Review: Thieving Forest by Martha Conway

Thieving Forest. Conway


 Martha ConwayNovels set in the eastern U.S. in the early 19th century always interest me, in part, of course, because I have written a couple of them myself. I’m curious to see how other authors cope with the challenges of historical research in this period, Native American characterizations (especially difficult and important), and specifically the portrayal  the lives of women who survived in tremendously difficult circumstances. 

My personal test of a great novel is one in which I forget to pay attention to these issues which otherwise consume me.  I was maybe three pages into Thieving Forest before the story caught me in its snare, and all the questions and observations I normally juggle while reading went away. 

This story concerns five young adult sisters, recently orphaned, who are stolen away from their home by the Potawatomi, a tribe they have always been friendly with. All the sisters receive attention in the story — each of them dealing with shock and violence and loss in her own way — but it is the youngest who carries the largest part of the story. By fortunate circumstance Susanna is close enough nearby to see her sisters being taken, but not to be taken herself.  

She sets off to find them, making her way through forests and swamps of what is now Ohio and north to the Great Lakes. I was reminded a little of Cold Mountain, another story of someone who must survive a long and perilous journey to redemption.

Conway tells a complicated story with grace, weaving multiple plot lines together in a way that never jolts. Her prose is elegant in its simplicity but still evocative in its imagery. Her research is top notch, but more than that, she has an eye for the perfect detail. A older Indian family friend who lives in her village carries his belongings in an old leather shoe he wears on a string around his neck, for example.  

If you like historical fiction, you should really put this title on your list of books to be read. I

Booklist Review of The Gilded Hour, with a Star

cover-with-starHere’s good news: an excellent (starred) review of The Gilded Hour from Booklist — the review arm of the American Library Association (have I mentioned that I love librarians?) Here it is: 

Donati became an internationally best-selling author with her Wilderness series and now presents a novel about the descendants of her earlier characters. As she illuminates life in America in 1883, she tells a compelling tale that dramatizes aspects of race, ethnicity, class, family, societal roles, and gender while creating memorable characters and intense relationships set against the bustle of New York City, as the Brooklyn Bridge rises and Anthony Comstock crusades against what he considers vice and depravity.

Cousins Anna and Sophie Savard, both raised by a Knickerbocker relative they call Aunt, are graduates of the Women’s Medical School and hardworking physicians who defy social norms by caring for those who need them most. Sophie, who is mixed race, loves and is loved by the consumptive scion of one of Manhattan society’s leading families. Anna meets a well-educated Italian American detective who helps her search for orphaned brothers, one an infant, who have gone missing after being separated from their sisters en route to a Manhattan orphanage. When Anna treats a woman who dies after being injured during a botched abortion, Comstock sets his sights on the cousins. This satisfying read, rich in interpersonal relationships of many kinds, is part romance, part mystery, and part serial-killer thriller.

— Diana Tixier Herald

Preorder from Amazon  or B&N or Indie Bound

Kerfuffle, Unlimited: Dear Author in Distress

I’m the first to admit that I’m out of the loop. I try not to spend a lot of time wandering in the ether; as a procrastination method, it’s excellent. And most writers really don’t need any more ways to procrastinate.

Having said this, a couple of comments left here and on my Facebook page made me curious, so I went in search of the things mentioned. And that’s how I ran into the whole Dear Author v. Ellora’s Cave Kerfuffle. And it is a Kerfuffle with a big, big K.  I’m not going to go into all the details here (you can read about the whole mess here, here, here, or here) but to summarize:

1. Jane Litte of Dear Author wrote a post about Ellora’s Cave, a publishing house, summarizing everything she had learned about their less than ideal business practices and financial dealings. She was specific and detailed in some of her criticism.

2. Ellora’s Cave is suing Jane Litte and Dear Author. The lawsuit began in September 2014 and is still gaining steam.  Initial reactions were very supportive of Jane’s position. Smart Bitches Trashy Books wrote about Jane’s situation and organized a legal fund. 

for reads by readers3. In the course of discovery — where lawyers spend time researching the facts — the fact that Jane Litte is not only the primary mover behind Dear Author (with the phrase “for readers, by readers” placed prominently) and its approach to reviewing romance novels, she also has published romance novels under a pen name, something she didn’t reveal to her Dear Author readership until that fact became public by means of her deposition.1

4. Jane Litte has written at great length and in detail about her decision to remain anonymous as a novelist. She remains convinced that it was the right decision, but openly acknowledges that some people will take exception.

5. A good number of people have taken exception, and loudly. Initial unconditional support for her plight became conditional in many quarters. Individual reasons for unhappiness about Litte’s non-disclosure are complicated. 

So that’s it in a nutshell. Now, after thinking about all this for a couple days, I’d like to make a couple observations.

Litte’s position is that EC sued her in an effort to intimidate her, and curtail criticism. I agree with her that it’s important to defend the right to free expression and I hope that the court case would sort all that out in her favor. The issue of her writing novels anonymously while running a review site is a different matter.

