Tag Archives: book review

G is for Goodreads

Jun 22, 2015

Not gonna lie. As an author, Goodreads scares me. Sure, it’s a fantastic site for readers, and I love it as a way to keep track of the books I’ve read and what I think of them. I adore their yearly book challenge, where you set a goal for yourself about how many books you’re hoping to read during the year, and then it keeps track of that for you. But when it comes to reviews and the freedom that readers and reviewers have to talk about books and authors, I quiver in my boots.

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Now, let me quickly stress that that doesn’t mean I disagree with the freedoms that readers and reviewers have there or that I think they’re horrible or mean or anything. Not at all. Quite the contrary, actually. I think Goodreads is a great place for people to get out there and say what they really think. There’s a place for that. At the same time, I shudder to think what people might be saying about me. That’s why I don’t read my reviews anymore.

Goodreads is the ultimate book cocktail party where someone put just a little too much of the good stuff in the punch. Because it doesn’t get policed and reviews aren’t taken down if they cross the line. So it’s like a raging party. Some people can handle their alcohol superbly, and it makes them incredibly fun to be around. Some people do not mix well with that kind of freedom, and it goes to their heads, starting painful downward spirals.

And I’m not just talking about reviewers here.

Take the sad tale of the sci-fi/fantasy writer about two or three weeks ago who went off the deep end over a 1-star review that was left on his book. The reviewer was just a reviewer. She didn’t like the book. She reviewed it with her one star and stated the reasons she didn’t like it. So far, so good. I have some 1-star reviews that are far less kind than the one she left. We all do. It’s part of the job of writing.

Unfortunately, this author broke the cardinal rule of reviews from an author’s point of view. He responded.

Cardinal Rule of Getting Reviewed: NEVER RESPOND

*sigh* Someone failed to tell this poor guy the rule. Not only did he respond, he launched an all-out battle with this reviewer. I’ll spare you the gory details, but this author had a meltdown of epic proportions.

Not just a little meltdown, mind you. In going to war over one tiny review, one person’s opinion expressed on Goodreads, he ended up going viral, getting splashed across the internet, his story swapped by a lot of the writers and readers I know as a cautionary tale of why you never respond to reviews, and, lo and behold, getting hundreds of new 1-star reviews because of his bad behavior. And I seriously wonder if his career will be able to survive the onslaught.

The saddest note of all is that one of my author friends pointed out that over on Amazon, the exact same book has quite a few good reviews, and it might actually be a good book. But the world will never know, because this reactionary author engaged a Goodreads reviewer when he should have just taken a walk around the block and shaken it off.

Yep. Goodreads is a scary place for authors. Because it has power. It’s an important venue for readers to voice their opinions the same way they would if they were hanging out with friends. It’s absolutely vital for that open exchange of ideas to have a home…just as it’s vital for authors to respect what goes on there.

I actually really like Goodreads. I do giveaways there (here’s a link to one if you want to throw your hat in the ring!) and I keep track of my reading habits there. Heck, I think this blog post even feeds over to my Goodreads author page. But at the end of the day, Goodreads is for READERS, not for we humble authors. So thanks for taking care of the place for us!

Women in Politics, 1900

Jun 20, 2014

Somebody To Love_blog sidebarYes! I got my first 1-star review of Somebody to Love! And it was the best possible kind of 1-star review too!

How can a 1-star review be a good thing, you ask? Well, when the criticism is all about a point of historical accuracy, and when the reviewer is, frankly, wrong, it gives me a great opportunity to talk about my favorite subject: History. The accusation was that it is grossly historically inaccurate for Phineas Bell to muse that his 4-year old niece, Eloise, could be President of the United States someday. The reviewer scoffed at the idea, saying that in 1900, when universal suffrage for women was still 20 years off, it would have been ludicrous for a man to think that his niece could be president.

I couldn’t disagree more.

Neither could the actual facts of history.

No, women were not able to vote in federal elections until the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified in 1920. However, this didn’t mean that they didn’t have political ambition or dreams of future equality. Far from it. Very far from it if you consider that the first woman was elected to Congress in 1916. Yes, Jeanette Rankin was elected to the House of Representatives from the state of, you guessed it, Montana, not in 1960, but 1916. That’s four years before women gained the federal vote. A woman. Congress. Elected. If a woman could be elected to Congress in 1916, why not shoot for the big office and assume that someday she could be president?

