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review 2018-09-06 06:55
Small Animals by Kim Brooks
Small Animals - Kim Brooks
I only recently realized the extent to which helicopter parenting in America has become the norm, the expectation, sometimes even in the law of the land. That the definition of a “good parent” now requires keeping an eye on your child at every moment. That kids’ hanging out with friends has been formalized into “playdates,” typically arranged by parents and involving play directed by at least one parent, often with both kids' parents present. That parents hover over their children on playgrounds, issuing a constant stream of instructions and intervening in their interactions with other children. That parents consider it highly risky to allow kids to play in their own yards unsupervised, and in some cases bystanders will call the police if they see it; walking around a suburban middle-class neighborhood in daylight hours is right out. That parents’ decisions about the sort of childhood their kids will have are driven by fear, of improbable catastrophes or Child Protective Services or both. In retrospect this should have been evident. There are kids living in my neighborhood, I think; I only ever see them going from house to car and back.

It’s all driven by fear, even though this is the safest time to be a kid in American history. Parents are paranoid about kidnapping, despite the fact that stranger kidnappings are extremely rare (and usually involve teenagers). A kid would have to be alone in public for tens or hundreds of thousands of years before they’re statistically likely to be kidnapped. As for the actual risks to kids? Car accidents are a big one, killing over a thousand American kids each year, yet harried parents will pile kids into a car rather than letting them walk or bike or take public transit alone. Childhood obesity and diabetes are on the rise, with 1/3 of the country likely to be diabetic by 2050, likely in large part because kids don’t get to run around anymore and instead spend their time staring at screens, losing out on exercise as well as opportunities to explore and develop social skills. Depression and anxiety are increasing among the young too, and no wonder, when they’re taught that the world is a terrifying place and simultaneously given no power over their own lives.

What a terrible time to be a child! How can they become independent, self-reliant adults when their parents dictate their every move? How will they acquire good judgment or self-confidence without the opportunity to take risks and make meaningful decisions? How will they learn social skills when they see other kids only in highly structured, adult-organized environments, and with adults mediating their every interaction? How will they develop creativity without down time? How will they develop resilience without being allowed to fail or be hurt? How will they recognize obsession and controlling behavior from a romantic partner as early warning signs of abuse, when this is how their parents showed love? Is it surprising that the more powerless kids become, the more they bully each other? And what about simple enjoyment of childhood; isn’t kids’ enjoyment of the first 18 years of their lives important enough for parents to learn to tolerate some anxiety?

This book delves into the culture of fear around parenting today. Brooks was a helicopter parent herself, but one day she was arrested for leaving her four-year-old son in the car for a few minutes on a cool, overcast day while she ran into the store. Her ordeal led her to learn more about what is going on with parenting in America, to examine why she and so many others are so fearful, and the consequences of it. How we got here makes sense: the news media broadcasts attention-grabbing headlines to draw in viewers; exposing oneself to stories about parents' worst nightmares makes the worst seem common and likely; parents respond, irrationally but understandably, by curtailing kids’ freedoms; once this becomes common, it’s expected, and even parents not inclined to be paranoid feel it is the norm and don’t want to feel that they’re putting their kids at risk, while others know their kids are safe but are forced to toe the line anyway for fear of someone calling CPS.

There are some terrible stories in this book – like the single mother (much less privileged than the author) who let her 9-year-old daughter play in a park with friends (and of course lots of adults present) during the day while the mom was at work . . . not only was the mother arrested and interrogated, but her daughter was taken to a group home for two weeks without being able to see her mother, and ended up afraid to even leave the house. Of course this doesn’t happen to most families, but we’ve created a culture in which parents are expected to be always monitoring and focused on their kids, to the point that they have no lives of their own (a great example for the little ones I’m sure). How dare they do something as simple as running into Starbucks alone for their own convenience! They must not want to be parents, since they clearly don’t want to watch their kids!

At any rate, I found this to be a well-written memoir and an accessible work of nonfiction (short and engaging enough that hopefully even parents consumed by the demands of shuttling kids to half a dozen activities will be able to read it!). It’s a reflection on the state of parenting today rather than a how-to book; the author talked to experts as well as dissecting her own attitudes and decisions, but stops short of offering solutions. I do wish she’d talked to more kids, or young adults raised by helicopter parents; she only interviews one teenager, and he’s an unusual case. Mostly she talks about the consequences of today’s parenting on parents themselves. She discusses interesting studies, writes a lot about the way people are judgmental toward mothers in particular, and has insightful commentary on related subjects (like whether being a stay-at-home mom versus a working mom is really a choice for most people. Her answer: not really, but at the time she still turned necessity into a virtue when discussing her own “choice”). I hope lots of people read this book, and that it will be a wake-up call.
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review 2018-08-23 00:25
Just Like Us by Helen Thorpe
Just Like Us: The True Story of Four Mexican Girls Coming of Age in America - Helen Thorpe

Overall, I enjoyed this book a lot, though a number of issues bothered me. The author, a journalist, follows the lives of three young Mexican-born women living in Colorado for several years, beginning just before they finish high school. Two of the girls are undocumented, having been brought to the U.S. illegally by their parents at a young age; despite their intelligence and motivation, their immigration status creates myriad barriers to living a normal life. The third has a similar history, but comes from a family that was able to obtain legal status, and the differences in opportunity sometimes put a barrier between her and her friends.

