Saturday, December 26, 2009

A Short Treatise on What Gets Published

For the past two years (nearly), I've been submitting queries and, in a couple of cases, the manuscript of my historical novel to publishers and agents in an attempt to find someone who will bring it to the reading world. This post is not meant to talk about that experience but to talk about an apparent inconsistency in the way publishers apply the "rules of good writing," based on a published novel I just finished.

The book in question is The Falconer's Knot by Mary Hoffman, published in 2007 by Bloomsbury. (And in the interest of full disclosure as required by the government, I bought this book at my favorite used-book store). I had read a synopsis of the book online while shopping for something else, thought it sounded interesting, and even put it on my "wish list" for my favorite online bookstore. When I found the used copy, I was quite excited and pleased to have the chance to read it.

Excitement and pleasure turned rather quickly to disappointment and disbelief. I'm sure my husband got tired of hearing me say each night, "I can't believe this book was published." Let me temper what I'm about to say by saying it's not that I don't think the book has any merits at all; there were some characters who had potential to be sympathetic, and the idea for the plot was interesting. But this book also violated some of the most basic (in my opinion) rules of good writing without having any other qualities that made me willing to forgive the rule-breaking. Let me review some of the lapses that bothered me most.

1) Maintain a consistent point of view. Generally speaking, storytellers are advised to choose a "viewpoint character" and then to tell the story through the eyes of that character. All action in the story is interpreted through that character's mindset, even when the character interprets things in the wrong way (which I think provides some fun for the reader who can see the flaws in the interpretation). Granted, an author doesn't always have to limit him/herself to a single character's viewpoint; I can think of some books I've enjoyed that have had two viewpoint characters. There is also that third-person omniscient viewpoint that is sometimes used (but less effectively, for reasons I will discuss later).

This book had multiple viewpoint characters. In fact, it seemed that any time the plot needed to have something explained that the main character wouldn't know about, that the voice of the story shifted over to the thoughts of some character who could explain it - even if those characters were only minor players in the story. I'm not going to take the time to go back and count every instance, but I can think of about 10 different characters the book utilized as the viewpoint character. I personally found that unsettling, because it led to what I see as the second broken "good writing" rule.

2) Characters should be well-developed, fully-rounded people. This may be what disappointed me most about the book, because there were some good characters outlined in the story. The young nobleman who is wrongly accused of murder is compelling. The young woman who is forced into a convent by her cheap brother is very compelling. Yet as a reader I didn't really connect with either of them, because there is a distance that exists from the way the story is told. These two characters, who ought to be the heart of the story, get lost in the shuffle of all the other characters who vied for space on the stage. At one point, I found myself thinking, "What a waste of a wonderful character!" I would have loved to get to know Chiara (the unwilling novice) more intimately, to have been able to get inside her head and feel what it was like to think you are trapped inside this stifling, limited life when there is this attractive and interesting young man in the friary next door who doesn't seem to be any more committed to the religious life than you are. OK, I'll admit my prejudices; I'm a sucker for character-driven stories. This book is more of a plot-driven story. But even that aspect of the book breaks the good writing rules.

3) The plot should be logical and reasonable; it should never make the reader say, "WHAAAAAT????" I don't want to give away plot points. I'll just say that the entire story was built around a series of murders and the effort to find who was committing the murders - sort of a historical thriller. Except it wasn't that thrilling. The two characters who were under suspicion from everyone else in the book - the young nobleman and his mentor at the friary - obviously are not the people who committed the murders. There is no suspense that maybe these guys we like are not who they seem to be, that they are hiding something from us. There aren't even good clues that we as readers can put together to have the story as a "whodunit." About three-fourths of the way through, there is a single sentence that tells who committed the first murder, clearing the young nobleman. The other series of murders are solved in the last couple of chapters, when the young nobleman and his mentor suddenly realize (two dangerous words for good writing) who has committed the crimes. And the culprit is a minor character who has made maybe four appearances in the book otherwise. Just disappointing.

The romance plot is not much better. We know the young nobleman and the unwilling novice will end up together, and they do. But it really stretches the imagination that he would ask her to marry him and become his baronessa when they really haven't talked to each other all that much, constrained as they are by the separation between the friars and the nuns. The mentor and his former lover get together too, even though it requires him to give up his religious vows - and he's given a very convenient "out" to do that.

That leads to the last broken rule:

4) Show, don't tell. Long passages of exposition that tell us how people feel and why they are doing what they do are to be avoided - at least according to everything I've ever read about writing well. There is so much more emotional punch to watching characters act out a scene and listening to their dialogue than having the author/narrator tell us how the characters feel. Take the young novice, for example. Instead of telling us that she thinks the young nobleman is attractive, it would be so much more effective in terms of the story's impact to tell us she feels jittery when he's around, that she can see him from the corner of her eye past her white veil even when she's not supposed to be looking, that her heart races each time he speaks. Don't tell us she's attracted to him; give us the symptoms and let us figure it out. That's a lot more fun for a reader, in my opinion. Again, I think this problem relates to the use of too many viewpoint characters (that third-person omniscient viewpoint) and the fact that book is plot-driven; when trying to juggle so many people, it's hard to slow down and let us watch the story develop. It's easier to just tell us what's happening and move the story along.

All that leads me back to my frustrated question. How did this book get published? The rules I've given above are staples on the blogs of agents who are telling people how to improve their writing to increase their chances of catching someone's eye. If those rules were applied consistently, I honestly don't see how this book made it out of the slush pile. The only thing I can give as a possible reason is that the book cover says, right under the author's name, "Author of the STRAVAGANZA series." Hmmmmm.....I haven't read that series, but from what I understand by reading descriptions of it, it is a fantasy series with a really intriguing hook - a 21st-century boy with cancer is magically transported to a world similar to 16th-century Venice, where he is not ill and becomes involved in a struggle between good and evil. Sounds like it had some success and popularity. I bet The Falconer's Knot was never even in a slush pile. Since the Stravagnza series was catchy enough to get someone's eye, Mary Hoffman had her "in" -- and no one was holding her to the same standards for later works.

I'm beginning to think being published is just a crap shoot. Sometimes it's about good writing; sometimes it's about a catchy idea; sometimes it's about something that will sell; sometimes it's about something that will sell a lot. But good writing is not necessarily a prerequisite, no matter what the agent blogs say.

Monday, October 19, 2009

I'm Sorry, but I Just Don't See It That Way

I recently finished reading (and really enjoyed) My Brother Sam Is Dead, by James Lincoln Collier and Christopher Collier. The edition we have (from a book fair at my son's school, I think) had bonus features, including an interview with Christopher Collier. In that interview, Collier said, "Johnny Tremain provides a simple interpretation of the Revolution that puts it into easy categories of 'good' versus 'bad'....that book shows the war in a way it didn't really run."

Granted, I've been a huge fan of Johnny Tremain since Mrs. Howell read it to my sixth-grade class. So I immediately took offense to seeing it labeled as "the Revolutionary War for Dummies." Hot on the heels of finishing the Colliers' book, I started in on Johnny Tremain, seeing if maybe my fond nostalgia had clouded my memories and judgment.

My conclusion? No, it hasn't. I know Christopher Collier is the historian of that pair, and I am not the expert on the Revolutionary War that he is, but I think he is selling Forbes' book short on its portrayal of the war.

