Bad Book

You may remember that a had a recent post (September 1) on Why Do Bad Books Get Published?  I now have an example: The Tiger’s Prey, by “Wilbur Smith with Tom Harper”.  I bought in from the local bookstore here in Sicily, which has a rather limited English language shelf, because years ago I read Wilbur Smith’s When the Lion Feeds, his first novel (1964) which I thought was great story-telling.  By 2014 Smith had published 35 novels with sales of 120 million copies, 24 million of them in Italy.  He is now 86 years old.

In 2012, he moved his publishing to Harper Collins.  As part of his new deal, Smith would be writing select novels with co-writers, in addition to writing books on his own. In a press release Smith was quoted as saying: “For the past few years my fans have made it very clear that they would like to read my novels and revisit my family of characters faster than I can write them. For them, I am willing to make a change to my working methods so the stories in my head can reach the page more frequently.”  Smith’s Wikipedia page lists five co-writers; in the last five years he has only written one book in his own name.

So who is Tom Harper, and how much of The Tiger’s Prey did he write?  The answer to the latter question is not in the public record.  The answer to the first question is that he is a novelist, “13 thrillers and historical adventures”, born (1977) and brought up in Germany, now living in York, England.

In the previous post, I said, “It’s also worth noting that many bestselling authors no longer write their books themselves and use ghostwriters (who might not have the same writing chops) so that the author can churn out more books.”

Could that be the case for The Tiger’s Prey?

This novel is set in Cape Town and India in the 18th century, and it focuses on a family of seafaring, English aristocrats.  There are plenty of adventures:

  • Tom Courtney wins a sea battle with pirates while being seriously out gunned and out manned.
  • The head of the East India Company sends a derelict boy, Francis, who is Tom’s nephew to kill Tom as revenge for Tom’s accidental killing of Francis’ father.
  • There is a battle between Tom and Francis in which several others are killed.
  • Christopher Courtney breaks with his father, Guy, who runs the Company office in Bombay and joins the crew of a trading ship.  (Guy and Tom are bad blood twin brothers)
  • Christopher is flogged by the captain, later kills him, steals the captain’s money box, sets fire to the ship, and goes ashore.
  • Christopher joins a Hindu warrior school.  He is on a mission when he rescues a woman on the road who is threatened with rape and kills her assailant.
  • The woman runs a band of brigands and he joins her band.
  • Francis joins Tom on a trading mission to India.
  • The ship that Tom, his wife Sarah and Francis are on is shipwrecked, and they are intercepted by the army of a local Indian ruler, but they find their way to a local Company fort.
  • Christopher and his female leader become lovers and steal a money chest belonging to the local ruler.
  • They are captured and imprisoned by the Rani, the local ruler.
  • Christopher is forced by the Rani to kill his lover; he takes a position in her army.
  • The Company chief at the fort falls out with the Rani, and sends a military mission to negotiate with her.
  • The mission is attacked, the chief is killed, and the survivors retreat to the fort.
  • The fort is attacked by the Rani’s men but Tom resists the siege until the Company rescues them.
  • Tom goes to Madras and finds that his wife, who left the fort early, has been taken by pirates, and held for ransom.
  • Christopher joins the pirate leader; Guy refuses to attack the pirate; Tom cannot steal the money to pay the ransom.
  • Tom finds a rajah who is willing to fight the pirate and gives Tom and Francis command.
  • The pirate castle is sieged successfully and the women freed.
  • Tom and Christopher fight and the latter jumps off the castle wall.
  • Tom gets a large portion of the pirate’s treasure and Christopher gets together with the widowed wife of the Company chief.