This book is not a representative look at the lives of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. (I would love to read a book like that, but it doesn’t appear that one exists.) These girls are exceptional, able to overcome the barriers that poverty and family circumstances put in their way, perhaps because they have such a strong support system in each other. The author does an excellent job, though, of bringing them to life on the page, getting to know them and their lives and telling an engaging story. I really enjoyed reading the book, found the author’s style readable and compelling, and became invested in the protagonists. The pages flew by.

That said, it has its issues. First, there's the degree to which it is influenced and held back by the career of the author’s husband, then mayor of Denver and currently governor of Colorado. Immigration was a hot topic in Colorado at the time of writing (the book was published in 2009), and Thorpe even writes about her articles being used against her husband by his political opponents. In the same paragraph, she insists that she opposes illegal immigration, largely from seeing how their lack of status limits the girls’ opportunities. Thorpe visits Yadira’s family in their hometown in Mexico and knows very well that however curtailed her opportunities in the U.S., she would have had even less of a chance there, so I don't believe her; either she's not thinking her opinions through or what she actually opposes are the circumstances that make illegal immigration necessary. In another cringeworthy passage, she observes that some critics called then-U.S. Representative Tom Tancredo “a modern-day Nazi, but . . . I did not think he could be so easily dismissed. His critics failed to acknowledge the congressman’s considerable charm,” as illustrated by an anecdote in which he makes a joke. I can’t tell whether she’s honestly stupid enough to believe that charm is inconsistent with hate, or is just struggling vainly to look “balanced.”

Either way, her discomfort with being the mayor’s wife crops up a lot, for a book that isn’t about her – in another unfortunate passage, she compares her life to the girls’ because both are defined by other people’s decisions – and she closes the acknowledgments with the opinion that “In truth, writers and politicians should never marry, so at odds are the two endeavors.” Based on this book I think she is right, and awful as it sounds, the fact that she and her husband divorced before she published another book makes me more likely to read her other work.

Perhaps because of her husband, or perhaps because she was a journalist still feeling out the transition to author, Thorpe chooses to spend much of the book reporting on the immigration debate, rather than contributing to it. Where other authors would supplement the human drama with their own research by interviewing other immigrants, providing relevant statistics, or tracing the history of immigration policy, and ultimately would make an argument or policy proposal of their own, Thorpe just describes the political situation, for instance, by going to the statehouse for a floor debate on an immigration-related bill and quoting what various state representatives have to say on the topic, or by attending yet another Tancredo event. This is not very enlightening – anyone likely to read this book already knows the contours of the immigration debate – and seems to equate immigration opponents’ opinions to the girls’ lives.

Finally, for an author who is clearly sympathetic to the plight of immigrants, Thorpe sure likes to call people “illegals,” with a frequency that made it nails-on-a-chalkboard for me. Marisela and Yadira are collectively “the illegal girls,” a discussion of a court case will say that “the judge ruled in favor of the illegal schoolchildren,” and so on. I wonder what the girls – Marisela in particular is an activist – made of that.

It speaks to the quality of Thorpe's writing, though, that despite all these issues, I’m still interested in reading her other books. She sounds a bit obnoxious as a person, but she can sure tell a story, and does a great job of finding and getting to know people with different perspectives (including the woman whose identity was stolen by one of the girls’ relatives). While I would have made different recommendations had I been Thorpe’s editor, I still recommend this book.

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review 2018-07-08 18:00
Echoes from the Dead Zone by Yiannis Papadakis
Echoes from the Dead Zone: Across the Cyprus Divide - Yiannis Papadakis

This is an excellent book, anthropology mixed with memoir, by an author from divided Cyprus. Coming to this book knowing virtually nothing about Cyprus, I learned a lot about the country. But this is such an insightful look into conflict generally and the ways groups of people become entrenched in and justify their own positions that I think anyone interested in the psychological side of political conflict would appreciate it.