Let's take for an example his contention that the book puts the events of the war into "easy categories of 'good' and 'bad'." One area in which a reader might expect to find those easy categories would be in the development of characters. So for Collier's thesis to hold up, the British would be unequivocally "bad" and the Americans unequivocally "good." Yet I think of the portrayal of Lieutenant Stranger, the young British officer who at one point taught Johnny to jump with his horse. Certainly he is shown as eager for the fight; as one character described him, "He likes fightin' real good. He ain't no cardboard soldier...." Yet when Johnny is taking riding lessons with Lieutenant Stranger, he finds the officer treats him as an equal when they are in the saddle. The officer also displays a strong sense of honor. "Johnny knew he longed to own [Johnny's horse] himself. He could, any moment, by merely saying 'commandeer.' And Johnny knew he never would say it." The next paragraph sums up the complexity of Johnny's relationship with Lt. Stranger: "Johnny almost worshipped him for his skill and almost loved him...but still it was only where horses were concerned they were equals. Indoors he was rigidly a British officer and a 'gentleman' and Johnny an inferior. This shifting about puzzled Johnny. It did not seem to puzzle the British officer at all."

I can think of other British characters for which there was that same ambivalence. The deserter Pumpkin, tough little Sergeant Gale who married the daughter of Johnny's former master, the admired and hated Major Pitcairn. I think Forbes made it clear that though the characters disagreed on politics, they were all, at the heart of it, human beings with a combination of good and bad characteristics.

So maybe the fault lies in Forbes' portrayal of the American characters. But again, I would have to say no. I think about the way Sam Adams, one of the heroes of the revolutionaries, was portrayed. You would think a writer who is oversimplifying events would show the heroes to be universally good. But Forbes has Johnny observing that "the Tories were saying that Sam Adams has seduced John Hancock, even as the Devil had seduced Eve -- by a constant whispering in his ear." The reader is left with the impression that maybe the Tories aren't so wrong in their assessment. Adams is consistently shown as a warmonger: "He doesn't care much any more about our patching up our differences with England." Granted, Forbes does seem to indulge in some hero worship of Paul Revere (reading this book made me want to hunt up her Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of him).

Maybe Collier's objection rests with the glossing over of violence. He and his brother take a "gritty" approach to describing what happened in the war, like when the boy sees the slave's head come bouncing off his shoulders during a skirmish. Yes, Forbes doesn't go into graphic detail, but she does include the violence that was part of the war, and not just in battles. At one point, Johnny hears a Tory man being beaten by the Sons of Liberty: Johnny heard blows and oaths from the street outside. His hands shook....They were doing something -- something awful, to the Tory." And strangely enough, it was one of the images of violence, from Pumpkin's execution, that was most deeply linked to my memories of this book: "Squared scarlet shoulders - and on each shoulder a musket. Each musket ended with a wicked round eye....Eight cruel eyes. It was like looking into the face of death."

I would have to conclude that Mr. Collier's comments are wrong. However, I have a theory as to why he would think Johnny Tremain is oversimplified. Yes, it doesn't place the reader right into the action of the war the same way My Brother Sam Is Dead does. I think that's because the Colliers wrote their book after television and Forbes wrote hers before television. Once we have seen footage of actual battle scenes and extreme closeups of actor's faces, I suppose anything other than "gritty" writing seems naive and oversimplified. Johnny Tremain depends on the reader to be involved and fill in the details; My Brother Sam Is Dead gives the reader the details up front. Johnny Tremain allows the reader to stay at arm's length if he/she wants to; My Brother Sam Is Dead forces the reader to be right in the action.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

End of Summer (Reading Challenge, That Is)

I'm rather proud of myself. For once, I actually made a good-sized dent in the list of books I said I would read for a reading challenge at Teen Lit Review. Here's the original list, with the ones I finished in bold print:

Alex and the Ironic Gentleman by Adrienne Kress - this was a delightfully quirky adventure for young readers, with a delightful girl as the heroine. There were some VERY funny parts.
The Health of the Country: How American Settlers Understood Themselves and Their Land by Conevery Bolton Valencius - I thought this one was going to be the killer for the challenge; I am SO slow at reading nonfiction. But there was some good information, so I'm glad I read it.
Undaunted Courage by Stephen Ambrose - still working on this....
A Difference of Opinion by Nancy Dane - a thoughtful historical romance - quite enjoyable, actually
My Brother Sam Is Dead by James Lincoln Collier and Christopher Collier - I've had this book on my list for three different reading challenges, but never got around to it. I'm really glad I did this time. Although I hate what happened in the story, I thought it was a great book.
The River Between Us by Richard Peck - I liked this one, too. It sort of telegraphed what was going to happen, but there was an unexpected surprise at the end.
Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman
The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory
Pioneer Breed by Glenn R. Vernam

I'm eager to start another list....

Saturday, September 19, 2009

What Makes a Good Romantic Hero?

I finished A Difference of Opinion by Nancy Dane last night. This morning, I woke up thinking about it, particularly about the hero, Allen Matthers. I'm not quite sure what to think about him. On the one hand, he's a very appealing character; on the other, [SPOILER] he's a murderer.

Allen has a lot of the qualities that I find attractive in a romantic lead, without falling into the cliche' of the romance-novel hero. It's clear that Allen is muscular and strong, but there are no descriptions of his "v-shaped back" or his "muscular thighs." He's handsome, with his bright blue eyes and coppery hair. He's intelligent and he's a musician, facts that raise him above his humble mountain roots. He's very good to Nelda, always showing up when she's in desperate circumstances, saving her life on more than one occasion. And he's always the gentleman - even when they are traveling together at the end of the story and camping alone together, he makes no move to push himself on Nelda. I liked the way he was openly confident he and Nelda would be together, even when she was telling herself she hated him for being a traitor.

But....I can't forget that Allen Matthers killed two men over a pocket watch and some gold coins. I suppose you could argue he killed them because they were a threat to his life - one of them had already shot Nelda. But Allen had already disabled one of the men by breaking his arm - why slit his throat as well? The story happens in a very violent time, the American Civil War. There are hints throughout the book that Allen may have killed several other men in the course of his work with the army (he's a "scout," not a soldier, though). I don't know. I may be able eventually to talk myself into believing he HAD to do it, but right now, it just seems to put a stain on his character that is hard to look past. It's like Allen Matthers, along with Joey Bolitho from FJ Warren's Broken Bonds, will always have an asterisk after his name in the "Hall of Fame" of romantic heroes I've encountered in my reading, ha ha.

Friday, September 11, 2009

The Two Princesses of Bamarre

(...and here's the only review my daughter did)

by Gail Carson Levine

It's a really good book. Addie and her sister Meryl play together, but then Meryl gets Gray Death. So Addie goes on the quest to save her sister. She kills an Ogre and outsmarts a dragon.

It was sad at the end.

by Warrior Fan (age 10)

The View from Saturday

(This is the only review my son did for the other blog.)

This is a really good book. It follows the story of 4 members of a 6th grade trivia team. They have made it to the finals in their state, and are playing a team of 8th graders. In between questions asked by the judge, it follows each of the team members' stories. First is Noah, a Jew. Next in line is Nadia, Half-Jew, Half-Protestant. Ethan, Nadia's cousin, also helps the team. And last but not least is the quirky Julian, Indian, and very smart. Their loveable stories make up this Newberry Honor Book. If you would like to read it, the author is E.L. Konigsburg.

