More Books

I devour historical romances. The historical details and events may be carefully researched, but the plots are not moored to reality. This is perfect because I am not looking for reality when I read historical romance.

One of my favorite authors is Georgette Heyer. Heyer wrote for an earlier generation so her books never impose 21st century norms on the heedlessly rich of the past. Her fictional lords and ladies reveal their character through their treatment of lesser beings — like servants or shopkeepers. However, none of them apologizes for obscene wealth acquired from cotton, indigo, or sugar plantations or extracted, with the help of the British military, from China or India. In real life, these are ill gotten gains. In Heyer’s books, the wealth just IS and the source is never examined. The plots are light-hearted with clever banter and amusing characters. No mental exertion required.

I like a romance that glosses right over such concerns so, as the reader, I am as untroubled as the heroine is when accepting a glass of champagne from a liveried footman. When I want challenging reading, I know where to look.

Some contemporary authors feel compelled to create heroines who found orphanages, schools, or hospitals for the indigent. Or heroes who are exemplary landlords and lawmakers on the right side of history, right along with their wise investments. Often, this kind of main character, one who could stand up under modern scrutiny, will pull me right out of a story. It’s a tricky goal for a writer: a main character with access to unlimited wealth who is one of the good guys. (It is nice when anyone recognizes injustice, but it ruins escapist fiction when the reader can’t escape.)

Lately, I’ve set aside my historical romance. I now read with ulterior motives. Submissions to literary agents often require a list of “comp” titles, published books whose readers might also buy the manuscript under consideration. So I’m reading lots of cozy mysteries to find comp titles for my unpublished novel, Thrift Store Daze,  which is also a cozy mystery.

Mostly, I am not entertained.

The ones I toss aside after ten pages or three chapters, resemble Mad Libs — just fill in the blank for your plot and start writing your scenes.

Example: (Obnoxiously nosy but thoroughly lovable main character) and her (quirky animal companion) move to (picturesque town) where she opens (cute shop or trendy service). She meets (Gay or POC friend) and (hunky neighbor) who is a (cop or carpenter etc.). She eats (tasty sweet thing: recipe included) and stumbles onto a murder scene. Body is of (person nobody liked). Incredible coincidences allow her to untangle the motive and nail the killer.

Historical romance novels are also predictable and trite. I think fantasy is easier for me to swallow when it’s set in the past. I get annoyed with the main characters in contemporary cozy mysteries who are too much like people who annoy me in real life.

Do I even like cozies? Oh, yes.  I like the Agatha Raisin and Hamish MacBeth series by M. C. Beaton. But I would never claim my book could sell like Beaton’s books do. Arthur Nersesian’s Mesopotamia is a ride you don’t want to miss, though it starts out a bit dark. Food of Love: A Comedy About Friendship, Chocolate and a Small Nuclear Bomb by Anne R. Allen is not exactly a cozy mystery but it’s close and it’s funny.

The right books are out there somewhere. I am still on the hunt.

Please! Point me toward a cozy mystery that I will happily read all the way through — if you can.

The World Expands

“How old were you when you first experienced integration?”

That was the question Margaret Edds asked at the beginning of her talk on her book We Face the Dawn several years ago. I didn’t have to think hard to answer it.

I was eighteen. I left my all white town for college, never having had a conversation with a Black person. Now, here I was, one of thousands of young people in a multi-racial, multi ethnic crowd. Inside that swarm of bright-eyed, energetic people bursting with opinions and perspectives, I felt the world expand. This was what I’d been missing in high school.

I (mistakenly) didn’t consider myself a product of white supremacy — I was better than that! — but I knew that my light skin tilted the scales in my favor. I benefitted from institutional racism.

My little sundown home town is in Ohio but now I live in the capitol of the Confederacy, Richmond, Virginia. Like many other U.S. cities these days, Richmond’s streets and parks are filled with protestors coalesced around the Black Lives Matter movement. The towering monument to Robert E. Lee and the Lost Cause, now colorfully contextualized, is a focal point for unrest. A few blocks away, the headquarters of the Daughters of the Confederacy was fire bombed.