Cyprus has long been inhabited by both ethnic Greek and ethnic Turkish populations, and belonged to both the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires. In the 20th century, it became a British possession, and groups that had historically lived well together grew more distant, both leaning on their historical motherlands for support. After independence, many Greek Cypriots wanted to become part of Greece, and unrest led to atrocities against Turkish Cypriots in the 1960s, with many of them relegated to ghettos. In 1974, a Greek-sponsored coup led to Turkey invading the country and carving out the northern part for Turkish Cypriots – leading to atrocities against Greek Cypriots who lived there and were killed or forced from their homes. Today, almost 50 years later, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus continues to exist in fact but to be recognized only by Turkey and seen as occupied territory by everyone else. Negotiations to reunite the country have always broken down, and from this book it’s easy to see why.

Yiannis Papadakis is a Greek Cypriot, who after studying abroad returned home in 1990 to begin studying his country. One of the things that makes the book so interesting is that it is as much about his journey, being forced to confront his own indoctrination and biases, as about the people he meets. He visits Turkey to learn Turkish (after some serious initial misgivings about his safety there, he realizes Turks are regular people too), lives with Greek Cypriots near the border and then crosses over to the Turkish side. (I was initially thrown by the way he talks about the Turkish side, making reference to “pseudo-officials” wearing uniforms decorated with “pseudo-flags,” but this turns out to be representative of his opinions at the time the research began, not by the time he wrote the book.) Eventually he winds up living in a mixed village in the “dead zone” between the two sides, where everyone is suspected of being a traitor.

Cyprus’s history and politics are complicated, as is the author’s analysis, so anything I say here will no doubt oversimplify. But there’s an incredible amount of food for thought here. About the ways both sides manipulate history – not necessarily by lying, but by beginning the tale with their own flourishing empire that’s brought down through the wrongdoing of the others; by focusing only on their own side’s pain, emphasizing their own dead and refugees while refusing to acknowledge wrongs against the others; by paying attention to only the extremists on the other side, painting their views as everyone’s view’s; by both defining their own side as the threatened minority. About the ways people refuse to understand each other, about the ways propaganda is used, about the repercussions this conflict has in people’s lives. The author sees and hears some striking things, like the refugee family in Northern Cyprus that moved into a Greek Cypriot home, and kept all the furniture and family photos out in case of the prior owners’ return.

He’s also able to draw a lot of connections between the two sides: the two right wings have far more in common than either would ever admit, both invested in insisting upon the evil of the other while bringing their own side closer to the motherland. The two left wings are also similar and seem ready to reach out to each other and bring peace, though when the opportunity comes, they too choose political opportunism. In the end there’s plenty of blame to go around, and the author doesn’t absolve anyone.

At any rate, I found it an insightful and fascinating book. While the page count is short, there’s a lot of text on each page, so it isn’t necessarily a quick read. But it’s broken up into short sections, often just a couple pages long, and the writing is accessible. It was published by a small, academically-oriented publisher, but has a lot to offer the casual reader; if it had gone through a big publishing house I could see it as a well-known work of popular nonfiction. Only in a couple of places does the author go off on short tangents that seem to be pet interests of his (the myth and symbology of Aphrodite), and his narrative provides a detailed view of Cyprus and his own journey of discovery about his country and people. I would definitely recommend this one if you can get your hands on it.

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text 2018-06-28 04:53
An afternoon of reflection, an evening of determination

In case you missed the earlier rant that I spent five hours writing Tuesday morning, it's here.



It's outrageously long, but I needed to write it for myself.  I paid for it Tuesday night with an aching back from being hunched over the laptop so long.


This follow-up may be equally . . . wordy.  And it won't be written in a single evening.


The comment Debbie's Spurts left on the earlier post reminded me of an important point that she brings up frequently: bullying.


I've been called a bully when I've usually done nothing more than point out someone's errors.  Maybe they were violating Amazon's or Goodreads' or BookLikes' Terms of Service.  Maybe they were using trademarked or copyrighted material without permission.  Maybe they called a character in their book James Helston, Duke of Tamar, and then referred to him as "Lord James."  Maybe they sited the car accident at the corner of Dearborn and LaSalle in Chicago.  Maybe they set their 1898 western historical in the state of Arizona. 


Pointing out an error is not bullying.  Even giving a book a terrible, horrible review isn't bullying.  Even carpet bombing an author's entire list with one-star ratings isn't bullying.  It may be mean and nasty and petty and juvenile, but it's not bullying.


Bullying is done to benefit the bully.  Panning someone else's book doesn't help me.  It often hurts me, in that people are less likely to buy or read my books.  Or they may be inclined to rate or review my book unfavorably.  I'd do much better for myself if I just kept my fingers away from the keyboard and said nothing but nice things about other people's books.


But, you say, if I turn people away from buying other books, doesn't that boost the chance that they'll buy mine?  Am I not trying to thin out the competition?


Well, to be perfectly honest, maybe.  But if in writing a bad review and pissing off people I lower my chances of selling, what advantage is there in weeding out competition?