Pie Eater Kid (age 13)

The Perilous Gard

(I've decided to cut down on my number of blogs in the hopes that I will be more faithful in maintaining only two. This is a post from a blog I had set up to try to get my kids to write reviews - pretty much a failed effort! They love to read, but they don't seem to have inherited their mom's compulsion to write about what they read...)

Finding this book was one of those happy accidents that happen from time to time in my reading adventures. The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope brings together several factors that I enjoy - historical fiction, mythology and mystery, and romance. The story is set in Tudor England, in the last months of Queen Mary's reign. Katherine Sutton, a lady-in-waiting to Princess Elizabeth, is exiled by the queen to a mysterious, isolated castle where she quickly notices that something weird is going on. She is especially intrigued by the handsome and aloof brother (Christopher) of the castle's owner, and her curiosity and infatuation with him (though she would never call it that) soon lead her into a dangerous encounter with the People of the Hill (who are faithful followers of the ancient, pre-Christian religion of the British Isles). She fights to save Christopher from being used as a human sacrifice in a religious ritual, with echoes of the Ballad of Tam Lin.

I liked Kate. When she finally gets the chance to step out of the shadow of her "perfect" sister, she develops into a strong and resourceful young woman who refuses to give up in her efforts to save Christopher. But when her sister re-enters the picture, Kate nearly slips back into the shadows before Christopher saves her, in turn. I liked the way the relationship between Kate and Christopher developed; for most of their "courtship," they can't even see each other and have nothing but talk to sustain them. I actually thought I might be imagining the "romance" angle of the story at first, but no -- the story ended in a satisfying, if rather predictable, way.

My favorite relationship in the book, though, is between Kate and the Lady in the Green (the leader of the Folk). Neither of them trusts the other, and yet they learn to have a degree of respect for each other - at least Kate does, which I think makes her the bigger person.

Teen readers today may be put off by the sort of stiff and old-fashioned writing style. I was, myself, at first. But as I read further into the book, I realized the writing style reflects Kate's personality - matter-of-fact and rational. That was just one more reason to like this book.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

At Long Last, I Finished!

In my previous post, I was whining about how long it was taking me to read The Health of the Country: How American Settlers Understood Themselves and Their Land by Conevery Bolton Valencius. Instead of quitting, I decided to persevere, and I finally finished it today at lunch.

So what did I get from the book for my efforts? Here's a partial list of key points I want to remember:

  • People in the 19th century had a worldview that lumped their physical bodies and their environments together as governed by the same basic processes. For example, a body had "humors" that flowed through it, and land had "air" that flowed above and even from it. A particular body might have bilous humors, and a particular section of land might have miasma. Too much of either was likely to produce illness. To be healthy, bodies and land had to be in "balance."

  • White American settlers spoke of the land they were moving to as being "new," with no consideration that other cultures had lived on that land for perhaps centuries, and that the land had current inhabitants. The only settlement that mattered was that of white Americans. Very ethnocentric.

  • White people of the 19th century held to the scientific "truth" that certain types of people belonged in certain types of land. That theory was used to explain why white people who moved to the Mississippi Valley or the South suffered and so often died from "ague," while black slaves seemed immune to the disease or to suffer only a mild case. Whites, said the theory, belonged in cooler climates (like northern Europe); blacks belonged in hot, sunny, tropical areas (like Africa). The theory was used to justify the institution of slavery - white people simply were not suited for the difficult labor and exposure to the sun and humidity that it took to work a plantation. Blacks, on the other hand, were perfectly suited for such conditions. Very (conveniently) racist.

  • New settlers to an area had to go through a period of "seasoning" before they were fully acclimated to their new home. This seasoning usually consisted of recurring periods of fever and shaking (most likely malaria). If a person made it through the seasoning, he/she was proud of the fact and wore their newly sallow complexion as sort of a badge that he/she was not a novice anymore. Yet there was also a degree of ambivalence about having one's skin darkened by the sun or by disease; many people took that as a sign of the "degradation" of the white race (to become more like the black race).

  • Bleeding was a commonly used remedy for all sorts of illness, as was lancing (for boils or "risings"). These remedies were seen as allowing the bad matter in the body (whether too much blood, bad humors, or pus) to escape and to bring the body back into balance. Valencius draws the parallel to the cultivation of the land. As with bleeding, she says, plows cut into the surface of the land, releasing miasmas. Although it was a painful, wrenching process - for both the land and the person doing the cultivation - it was necessary to bring the land into a condition of being useful and "healthful" and productive.

  • There were a lot of sources of miasmas - standing or stagnant water, rotting trees or other vegetation, cold winds, low-lying land, freshly-plowed dirt. "Miasma" was sort of a catch-all term for any conditions people had a hunch were unhealthful but didn't have the scientific knowledge to describe.

  • "Medical geography" was big. People would do detailed observations of the land, its weather, its vegetation, its people, and/or the patterns of health and illness over a period of time. These observations were frequently published by reputable journals in the Eastern cities, giving backcountry doctors and wannabe scientists a chance to connect with the academic world.

  • As I was reading on section that talked about the stereotypes of the ways in which the Southern climate influenced Southern character, I thought I saw maybe another seed of the Civil War beginning to grow. Medical students from the South and the Mississippi Valley were consistently treated as ignorant and lazy by their Northern counterparts and teachers in the "elite" medical schools along the East Coast. As a result, Southerners began to argue that Northern medicine and its practitioners simply couldn't understand the diseases and environmental conditions in the South; that gave the Southerners a chance to feel superior about something. It reminded me of the way nationalism often begins - "We are different, and you just don't understand us. We have to do for ourselves to have it done right."

  • There were more interesting bits (including some pretty wild planting practices meant to ensure the fertility of the land!). I have two main disappointments. First, Valencius doesn't mention the interaction of white settlers and Indians all that much. She is much more interested in the contradictions between how free white settlers and black slaves viewed the "health of the country." Secondly, I felt she focused almost exclusively on those contradictions in the second half of the book. Not everyone in early Missouri and Arkansas was a slave owner; it would have been interesting to see more about how the people who were doing their own cultivation viewed their relationship with the land.

    Anyway, I'm done now. The chapter on race motivated me to read Richard Peck's The River Between Us next (young adult - won't take long); then it's on to a book I promised to read earlier this summer - more historical fiction about the Civil War, A Difference of Opinion by Nancy Dane.

    Monday, August 10, 2009

    When Is It Time to Give Up?

    You may have noted in the previous post that I planned to read two nonfiction books for my summer reading challenge. You may have also noted that that post was written on June 25. You may have further noted that I was a little unsure how having those nonfiction books on my list was going to affect my ability to complete the list.

    It is as I feared - I've become bogged down in one of those nonfiction books. The Health of the Country is full of great historical information, things I want to know and need to know if I want to write historical fiction about the nineteenth century. But (insert sound of frustration here)! I am crawling through it, and I'm not especially enjoying the trip. Every night I pick it up to read when I go to bed (I forget about it during the day), and I get through about three paragraphs or maybe half a page before I'm dozing and the book is hitting me in the nose. Every night when I place it back on the nightstand, I glance at the position of the bookmark, and it never seems to move.