Dear Author and Smart Bitches have both mentioned authors who responded with glee to the news that Litte was being sued.  Both have been disdainful of the persons who have been openly gleeful. 

This is where I need to point out something that has bothered me for a long time. I touched on it a few days ago in a post about negative reviews, but here it is more succinctly:  Websites and website authors who provide reviews for any reading community have rights under the first amendment to the constitution that should be protected. But those same websites move beyond expressing opinions by fostering a toxic tone and atmosphere.  I believe that some of the gleeful reaction to Litte’s situation has to do with that tone.

Litte spent ten years putting together a popular, well structured weblog about romance writers and novels. The set up was provocative, in that the reviewer was writing directly to the author. In a very short time Litte established herself as an arbiter of author behavior, and she did it vocally and with what struck me as glee.  Her readers did not challenge the way she assumed authority; they supported her in it.  One aspect of this was her habit of identifying authors whose behavior she didn’t approve of, and putting them on a public list called Authors Behaving Badly. 

Full disclosure: None of my novels have been reviewed at Dear Author, so I am not resentful about a bad grade (but I do think the grading approach is questionable); on the other hand, Litte did put me on that list in 2006 for defending a specific weblog review which was very critical of another author’s novel.  I had no right to express this opinion, as she saw it. 

Authors are always warned not to respond to negative reviews. Litte’s Authors Behaving Badly is a kind of meta review not of the author’s work, but of the author his or herself.  It was really impossible to respond to Litte’s relegation of me to her list without making the whole thing worse. And of course, she knew that. She knew that simply by putting an author on that list, she was suppressing response. 

The problem is far bigger than the Author Behaving Badly list. I wrote last week about the Cassie Edwards debacle that was started and promoted primary by Smart Bitches and Dear Author.  The issue was not outing Edwards’s poor and unethical choices, which was in fact a public service. The issue was the tone. Authors and commenters seemed intent not just on exposing plagiarism, but also on shaming the author. The tone went from critical to cruel. My position is that the whole discussion should have remained neutral in tone, but of course, it wasn’t my call. I sat back and watched it all happen, the proverbial car crash.

Stop the Goodreads Bullies is a weblog run by anonymous readers, dedicated to identifying and stopping systematic bullying of authors on the internet, at Goodreads in particular.  They have written a lot about Jane Litte, documenting some cases of her behavior which are questionable at best. 

Litte has voiced very strong opinions on what’s right and wrong for authors, but didn’t stop to mention that she is herself an author; further, as an author she has done things that she has criticized about other authors.

When all of this is taken into account, the idea that there are authors out there who are gleeful about Litte’s being sued is less of a mystery. 



JT’s comment regarding the Jane Litte non-disclosure summarizes my own take very closely. I reproduce it here:

Deljah wrote: “However, not many people have positioned themselves as and created a reputation as an industry watchdog, a champion of disclosure, and foremost reader advocate who carefully examines and sounds an alarm about ethical issues and integrity. Not many people have vigorously put forward standards in such a public way, year after year, while at the same time violating those same standards in the name of self-interest. Jane’s/Jen’s behavior reflects staggering hypocrisy, and the fact that the disclosure was forced just adds to it. It should not be swept under the rug.”

This. 100%, this. Jane has yet to acknowledge her hypocrisy. I do not expect her to. Like I commented on the Smart Bitches blog, I’ve found that hypocrites rarely own up to their hypocrisy. Jane set herself up as a community watchdog, going after anyone she felt was acting in a way she deemed Behaving Badly. She demanded transparency from others while concealing herself as an author on private groups. It’s Jane’s right to justify her actions, to try to make it seem less than sneaky by saying the groups had hundreds and hundreds of members and by excusing her bad choices away with whatever reasons she decides to give…even though she rarely gave anyone else that same respect if someone was in her crossfire. The truth remains, though, Jane demanded a certain standard from others all the while acting in a way that is less than that standard herself. Jane would have pounced on anyone she caught catfishing. Yet there she was, doing exactly that to authors who had no idea they were interacting with Jane Litte. No amount of self-publishing information Jane shared as Jen Frederick on those groups can erase the way she lied by omission to authors who, Jane must know, might not have welcomed her as Jane Litte.

Sarah (SB) wrote: But no one is just one thing. We are all complex humans who are making decisions based on what we know and think is best at the time.

My reply to that was: You and Jane reduced countless authors/editors/publishers to ‘one thing’. You and Jane gleefully crucified ‘complex humans’ who might have made decisions based on what they knew or thought was best at the time.

It would be refreshing to have Jane apologize for reducing others to ‘just one thing’ if she felt they acted badly, and to have her treat people respectfully and with a bit more care now that she’s acted in a way that, by her own standards, is an Author Behaving Badly.

edited to correct typos

  1. In fact, Jane Litte is also a pen name. In the legal proceedings publicly available on this case, she is identified as Jennifer Gerrish-Lampe . The purpose of this double-layer of anonymity is unclear to me.

Reviews: the good, the bad, the shaming

shame has a piece today at Women Writers, Women’s Books which has me thinking hard. “Leave E.L. James Alone, Already” is a heart-felt appeal to writers not to join in when their colleagues are getting bashed. 