But it isn’t just one barely credible adventure after another, the book is full of brutal violence and some unloving, explicit, rather forceful sex.  Moreover, there is a complicated backstory about the Courtney family which adds to the credibility burden which the story bears.  The characters tend to be black or white, good or bad, with little depth or complexity.  And what motivates our hero, Tom?  It is mostly to recapture a precious family sword, which has been taken from him and falls into several evil hands.  The sword is described with typical hyperbole: “he had used it to send countless men to their deaths they so well deserved.  It was made from the finest Toledo steel, and the supple weight of the blade was perfectly balanced by the star sapphire in the pommel.”  One might ask, also, what the title of the book has to do with the story.  The only tigers in the story are either rugs or the subject of a hunt organised by the rajah; the hunt does nothing to advance the story.

There were several factual errors in the first few pages.  East Africa was mentioned as a leg of the slave trade with America and the Caribbean; it was West Africa.  During the first sea battle, a “brazier on an iron tripod” is brought out and used to heat the tip of a sword.  This is extremely unlikely.  The only heating on a wooden sailing ship was the in the cook’s galley, which was extinguished before battle for fear of fire.  The only exception would be to heat shot (in the galley).  There is also mention of an un-manned broadside.  To be un-manned, the powder in each gun would have to be lit by a long fuse, and since the burn time of 18th century fuses was highly variable, it was unlikely to be a effective broadside.

There are two areas where Mr Harper shines: his knowledge of 18th century seamanship and exotic Indian lore.

Give it a pass.

Review: Napoleon’s Buttons: 17 Molecules that Changed History

This book was recommended to me by an Italian friend of mine, who particularly likes non-fiction.  It was written by Penny Le Couteur, PhD, who, the back cover tells me, “teaches chemistry ad Capilano College in British Columbia, Canada.  She is the winner of the Polysar Award for Outstanding Chemistry Teaching in Canadian Colleges, and has been a professor for over thirty years.  and

Jay Burreson, PhD, who has worked as an industrial chemist and held a National Institutes of Health special fellowship for chemical compounds in marine life.  He is also general manager of a high-tech company.”

The title of this book is based on the unproven belief that the clothing of Napoleon’s officers and soldiers in his Grande Armée may have fallen apart during the extreme cold of the winter of 1812, following its retreat from Moscow.  One observer of the army’s retreat noted that it appeared like “a mob of ghosts draped in women’s cloaks, odd pieces of carpet or greatcoats burned full of holes”.  The buttons on the uniforms of the Grand Armée were made of tin, a metal which changes into a crumbly, non-metallic grey powder at low temperature.  Could crumbling buttons have led to the defeat at Moscow, and the extreme hardships of the retreat?  If the army had been equipped with brass buttons, might it have been victorious at Moscow, and moved on east, capturing all of Russia?  If so, Russia and all of Europe would be a different place today.  In 1812, 90% of the Russian population were serfs, who, unlike their counterparts in western Europe, could be bought and sold by their owners.  Might Russia have been recreated in the image of France?

There are seventeen chapters in this book: one for each special molecule or group of molecules.  In each chapter, the elements making up the molecule are identified, as well as the structure of the molecule.  If the molecule occurs in nature, the efforts made to synthesize it are discussed.  But, most interestingly, the impact of the molecule on human history is described.  Here is a partial list of the molecules: pepper, nutmeg and clove, ascorbic acid (vitamin C), glucose, cellulose, silk and nylon, dyes, the Pill, molecules of witchcraft, salt.  For example, in the case of the spice molecules, they stimulated an enormous growth in world trade and exploration.  Ascorbic acid prevented scurvy, making long voyages possible.

While there are plenty of chemical formulae and equations in the book, one does not have to be a chemist to understand the evolution of each molecule.  The text is user friendly, understandable and clear.  The authors are at their best when they describe the impact of each molecule on history, using facts, examples and statistics.  In the introduction, they confess that they had to narrow a larger list down to seventeen.  One has to wonder what they left out, but it doesn’t really matter because the general point about the power of chemistry on humanity has been made. One must wonder what the future will bring.

As I read the book, some of my high school chemistry came back to me, and in this sense, I may be an atypical reader, but I would have liked a brief chemical tutorial on how the structure of a molecule is determined, and on how individual molecules work on human beings.  There are excellent discussions on salt and soap, but for some other molecules, this is discussed only superficially.