    Is it time to quit? One of my librarian friends said he frequently "samples" books rather than reads them cover to cover, but I have a hard time doing that. I guess I have the "clean your plate" mentality instead. It's especially hard with this book, since I know its contents are so potentially valuable to me. But I'm really starting to long for the joy of reading again. You know the feeling - you are so swept up in a book that you can't put it down. You prop it on the cereal box at breakfast so you can read as you eat. You do only the most necessary household chores and you find a way to do them one-handed so you can hold the book in your other hand. You stay up far later than you really ought to since you have work tomorrow, and while you are at work, you are only half-listening to conversations because you are wondering what's going to happen next in this fictional world your mind is living in. When the book is over, you are happy and sad at the same time, and sometimes you start again, just so you can go more slowly this time and savor the journey. I want that. It's been far too long.

    Thursday, June 25, 2009

    Summer Book Splash

    The ladies at Teen Lit Review are hosting a summer reading challenge, and I've found in the past that challenges like this are a great way to motivate myself to actually DO the reading. Here is my wishlist of books for this summer:

    Alex and the Ironic Gentleman by Adrienne Kress
    (this is cheating, I suppose, because I'm almost finished with the book already!)
    The Health of the Country: How American Settlers Understood Themselves and Their Land by Conevery Bolton Valencius
    Undaunted Courage by Stephen Ambrose
    A Difference of Opinion by Nancy Dane
    My Brother Sam Is Dead by James Lincoln Collier and Christopher Collier (this makes the third time this book has been on my list for a reading challenge - maybe this time I'll actually read it!)
    The River Between Us by Richard Peck
    Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman
    The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory
    Pioneer Breed by Glenn R. Vernam (one of those out-of-print books I remember from my youth and managed to find - hope it's as good as I remember)

    That's not a very extensive list, but I think it's pretty ambitious for me, given everything that's going on this summer (our family is going to Yellowstone - I can't wait!) I also have a tendency to get distracted from my list, meaning something will catch my eye and I will pick it up and start reading. But it's a start! Maybe I will even exceed my list! (With two hefty nonfiction books on the list? I doubt that....)

    Sunday, June 14, 2009

    Disappointment Is Even More Bitter When Promise Is Great...

    Did you ever have a package for your birthday or Christmas that looked and sounded like the most fantastic gift ever? You just knew it was Just What You Always Wanted. You quivered with the anticipation of the moment you would be able to pry open the lid of the box and behold the wonderful gift. When the time finally came, you held the gift in your hands for a moment before opening it, enjoying that last bit of anticipation before you opened the box and discovered......socks. Or something like socks, servicable and entirely practical.

    That's just how I felt shortly after reading the first couple of chapters of Red Moon at Sharpsburg by Rosemary Wells. It's been a long time since I've had the chance to read any historical fiction for young adults, especially historical fiction about American history. I picked up this book at a school book fair, but had other reading obligations that kept me from being able to read Wells' book until recently. It was with great anticipation that I opened the book and read the first page.

    The first chapter was fine, and in fact, it set up a nice mystery for the rest of the book: "All else that followed during the war came of those three promises, two kept and one broken, made the week before I was born." But beginning with the second chapter, Wells shifted to using the present tense ("When you first see me, it is July 30, 1861."), and I felt a little itch of irritation start in the back of my mind. I really dislike present-tense narratives. Really dislike. In my opinion, present tense gives a book the tone of a book written for very young children. That tone simply wasn't appropriate for the mature ideas and events with which India has to wrestle in this book.

    That brings me to another problem: the character of India was inconsistent. Some of the time, she is this tough, confident girl who holds the family together when her father is off in the war. Other times, she seemed to have more in common with my 10-year-old daughter, carrying a doll around. (Actually, even my 10-year-old daughter doesn't carry a doll around anymore.)

    Actually, the characters in this book all seemed to have problems of development and consistency. To tell the truth, there was no one in the book I came to care about. There was no one that I identified with and was pulling for. They all seemed sort of like paper dolls acting out a story, but with no emotional depth - when the story was rife with opportunity for emotion! For example, India falls in love (I guess) with her tutor, Emory Trimble. There are scenes in which they are working together on science experiments and recording data, but I don't really see that they are coming to have any feelings for each other until Wells has India tell us they do. Here is the description of their first kiss: "Emory's kiss stays for only the drawing in and letting out of a single breath, but it is warm and steady, as I have pictured it so many times when no one can read my unchaste thoughts." And that's it. I'd like to get to feel that moment. That was my biggest disappointment - that I wasn't able to immerse myself into the characters and their lives.

    Wells does have some nice historical details included in the book, and the plot has some interesting twists. Wells also tried to "open our eyes" to the poor medical practices in the Civil War and to the very circumscribed role of women of that time. Actually, I thought she was rather heavy-handed in doing that for both issues. I might write some more about that in a different post.

    I'm not sorry I read the book. I'm just really disappointed that it fell so far short of its potential. I'm sorry that it is probably one of those books that I will forget rather quickly, stuck in the "sock drawer" of my mind.

    Wednesday, June 10, 2009

    The Wonder of Little Moments

    There's a song I enjoy by Rob Thomas with lyrics that include "Our lives are made in these small hours/ These little wonders, these twists and turns of fate/ Time falls away but these small hours/ These small hours still remain." As I finished reading The Side-Yard Superhero, by Rick D. Niece, those lyrics came to mind, because this book is a celebration of the "small hours" that make up our lives and of how memory keeps those small hours with us.

    This "automythography," as Niece calls it, is a collection of stories about the people and events that impacted Niece as he was growing up in small-town DeGraff, Ohio. Nothing all that extraordinary happened to the author when he was young, and that's exactly what makes this story extraordinary. Niece is a good storyteller with a talent for observing the little details. He uses those details to frame truths about life, sometimes stated, sometimes implicit. The stories in the book are loosely framed by young Rickie's relationship with Bernie Jones, a boy who is confined to a wheelchair by cerebral palsy.

    There were a number of entertaining stories in the book, but my favorite chapters were the two in which Niece told about the carnival that came to DeGraff. Several small stories are imbedded in that larger story, including a very touching account of how Rickie and his friends tried to help Bernie Jones experience the carnival - in some ways, they succeeded, but in other ways, they failed. I also liked but was sort of saddened by the story of Rickie's trip to the "Nature's Oddities" tent, when he got a "back-stage" view of one of the performers. My favorite bit, though, was Niece's description of watching his parents ride the merry-go-round together: "It's nice when your parents are in love and not afraid to show it." Again, he's hit on one of those unimportant little moments in life that mean everything.

    Having thought about the book some after finishing it, I think I see another theme at work, as well. At several points, Rickie is made aware of the limitations Bernie faced because he was bound to the wheelchair - he can't go to school, he can't ride the Ferris wheel. It was a major undertaking for Rickie to take Bernie along on a portion of his paper route one afternoon. However, it seems to me that a number of the characters in the book have lives that are restricted in some way. There is Miss Lizzie, who rarely leaves her house after long ago losing her fiance. There is Danny, one of Rickie's friends, who is emotionally crippled by a terrible set of parents. There is Tim, the carnival performer, who is doomed by being a little person in the 1950s to being "Teeny Tiny Tim." There is Mrs. Waite, who is limited in activity and lifespan by an illness.

    Sometimes people in the story try to break out of the restrictions. At first I thought the story about Fern Burdette was sort of strange. Fern had been a pioneering female journalist, and on her return to DeGraff, wore nothing but a brassiere from the waist up. After reading the rest of the book, though, and thinking about it, I can see that Fern was trying to break out of society's limitations on her. She'd been doing it all her life, but once her career was over, abandoning the "normal" dress code was a clear way to say, "I refuse to let you tell me what to do." Even though she tried to break free, I don't think Fern was entirely successful; everyone considered her an eccentric -- loveable, but definitely eccentric.