Jeanette Rankin, first woman elected to Congress in 1916

Jeanette Rankin, first woman elected to Congress in 1916

History runs deeper than that, though. It would be false to assume that no one, female or male, had any sort of dreams or ambitions in the political arena whatsoever until—poof!—one day in 1920 everyone decided “Okay, let’s give women the vote”. In fact, the roots of the suffrage movement run deep, deep into the first half of the 19th century. Early women’s rights pioneers like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucy Stone, and Susan B. Anthony spent the greater part of the 19th century fighting for the rights of women. They had enough support to fill lecture halls and demonstrations and to make their voices heard at the highest level. They were fighting so that women could participate in government, so why not continue that dream to hope that someday a woman could be the head of that government?

The truth of women in politics stretches even further than that, though. True, women may not have won the vote federally until 1920, but as early at 1869 they were able to vote and participate in government in the western states and territories. Wyoming granted women the right to vote in 1869, and by the end of the century just about every other western state had given women the vote or held referendums to enfranchise them. Again, I propose that the hopes and dreams of the people who supported the movement could easily have extended far beyond just the vote.

Why? And why the West? What made them so advanced and enlightened? Well, one theory was that women were able to have more direct participation in western politics precisely because conditions were neither advanced nor enlightened. Life on the frontier was harsh. In some cases it was primitive and it was lonely. With so little people to tame the land and govern it, women became an essential part of political life. They were sometimes left in possession of land and businesses when their husbands died. Better yet, in some cases they were considered equal partners in enterprising endeavors because the men in their lives had no choice but to count on them. So many women rose to the occasion that their political rights were a natural matter of course.

Mayer-Awakening-1915So impressive was the political power of women in the west and the role that they were given in state and local government, that the suffrage movement back east looked to them as example of what women could do and be and achieve. The Progressive Movement, which is generally held to have started in the 1890s and transformed politics in the early 20th century with platforms supporting universal suffrage, modernization of technology, an end to child labor, and an increase in education, was closely connected with suffragists in the West.

If you take nothing else from this lightning-fast examination of women in politics in and prior to 1900, though, come away with this. Even though women did not gain the vote until 1920, it took decades of work and hopes and fighting and reaching for more to bring public opinion and government around to the point where the work of Stanton, Stone, and Anthony became a reality. So was it unrealistic of me to have a man speculate that his niece could become president in 1900? No! Not at all! And remember too, in 1900, England had a queen, and she wasn’t the first. Women could, and would, rule.

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2014 Book #5 – Strangers: Homosexual Love in the Nineteenth Century, by Graham Robb

May 06, 2014

Okay, I’ve wanted to post more about this book for a long time and to recount some of the history lessons I’ve learned from it, but I’ve just been so busy lately! So what better way to talk about the history behind my inspiration for Somebody to Love than to do a book report on Strangers. And yes, you’ll notice it’s book #5, even though I’m currently reading book #23 of 2014 right now. I started this way back in January and only recently had time to finish it.

Strangers

The thing that struck me the most about Strangers is how different the landscape looked to 19th century gays and lesbians than we would think that it looked. Judging by today’s standards, I’m sure the first reaction one might have is to assume that life was haunted, fragile, and tense for 19th century homosexuals and that they were badly persecuted. Ah, but the very first lesson people should learn about history of any kind is that you can never view it with the standards and commonalities of modern life.

In today’s world, homosexuality is a hot topic. No matter which side of the debate you fall on, everyone knows what it is and has an opinion about it. It’s in the news, in pop culture, and a solid part of life in 2014. Not so in the 19th century! In fact, there was a great deal of ambiguity in the minds of your average 18th and 19th century person as to how to define someone who was outside of the norm. The 19th century was all about classifying and naming things scientifically, and it wasn’t really until this time that homosexuality was even defined. In fact, the term “homosexual” was coined in 1868.