6 Elements of a Good Book Review

There is a post on the above subject which appears of the Steve Laube Agency blog.  It was written by Karen Ball, who was a literary agent with the Agency, but has now gone back to writing.

Karen Ball

She said that a “good review” is helpful to readers in deciding whether the book is for them.  “So here are some things, based on book reviews out there, for reviewers to keep in mind.

“A good review is balanced. It takes into account that we all have likes and dislikes, and while this book may not be our cup of tea, it could be someone else’s absolute favorite. (Hey, it could happen!) Yes, share your honest opinion. But realize that’s what it is. Your opinion. A subjective evaluation of what you’ve read. No more, no less.

“A good review is about the book, not the author. Focus on the writing, on the treatment of the topic, on the characters, on the storyline, on the research, on the facts, and so on. Don’t make judgment calls about the author’s faith, intelligence, relationships, parenting skills, parentage, or whatever. A reviewer’s job is to share your opinion of the book. You don’t have the right to go beyond that.

“A good review is about the author’s craft, not the book’s packaging. Don’t base your review on the cover or endorsements or things over which, I guarantee you, most traditionally published writers have absolutely no control.  (Now, if the authors are indie, then yes, they control those things…) But remember, what you’re reviewing is the writing, not the packaging.

“A good book review doesn’t give an extensive summary of the book and then one or two lines about your thoughts. Readers can get the summary from lots of places. What they want to know is what you thought of the writing, the message, the story.

“Even more important, a good review doesn’t give away the ending/secret/mystery/twist! Please, friends, for the love of heaven, don’t ruin the read for others. If you knew who the killer was on page 2, fine, say, “I knew who the killer was by page two.” But do NOT say, “I knew by page two that the butler was the killer.” If a book has a great twist, say that. But don’t give the twist away. Have mercy on not just the readers, but on the author.

“A good book review is specific. Don’t just say you loved the book or hated it, tell us why. And tell us what specific aspect of it you loved or hated. For example:

What did you like or dislike about the writing?

What drew you to–or left you cold about–the topic or characters?

What moved or challenged or inspired or infuriated or disappointed you?”

I think this is all good advice.  I would add that there are almost always some things things the writer has done well, and that praise should come before criticism.  I may have a tendency to give too long a summary of the story, but when I do this, it is for two reasons: first, to show that I have actually read the book (there have been cases where a reviewer based his critique on only a sample of the book), and because I may want to make a point about the plot in my critique.

Why Do Bad Books Get Published?

Ellen Brock, a professional freelance novel editor, published a post on her blog, https://ellenbrockediting.com, with this title on February 16, 2015, but it is still timely.  She works with about 150 authors per year as editor, plot consultant and writing coach.

Ellen Brock

She said, “It’s a question that all aspiring writers ask themselves at one point or another: Why are there so many bad novels on book store shelves?

While we can’t expect every novel to be literary gold (some books are just for fun), there sure are a lot of bad novels out there!

Sometimes all of these poorly written books can give writers the impression that their clearly superior novel should have no trouble getting published, yet when these writers query, they are met with rejection. It’s easy to feel like there is a double standard. Why do mediocre (or worse!) books get published when my great one keeps getting rejected?

The truth is that most of the bad novels out there did not come from the query slush pile in the first place.”

Here is where she says many of these bad books come from:

Celebrities

Whether they’re an actor, a TV personality, or a leader in their field, famous people are often able to get books published regardless of the quality. This is because the publishers are selling the name on the cover more than they are selling the book itself, and readers are inherently interested in what celebrities have to say.

Bestselling Authors

Like celebrities, there comes a point when authors are selling their name more than they’re selling their book. Publishers know that with a huge base of loyal fans, putting out a book that is not super spectacular will have very little impact on sales. Many readers will also look more favorably upon books by their favorite authors simply because they have positive expectations.

It’s also worth noting that many bestselling authors no longer write their books themselves and use ghostwriters (who might not have the same writing chops) so that the author can churn out more books.