    I don't know that Niece would agree with me on this point, but I think he faced his own limits growing up in a small town. Unlike most of the other characters in the book, though, he was able to escape the limits by attending Ohio State University. After that point, he was never the same, and life in DeGraff disappeared as well - his family moved from the town. I'm not trying to say the limits placed by the small town were negative. I think it's like Bernie's wheelchair. At the end of the book, the adult Rickie returns to Ohio to visit Bernie in a nursing home. Bernie is pretty much bedridden by that point, and Rickie realizes that as much as the wheelchair limited by Bernie could do, it also provided him with at least some degree of freedom and self-control. So what is a wheelchair -- or a small-town upbringing? Is it something that keeps you from riding the Ferris wheel? Or is it something that supports you as you go out on adventures like helping Miss Lizzie give out Halloween treats? Is it something you can occasionally escape to ride the tea cups, something comfortable and familiar you can return to when the ride is over?

    On the surface, this is an entertaining and nostalgic collection of short stories. But below the surface of all those little moments, I think we can find some big truth.

    Sunday, May 3, 2009

    The Great Kindle Debate

    Over the last few days, I've been on an out-of-state trip with my husband's high school band. That means hours on a bus (charter, at least, not yellow school) and nighttime chaperone duty (he was nice and gave me the 5 a.m. shift instead of the 3 a.m. one) and sitting-around-waiting time -- all of which are perfect reading opportunities. One of the other parents on the bus had a Kindle reader, which prompted the following mental debate between Self 1 (S1) and Self 2 (S2).

    S1: Did you see Suzy P's Kindle? It was the coolest thing! I never really expected to see anyone with one of them. It was really cool!

    S2: Yes, it was cool.

    S1: Is that all you've got to say about it? I was surprised at how small and light it was. I swear it couldn't have been more than a quarter-inch thick! I had expected it to be a little clunky, maybe about the size of a trade paperback. But it was sleek and very, very lightweight. And it had its own little carrying pouch.

    S2: But the screen wasn't all that big. It was probably an area about the size of a 4 x 5 photograph. That's not much of a book page - can't fit much text on that.

    S1: Well, that's true, but you could easily scroll from one page to the next. It looked like there was a little button just under where you would hold your right thumb that you could press to get to the next page.

    S2: And you're reading off a computer screen. Who wants to read a 300+ page book on a computer screen? I can't stand to read really long webpages on the computer - and even the longest webpage isn't going to be more than 4 or 5 pages of printed text.

    S1:'re not having to sit at a desk and read it like it is a computer screen. You could curl up in your favorite chair with the Kindle, hold it up to read in bed, lie on your stomach in the grass, lots of different positions. And some of the bigger books are not all that easy to read in bed - sometimes I hit myself in the nose when I doze off and the book slips. Did I mention how thin and lightweight the Kindle is?

    S2: Yeah, yeah, you did.

    S1: Suzy told me how many books she has on it. I can't remember the number, but it was a LOT. And she said she has an account at Amazon where she can store the ones she doesn't want to keep on her Kindle all the time. She said she has the Bible on her Kindle -- the WHOLE Bible! I could have used that on this trip. I didn't bring my Bible, thinking it was sort of big and bulky and there would be one in the hotel room -- but there wasn't. If I'd had a Kindle, I could have had it with me, no big and bulky. I did take three other books to read on the trip - one for myself and two for my daughter. The one I took for myself is a pretty hefty hardback from the library -- it definitely weighs more than a Kindle! My shoulder bag would have been that much lighter if I'd had the book on Kindle instead of in hardback.

    S2: So? You would have had to buy the book. You couldn't just check it out from the library.

    S1: That's true. I'm glad enough I'm reading this book, but I don't think I'd want to buy it.

    S2: And what about the aesthetic experience? You know, the feel of the paper, the smell of the book, the heft of the book in your hands -- people have been reading books for centuries. Do you really want to break with that long and proud tradition?

    S1: Oh, come on, Self 2! Reading is about the content of the book, the story. The aesthetic experience is secondary. I don't pick up a book to read because I like the way the paper feels. And some books (older ones especially) smell pretty awful.

    S2: So you would just dump all your books and replace them with this electronic gadget? What if it crashes and you lose all your saved books? You know computers - they can be pretty crazy...What if it runs out of battery in the most exciting part of the story?

    S1: Sure, the technology aspect of it is a little intimidating to me. I still can't access the internet from my cell phone.

    S2: Just stick with good ol' paper books. They don't let you down. And anyway, a Kindle is EX-PEN-SIVE!

    S1: I don't know. I'm not going to rush out and buy one right now. Like you said, they're pretty expensive, and I'm not confident all the bugs are worked out yet. But there are a lot of advantages -- it's more environmentally friendly, and there aren't a lot of books around collecting dust, and if there was a fire, I could just pick up my Kindle and save all my books--

    S2: What about all the books you already have? It would cost a bundle to get them on Kindle, and I bet some of your favorites are not even available on Kindle. You'd just have to start with new books - and there would go the only type of shopping you actually enjoy, going to used bookstores!

    S1: That's true, I guess. But it was cool. And Suzy seemed really happy with hers....I wish there was some way I could try one out for a few days. I wonder if Suzy would show me hers again?

    You! Never content with what you've got! Always running after the newest gadget! You had a perfectly good clipboard, legal pad, and pencil -- but you just HAD to get that laptop computer for your writing..... (goes away grumbling)

    Thursday, April 30, 2009

    I'm Not Saying "I Told You So,' But....

    All this about the swine flu makes me hark back to a post last year about a little historical novel called At the Sign of the Sugared Plum. That book dramatized the responses of 17th-century Londoners to the outbreak of the black death. It's interesting to watch the responses of 21st-century Americans to swine flu in comparison...they had their medicinal poseys, we have our surgical masks. They smoked tobacco incessantly in an effort to ward off the illness; we wash obsessively with antibacterial wipes. They closed down the city of London (once the "people of quality" were out of town); we're talking about closing borders. Human nature doesn't change -- another excellent reason to read historical fiction!

    Wednesday, April 15, 2009

    Not What I Was Expecting....

    Somehow I got it in my head that The Princess Academy by Shannon Hale was the basis for that Disney movie about an ordinary girl (Anne Hathaway, I think?) who is told she's a princess and taken away to learn how to be one. From what I could tell from the previews, Anne has all the usual lessons in deportment and ballroom dancing, and she ends up meeting the prince of her dreams.

    Well, I was wrong.

    The Princess Academy, indeed, does involve an ordinary girl who is taken away from her home to learn to be a princess. And Miri does study Conversation and Dancing in order to be ready for the ball when the prince will choose his future bride. But The Princess Academy teaches Miri more than these typical "girly" things; she also studies Commerce and Diplomacy, two subjects that she puts to good use to improve the lifestyle of her village. I really appreciated that Shannon Hale had her heroine (who is a very sympathetic and appealing character) break away from the "princess" stereotype that little girls are normally fed by popular culture. Oh, sure, Miri is fascinated by the beautiful dress the academy princess (the top student) will get to wear at the ball, and she also has a love interest, so the break from the stereotype is not a clean one. I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing. I'm not one of those feminists who think girls should reject all things feminine in order to avoid exploitation. But what I like is that Miri goes beyond the limits of the stereotype to use skills that girls often aren't encouraged to develop.