A friend’s comment struck me: “These young people aren’t going to put up with what we put up with!”

HOLD ON!, I said to myself. “HAVE I been putting up with stuff?”

Well, duh — YES! I’ve been well aware that BPOC are abused and disrespected by our white dominated society. But — here’s an example of white privilege — I didn’t have to think about it everyday. My efforts to ameliorate conditions were piddling at best. This tree has to come out by the roots.

If I don’t want to put up with it anymore, what do I do now? Being nice is not enough.

I turned to a trusted advisor — Google. I read articles and watched YouTube and listened to podcasts.

I bought the Me & White Supremacy workbook and am using it as best I can.

I’ve donated to two bail funds for protestors and set up a monthly donation to Friends Association for Children. Founded with the help of Quakers in 1871 to care for newly-freed orphans, Friends still serves a primarily Black community. I increased our long-standing monthly donation to the Southern Poverty Legal Center.

I’ve written to my county supervisor to urge creation of a civilian review board for our police department and asked others to do the same. If we stay on it, it will happen.

I am deliberately choosing books by BIPOC*. I’m following Black authors and book reviewers on Twitter and YouTube.

It’s not very much and it’s not enough. But I’m learning. At the very least, I might avoid offending  BIPOC through ignorance.

Are you also white? How are you responding?

 

 

*Black, Indiginous, People of Color

 

 

 

 

 

 

A rude reader

There are times when words swim away from each other as I read them, refusing to hold formation and carry the author’s intent. I have to set aside serious reading and pick up light fiction. This malfunctioning of my mind can plague me for long, tedious stretches, and is accompanied by physical lassitude. All I do, for hours and hours, is lay on my back and read.

(Once, an ignorant person said to  me, “I wish I had as much time to read as you do.” God bless them. May they never have first hand knowledge of this disorder or watch it overtake someone they love. )

When I feel that lethargy creeping up on me, I load up on fiction, usually historical romances. I don’t even have to expend the energy to get dressed and drive to the library. I can log onto my local e-library from home and download books to my Kindle. Or I can buy the latest volume from a favorite author through Amazon and be reading it within minutes. Instant gratification! (Not perhaps, my first choice, but I can’t have world peace or better health so I’ll just  be happy with what I get.) Unlimited, entertaining, easy-to-follow fiction is just a few clicks away. All praise to the writers toiling away in attics who make my existence tolerable.

I want only to pass my unproductive hours carried along by a pleasant story. (My husband asks me how I am. “Worthless,” I say, as I look up from the text of yet another bodice buster.) I don’t want to ever read a paragraph twice trying to understand it, or be sidetracked by poorly placed flashbacks. Humor is welcome, but please — no serious threats to the main character. It helps if the heroine is insulated from sordid toil and care by obscene wealth, but the author must never trip up and somehow remind me that obscene wealth is usually accumulated by someone else’s toil and suffering. Please, authors, don’t pop the bubble of my belief prematurely. It will disintegrate all on its own  after I finish the book.

When my primary “activity” is reading, my conversation suffers. My poor husband listens patiently while I outline plots of books he would never crack open in a million years. I don’t have much to say about the books I like. But when a book fails me, I can go on for awhile. Here are a couple that failed me.

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Winner of BEST HORROR NOVEL (August Derleth Award) at British Fantasy Awards 2016

The Girl from Rawblood

This novel was not for me. It’s not even a genre I usually enjoy. I downloaded it anyway because the blurb was intriguing and the action is rooted in the love of a house. I can identify with attachment to a family home and a particular place. Amazon rates the book 3.5 stars and the first reviewers are convincing in their praise. Maybe a well person would not have struggled, as I did, over the frequent time shifts. Maybe regular readers of the genre would not have been flummoxed by the circular plot, a chicken-and-egg quandary. Or how the terrible curse passed down through countless generations culminates (sort of) in one who is not actually a blood relation. Exactly how does that work?