Foreign Translations

This is an often overlooked reason a book may not follow conventional (English language) writing “rules.” A novel that is extremely successful in a foreign language may be translated to English so that publishers can expand their market. There are a variety of potential issues in the translation process that can lead to a lower than average quality to the writing, such as a poor translator, different writing standards from the country of origin, and no way to clearly or easily translate words or phrases into English.

Industry Insiders

It’s not uncommon to read the bio in the back of a debut novel and find that the author used to be an agent, work at a publishing house, or write for a newspaper or magazine. People who are inside the publishing industry have the ability to use their connections to get ahead, even if the book isn’t quite as high quality as readers are used to. This is not to say that these books are always bad, but it certainly happens.

Media Tie-Ins

Media tie-ins have become quite popular. These are books that are novelizations of movies or TV shows. They may be based on the films/episodes or they may simply be set in the same universe or feature the same characters. These novels are often assigned to writers for low wages and may not have had enough time spent on them.

Self-Published Novels

It’s not always clear when a novel has been self-published, and though there are some amazing self-published books, there is an endless supply of self-published novels that were not properly edited. Today, authors can sometimes get these books into local libraries or bookstores and readers can buy them without ever realizing they were self-published.

Sequels

As with famous authors, sequels often rest on the laurels of a previous book. Publishers bank on readers needing to know what happens next in the story and may be more lenient when it comes to tightening up the story and polishing the writing if they anticipate readers will buy the novel regardless of a lower quality.

Other Reasons

Sometimes bad novels are plucked from the slush pile and given the privilege of publication. There are a few reasons this might happen:

The Acquisition Editor Likes It

Acquisition editors are (typically) the people who sift through the slush pile and decide which books are considered for publication and which are not. These people are just that – people. Their tastes play a huge part in what they choose, and sometimes a book resonates with an editor due to personal experience or preferences. Sometimes these books don’t resonate the same way with the average reader and fall flat.

A ‘Catchy’ or Unique Concept

As much as we like to think of writing as an art form (and it is), publishing is a business. A mediocre book that has a great concept may be easy to sell on its premise alone. Once readers have purchased the book, a profit has been made. If the novel only gets a two or three star review online, that’s not such a big deal. Readers will still pick up the book in the store, get excited by the concept alone, and purchase it.

A Concept That Is Timely

Current events can sometimes prompt a novel to be published before it’s had the chance to go through proper polishing because the publisher is hoping to capitalize on public interest in a certain topic, concept, or person. In order to not miss this window of public interest, the book might be shoved onto shelves too soon.”

I think it would be very interesting to spend a couple of days with an experienced and successful acquisition editor, looking at synopses and samples of novels s/he has rejected, and discussing the rationale for rejection.  It would also be interesting to understand her/his evaluation of why a published novel failed.

Review: Jesus: A Pilgrimage

This book came to me by a trade.  I traded Stoney the Road, about black reaction to Reconstruction , and its aftermath, in which my son-in-law had an interest, for a book he was reading that I thought was Jerusalem.  But the book he was reading turned out to be Jesus: a Pilgrimage, by James Martin, SJ, a Jesuit priest.  Nonetheless, it turned out to be a fair trade, because I enjoyed Jesus: A Pilgrimage.  It was also a New York Times bestseller and Christopher Award Winner.

Father James Martin is a prolific writer having authored thirteen books.  He is also editor-at-large of the Jesuit magazine, America.  He was born in 1960 and grew up in Plymouth Meeting,  Pennsylvania, United States (near where I grew up).  He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business in 1982 and worked in corporate finance at General Electric for six years.

Dissatisfied with the corporate world, he became more deeply involved in the Catholic Church and decided to enter the Society of Jesus (more commonly known as the Jesuits) in 1988. During his studies to become a Jesuit priest, he earned a M.A. in philosophy from Loyola University Chicago in 1994, an M.Div. from the Weston Jesuit School of Theology in 1998, and a Th.M., also from the Weston School, in 1999. He was ordained a priest in 1999.