    My favorite example was when Miri and the other girls use Diplomacy to regain entrance to the academy after they ran away to attend their village's festival. Instead of pouting their way back in, or promising they would never do such a thing again, the girls (led by Miri) bargain with the head of the academy by pointing out her unsatisfactory behavior, by admitting their own wrong, and by setting terms for settlement of the disagreement. All this was done in a respectful, assertive manner. What a great, empowering model for young girls!

    I also liked the ingenuity Miri shows in figuring out the "quarry speech" of the village, as well as her bravery and unselfishness at the story's climax. She sounds too good to be true, doesn't she? But Hale manages to make Miri a real and believable character instead of a cardboard cutout of perfection. Normally, I don't push "princess" stories on my daughter; if she discovers them on her own, I don't forbid them, either. However, The Princess Academy is a princess story I am more than happy for her to read.

    Tuesday, March 24, 2009

    I Meet Another "Strong" Woman

    Last night, I finally finished reading The Tall Woman by Wilma Dykeman. It's taken me an unreasonably long time to finish the book, especially when you consider that it is my favorite genre - historical fiction set in the United States during the nineteenth century. More than that, it's about a topic that I enjoy reading - the life of an ordinary woman facing challenging circumstances. I'll talk more later about why I think it took me so long to read the book, but first I want to celebrate another "strong" woman - Lydia McQueen.

    (spoiler alert!)

    The book covers Lydia's life from when she first marries Mark McQueen until she dies of typhoid fever at age 50. Yes! She dies! I haven't read very many books in which the main character dies at the end. But her dying actually gives the author a chance to pull together what it was that made Lydia strong. Lydia was the heart of her community. When a woman needed help with the birth of a baby, Lydia would go to help. When people needed health care of any kind, Lydia would go and do whatever she could to help. If people needed food, or clothes, Lydia would help. More than just being charitable, though, Lydia was the driving force that brought education to the community. She used a gift entrusted to her by the town's alcoholic doctor to buy land to start the school, and later, when the school is burned by an arsonist, she is not above a little blackmail of the town's most powerful man (who is the book's villain) in order to get a replacement school.

    It's not just her public face that makes Lydia strong, however. She faces a string of horrendous challenges in her personal life. Her mother is abducted and terrorized by "outriders" in the waning days of the Civil War, leaving her mentally broken. Lydia has a difficult birth with her first child, and since the doctor is too drunk to come help her, her aunt delivers the boy using the doctor's forceps. The boy suffers birth injury, making him slow to develop mentally and physically. Later, the boy, who is special to Lydia, dies of pneumonia. Lydia's husband, Mark, comes back from fighting in the Civil War full of hatred brought on by months in Andersonville prison. The only thing that eases his bitterness is a year-long trip out West, during which Lydia has complete responsibility for the upkeep of their farm and their young family. No matter how you define "strong," Lydia meets that definition.

    So, why did it take me so long to read this book? Not to sound arrogant, but I think Wilma Dykeman kind of lost sight of the story once in a while and veered off into Lydia-worship (if that makes any sense). You know, I can't really identify Lydia's character flaw. Everybody has at least one. Hannah Fowler was socially awkward and would do anything to avoid having to be around a lot of people for any period of time. Kate in The Perilous Gard is a little too nosy for her own good and suffers an inferiority complex when it comes to her sister. Susanna in No Shame, No Fear and Forged in the Fire prematurely jumps to conclusions and clings to stubborn pride that very nearly costs her a relationship with the love of her life. But Lydia McQueen doesn't seem to have any flaws - she's always patient and giving, she's always a champion of education, she's always fair-minded in recognizing her prejudices and setting them aside. On the other hand, some other characters in the book are sort of cardboard cut-offs for the "dark side." Hamilton Nelson, the villain, doesn't seem to have any redeeming qualities; it makes you wonder how he got to be the wealthiest and most powerful man in town.

    Another thing that bugged me was that the narrative sort of meandered all over the place. I tend to like plots that are tight and knit together well. That doesn't mean everything has to be really simple-minded and foreshadowed early on or I don't like the book. But I think an author can get too many threads going at once and end up with a tangled mess (to carry the metaphor on through). In this book, Dykeman is juggling the threads of the mystery of who the outriders were who attacked Lydia's family, the struggle to get the school, the need to heal Mark from the legacy of hatred the war left in him, the uneasy relationship between Lydia and Hamilton Nelson, the unfair treatment by the community of the isolated Bludsoe family -- those are the major plotlines I can think of. Then, of course, there are a number of subplots going on as well. That's a lot to manage. I guess I just felt that sometimes we the readers were being strung along on something that then is tied up neatly and quickly at the end.

    That's not to say there weren't things I didn't like about the book. One of my favorites is the part when Lydia develops an admiration for a red-tailed hawk that is raiding her flock of chickens. She hopes that Mark won't kill the bird, which seems to her to symbolize the very freedom and pride of the natural world. Eventually, though, Mark does kill the hawk, and instead of flying into an irrational frenzy (which I'm afraid I might do), she doesn't say a word to him about it. It wouldn't do any good, and she couldn't explain to him why she felt that way. However, on her deathbed, when she's delirious with fever and saying her last words to Mark, she remembers the hawk and tells him, "I was always sorry we killed that red-tailed hawk." Some things just stay with you, buried deep under daily life, but not forgotten.

    Friday, February 20, 2009

    Fading into Obscurity

    I've written about this topic before, but the poignancy of the idea really came home to me last night as I finished The Big Knives by Bruce Lancaster. It's sad to me to see a book slowly fade out of popular culture (only three used copies of The Big Knives are available on Amazon). It's even sadder when the book is historical fiction and the subject of the book is being forgotten - maybe for good.

    The Big Knives is the story of George Rogers Clark's campaign into the area that is now Illinois and Indiana during the Revolutionary War. With fewer than 200 men, Clark captured Kaskaskia and Cahokia with no resistance. When he heard that the British commander Henry Hamilton had taken Vincennes (a settlement along the Wasbash River), Clark marched his small army across Illinois in mid-winter to re-take Vincennes. Besides the cold weather one would expect of a mid-winter campaign, Clark's men also dealt with flood waters (sometimes up to their shoulders) and toward the end, a lack of food. Yet Clark apparently had the personal magnetism and leadership to inspire his men to keep going. Thanks to Clark's ability to bluff - and the marksmanship of his Kentucky and Virginia volunteers - within days of the Americans' arrival at Vincennes, Hamilton agreed to unconditional surrender. This gave the young United States control of land area equal to that of the original thirteen colonies. What makes this more impressive is that Clark was only 25 at the time. As the historical epilogue to The Big Knives points out, "Clark's actions in the Ohio Region during the Revolution were vital to the ultimate success of the American cause."

    However, as the epilogue also notes, "His country has almost forgotten him." That was written in 1964, and I'm afraid the situation hasn't improved in the 45 years since. Now, maybe my education was inadequate, but I never heard of George Rogers Clark in any of my history classes, high school or college. Granted, I didn't take a course that focused on the American Revolution; surely Clark gets his due in such courses. But I think my point is still valid. For the majority of the American public, George Rogers Clark is forgotten - and I think that's so sad.