Though there were some boring sections and at least one dry-as-dust character, over all the writing was masterful. There were descriptions of Italian and English countryside that almost had me smelling the seasons; intimate, historically accurate renderings of settings for three generations of the haunted family; and subtle moral parallels between vivisection and lobotomies. But I did not like this book. I only finished it to see if the author pulled the material together. I don’t think she did.

This book was not for me. Maybe it is for you.

The Indigo Girl

Amazon rates this book 4.5 stars. This book promised to be the story of a 16 year old girl

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A deeply-researched work of historical fiction, based on the untold story of Eliza Lucas, an extraordinary sixteen-year-old girl in Colonial-era South Carolina, whose actions were before their time.

left in charge of a small plantation when he father leaves. She never sees him again.

I only got a few pages into the novel before I deleted the book from my Kindle. I took irrational exception to the first person narrator repeatedly referring to her enslaved persons as “Negroes” and “Negro ladies” or “field hands” or “the driver,” all in tones of respect. Yet, in that first chapter, without a hint of irony, Eliza Lucas tells us that “A fantasy of mine . . .  (is). . . To be not owned as chattel by a father or one day a husband.”

In these times of bans on Mark Twain for using the N-word, how does an author stay true to a historical setting without making a reader cringe? How does an author present a slave owner as a sympathetic character?

It might be that Natasha Boyd worked both those tricks and I just didn’t stick with her long enough to find out. It looks like a good book. You read it and let me know.

 

The Revelation of Beatrice Darby

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How much courage does it take to be yourself? In a decade when good girls conform to strict expectations, Beatrice Darby is about to find out.

Now here’s a third, perfectly good book that I didn’t like. Like the other two, the cover appeals to me. This one promised to be an coming-of-age story. I thought the writing was clunky. I didn’t make it through thirty pages.

It has 5 stars on Amazon (but only 15 reviews).

Give it a try! You might like it.

 

Someone — a whole group of someones — worked hard to write, edit, and publish these books. I feel guilty when I don’t like a book. It is a rejection of someone’s hard work and therefore unkind. I don’t want to be unkind. So please — read these books and make up for my rudeness in rejecting them.

 

Significant Others

Do you believe in love at first sight? Love at first sight took about three weeks for me after I met the man I sometimes introduce as my first husband (so far he’s also my only husband). It took him a few months longer, but I don’t hold that against him anymore.

We have a friend — let’s call him Pat because that’s his name — who met a young woman — let’s call her Teresa — one evening and that same night told her she was the girl he was going to marry. She scoffed at him. He was right. For him, it was love at first sight and it’s stood the test of time.

So I know love at first sight is a real thing, even though it’s never happened to me. But instant friendship? That has happened to me. More than once.

You meet someone new. They have a certain spark in their eye and you start talking to each other and you laugh in the same places. And you know that this is a person you want in your life.

A good friend is someone you can laugh with, cry with, confide in, share a story or a life with — someone who makes your eyes light up. Maybe you haven’t seen your friend for years but, when you sit down with them again and start talking, it’s like the conversation never stopped.

Once my best friend and I got the sillies at a middle school band concert because one side of the band director’s staticky pants crawled up his leg during the concert and his socks didn’t match. We were laughing so hard we almost got kicked out! And we were the parents!

Then there was the time another best friend and I baked fortune cookies with Bible verses inside. It was a lot of work — the cookies had to be folded up while they were still hot and pliable, right out of the oven. We laughed while we burnt our fingers just so we could set these cookies out with tea and coffee for the rise-of-meeting fellowship. And what was so funny, you may well ask? You didn’t see the Bible verses we choose. There is a ton of weird advice in the Bible.

I remember a lovely afternoon over mugs of tea on a friend’s screen porch. She was explaining the meaning of a phrase used by Turkish storytellers. I thought I’d never forget it. I did forget it, but I remember the delight in the story and the company.