So why then do I write and post negative reviews, or even negative comments?  (The minor explosion on Monday night was not due to a bad review.  I had simply made some comments in a blog post that did not directly identify the book or the author; I posted no rating either.)


Part of the answer is easy.


When I read a book and write a review of it, I am 99.44% of the time reviewing only the book: the story, the characters, the format, the research, the style.  Sometimes, occasionally, the author's behavior will impact my reading, but usually that's in the positive direction.  Most of the time, however, I don't know anything about the author outside her or his writing.  That means my opinion is formed only by the book itself, good or bad.


Some authors don't like this.  They don't like my honesty.  Worse, however, they don't like my standards.  My standards are very, very, very high.


Sometimes the authors' fans don't like my critiques either.  They take the reviews personally, as though I were criticizing them, as readers, too.  I don't care what they want to read. What I do care about is that readers who want good books to read have the tools they need to find those good books.


This goes back to the changes in publishing over the past couple of decades.


The publishing of genre fiction has changed dramatically.  The most important but the most invisible change is the absence of gatekeepers.  Traditional publishing enterprises that have come through to digital from paper publishing still have editors and proofreaders, but those have always been invisible.  The marketplace only gets the end product, so it's difficult if not impossible for the average reader to know when the gatekeepers are operating and when they aren't.  Those of us who are activist readers -- following reviews, participating in discussions, etc. -- know how to determine if there are gatekeepers on a given book or not.


The vast majority of readers don't know how to tell the difference.


The vast majority of readers don't leave reviews, good or bad.


We don't know how many of the reviews that show up on any given book are genuine honest opinions of disinterested (unbiased) readers and how many are sock puppets of the author, friends of the author, purchased reviews paid for by the author, or recipients of free copies of the book who want to keep receiving free books.


Many readers aren't reading to analyze the books they read.  They just want to be entertained.


A friend of mine who does a lot of reading in a wide variety of genres and who is on a tight budget, too, recommended a Kindle freebie to me some months ago.  It was a spy thriller that she said she had really enjoyed and it happened to be set in a location I had told her I was interested in. She happens to have a background in the technology that was spotlighted in the story, so I figured she was recommending a good book.  Unfortunately, I found some glaring errors of fact in the first few pages, errors so huge that I couldn't imagine someone with expertise in that field wouldn't have caught it.  I who knew almost nothing still caught the mistakes!


But when I brought it up to my friend and told her I couldn't read a book in which the plot hinged on something so patently wrong, she just shrugged.  She had noticed the detail, of course, and knew it was inaccurate, but read on anyway and still enjoyed the book enough to recommend it to me.


On the other hand, she draws an absolute line on formatting.  She refuses to read anything with block paragraphs rather than indented, and I can't say as I blame her.  I don't like them either.  And she has very little toleration for poor spelling and bad punctuation.


There are probably a lot of reasons why readers don't pay much attention to these details, but that's not the point I'm trying to make.  What we don't know is how much their reading experience is less enjoyable because of, for lack of a better term, badly written books.  And how much better their reading experience could be if books were better written.


Reviews and blogs and online discussions are the only avenues we have for learning about the "average" reader's experience, but reviews and blogs and online discussions do not take the place of traditional gatekeepers.  They can perform that function, and it's possible that some of them do.  But most don't.  And they have no obligation to do so.


When a book arrives on the Amazon scene, the reader has no idea what, if any, editing has been done to it.  But because the self-publishing industry is still younger than a lot of readers, most readers believe there must certainly be some process through which a book passes before it's ready for publication.  Even if they don't know what that process is -- because it all went on behind the scenes in the past -- readers still believe that it's there.


Often it isn't.


The first three novels I wrote provide good -- and safe -- examples.


A Party of Ghosts, written when I was fifteen years old, lacks a lot of the structure suitable to define an actual novel.  The writing itself is decent, in terms of description and mixing narrative with dialogue, and so on.  The grammar and punctuation are fine, even though I was at the time a thoroughly lousy typist.  But I had no one to tell me how to structure a novel, how to build in conflict and character arcs.  It only ever had one reader other than myself, and he knew even less than I about plotting a novel.  I sent it to several publishers, virtually all of them inappropriate for that kind of book.  I received polite rejection letters.  I was a junior in high school.


The Ivory Rose, written about ten years later, has a much more coherent plot,  At least one of the characters has a well-defined arc from beginning to end.  I let several friends and family members read it, though none of them knew anything about the technicalities of story building.  Their comments were encouraging, but I did not take them as informed critics.  This particular novel sat with a New York agent for almost two years and collected a whole lot of justified rejections.  It never went anywhere else.


The Song of Sheba, written a couple years after The Ivory Rose, is an adventure fantasy along the lines of H. Rider Haggard.  By the time I wrote this book, I had a much better grasp of story structure, conflict, resolution, character internal consistency, and so on.  Two friends read it and liked it, but I did not bank on their recommendations because they weren't knowledgeable readers.  I did not send this book to any potential publishers.