    Originally, I planned to read this book one time and then get rid of it. It's one my son picked up at a discard sale from his school library, and it's not in the greatest shape (as you might expect after years of service in a high school library!). The book also didn't especially grab me - it had a lot of detail about the business end of the campaign, which was mildly interesting to me as part of the history but which didn't seem all that important to the plot. Finally, I thought Lancaster had some "hero worship" of Clark going on, and that just seemed silly.

    Then I Googled Clark to see how much of the story was true and how much was Lancaster's embellishment -- and I found out very little of it was embellishment! Clark deserved the adulation! That changed my attitude toward the book completely. I'm going to keep it, mainly because I want to do my part to keep Clark's memory from disappearing. Maybe someday when my grandchildren are cleaning out my house, they'll find this book, and maybe one of them will read it -- and George Rogers Clark and Lancaster's telling of his tale will live on.

    Saturday, February 14, 2009

    Some Favorite Love Scenes

    I'm still plugging along in The Big Knives (and I still think the cover with the woman on it is misleading), but I decided in honor of Valentine's Day I would look back at some of my favorite love scenes. I'm sure I'll think of others as soon as this is posted.

    #10 - The Rough-Face Girl by Rafe Martin and David Shannon

    Then they heard footsteps coming along the path, closer and closer. The entrance flap of the wigwam lifted up, and in stepped the Invisible Being.
    And when he saw her sitting there he said, "At last we have been found out." Then, smiling kindly, he added, "And oh, my sister, but she is beautiful."

    This is a picture-book retelling of the Cinderella story, but you develop such sympathy for the Rough-Face Girl that the moment when the Invisible Being acknowledges her as the woman he will marry is very satisfying.

    #9 - The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton by Jane Smiley

    He could not believe his eyes at...our good fortune right there, big as life. After I put down the poultice and untied the horse, Thomas grabbed me about the waist and kissed me and spun me around. He kept saying, "I can't tell you how sure I was we'd have to backtrack! I didn't see any future her, I was as low as I've ever been, but now...!"
    Well, how were we to know? At any rate, it was a splendid thing to feel my husband's arms and hands press against me and to lean into his chest and to hear his joyful voice in my ear, and to look into his face and have him put his fingers into my hair and take all the pins out, one by one, and then pause to put them carefully in the pocket of his shirt. Then I shook my hair out, and it fell to almost the middle of my skirt, and we went inside the cabin.

    This is a marriage of convenience between a abolitionist pioneer in Kansas Territory and a plain "old maid" that grows to be more, though the Lidie's telling of their love is very restrained (which, to me, makes it even more intimate). Unfortunately, the marriage doesn't last long; shortly after this scene, Thomas is murdered.

    #8 - Judith of France - Margaret Leighton

    Already the figures crowding there were growing smaller. Above them all she could see Baudoin Bras-de-fer sitting his horse like a rock in the midst of a whirlpool, by some miracle keeping order in all the confused and desperate haste.
    Across the glittering surface of the water their glances met -- and held. Something caught sharply in Judith's throat. A small, desperate voice - was it her own? - was whispering "No! No! No!" to the lift and fall of the oars that were carryng her away. Inexorably the distance widened, nevertheless, and she raised her hand in a hopeless little gesture of farewell.
    She saw surprise in Baudoin's face. Slowly, with his bright, intent gaze still holding hers, he lifted his hand to his helmet in an answering salute.

    I didn't say they were all happy scenes.

    #7 - These Happy Golden Years - Laura Ingalls Wilder

    Laura opened the small package that Almanzo gave her. The white paper unfolded; there was a white box inside. She lifted its lid. There in a nest of soft white cotton lay a gold bar pin. On its flat surface was etched a little house, and before it along the bar lay a tiny lake, and a spray of grasses and leaves.
    "Oh, it's beautiful," she breathed. "Thank you!"
    "Can't you thank a fellow better than that?" he asked, and then he put his arms around her while Laura kissed him and whispered, "I am glad you came back."

    Almanzo, you rascal!!

    #6 - The Edge of Time - Loula Grace Erdman

    "Well, I must be going. Good-by, Bethany."
    He took her in his arms and kissed her, gently, as if he meant to be gone only a little while. Then his arms tightened around her, and he kissed her several times -- roughly, so that she knew that is she said one little word, maybe, or let one tear slip down her face, he might not leave her at all.
    She did not say the word, shed the tear.
    "Good-by," she said. "Don't worry - I'll get along fine."
    She drew back just a little, but enough so that he remembered it was time to go.
    He left her there, beside the dugout door. She watched him ride away; she continued to watch him, waving to him each time he turned to look back. And when he had at last disappeared into the vast reaches of the plains, she went back inside. She threw herself down across the bed and cried for a long time. After that she felt better.

    This book is not that well-known, but I can see a HUGE influence on my own writing.

    #5 - Hannah Fowler - Janice Holt Giles

    He thought how it was you learned so much about somebody when you lived with them, things they never even knew themselves, likely, and how it made them so much closer - like a youngun of your own flesh and blood -- sweet, somehow, and kin. Like the way Hannah had of being shy and awkward before folks, sometimes even with him....And for all her bigness and smartness, she liked it best when he was some place handy. She never would say so...but when you got to know her you could tell the difference in the look on her face when she was contented and when she wasn't. She didn't know how her face changed when he came in and told her he had to go off somewhere. Not that she would ever say one word against it. She would get busy and fix him a bait to take...get him ready to go, not even knowing that the shine of her eyes had dulled and a little line between them had puckered. It made him wish he never had to go.

    I like this one because it is from the male point of view.

    #4 - Ruth 3:7-10

    When Boaz had finished eating and drinking and was in good spirits, he went over to lie down at the far end of the grain pile. Ruth approached quietly, uncovered his feet and lay down. In the middle of the night something startled the man, and he turned and discovered a woman lying at his feet.
    "Who are you?" he asked.
    "I am your servant Ruth," she said. "Spread the corner of your garment over me, since you are a kinsman-redeemer."
    "The Lord bless you, my daughter," he replied. "This kindness is greater than that which you showed earlier. You have not run after the younger men, whether rich or poor. And now, my daughter, don't be afraid. I will do for you all you ask."

    Ruth took quite a risk, but Boaz is just a really good man.

    #3 - The Witch of Blackbird Pond - Elizabeth George Speare

    "Hold a minute, Captain!" called a voice. A commotion near the door had been scarcely noticed. "There's a fellow here says he has an important witness for the case."
    Every voice was suddenly stilled. Almost paralyzed with dread, Kit turned slowly to face a new accuser. On the threshold of the room stood Nat Eaton, slim, straight-shouldered, without a trace of mockery in his level blue eyes.

    What could be more romantic than having the man you love show up to save you from being burned as a witch?

    #2 - The Perilous Gard - Elizabeth Marie Pope

    "You're not talking," said Christopher. "Go on talking."
    "What do you want me to talk of?" asked Kate helplessly.
    "I don't care," said Christopher. "Whatever you like. Anything. Only talk."
    Kate cast wildly around in her mind for the 'anything,' wishing more than ever that it was her father who was sitting there, her father or Master Roger or the Lady Elizabeth or Alicia. Surely that was the least God could have done for him, the very least.
    "Christopher," she blurted out, "do you ever think about food?"

    I was charmed by the way Christopher and Kate fall in love by talking. They can't see each other at all, so their whole relationship is built on their talking.