Think about that for a second. 1868. There were other words in use in various languages to describe men who had a passion for other men—Uranian, invert, sodomite (which was a pejorative, whereas the other two were merely descriptive)—but the label came much later. Sure, sodomy was considered a crime, and (if I’m remembering this correctly) from The Buggery Act of 1533 until the first half of the 19th century it was a crime punishable by death, but that was the act, not the state of being homosexual.

Robb does an incredible job of piecing together the story of a state of being that was barely classified and certainly never spoken of openly through what historians call primary source material. He studied diaries, letters, journals, and other private communications to piece together the lives of men and women who didn’t fit into the traditional 19th century definition of masculine and feminine. It’s fascinating stuff! Even he admits that it’s incredibly difficult to state anything definitively, because the record of all of these lives isn’t necessarily there.

What was there, once you dig beneath the surface of genuine lack of knowledge on the part of most people and angst on the part of the men and women who knew they were different, was a rich tapestry of relationships existing without the umbrella of a label. There are cases that were hugely public, like Oscar Wilde, Walt Whitman, and James Pratt and John Smith (the last two men hung for sodomy in England in 1835), but far, far more common were men and women living their unusual lives under the hush of obscurity and the fear of being caught out.

Now that’s not to say that their lives were a big secret. Some people, like Emily Dickenson, for example, were known to have “extremely close” relationships with a member of the same sex, but in this time before people had a firm handle on what exactly that meant and entailed, these known relationships sailed right over people’s heads. I got the feeling that Robb was saying if people in the 19th century knew more about what was going on, they would have disapproved. This was not an age of acceptance and tolerance by any stretch of the imagination. But a lot of things could be swept under the carpet and kept behind closed doors in the name of Victorian morality (no one talked about ANY kind of sexuality in public) or in the spirit of a deeper masculine camaraderie than we generally have today.

Anyhow, I could go on and on about this subject, and I would really like to learn more about it. The gist of Strangers is that there was, in fact, a thriving LGBT subculture in the 19th century that looked far different than we would imagine it to look. People lived happy lives outside of the scrutiny of “normal” folks simply because their passions weren’t on the radar of your average 19th century citizen. Which makes me all the more adamant about my character Phin’s solid place as one of Cold Springs, Montana’s finest citizens, in spite of everyone knowing he’s a little “off”.

I would love to take what I learned from Strangers and write more m/m romances with it.

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2104 Book #20 – Brothers in Battle, Best of Friends, by William Guarnere and Edward Heffron

Apr 22, 2014

In case you couldn’t tell, I’ve been on a bit of a Band of Brothers kick lately. I finally read the book that the series was based on, and that led me to start reading the memoirs of the guys from Easy Company. I almost wasn’t going to do a book report on Brothers in Battle, Best of Friends, the combined memoirs of Bill Guarnere and “Babe” Heffron because I didn’t want to bore people with my obsession, but as I finished it I realized I had a lot more to talk about than just the experiences of Easy Company.

brothers in battle

Now, I’ve read biographies before. I’ve read a few books by living celebrities about their lives and early years. But I don’t think I’ve ever read a straight-up memoir before. Bill and Babe’s book is definitely a memoir, and it was a whole new experience to me. I believe this is the first time I’ve read a book penned by a pair of old men (or at least narrated by them and recorded by a writer). Let me tell you, it was awesome!

As a fiction writer, I really appreciate the way these two characters were developed, from their childhoods growing up poor in South Philly to their experiences of war to the way they lived the rest of their lives after the war. It was a fine example of how even the lives of ordinary people (not that these two are ordinary) provide a gripping narrative.

What I absolutely adored as a reader was the voice of these two men. Each section, be it Bill’s or Babe’s, felt as though I was sitting in the living room listening to my Granddad’s friends talk. You could practically see the guys as they talked. Their tone was conversational and no-nonsense. The grammar was what they would have used and the words were the ones you just knew they would have bandied about on the street corners or in the bars of South Philly. It was like being with them.

I was completely sucked in! And let me tell you, I was particularly taken with Bill Guarnere. I’ve always sort of identified with him in the series because he was from Philly, my hometown, but man! He was awesome! His mindset and attitude toward the war and toward life was remarkable. He really got in there and did what he had to do, diligently and effectively, to win that war. He was a leader in so many ways, even more than the series portrays.