Legacy of Honor, my fourth novel and the first to be published, was started in 1979, a year or two after The Song of Sheba, and finished in late 1981/early 1982.  I had now read several books on structuring a novel, and I had read literally hundreds more novels in the historical romance genre.  I shared the manuscript with several local friends, all of whom enjoyed it.  They were not knowledgeable critics either, so I appreciated their support but I knew I needed more critical response.  I became a member of a snail mail critique group in 1982, and over the next three to four years exchanged manuscripts with these other writers.  I learned an enormous amount from this experience.


In 1982, I began sending proposals of Legacy out to various publishers.  The feedback I received from editors was often limited to "thanks, but no thanks."  However, I did get some rejections that included helpful comments, to the point that I made a major revision to the book before I sent it to the editor who eventually bought it.


I learned more through the various experiences connected to the publication of six more novels . . . and the writing of at least three that were not published.  I belonged to critique groups, I judged RWA contest entries, I even worked for a self-styled literary agent for a while. 


And of course I continued through all this to read and read and read and read. 


Up until about 2000, this was more or less the course most writers followed.  When a book appeared on a store shelf, the automatic assumption was that both the writer and the book had gone through all the appropriate steps to put a finished, readable book in the reader's hands.


Unfortunately, many of the digital books that started showing up in online marketplaces had not in fact been through any editing process at all.  As these essentially rough drafts proliferated and digital self-publishing took off a few years later, readers got the impression "I can do better than that!" and they proceeded to do so.  Except their books weren't appreciably better than "that," and the cycle persisted.


Mechanisms then arose to monetize the publication of unedited, unprofessional books. Cover art improved, even if the writing didn't.  Digital formatting services could even make the text look good regardless how bad the writing was.  The fake reviews and book stuffing and rank manipulation and page-flipping bots are all symptoms of the far greater illness that is just plain bad writing.


This didn't really start with digital publishing; it started earlier with mechanisms that paved the way. 


Did it begin with the dumbing down of the American reading public?  Well, that certainly contributed.  Was it when a high school literature course was described as "comic books and science fiction" because the students wouldn't or couldn't read anything else, so they had to be provided with something in order to pass and graduate?  It wasn't that there was or is anything intrinsically wrong with comic books and science fiction; it was that these students were reading a narrow spectrum of literature and not reading it critically.  If they even went on to do any reading after high school -- and many of them didn't -- they hadn't been given the tools to appreciate it.


But even while I watched as some public high school reading curricula diminished the importance of critical reading skills, I also watched as the largest writers' organization dumbed down the writers.


I joined Romance Writers of America in the mid-1980s, after I had sold my first historical romance.  At my first few national conferences, I was surprised at how many of the workshops/seminars were targeted at the basics of writing. When I began judging manuscripts for RWA contests, I was appalled at the poor quality of some of the entries.  Believing -- perhaps foolishly -- that feedback on those entries would help the writers improve their product and take them closer to the goal of publication, I provided extensive, detailed critiques.  I got some pretty harsh feedback.


Common responses were that I wasn't supportive enough, encouraging enough, kind enough.  But, but, but, I countered, do you want to learn how to fix it, or do you just want a pat on the head?


I don't know what the membership of RWA is now, but by the time I left in 1998, the total was about 10,000, and the ratio was still about nine unpublished members for every published author.  Although RWA had instituted its Published Authors' Network ("PAN") in 1989 -- I was at the organizing meeting at the conference in Boston that summer -- and a few years later inaugurated the Published Authors' Special Interest Chapter ("PASIC") -- which I personally founded in 1993 -- the emphasis through 1998 remained on the unpublished and doing everything to help them sustain the dream that someday they might get published.


Take that how you will.  I'm not going to get myself in any more trouble.


There were scandals with unscrupulous agents.  One agent went around a particular conference bad-mouthing some of her clients.  I personally heard some of those comments because they were made to me by her about some of my friends.  When some of us reported her unethical behavior to RWA, we were told nothing could be done because unpublished writers still wanted agents.  "Even lousy ones?" I asked an RWA official on the phone.  Her response was that RWA couldn't take the legal risk of criticizing an agent.


Even when an agent stole money from a client?  Even then.  Yeah, I was one of those who was stolen from; I was lucky enough to fight back and at least not only get what the agent owed me but get her taken off the contract so none of my subsequent payments or royalties went through her.


So over the years, RWA took care of the unpubs at the expense of the published authors.  And when digital publishing came into its own in the 21st century, there was nothing stopping those who were desperate for publication and felt a certain grievance at all the gatekeepers who had denied them for so long.