Father James Martin

In Jesus: A Pilgrimage, Father James describes a pilgrimage he made to the Holy Land to view the many historic places associated with Jesus in Jerusalem and vicinity and in Galilee.  He describes the site, his reaction to it, reveals what other religious writers have said about it.  He includes the New Testament verses that relate to the events that are though to have taken place there, and he offers theological commentary on the significance of the events.

But this book is not a heavy theological tome, because Father James also covers the joys and difficulties of journeying through the Holy Land.  His touch is light, his prose in simple; the journey is spiritual, but also light-hearted.

I found nothing to criticize in this book.  At 465 pages, it was lengthy, but it progressed naturally from site to site, following Jesus’ time line.  To have abbreviated it, would necessarily have made it more superficial or more theological.

The book was particularly interesting for me as my wife and I toured Israel several years ago and visited many of the sites mentioned.  Since our interests were secular as well as religious (we wanted to learn more about Christianity, Judaism and Islam), we missed some of the iconic places mentioned.  It was good to draw a mental and spiritual picture of them.

Those of you who have read my books know that I am a committed Christian. I was entirely comfortable with nearly everything Father James said; his spiritual beliefs tended to confirm my own.  But what advice can I give to those potential readers who consider themselves adherent of other faiths, or agnostics, or atheist?  My view is that Jewish and Muslim readers, who may have some curiosity about Christianity, would find the book interesting in that it clearly defines what Christianity is about, without any reference to other religions.  Agnostics may struggle with the intensity of the evidence that Father James presents.  It is difficult to be ambivalent about it.  Atheists will almost certainly put the book aside after reading, at most, the first four pages, and declare: “this book isn’t for me.”

Review: Achieving Superpersonhood: Three East African Lives

The following review is from K. C. Finn for Readers’ Favourite:

“Achieving Superpersonhood: Three East African Lives is a novel in
the literary genre penned by author William Peace. In this sweeping
narrative that crosses cultural divides and exposes the realities of
living on the continent of Africa, we encounter the choices of three
young people and how their lives are shaped by the society around
them, even when they try to break out. Dorothy is a high flyer from
a middle class family, but her political sensibilities give her cause to
protest. She becomes involved with both Hassan, the child of a
powerful Muslim family who accidentally becomes embroiled with a
terror organization, and Kamiri, a poor migrant who faces
disablement and a potentially tragic future.
“Author William Peace has created an incredibly emotive and
powerful tour de force of literary fiction, bringing East Africa to life
as the lives of three young people are changed forever. I
particularly enjoyed the omniscient narration and the conceptual
‘voices’ that the author employs to exemplify the characters’
conflicts and their concepts of right versus wrong. The
socioeconomic and political climate of Africa as a whole is very
astutely described, lending itself to the plot but not overtaking or
turning the whole tale into a commentary. Although the moral and
social points are well made, the story is what comes forward
through powerful descriptions and excellent narrative and dialogue
skills. Overall, Achieving Superpersonhood: Three East African Lives
is an accomplished work that comes highly recommended for
readers who enjoy cultural exploration and emotive, character-driven
tales.”

Review: Another Country

I bought this book at an airport bookshop in May, because I’ve never read anything by James Baldwin.  I’m glad I did, because Another Country is like no other novel I’ve read.

James Baldwin was born in Harlem, NY in 1924.  His mother left his biological father because of his drug abuse.  She then married a Baptist preacher, David Baldwin, with whom she had eight more children.  Young Baldwin was treated harshly by his step father, but he followed in the elder Baldwin’s footsteps to become a junior minister.  He later described himself as not religious, but his church experience clearly influenced his world view and his writing.  In 1948, Baldwin emigrated to Paris, discouraged by the racial prejudice in the US and aware that he was gay.  He spent most of the rest of his life in France, returning to the US a number of times to participate in the civil rights movement.  He wrote six novels, of which Another Country is the third, two plays, nine collections of essays and one collection of poems.  He died in 1987.