The essay was born when she came across the #AskELJames thread on Twitter just recently. The thread became the subject of wider debate when a group of people with a complaint in common began to ask James pointed questions. From USA Today, this summary:

Shortly after the Q&A started on Monday afternoon, the #AskELJames hashtag was overtaken by Christian Grey haters who accused the author of being homophobic and misogynistic and romanticizing stalking and abuse. Others took issue with her actual writing, asking things like, “Which do you hate more, women or the English language?” 

In response to this, Amy suggested that it’s never okay to voice a negative opinion about another writer’s work. She only posts a review if she can give it four or five stars:

Because books are art. And art is subjective. And art lays a soul bare. And who the heck wants to be responsible for stepping all over someone’s soul?

Well, certainly not me, thank you very much.

She suggests that we leave reviews to reviewers and keep writing. Her bottom line:

Don’t lie. Don’t be insincere. If you don’t like a book – especially from a fellow woman author – who would blame you for politely excusing yourself from the conversation?

Well, certainly not me, thank you very much.

Amy has a point, of course. But it seems to me she’s conflating a lot of very different issues. 

Reviews come in all formats. Sometimes writers are asked to review books, sometimes they review books on their own websites or on sites like Goodreads.  Reviews can be well done, or poorly done. More importantly: a positive review can be badly done, and a negative review can be well done.  Here’s an example of a poorly done positive review: Great book! I loved it!!!

I would not call the E.J. James twitter thread a review. A thread that devolves into an exercise in bashing is an attack. It’s a bully-bullshit session. It’s an unworthy exercise, but unfortunately, it’s not uncommon.

There are a lot of bullies hanging around in the ether, and sometimes they join forces and form bands when they have a particular enemy in mind. The enemy can be a single individual, as was the  case with the E.L. James twitter thread, or it can be a whole class of people.  This happens in all kinds of fandoms. My daughter follows dance competitions and discussion online, and she has read me some truly disturbing bully-band attacks focused on one person who voiced a less-than-reverential comment about a performance by their favorite dancer. Personal attacks on an individual because that individual voiced a dissenting opinion. 

It’s a phenomenon that somebody somewhere must be studying. At least, I hope someone is looking at it, because I see it as an example of the worst of human group behavior. But let’s be clear: everybody does it. Writers bash other writers, and on occasion, readers gang up on writers. Sometimes for good reason.

The best example I know of is the Cassie Edwards kerfuffle on Smart Bitches, Trashy Books and Dear Author.  Wikipedia has the best summary of the situation I’ve come across, so I’m going to quote it here, with their links and footnotes intact:

On 7 January 2008, the romance-novel review blog Smart Bitches, Trashy Books[4] accused Edwards of widespread plagiarism after finding multiple passages in her novels that appeared to be directly taken from various works by other authors, including novels, poems, reference books, and websites about Native American history and culture.[1] Many of the passages came from old references, many without copyright or with expired copyright protection.[4][5] One of Edwards’ publishers, Signet, initially defended the passages in question as fair use rather than copyright infringement.[1]

Nora Roberts, herself a victim of plagiarism, joined the outcry.[6] Two days later, Signet announced that they would be reviewing all of Edwards’ books that they published to determine whether plagiarism had occurred,[7] and, in April 2008, Signet stopped publishing Edwards’ books “due to irreconcilable editorial differences.”[8] In an interview, Edwards said that she did not know she was supposed to credit sources, and her husband stated that Edwards gained ideas from her reference works but did not “lift passages”.[7]

On the surface I see nothing wrong with the fact that a group of readers discovered something unethical, and that they made those discoveries public. The author had no one to blame for the fallout but her own poor choices. At the same time, there was a gleeful tone in a lot of the discussion that made me uncomfortable.  For example, a comment made on a Smart Bitches post in 2008: 

So, let me get this straight: you were actually able to read an entire Cassie Edwards book while doing this research? You should apply to work on Mike Rowe’s Discovery Channel Program “Dirty Jobs.”

A negative review doesn’t have to be a shaming; a well-done negative review can leave an author with a new perspective. My work has received good reviews and constructive negative reviews and some mean-spirited reviews. The constructive negative reviews are probably the ones that do me the most good. The unreservedly good reviews I save for the occasional 2 a.m. crisis of the soul when I’m sure I have never written a single decent sentence. The stinkers I ignore, and sometimes if they are over-the-top, I can laugh at them.

Finally, when I do post a book review that is less than positive, I work very hard to be fair. It’s as close to a universal truth as you can come in this business to say that there are books for which I am (or you are) just not the right reader. I don’t write negative reviews very often, and I can remember only one instance when I was so infuriated by a novel that my tone bordered on outrage. But I will continue to write such reviews, now and then when I see a flaw in a book that strikes me as something worth talking about.  A constructive discussion is a learning exercise for everybody.

image: © altanaka – found on an article well worth reading: Brené Brown Talks to The Shriver Report: The Power of Shame on Women Living on the Brink