That's one of the reasons why romance has seen the highest spike in badly written books.  There has been a stable of writers waiting for their opportunity.  Yes, it's also because romance has been the biggest market for genre fiction.  Yes, it's also because there are still readers who consume romance at levels not matched even by science fiction, the second on the list.


RWA, with its numerous conferences and booksignings, has taken the industry out of New York and into the heartland.  This is a good thing.  But in doing so, it has also encouraged that dream of wild success.  And it has fostered a connection between readers and writers that sometimes becomes unhealthy.  Social media has exacerbated this.  Readers become fans on Facebook pages and author websites and Twitter and Instagram, to the point that they see the online followership as the equivalent of personal friendship. 


And therefore woe betide the critic who dares diss a favorite author's new book.  Those reviewers and bloggers who might have provided some gatekeeping services now had to be very wary of just how critical they might be of a beloved author's book.


The whole Lauren Howard/Pippa catastrophe was an extreme example, because she herself did not have a following and the book wasn't even published.  She had sent out a few ARCs and listed the book on Goodreads prior to publication.  Someone gave it a 2-star rating without a review, and Howard/Pippa went ballistic.  People who didn't even know her came to her defense to the point of threatening bodily harm to anyone who dared tell the truth about Goodreads' policies!


Amazon had no incentive to provide any internal quality control beyond the basics of machine-checking for basic readability.  Even then, it sometimes failed.  But along with its subsidiary Goodreads, Amazon had less and less incentive to police reviews.  Authors were prohibited from posting negative reviews on Amazon if the item being reviewed was in their own genre, but authors could post positive reviews.  Many of those reviews, of course, were of books by their friends, even though that was supposed to be prohibited, too.  And it's still being done.


Many of us remember the difficulty of getting paid reviews and reviewers removed, even when hard evidence was presented.


Goodreads had all its tone policing in force, because of course they wanted the authors and their followers to stick around and buy ads and -- of course -- publish on Amazon.


Thus the removal of far too many potential gatekeepers for the self publishing authors, namely, the critical reviewers.


I know there's going to be a cry of "Gatekeepers kept too many of us out of publishing! They stifled niche markets! Down with the gatekeepers!"


But, no one on the other side of the gate gets to voice an opinion.  No, not the authors who got inside.  I'm talking about the readers who were reasonably guaranteed that the product they bought was of acceptable quality.  The authors screamed, whether it was because they were kept out or because no one was screened for quality writing, but no one heard the voices of the readers.


Bloggers proliferated, and some of them felt they could only stay in business by promoting books, authors, publishers.  "No negative reviews" became the mantra.  Reviewers like the late Harriet Klausner got visibility; authors like Anne Rice used their own visibility to tone police negative reviews.


In spite of all this, some voices persisted.  I was one of them.  Oh, I got banned from Goodreads for my sharp honesty in criticizing bad writing and badly behaving authors.  I have evidence that I was personally targeted by Goodreads -- and possibly through them by Amazon, but that's murkier -- in a way that no other reviewer was.  I came to BookLikes where I had hoped to continue at least to review honestly and avoid some of the drama.


Some of the drama, of course, followed me, but after a while that died down.  We had some little fires of controversy, but for the most part BookLikes was a haven.  I credit this community in particular with providing me the encouragement to take up writing again, and seeing me through the publication of The Looking-Glass Portrait. 


It was here that I posted about the "stuffed" books even before I knew what they were.  So I got involved with the unofficial group on Twitter to get some of those books removed from Amazon.  (There's a huge financial impact to the stuffing issue, but that's not germane to this discussion.)  Some people were impatient; they wanted the books removed immediately upon report.  I cautioned patience, because I knew how long it had taken to get fraudulent reviews removed.  To the surprise of a few, the books did begin to come down rather quickly; Amazon's notice of the official change to TOS regarding stuffing was dated 1 June, and before the end of the month (today is only the 27th) many of the worst "stuffers" have been removed.


The trolls who had defended the stuffers by saying stuffing wasn't explicitly prohibited in the TOS were never truly vicious.  They found some marks who fed them persistently, but the 280-character limit of the platform made it easy to avoid the heated, long-winded arguments that had led to the BBA crisis on Amazon and Goodreads, circa 2011-2014.  The Twitter version also lasted a much shorter length of time, a matter of weeks rather than months and years.  The cast of characters was smaller, too.  There were only three or four trolls (who may have all been the same person anyway.)


But I had forgotten the way defensive authors can act when confronted with their own shortcomings.  So the reaction to my criticism stunned me.  The trolls had been accusing all of us of being on a witch hunt (sound familiar?) and targeting the stuffing authors with the intent to destroy their careers out of jealousy.  The trolls defended the stuffers and insisted they had done nothing wrong and that we were the bad guys.  To have someone I believed was on "our" side turn around and attack me was a shock.


