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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.

 

SPOILERS ARE NOT HIDDEN.

 

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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text 2018-04-23 01:10
Frye on Dickens and Scott
The Secular Scripture: A Study of the Structure of Romance (The Charles Eliot Norton Lectures) - Northrop Frye

I'm enjoying this.  Because the contents are actually lectures given at Harvard, I'm wishing I could hear Frye's delivery.  I suspect there may be some significant sarcasm.  Some of his other lectures are available on YouTube, so I may try to find some time this coming week to watch them.

 

As expected, however, the hours on the rock saw this past week provoked serious response from my tendonitis.  Although I was able to do a tiny bit of work in the studio this morning, by noon I was all but paralyzed with the pain.  It's impossible even to hold a book, and any time at the keyboard is sporadic at best, punctuated by breaks to clutch a bag of frozen rice to my arm.

 

One passage in this book merited the extra effort to make note of it here:

 

[Sir Walter] Scott came finally to be regarded as too much of a romancer to be worthy of close study.  [Charles] Dickens fared rather better: he too was darkly suspected of being a mere entertainer, but he had obvious social concerns, and besides, he wrote Hard Times, a novel so dull that he must surely have had some worthy nonliterary motive for producing it.

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review 2018-04-19 20:51
Little Soldiers by Lenora Chu
Little Soldiers: An American Boy, a Chinese School, and the Global Race to Achieve - Lenora Chu

This is a really interesting book that offers a firsthand view of the Chinese school system from a mostly-American perspective. Lenora Chu is a daughter of Chinese immigrants who was raised in the U.S., her husband a white American who volunteered in China with the Peace Corps. After moving to Shanghai for work, they enroll their son in a prestigious Chinese preschool. Concerning incidents at the school spark the author’s journey to learn more about the Chinese school system: she observes classrooms in China and the U.S., talks to experts, and gets to know Chinese high schoolers and parents.

So the book is part memoir, part nonfiction. From an American perspective it’s a fascinating comparison; so much of what I tend to view as going wrong in current American ideas of education and child-rearing seems to be heightened in China, from overscheduled kids (in China it’s usually tutoring or extracurricular classes rather than swimming, gymnastics etc.), to an unwillingness to let kids play freely and explore because they might hurt themselves (other parents judge Chu for letting her son run around the living room jumping off chairs, etc., and the school states that kids aren’t allowed to talk during lunch because they might choke), to a heavy emphasis on testing. Regarding that last one, pressure for the high school and college entrance exams in China is so intense that in one town a crackdown on cheating resulted in parents and students rioting.

Which actually leads to one of the positive features of the Chinese system: Chinese families tend to treat academics the way American families treat sports, to the point of huge crowds of people gathering outside exam sites to see their kids off and shout well-wishes. While Americans face a social penalty for being “nerds” and tend to view academic success as a matter of inborn talent (so if you don’t have it, why bother to try), the Chinese have valued brains – and judged people by their test scores – for centuries, and believe that success is largely a matter of effort. They aren’t afraid to demand work from kids or to ask them to memorize. This is especially noticeable in math: while American schools tend to wrap up simple math in verbally complicated “word problems” in an attempt to make the work “relevant” to kids who won’t have a professional job for a decade or more anyway, Chinese schools forge ahead and have young kids doing more advanced problems. This is helped by the fact that Chinese teachers specialize in their subject matter from the first grade, while American elementary school teachers are generalists (who by and large don’t like math and weren’t good at it themselves). Of course it’s also helped by Chinese schools’ making no attempt to integrate kids with special needs into regular classrooms, which American schools must do.

It’s evident from Chu’s writing that all of these issues are complicated: each school system has its advantages and disadvantages, but many of the advantages come with their own negatives or are bound up with the culture and therefore hard to replicate, while the disadvantages can also have silver linings. And of course no huge country has a uniform school system: just as the U.S. has both great and failing schools, China too has huge disparities, with many rural schools being shafted.

There's a lot in the book that I haven't even discussed here: politics in the classroom, the social position of teachers, the encouragement of creativity or lack thereof, and how all this affects students in the long run. But the book isn’t a treatise. Chu keeps it lively and interesting with accounts of her own family’s experiences, and with a clear, journalistic writing style. I imagine some readers might criticize her parenting decisions – at times it felt as if she were trying to claim a high-minded rationale for a choice of school that ultimately came down to cost, while she and her husband seemed willing to accept (if unhappily) a certain amount of what many Americans would consider abusive treatment of preschool kids (such as forcefeeding, or threatening to call the police on them when they misbehave) in the interests of having a disciplined and well-behaved child. But for the American reader it’s a fascinating window into a very different school system, and into Chinese culture as a whole. It is balanced and thoughtful, and the author comes across as open-minded, curious and willing to adapt rather than pushing an agenda. I do wish it had endnotes rather than a chapter-by-chapter bibliography, for readers to follow up and learn more. But I learned a lot from this book, enjoyed reading it, and would recommend it.

