at what might seem to others to be an obvious conclusion as we might think they ought. Julie isn't a science whizz after all, otherwise she would never have said, "I know time didn’t stop - I know that’s not possible; the laws of physics forbid it." Actually it is possible: that's exactly what an event horizon is, around a black hole! But yeah, ok, for most ordinary purposes, it's true that time doesn't stop.

Julie's quite literal, and highly ill-advised toxic encounter with Luke, given what she'd just learned, was a bit odd to me, too. I expected better of her than that, and she seemed to be thinking only of herself, but I forgave that as a moment of madness, given the shock she'd just had. Even though the ending of the story seemed to leave some of the friction between Julie and her mom unresolved - or at least un-discussed (erm, kitchen appliances, anyone?), overall I liked the way the book ended, too. It was nicely wrapped up, overall.

The story of the radium girls has been told before in different ways, and more than once. In one instance it was told as an animated short released in 2007 by Jo Lawrence, and also titled Glow, but that one has no relation to this story as far as I know.

The thing is though, that I don't think you can over-tell a story like this because it's one more example of appalling corporate greed overriding the safety and welfare of employees, and this kind of crap is still going on today - although hopefully not with radioactive materials! it sure as hell is going on with noxious chemicals in China, particularly with people who are building the very electronic devices we in the west worship so devotedly and demand so cheaply.

Until we as a society learn and thoroughly internalize the tragic historical lessons of capitalistic avarice and callousness, we thoroughly deserve to keep being hit hard over the head for our stupidity and ignorance, and this book does that well. That and the fact that this a pretty decent story is why I consider it a worthy read and recommend it.