I admit I'm not knowledgeable about the new crop of authors of "new adult" romances.  I came back onto the book scene just about the time of the Beautiful Disaster battle, and nothing about the discussion of that particular book made me eager to read the genre.  I don't find abusive relationships romantic in any way.  Yes, even "broken" or "damaged" people deserve to find love, but in the kind of novel I personally want to read, those damaged characters are redeemed and healed through the process of finding and then earning love.


What I saw of the books being reported for "stuffing" wasn't appealing to me.  Nor were the stories related to the "cocky" trademark argument.  I'm not trying to tell other people what to read; I'm just saying this isn't my preference.  So when a new author entered the Twitter discussion, I often looked them up to see what they wrote.  I don't have the resources to support all of them; I have to be very selective.


I hesitated to write anything Monday night when I discovered . . . what I discovered.  I suspected there might be blowback, and I'm not at the income level of Anne Rice to be able to withstand a bunch of retaliation.  I had to decide whether to ignore it for the sake of my own potential sales (which are nothing to jump up and down about anyway) or make a discreet comment to express how I felt -- which is the way I've always felt -- about authors who go out of the way to defend bad writing, because they're usually guilty to some extent or other.


I chose honesty, regardless of the ultimate price.


When I explained a small part of this to BF last night -- a very small part! -- I realized I was defending myself perhaps just as unfairly as an author who can't proofread defends herself.  And I remembered how one of my favorite fictional characters of all time, Ash from The Far Pavilions, complained that so many things in life were unfair (p 232).  Ash also confronted George Garforth when Garforth was caught in a web of his own lies and told he should shoot himself.  That's exactly what Garforth did, too (p 234).


I've been a reader of historical romances for somewhere around 60 years.  I wrote and published seven of them.  Who knows how many more I might have written and published if I hadn't pissed off a certain editor?  And who knows if it was entirely my fault?  All I know is that I'm pretty sure I know good writing when I see it and bad writing when I see it, too.  And maybe that's all I've got to give the book community.


Maybe it's more than some others have to give.


As a long ago sportswriter for the Chicago Daily News said, 'Tis better to be honest and hated than corrupt and despised.







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review SPOILER ALERT! 2018-04-30 18:20
Earl of Scandal - shallow fluff
Earl of Scandal - Mary Gillgannon

Disclosure - I acquired the Kindle edition of this book on 17 January 2013, when it was offered free on Amazon.  I do not know the author nor have I ever communicated with her about this book or any other matter.  I am an author of historical romances and other genre novels.


This book was originally published by Zebra/Kensington in 2000 as A Rogue's Kiss under the pseudonym of Molly Marcourt.


I'm reading this for research.




The book is billed as your basic Regency romance, but it really doesn't hit the Regency tropes.  A few are thrown in -- the language, the fashions, the emphasis on nobility, etc. -- without actually making them an integral part of the story or even the atmosphere.


Most readers won't pay any attention to the holes I found in this story.  Most readers will swim blithely through it, enjoying the romance and the dangers and the misunderstandings and the happily ever after ending.  I'm not so generous.


At the halfway point, I seriously considered giving up on this.  I didn't like either of the main characters -- Christian Faraday, Earl of Bedlington, and Merissa Casswell, country parson's daughter.  Neither of them was believable.


Christian is a wealthy rogue who spends his days gambling and what-not, and his nights apparently wenching.  He makes no apology for this lifestyle; he entertains himself and that's all he needs to do.


How he acquires the funds to live like this isn't touched on.  One presumes he has a substantial estate to go with his title, but he doesn't seem to have much interest in it.  Toward the end of the book Christian makes an offer to solve a financial problem for Merissa to the tune of 20,000 pounds.  Based on this estimate of that value in current terms, that would be the equivalent of $1.6 million.  And he doesn't bat an eyelash.  So he is not just wealthy; he is very wealthy, and the source of that wealth is never explained.


Merissa is the younger daughter of the rector of a country church.  But the family lives on a farm.  But they do no farming.  And they aren't acquainted with the gentry of the neighborhood, said gentry including the Earl and Countess of Northrup. 


The ecclesiastical structure of the Church of England, at least as I understand it, would indeed allow for the rector of a financially independent parish, i.e. not supported by the noble who owns the "living" of that church, to live on a farm, but would it necessarily be his own/his family's farm, or one belonging to that specific church? This sort of historical research would be important to me . . . . and it seems it would have been important to the plot of this story.


Anyway, Christian discovers himself in bed with a friend's wife and escapes to the country to avoid scandal.  There's something going on behind the scenes with this, but the whole issue is pretty much dropped for the rest of the book until the tail end.  On his way to Darton Park, where his friend Devon, the Earl of Northrup, resides, Christian almost literally runs into Merissa.  She's a shrew, he's a rogue, what more could you want?