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review 2018-02-28 22:33
How Does it Feel to be a Problem? by Moustafa Bayoumi
How Does It Feel to Be a Problem?: Being Young and Arab in America - Moustafa Bayoumi

This is an interesting book about the lives of young Muslims of Arab descent living in Brooklyn in the first few years after 9/11. If that sounds very specific, well, it is, but despite what may initially seem to be a narrow focus, the book seems to me to do a good job of addressing various aspects of Arab Muslim life in the U.S. Each of its seven chapters is devoted to a different young person, whose story unfolds over 30-odd pages.

Most of the chapters have a specific focus. Rasha’s story is about an entire family detained and held in prison for two months shortly after 9/11, although they were never charged with any crimes. I am sorry to say that I was unaware of the post-9/11 mass arrests of Muslims in the U.S., although they were hardly unknown, even drawing the attention of Amnesty International. Sami’s story is about a Muslim soldier going to war for the U.S. in the Middle East. Yasmin’s is a story of a high school student who fights back against religious discrimination at her school. Omar’s is about employment discrimination, and Rami’s, the final story, about a young person getting religion. The author includes factual information about the various topics alongside the stories for context. Of course, giving each story relatively few pages limits their depth to some extent; in some cases the author focuses in on a particular aspect of someone's life, while other chapters follow their subjects for a longer time but with less detail.

I found these stories interesting and the author’s style accessible, and there is a lot in here I didn’t know. For instance, apparently the U.S. government drew up plans in the 1980s to put Muslims in a concentration camp. I am not sure how representative these young people and their families are of Arab-American Muslims, or if that was the author’s goal. Two of the families are Palestinian and two more have one Palestinian parent, which is not representative of the Middle Eastern population in the U.S. generally. The author is also strongly attached to writing about Brooklyn, which seems to me more unique than representative of American life, but enough of these folks have also lived in other places that that turned out to be less of a limiting factor than I initially expected. Regardless, these are important stories, many of which I hadn’t heard before. No book could represent all of Arab Muslim life in America, but this one does an excellent job of opening a window.

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text 2018-02-28 18:43
Reading progress update: I've read 68%.
Memo from the Story Department: Secrets of Structure and Character - David McKenna,Christopher Vogler

Previous updates and comments:

 

http://lindahilton.booklikes.com/post/1645692/reading-progress-update-i-ve-read-59

 

http://lindahilton.booklikes.com/post/1645696/a-quote-for-readers-as-much-as-for-writers

 

I began this re-read to refresh my memory of how Chris Vogler and -- though to a lesser extent -- David McKenna had analyzed Story. 

,

Both of them are primarily analysts of the already-written Story.  When applying their template to a familiar film, such as Casablanca or The Princess Bride, the student is readily able to see the various archetypes and details at work. 

 

For that reason, Memo from the Story Dept is an invaluable tool for the critic or even the teacher.  It's less useful, however, for the writer.

 

Until Chapter Fifteen, that is, when McKenna takes over with his Environmental Facts analytical technique.

 

For me, writing has always involved several distinct but integrated lenses through which a story is viewed.  It's like zooming in with a camera and having to change the lens or tighten the focus as the writing narrows in from overview to final draft.

 

First is the plot structure that moves the action from opening scene through various conflicts and obstacles to final resolution, in a kind of "this happens, then this happens, then this, then this, then this, and they all lived happily ever after" sequence.  This can be done in an outline or synopsis of anywhere from two to two hundred pages, but usually the shorter is better, even if it's no longer than the back cover blurb.  The skeleton, so to speak.  The long distance overview.

 

Second is the characters and their respective backstories that bring them to the point of what happens on page one.  This starts to flesh out the framework and is usually longer than the synopsis.  We're starting to focus in now on what's happening and to whom it's happening and why it's happening.

 

Fourth is the actual book, with all the nuances of style and dialogue and action and language and research and so on.  This is the final product, the intimate close-up lens that puts the reader in direct contact with what the writer envisioned.

 

McKenna's "Environmental Facts" chapters fill in the third lens.

 

At first, I barely remembered reading this section previously, but then various details resurfaced, and in the process reminded me why I had found this book so valuable.

 

If you're a reviewer just reading and writing reviews, you probably don't need to get quite as analytical as this information suggests.  It's enough to just like or not like a book.

 

On the other hand, if you want to better understand what makes a book click for you or not, McKenna's chapters could provide the needed insight.

 

And if you're a writer, at least give these chapters a careful read.  They gave me a better understanding of certain techniques I tend to take for granted.

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