    #1 - Forged in the Fire - Ann Turnbull

    We heard faintly, from a neighboring street, the nightwatchman's call: "Nine o'clock, and all's well!"
    I broke free then. I went to the window and stood with my back to Will, looking out at the yard and passageway. Snow lay thick on the ground, and big soft flakes fell steadily against the window and built up on the ledge, cocooning us.
    "If I'm to get home..." I began.
    He came and stood behind me, put his hands on my arms, kissed the nape of my neck.
    "Don't go," he said. "Stay with me, Susanna. Please."

    Ok, so this is traditional romantic stuff. I'm still a sucker for it.

    Monday, January 26, 2009

    What's It Worth to You?

    It came today - the used copy of Judith of France that I found online and paid $40 for (not counting shipping and handling). It's unreal in a couple of ways. First, after literally years of searching, I can't believe I own a copy of this book that made such an impression on me as a teenager. Secondly, I can't believe I would actually pay $40 for it, no matter how badly I wanted it.

    On second thought, though, I don't blame myself. Buying the book online through a used book outlet is the only way to get it. It's been out of print for years. I understand that libraries have to purge some books from their shelves to make room for new acquistions, and it's only natural that something published in 1948 (that doesn't have the saving grace of being a Newberry winner like Johnny Tremain) is going to be one of those chosen to go. There might be a library somewhere that still has a copy on the shelves, and I might be able to find it through interlibrary loan, but then I can only keep it for two weeks or so. When you like a book the way I like this one, you're going to want to read it multiple times, and having to go through the process of interlibrary loan every time is a pain. So, I guess the question I had to ask myself is, what was it worth to me to be able to take this book off my shelf whenever I want, to be able to share it with my daughter and give her a chance to fall in love with it too?

    At least $40!

    Monday, January 19, 2009

    Judging a Book by Its Cover

    I'm currently reading The Big Knives by Bruce Lancaster, and over the weekend, I was adding it to my "I'm Reading" list on Facebook. During the process, I found something I thought was amusing, and I thought I'd share it.

    The copy of the book I'm reading is a hardcover that my son picked up at a "purging" sale at his school library. The cover looks like this:

    However, the only image I could find while I was uploading this book to my Facebook page was this one:

    I ask you, does that even look like the same book????! After laughing for a while, I asked myself what would lead to a pair of covers that are so different. My conclusion (which may or may not be complete hooey) is that somewhere along the line, someone decided to market the book to a different audience - women instead of men.

    The first cover is, as I said, for the hardcover edition that was published in 1964. The second is from a paperback reissue (by a different publisher) in 1978. The first cover, I think, has masculine appeal - we have a group of men in buckskins, obviously engaged in some kind of frontier military action or hunting, since their guns are prominent in the picture. The second cover looks a lot like a romance novel cover (a tame one, since both the man and woman are fully clothed, ha ha, albeit in clothes that are NOT accurate for the historical period). I doubt a man browsing in a bookstore would pick up that book with a woman in a hot pink dress. I asked my husband if he would read it, and he gave me one of those looks, which I took as a "no." (LOL)

    I'm guessing that somewhere along the way between 1964 and 1978, someone decided women would be a more lucrative market for this book than men. Although I'm not finished with the book yet, I don't see how on earth that decision was made. I think this is very much a book with a "male" orientation (not that I am saying there are books for men and different books for women - not at all!). Actually, the main character, Markham Cape, reminds me strongly of Alex Rider from the juvenile spy series my son liked so much a couple of years ago, or maybe even James Bond transplanted to the American frontier. There's something cool and detached about him, which I see as traits in a literary character that appeal more to men than to women. I know as a reader I like characters much better when I can identify with them (something that may or may not be influenced by the fact that I'm a woman).

    Anyway, I'm really mystified by this woman on the cover. I'm nearly halfway through the book, and there hasn't yet been a woman in the story who has been anything more than a temporary flirtation for Mr. Cape. I bet if you put every line about a woman together, they wouldn't fill two pages. So now I expect a major plot turn of some kind...or is this a case of a cover that would "hook" the female reader and then deceive her???

    Tuesday, January 6, 2009

    Virginia Woolf was on to something.....

    You probably know the famous line from Virginia Woolf: "A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction." In a break from my usual reading fare, I recently finished a non-fiction work called A History of the Wife, by Marilyn Yalom. After following the history of wives from ancient Jewish and Greek civilizations to modern times, I think Virginia Woolf had it right, and I'm going to offer this paraphrase of her statement: "A woman must have money of her own and control of her own decisions before she can be truly productive."

    As I was reading Yalom's book, I kept thinking of the other books I've read this year that featured women who were married, or who were trying to get married, and one in which the girl was trying to avoid getting married. With this post, I'd like to try to pull together some of those thoughts.

    First, I'll talk about A Girl Named Disaster by Nancy Farmer. To be honest with you, it wasn't really my kind of book - I'm not a fan of the "man (or girl) against nature" type of story in which a girl has to struggle alone to survive against every kind of natural phenomenon you can imagine (think Julie of the Wolves or Island of the Blue Dolphins. Award-winning, but just not my thing). This particular version of that story is set in Africa, with the girl (Nhamo) running away to escape a forced marriage to a cruel older man with two other wives. Nhamo's grandmother comes up with the escape plan and gives Nhamo some gold nuggets to wear in a little package around her neck. The gold nuggets then disappear from the story until the very end, when the people who have rescued Nhamo from the wilderness find them. The character who tells Nhamo about finding the gold is a woman who is a scientist, and she advises Nhamo to start a bank account with the gold. She tells Nhamo her grandmother gave the gold to help Nhamo avoid the fate of every other girl in the village. The grandmother's wish is that Nhamo will not marry young and become a virtual slave, but that she will have a chance to get education and develop her mind so she can have choices in life.

    As I was reading that, I realized how important a gift her grandmother had given Nhamo; by giving her money, she made it possible for Nhamo to have some control over what happened to her, instead of having to relinquish control to a husband in exchange for him supplying the food and shelter she needed to live.

    That leads me to think about Hannah Fowler by Janice Holt Giles. Hannah finds herself in the opposite position to Nhamo. Hannah's father has died, leaving her in the Kentucky wilderness with nothing more than a few household goods. While Hannah is a big, strong woman who is probably capable of staking out her own claim and being successful in raising crops, she gives in to the social pressure that tells her a woman shouldn't even try to do that. Faced with a string of potential suitors who recognize the value of a woman's help in taming the wilderness, Hannah bows to the pressure - but on her own terms. She searches out the man who helped her and her father in the wilderness and, in a break with social tradition, asks him to marry her. Fortunately for Hannah, she's made a good choice, and Tice Fowler turns out to be exactly the kind of companion, lover, partner that women are looking for in marriage.

    Those two cases would seem to give credibility to my paraphrase of Woolf's axiom - at least for the lower classes. Ironically, though, the more money a woman (or her birth family) had, the less likely she was to have control over who she would marry, for most of human history. Yalom's book gives a number of examples of upper-class women who were part of a marriage that was more an economic or political arrangement than a love match. It wasn't until the 18th century that the concept of romantic love and a heart's desire became factors in allowing people to choose marriage partners.

    I hope this post doesn't come off as cynical. I think most women, like Hannah Fowler, are willing or even glad to give up some of their self-determination to gain the benefits of marriage (myself included). But I also admire Nhamo's grandmother for providing the means to help put Nhamo in a position where she could choose to marry at some point in the future -- or not.