Well, I'd want believable characters.  Merissa seems to have reason to be a bit of a shrew, but wouldn't she have been brought up to at least have decent manners?


And Christian, true to his station, falls in insta-lust.  He forces kisses on Merissa even though he knows they aren't welcome.  Of course, he arouses her insta-lust, so I guess it's okay?  Um, no.


So then there's a ball, to which Merissa and her sister Elizabeth are invited.  Um, no.  They make over a couple of their (deceased?) mother's old gowns, but all I could think of was good ol' Carol Burnett and the green velvet curtains.  Of course their gowns are out of fashion, which is crucial to anything Regency.  And of course they're ridiculed.


But Merissa gets trapped in a bedroom with Christian, whose baser desires have been inflamed by a veritable caricature of an Other Woman, Lady Diana Fortescue.  The image of this Other Woman "jiggling her breasts" to entice him was so ludicrous I nearly laughed aloud but it would have scared the dogs.  Though he escapes Diana's clutches, Christian can't control himself when he encounters Merissa a few moments later -- and neither can Merissa, the parson's daughter -- so he performs oral sex on her.  Then whisks her home without achieving any kind of sexual satisfaction for himself.


Um, no.


The next day, Merissa and her sister Elizabeth learn that their beloved brother Charles, who has disappeared into the evil world of London, is desperate to stay out of debtor's prison.  He has somehow managed to get himself 20,000 pounds in debt, and needs twenty pounds to cover the interest "for a few months." 


Um, no.


Merissa decides to sell her virginity to Christian for the 20,000, but he turns her down.  So she takes the fifty or so pounds Elizabeth has found and hies off to London alone to see if she can't get dear brother Charles out of the mess he's gotten himself into.  She fails at that, but nothing happens to her in London even though she's in the worst part of town and blithely goes hunting for the evil wizards who are threatening dear Charles. 


Never mind, though, because Christian comes to her rescue and gets the evil wizard to cancel Charles's debt, but gets himself challenged to a duel, until Merissa overhears that it's all a plot to murder him so his wicked uncle can inherit.  Duel is cancelled, apparently, and wicked uncle's plans are thwarted by Merissa seducing Christian so they can start producing an heir.  And then they get married and live happily ever after.


Nothing about this book is believable.  From Christian racing his priceless horses in the dark then leaving them unattended in the woods after an accident, I kept rolling my eyes at what an idiot he was.  Merissa's shifts from prim and proper hater of all things noble to writhing wanton were just silly.  But Christian's ignoring her rejection of him and -- and -- his dismissal of his own actions made me just dislike him.  ("I ate her out against her will but it's okay because she's still technically a virgin.")


I very nearly gave up on this at the halfway point and only kept going because it was for research.  Whether this Kindle edition is a transcription of the original Zebra version, I don't know.  The digital copy has a lot of minor typos that may have come from an OCR scan, though even that wouldn't account for the frequent missing words, especially "I" and "to."


There's no excuse for that kind of sloppiness, but I was more concerned with the actual quality of the text, which I found lacking. 


One of the big issues is this business of Merissa's believing she's been ruined as a result of her sexual encounter with Christian.  While it's quite possible she doesn't know a lot about other forms of sexual activity, she lives on a farm, for crying out loud.  She would know the basics of copulation, and should know she's not therefore been deflowered.  And if she then decides to sell herself for a single night to Christian in return for twenty thousand pounds, she knows full well she's still a virgin.  Can't have it both ways, kiddo.


She would also know that the price she's putting on herself is extraordinarily, outrageously, obscenely high. 


She also ruminates on her options.  She expects her older sister Elizabeth to eventually marry, leaving Merissa to care for their father.  Merissa has no plans to marry, in part because she doesn't like "the idea of being at a man's beck and call."  Um, no.  That is exactly what she'd have if she stayed behind to care for her father, and she'd also have the prospect of being too old for virtually any kind of marriage after his death. 


That's why the whole issue of the farm is important.  Is that an estate that will be left to her, or to Elizabeth, or to dear brother Charles?  What kind of income does it generate?  How is it tied to the church?


But when Merissa turns down Christian's offer to simply pay off Charles's enormous debt -- an offer he makes to save her reputation even though he really wants to take her to bed -- she flounces off because she thinks he's not attracted to her.  So we get a Big Misunderstanding . . . over nothing.


There are other absurdities, such as Caroline, Countess of Northrup, feeding her own toddler son and getting baby food all over everything.  Um, no.  She'd have a nurse to take care of feeding small children.  Such as driving back and forth between the farm and Darton Park, a distance of ten or twelve miles, as though it were a quick jaunt to the corner convenience store in 2018.  Um, no.


There's no meat to this story, so if you're looking for just something with which to while away your time, this may work, but there are better Regencies out there.




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