Before I got sick, I was more gregarious. I was always going somewhere to do something with somebody. But chronic fatigue/fibromyalgia has knocked the stuffing right out of me and visits with friends are fewer and further between than I would like. And it may take me a day to two to recover. It is hard to maintain friendships when I spend way too many hours limp and exhausted, not up to the effort of conversation. On those days, I have a legion of other friends patiently waiting for my attention: Books.

Books are the good friends whose company is offered in just the right measure at just the right time. They are never offended if I close the cover and close my eyes for a rest. They just wait patiently until I return. Here are a few who have graciously visited with me lately.

 

 

This book has a deceptively simple premise. The Mom of the title is lost in a crowd at a the train station and her children and husband search for her. For months. I was spellbound. This seemingly straightforward plot surreptitiously meanders into a narrative meditation 51fkgbcts7lon family and sacrifice. Like the Mom’s children, I was left wondering exactly what happened. The last pages offered not so much a resolution, as a graceful, grief-ful acceptance.

Because the story is set in South Korea, a geography and culture I know next-to-nothing about, the book took on fairy-tale qualities for me. The contrast between the illiterate, hard-scrabble mother and her educated, urban children grew larger and larger as I turned the pages. If the setting had been somewhere in the United States, my own assumptions — about the characters, the landscape, “reality” — would have overwhelmed what was actually written. I would have missed the beautiful questions set forth in the story.

The author has many other books to her credit and is popular in her native country. I look forward to reading more of her books and hope the translation reads as smoothly as this book did.

 

 

This is the full title of the P.G. Wodehouse collection as purchased through Amazon for my Kindle (only $1.99!). It’s a title worthy of P.G.Wodehouse himself!

The first pages of the first P.G. Wodehouse book I ever read were much like meeting that instant new friend. The sparkle in the eye! The underlying optimism! The cheerful exuberance whilst surrounded by human foibles! Let’s let the man speak for himself:

” . . in these days of rush and hurry, a novelist works at a disadvantage. He must leap into the middle of his tale with as little delay as he would employ in boarding a moving tram car. He must get off the mark with the smooth swiftness of a jack-rabbit surprised while lunching. Otherwise people throw him aside and go out to picture palaces.”

Truer words were never spoken! (Speakers at the James River Writers Workshops are forever telling us this.) The language is perhaps a bit antiquated, a bit English, but still fresh and lively at one hundred years old. Wodehouse just zips right along and the phrase “rollicking good fun” surely applies, even as I am stretched out on my bed, motionless except for my eyes scanning the printed page.

5e31e3f2042d8816a3131d3eb9884efcNothing truly tragic happens in a Wodehouse novel. There are no nasty surprises. There are always motorcars and sweeping lawns and long galleries and conniving aunts and well-heeled financiers and dotty Lords and fair young maidens and impoverished young men in love with them who somehow still have a valet and cigarette money. Even whenWodehouse introduces a “working stiff” the reader knows things will come out all right in the end. Wodehouse is not Charles Dickens.

Wodehouse’s England disappeared before he quit writing about it. Two World Wars hastened the changes. His novels remained stuck in an era long gone. Most of the plots, like historical romance, are set against a background of wealth. The characters are insulated from real human misery.

Wodehouse also wrote stories of teenage boys at school, playing cricket. Blow by blow accounts of cricket matches, however momentous in the lives of the boys, are not my cup of tea, no matter how fine the teacup. Now “feather-brained Bertie Wooster and his sagacious valet Jeeves” (as the collection’s biography refers to them) — these two can make me laugh. They are fine companions on a grey winter’s day.

 

 

Of course, I had to read a historical romance novel this week. Once a Duchess is from Elizabeth Boyce, a writer previously unknown to me who is a friend of a friend. I think I chose her first book for my introduction to her work.

The initial set-up was intriguing: we find a young woman and her single remaining 17385220servant living in a humble and chilly cottage. The disgraced ex-duchess, shunned by society after her divorce for adultery, is out of funds (hence the chill inside the cottage) and faces hard choices. She takes a job as a cook at the local inn and — of course — the Duke shows up in the dining room unexpectedly. The plot had the requisite number of twists, and a one or two on top of that that I never saw coming, that kept the Duke and his one true love apart until the last few pages.