James Baldwin

Another Country begins with Rufus, a young, black drummer from Harlem who has fallen on hard times, with drugs, too much alcohol, too few gigs.  Rufus meets Leona, a poor, white, Southern girl in a bar.  They go to a party, have sex and she follows him to his place, where Vivaldo, Rufus’ only friend, a failing writer, who is white meets them.  The three of them encounter Cass who is married to Richard, Vivaldo’s friend and high school English instructor, who is about to publish a novel he has written. Rufus drifts into a homosexual prostitution encounter, and losing his self esteem, beats up Leona and self destructs, committing suicide.

The scene then shifts to Ida, Rufus’ adoring sister, who becomes Vivaldo’s lover, but there is constant friction between them over their respective identities. They meet Steve Ellis, who is a promoter working with Richard.  Ellis senses singing and sexual talent in Ida.

The scene shifts to France where Eric, a bisexual friend of Vivaldo and Cass is making arrangements to travel to New York to take up a lead role in a play, and must take temporary leave from his young French boyfriend, Yves.

In New York, Cass, who has become estranged from Richard, has an affair with Eric, and Vivaldo who is desperate with suspicion over the affair between Ida and Ellis, also has a fling with Eric.

Richard learns of his wife’s infidelity with Eric; he had suspected Vivaldo; he is enraged but they are talking.  Ida confesses her unromantic affair with Ellis, and they, also are talking.   Yves and Eric meet at Idlewild airport.

This novel has a beautifully crafted, credible plot.  It delves into a nether world of drugs, music, self-gratification and self-deception. It deals with perceptions of racial identities on both sides of the divide in the US: neither blacks nor whites are happy, to the detriment of society generally.  It also deals with the gaps between actual and longed-for identities, and masculinity, which can lead to self-destruction.  As such, it is a portrait of a dysfunctional society.  One cannot help but feel that in the 1960’s when Another Country was published the portrait was accurate for some.

The only criticisms I have of Another Country are that some of the dialogue, while realistic, is just chit-chat and does not add value for the reader.  Similarly, some of the narrative about the perceptions and feelings of characters can be lengthy, complex and therefor loses some focus and clarity.  Finally, the environment of the relationship between Cass and Richard isn’t clear enough to support either Cass’ disappointment or Richard’s outrage.  I can only theorise that Baldwin did not have experience of long-time heterosexual relationships.

If you haven’t read Another Country, I highly recommend it.

Writers’ Groups

Have you ever thought of joining a writers’ group?  The Florida Writers Association, of which I am a member, has a number of them, and Veronica Helen Hart leads three different groups.  In the abbreviated article, below, from The Florida Writer, she describes how the groups work.  She has written ten novels and a play.  Regarding her experience with writers’ groups, she says: “One of the most successful efforts has been participating in critique groups and leading a writers workshop for the past several years. I have learned more in these sessions than I ever did in college classes.”

Veronica Helen Hart

“The first group is the Daytona Area Writers, which grew quickly, and split off a
second group, the  Daytona Area Fiction Writers, which maintains a schedule of two
writers a week, every week, submitting a maximum of 20 double-spaced pages in advance online. This is an invitation-only group, focused on fiction with a goal of
publishing. We meet at a local Barnes & Noble store. Another group, the Ormond Writers League, is a well-established group. Individuals read five to seven
pages aloud, and members critique on the spot. I found this technique most helpful to me as a writer but difficult to do as a listener. I prefer to read, so I asked if people
wouldn’t mind bringing one printed copy for me. Now, everyone brings copies to share.

Members must respect the leader’s ability to moderate the group. There are often
occasions when the moderator is called upon to resolve personality issues before they become major problems.