He was also a total character! He pulls no punches as he relates the pranks he pulled, the vast quantity of women he entertained during the war, and the single-minded love that he had for his girl back home (even as he was “entertaining” all those women). His reflections on the battles he fought are sharp and moving, and the way he talks about losing his leg and everything that happened after that is awe-inspiring. The man was a crackerjack. Judging by the photos from his personal collection that he included in the book, he was pretty darn hot as a young guy too! I think I have a total crush on him now.

I have a whole new respect for Babe too. I felt like I didn’t know him as well just by watching the series, but Babe was a man with heart. And it’s heartbreaking to read the way he talks about some of the things he experienced in the war: losing friends, nearly killing (but not) a young German family, the girl he fell in love with in Austria. It’s all so moving!

Reading Brothers in Battle, Best of Friends has given me a whole new appreciation for memoir as a genre. It’s also given me a much deeper understanding of the generation that fought WWII. I’m really beginning to see why they’re called The Greatest Generation. They’re certainly tougher than my generation and the current young generation because they had it much harder. I look forward to reading more memoirs now, about these guys and beyond.

2014 Book #17 – Band of Brothers, by Stephen E. Ambrose

Apr 10, 2014

Well, I kind of read Band of Brothers, by Stephen E. Ambrose accidentally. How do you read a book accidentally, you ask? I wasn’t supposed to read it. I’m still deep in the middle of reading as a judge for various contests and scoring the entries. I need to get all of those books—you know, the ones I’m not allowed to write about here—read before strict deadlines. But then I watched the miniseries Band of Brothers a few weeks back, realized I could get the book second hand on Amazon for a penny, and, well, the rest is history.

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And you might think I mean that literally. Band of Brothers is a history book, after all. It’s non-fiction, the story of Easy Company of the 506th regiment of the 101st airborne and their exploits in WWII. It follows the men from the day they signed up and went through basic training through Normandy and Holland and the Battle of the Bulge, on to Germany and beyond the end of the war to where their lives all were in 1990 when Ambrose originally wrote the book. So it’s a history book, right?

No, folks, this is a love story! It is perhaps the greatest love story I’ve read in a long, long time. The bonds that were formed between the men of Easy Company go far beyond the closeness of romance or what we think of as love in fiction. As Ambrose so eloquently explains, the connection that forms between soldiers in combat is something that can hardly be described to people who have never experienced it. It goes beyond just friendship, beyond the feeling of being brothers. It is deeper and more meaningful and soul-felt than the connection between lovers. This is love in its purest sense.

The thing is, even though Band of Brothers is a non-fiction account of three very specific years in our history, it actually unfolds like an epic novel. You have a glimpse of what normal is to start, then a call to action, then preparation for the hero’s journey followed by the journey itself. You have great triumphs and heartbreaking set-backs. The story contains suffering and unimaginable loss. Some of the best characters get killed off. Ultimately, though, our heroes triumph, not only in the war, but for almost all of them, in life after the war too.

As a novelist, there were so many things in this account of Easy Company that I can learn from to improve my craft. If nothing else, Ambrose has shown that amazing stories and epic events can and have happened to ordinary, real-life men. He shows that brilliance can be crafted from well-chosen sentences and that the words of the characters themselves (letters and diary entries by the men) can paint as vivid a picture as any narration.

But mostly, as when I watch the HBO series, I come away from this book with a profound sense of respect and awe for these men who gave so much to this country. I’m not at all patriotic, I’ll admit, but I do believe in GOOD and doing what’s right. These men exemplify everything that I esteem. And honestly, even though he served in the Pacific as a Sea-Bee, these men remind me of my beloved Granddad (who passed away far too soon when I was only 8). Reading about these guys brought home the sense of dignity and righteousness (the good kind) that I always felt when I was around my Granddad.

I would have loved to have met Dick Winters, who passed away I think two years ago January, and Bill Guarnere, who died just this past February and was the reason I started watching the series again. In fact, according to Wikipedia, there are only 18 Easy Company men still with us, all old men now. But, holding to the religious beliefs I have, I imagine that the guys are all slowly coming back together again in the Hereafter…and throwing one heck of a party each time another one joins up on the other side.

Read this book! You will not regret it!

 

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