Some blood was shed, some tears were wept, some unforgivable words were uttered. Apologies were made but not accepted. Ships were loaded with cargo, bound for South America. But true love conquers all.

This book was the quintessential historical romance experience. Never make the mistake of assuming that these books must be easy to write. They aren’t. And it’s always nice to discover a writer accomplished in my favorite genre. Boyce’s next book in the series is ready and waiting for me on my Kindle.

 

  • March by John Lewis with Andrew Aydin, illustrated by Nate Powell

 

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And this graphic novel is waiting for me next. It’s non-fiction and doesn’t promise any happy endings, so it will not be the reassuring comfort of light conversation. It will take a bit more energy to read.

According to my husband and youngest son, and the reviews I’ve read, March will be well worth the energy it will take out of me to read it.

Some friends are like that. Sometimes I need time to recover. Those can be the best friends of all.

What are you and your friends reading?

 

 

 

 

Books: the Obvious and the Undercover*

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Books out in the open and books inside a Kindle case.

 

There are not so many books on my side of the bed. Only five.

This is because our house was built in 1950 and our bedroom is not a large room. The bed itself is an old-fashioned ¾ size, extended lengthwise for my 6’2” husband. Only a small table fits between my side of the bed and the wall and it only holds around five books at a time while still leaving space for a cup of tea.

Here are my current five books:

  • The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain
  • Far More Terrible For Women: Personal Accounts of Women in Slavery
  • The Quakers, A Very Short Introduction by Ben Pink Dandelion (you are getting the author’s name because I enjoy telling you his name)
  • A Fort of Nine Towers, An Afghan Family Story
  • The New Revised Standard Edition of The Green Bible

And doesn’t that make me look like a serious reader? Since nobody ever sees this pile of books but me, I am only fooling myself.

I’m only halfway through three of these volumes, just beginning the fourth, and open The Green Bible mostly for reference. (Can you hear me blowing the dust off?)

Stories of enslavement can be hard to read.

And I haven’t made it though the rape scene of a ten-year-old Afghan boy. (As long as I don’t read it, maybe it never happened.) And I was doing so well before that. Qais Akbar Omar’s prose is flawless, a joy to read. I am sure he will handle this difficult scene with grace and beauty but I can wait to find out.

In front of this pile of books, on the coaster waiting for that cup of tea, is my Kindle Paperwhite, hooked up to its umbilical cord and safe in its needlepoint case. Here is where I keep my light reading, the books that entertain me when I am immobilized with the fevers, aches or insomnia of CFIDS. I am grateful that when I can’t write myself, I am seldom so ill that I cannot read.

Currently, magically concealed behind the Kindle screen, there are historical romances by Mary Blalogh and Sarah MacLean and Marion Chesney. In Chesney’s other incarnation as M.C. Beaton there are cozy mysteries. And here’s The Smoke Thief by Shana Abe (recommended by Smart Bitches, Trashy Books) and a book from Angie Sage’s Magyk series. And here’s the intriguing Transit in B-flat by Joeseph Erhardt, Fearless Leader of the Rich Writers’ Critique Group.

And oh, look! here’s have a sample of McDonough’s William Tecumsah Sherman. I read an intriguing review of that book somewhere and, when I didn’t find it in the library, thought I’d get acquainted with it before making a serious commitment that involves money.

There are also, sometimes, magazines beside the bed; rug hooking or quilting or mixed media magazines with articles that feed my dreams. But not today.

Less you might think me an ascetic, I will admit to more books in the bedroom than these few. There are books on the other side of the bed (which will not be listed because they aren’t mine since) and books on top of my chest of drawers and an actual bookcase on top of my husband’s dresser.

Of course, there are books, magazines, manuscripts, etc. in every other room of the house, too. And more books inside Little Free Library 3966 in front of our house, which itself is featured in the book Little Libraries, Big Hearts.

So, what books are beside your bed?

(*Books undercover are often also under the covers.)