In both DAW and DAFW, the meetings open with news of writing progress from each member and announcements of upcoming competitions or conferences. There is always support and encouragement for writers who submit work for competitions or to
agents.  At DAW, we frequently do writing exercises or have a mini-workshop before critiquing. At the DAFW, we start with critiques.  The guidelines for critiquing are probably the same  as for most writing groups, however, and we don’t let members stray. Critiques may not be personal and must address the writing only. This is about critique, not criticism; about critiquers, not critics; about the effect the work evokes in a variety of readers; about writers helping writers to encourage areas of strength and improve areas of perceived weaknesses.  Our critique groups allow writers to save face before offering themselves on the sacrificial altars of agents, editors, and publishers.
To be critiqued, you must be an active participant in the group, which includes submitting your writing for critique.  Start by praising strengths.  Avoid the use of the word you. Instead of saying, “You used passive voice…” you can say, “I found the
passive voice used several times …” Or, instead of, “You can’t let a person jump off that building,” you can say, “I don’t understand how a person could survive jumping off
that building.” Offer positive feedback. Highlight and emphasize what worked well in the manuscript.  When speaking, still avoid you. Try saying, “I felt completely drawn into this scene,” instead of, “You wrote a great scene.”  When the writing is not so great, offer constructive suggestions. “It might help pick up the pace of this story if the scene where she’s grocery shopping was either dropped or cut short,” instead of, “The grocery store scene is boring.” Members are discouraged from rewriting the story for the author. It is okay to suggest an alternative path for the protagonist only if the
author has asked for help.  Critiques are not meant to be copyedits.
Typos and misspellings may be marked on the manuscript rather than being used as a discussion point, although an assessment of the manuscript mechanics may be part of the evaluation.  Honesty is the best policy. Consider the most basic questions: Has the author anything to say? Has the author said it in the best possible way?  In the end, kindness counts. This does not mean a charm offensive or gushing over a mediocre
manuscript. This does no one any good. But some writers never recover from being chewed up and spit out by a cannibalistic critique group.

In our twice-a-month group where we have a large attendance, everyone may submit up to ten pages for critique. We ask for four to six volunteers to critique each manuscript the schedule is then posted on a dedicated Yahoo site.
In our weekly group, two people may submit up to 20 pages and everyone critiques. This is also posted on a Yahoo site.
One of the most important rules is that the person whose manuscript is being critiqued
remain quiet during the critiques and can then reply once everyone is finished. Generally, the responses are to thank everyone for their help. There should be no need for anyone to defend their manuscript or take exception to a critique.
If something does not apply, the author is always free to politely thank the person and ignore the comments.
The best thing about these groups are how supportive each person is to everyone else in the group.”

If there were a writers’ group near me, I think I might join if I could bring along bits of a novel I’m working on.

Review: Stony the Road

There was an article about this non-fiction book in either the New York Times or the Telegraph.  The book is subtitled, “Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow.”  It was the subtitle that caught my interest: I know very little about the period following the American Civil War.  I think I have been reasonably well educated in American history, but the late 1860’s and 1870’s are pretty vague for me.  For example, I knew that there was a period of Reconstruction during which the physical damage of the war was somewhat rebuilt and slavery was abolished in practice.  But I didn’t know what or how it was done.  I also knew there were carpetbaggers, who were bad people, but I didn’t know what they did.  And I knew there was Jim Crow, which, as far as I knew was short hand for treating black people badly.  I had therefor hoped that this book, by Henry Louis Gates, Jr, a distinguished professor at Harvard, would fully enlighten me.

The flyleaf in the book says this about Professor Gates: “(He) is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and Director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University.  An award-winning film maker, literary scholar, journalist, cultural critic, and institution builder, Professor Gates has authored or coauthored twenty-four books and created twenty documentary films.”

Henry Louis Gates Jr.

The flyleaf also says, “Stony the Road examines America’ first post-war clash of images utilizing modern mass media to divide, overwhelm – and resist. Enforcing the stark color line and ensuring the roll back of the rights of formerly enslaved people, racist images were reproduced on an unprecedented scale thanks to advances in technology such as chromolithography, which enabled their widespread dissemination in advertisements, on postcards, and on an astonishing array of everyday objects.  Yet during the same period when the Supreme Court stamped ‘separate but equal’ as the law of the land, African Americans advanced the concept of the ‘New Negro’ to renew the fight for Reconstruction’s promise.  Against the steepest of odds, they waged war by other means: countering depictions of black people as ignorant, debased and inhuman with images of a vanguard of educated and upstanding men and women who were talented, cosmopolitan and urbane.”

There are references in the book to Redemption, a term applied to a renewal of local rule in the South, facilitated by white supremacists in the South, Reconstruction fatigue, and growing indifference in the North, and which led to the passage of Jim Crow segregation laws in the South, and the transition to the sharecropper scheme which kept the freed slaves in virtual slavery.

The book is a scholarly work of research detailing the strategies, the beliefs and the actions of leading blacks in the circumstances of extreme discrimination.  One can understand why, in the face of both white supremacy and indifference, the rather tepid response of the ‘New Negro’ was largely ineffective, and rampant racism continued in the United States for at least one hundred years after the Emancipation Proclamation.

For me, the only disappointment in this book is its focus on black leaders responses to the events, while I was seeking a better understanding white reactions and inactions at the time.

Review: Transcription

This is the new novel by Kate Atkinson.  I signed up for it last autumn, six months before it was published, because I very much liked A God in Ruins, her Costa Book Award winner in 2015 – her third time to win the award.

Kate Atkinson was born in York, England in 1951; she studied English Literature at Dundee University, winning her MA in 1974.  She went on to study for a doctorate in American Literature, but she failed at the oral examination stage.  She has written five Jackson Brodie novels, six other novels (three of which won the Costa Award or its predecessor, the Whitbread Award), two plays and a collection of short stories.  She lives in Edinburgh currently.

Kate Atkinson

The central character in Transcription is Juliet Armstrong, who, at age eighteen, becomes the typist in 1940 for the Security Service, MI5.  Her role is to transcribe the conversations a British agent has with German sympathisers: the Fifth Column.  Her boss thinks well enough of her that he gives her the assignment of getting close to Mrs Scaife, a German-sympathising British socialite, the wife of an admiral who has been interred for his pro-Nazi views.  Juliet succeeds rather well in this deception, arranging a meeting between Mr Vanderkamp, an American official opposed to war with Germany and who has access to US secrets, with Mrs Scaif, who intends to pass the information on to the Third Reich.  The pair are arrested as the information is passed between Vanderkamp and Scaife.  Juliet is also involved in the death of a pro-German woman who accidentally discovers that her conversations with the man she thought was a Gestapo are actually being recorded by the British.  Toward the end of the war, Juliet becomes sympathetic to the Russian cause, and an attempt is made to recruit her as a double agent for the British.

As usual, Ms Atkinson does a splendid job researching her subject matter, from the identities of the real-life players, to the settings, to the actual events and messages.  One is transported back to a blacked-out, war time London, where there was much going on in secret, well-lit places.  The principal characters: Juliet, her boss, Perry Gibbons, Godfrey Toby, the fake Gestapo, and Mrs Scaife as well as some of the minor characters are all distinctly drawn and entirely credible.  Ms Atkinson’s writing is confident and authoritative, leading the reader deftly into unexpected turns of events.  This is not a heavy, sinister novel; it has moments of humor and irony.

For me, there are two serious problems with this novel.  First, Juliet’s assignment as transcriber of the conversations is relatively unimportant in the war effort: nothing of significance is learned that will remotely affect the war’s outcome; and second, a large portion of the book is devoted to Juliet’s transcription efforts.  The novel would have been more interesting if it had more to do with Juliet’s spy persona, Iris Carter-Jenkins, and with more of the identity intrigue and double-dealing going on at high levels in MI5.  There were also some details that didn’t seem right to me.  For example, does it make sense for the man who has the power to force Juliet into a double agent’s role to bother sending her anonymous ‘You will pay for what you did’ messages?

This long-anticipated novel is not up to Kate Atkinson’s usual standards.